Fuji Film 6_Sakai lights the cauldron

This is part two highlighting the powerful black and white photos of the opening day ceremonies of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, 53 years ago yesterday. The photo above, from this series compiled by Fuji Film, captured one of the most dramatic moments of the Tokyo Games.

The sacred flame that lit the Olympic cauldron, which burned for the 16 days of the Tokyo Olympics, was initially lit 51 days earlier on August 21 in Olympia, Greece. The flame then travelled through 12 countries in Eurasia, including Turkey, Lebanon, Iran Thailand, Malaysia and Taiwan, before landing in Japan. The flame was distributed to four torches, which then made their way through all prefectures in Japan. The four flames came together in Tokyo and the final torch bearer was Yoshinori Sakai, a university runner selected because he happened to be born on August 6, 1945 in Hiroshima, the day the world entered the nuclear war age.

Fuji Film 7_Takashi Ono delivers Olympic oath

After the Olympic cauldron was lit, the flag bearers of the 93 nations formed a semi-circle around the lectern, where Japanese gymnast Takashi Ono, stood. Ono, a veteran participating in his fourth Olympics, who accumulated 5 golds and 13 total medals since the 1952 Helsinki Games, delivered the athlete’s oath.

In the name of all competitors, I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules that govern them, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honor of our teams.

Fuji Film 8_Ten thousand pigeons released

After the oath, 8,000 pigeons were released. I’m sure it was a spectacular image on television and in the newspapers and magazines, but it was a bit of an annoyance to athletes and spectator alike who tried and failed to dodge the guano bombs of the birds who were probably less than thrilled with being cooped up in cages and then suddenly released into the air above the stadium. One athlete told me that the water pressure in the Olympic Village dropped drastically as everyone showered at the same time to rid themselves of their unwanted opening day souvenir.

October 10, 1964. In the annals of 20th century Japanese history, it was truly a day to remember.

Fuji Film 10_Aerial view of the National Stadium

pigeons over national staidum
From the book, Tokyo Olympiad, Kyodo News Agency

One of the greatest memories for the 1964 Olympians from the Tokyo Games is the opening ceremonies – the parade of athletes, jets sketching the Olympic rings in the sky, the lighting of the Olympic cauldron. The only event to get lukewarm reviews? The release of the pigeons.

  • “The pigeons are the most prolific dropping birds. We all kind of ducked for cover. The droppings from the sky were plentiful.” (British rower, Bill Barry)
  • “We all had cowboy hats. When they released the peace pigeons we were protected. Many of our compatriots were not. Our clothes were messed up but our hair wasn’t.” (American Judoka, Jim Bregman)
  • “The pigeons were dumping on the Olympians.” (American water polo player, Dan Drown)

Or were they doves?

To be honest, I was confused myself as Olympians, books and articles alike used the words “dove” and “pigeon” interchangeably. But aren’t they completely different birds? Doves are white. They symbolize peace. Pigeons are multi-colored gray. They symbolize disease in the urban environment.

Pigeon vs Dove

My confusion finally ended when I listened to this episode from one of my favorite podcasts, 99 Percent Invisible, in which producer Roman Mars interviews the author of the book, Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness, Nathanael Johnson. Here is how Johnson described pigeons:

Pigeons are legitimately revolting. All the things we find loathsome are really caused by us, humans. We bred them to be massively productive and then we put them in a situation where we fed them all kinds of food and we created this food waste that they could eat. They reproduce like crazy and so they overpopulate and they’re all squished together and they get all these parasites and diseases. A lot of the things we find disgusting about them is a result of that.

But as Mars explains in his 99 percent invisible site, pigeons have a proud and regal history.

Historically, these were birds of the aristocracy. Researchers believe they were domesticated in the Middle East and then spread around Europe by the Romans. Their habitats were even built into the architecture of Roman houses: one common element of a traditional Tuscan Villa was an integrated lookout tower and pigeon house. In the 1600s, pigeons were brought to Canada from Europe; from there, they spread across the United States. Governors and dignitaries would exchange them as gifts and house them in domestic pigeon roosts. As they became more common and wild, pigeons began to lose their exotic appeal and fell out of favor with the upper class.

Unfortunately, thanks to urbanization and the overpopulated and diseased state of the pigeon, our perception of this bird type has diverged. Mars again explains this quite eloquently:

This change in status is reflected in the evolution of common language as well: for a long time, “pigeon” and “dove” (of the same bird family) were essentially synonyms. Over time, the two diverged: “dove” was increasingly associated with positive things and “pigeon” became associated with the negative. Imagine, for instance, Pigeon Soap beauty bars, silky smooth Pigeon Chocolate, or the Holy Spirit descending from Heaven in the form of a pigeon.

So now I know – a pigeon is a dove, a dove is a pigeon. One, an alter ego to the other, akin to the devil pigeon on one shoulder, and the angel dove on the other.

I’m reminded of Milton and