Unification flag Koreas
By Various – Outline drawn by Ksiom, Blue color from the Olympic rings., CC BY-SA 3.0,

It seems hard to believe that a nation would willingly drop usage of their flag to appease another nation, but that is what both North and South Korea are doing at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.

The North Korean rocket tests in 2017 were raising tensions around the world, particularly in Asia, but South and North Korean leaders came to an agreement in January to unite the teams of the two border nations, so that they march together on opening day under the same flag.

The flag is starkly simple, a blue silhouette of the Korean peninsula on white. There are variations that include various islands, but the one that will be seen at the Winter Games will be one that includes the oval of Jeju Island near the southern tip of the peninsula.

North and South Korea have united under one flag at three previous Olympics: at the 2000 Sydney Summer Games, the 2004 Athens Summer Games, and the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics. But since then, they have marched under their own flags, most recently at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics.

North and South Korean Flags

There is precedent for this symbolic unity.

East and West Germany were put together under a single team at the 1956, 1960 and 1964 Winter and Summer Olympiads. Their flag was made up of the tri-colors black, red and yellow with the Olympic rings in white centering the flag. The national anthem was Beethoven’s Ninth – Ode to Joy.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in December, 1991, twelve nations that were formerly part of the Soviet Union were banded together under the name “The Unified Team,” also known as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). These countries were banded together in this manner because the now independent nations did not have enough time to establish National Olympic Committees with the International Olympic Committee in time.

At both the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics and the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics, members of the Unified Team marched under the Olympic Flag, which was composed of the Olympic Rings on white background. Their national anthem was the Olympic theme.

It’s been eleven years, but North and South Korea will again march under the same flag. The Olympics of Ancient Greece were said to be about taking a pause in the political belligerence of mankind.

Of course, not everyone’s happy about it, as protests against North Korea’s role in the PyeongChang Olympics grow in South Korea. As this AP reports states:

Discontent has grown in South Korea in recent days over plans to include North Korea in high-profile roles during next month’s Games — complaints that prompted protesters on Monday to burn a North Korean flag and an image of the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, in public.

May the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, which will bring enemy brothers together, show us a better vision of ourselves.

protests against north korea
South Koreans burn a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in front of the Seoul railway station on Jan. 22, 2018. They were protesting a visit by Hyon Song Wol, head of North Korea’s art troupe. (Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press)
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Voskhod Japan Times headline

Yoshinobu Miyake was the first Japanese to win a gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. But that wasn’t good enough to secure the biggest headline on the front page of The Japan Times on Tuesday, October 13, 1964.

Instead, the full-page headline blared: “Soviets Orbit Three-Man Spaceship”.

On Monday, October 12, the rocket ship, Voskhod, blasted off from a town named “Baikonur” in the southern part of the then-Soviet Union, a town near the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan. The ship held three cosmonauts: command pilot Vladimir Komarov, engineer Konstantin Feoktistov, and medical doctor Boris Yegorov.

The launch was 10:30 am Moscow time, which, with the six-hour time difference, was 4:30 pm Tokyo time. About three hours later, in the early evening, Voskhod transmitted a message to the world, as the second day of competition at the Tokyo Olympics was coming to a close:

Voskhod (l to r) Konstantin Feoktistov, Vladimir Komarov,Boris Yegorov.
Konstantin Feoktistov, Vladimir Komarov, Boris Yegorov.

Flying over Tokyo we convey ardent greetings to the youth of the world participating in the 18th Olympic Games which are called upon to play a big role in strengthening the cooperation and mutual understanding of sportsmen of all continents, in the rapprochement of peoples, and is consolidating the cause of peace.

Perhaps as a dig to their American competitors in the Olympic Village, Soviet officials and athletes there were reported to take the news in stride, according to the Yomiuri. “I knew it was coming off two weeks ago, before I left Moscow,” one Soviet sports official said. “It’s nothing special any more. We’re doing these things all the time,” a Soviet athlete commented.

And yet, this was not just geo-political gamesmanship, sending a ship into orbit during the biggest international event in the world. The Voskhod was a significant advancement in space travel, as it was the first space flight to:

  • send more than one person into space
  • not require the spacemen to wear spacesuits (in fact, they appeared to the press to be wearing overalls, or “ordinary clothes”)
  • send an engineer or a medical doctor into space
  • Climb as high as 336 kilometers from the earth’s surface.

The Voskhod, “Sunrise” in English, orbited the earth 15 times. As it took 90 minutes for the ship to orbit once, the entire time in space was close to 23 hours. During that time, the three cosmonauts were very active, conducting experiments, taking pictures, and noting observations, according to this site called RussianSpaceWeb.com.

During the mission, Komarov piloted and oriented the spacecraft in space, while Feoktistov had responsibility for observations and photography of the Earth, as well as the work with the sextant, an experiment studying the behavior of the liquid in weightlessness, monitoring and recording characteristics of newly installed ion sensors relative to the velocity vector of the spacecraft. All these responsibilities left Feoktistov little time for sleep. Still, the crew was able to fulfill a lot: cosmonauts took several hundred photos of the Earth’s surface, hurricanes, clouds and ice sheets, sunsets and sunrises, the Sun and the horizon. The crew was able to discern several layers of the atmosphere with different levels of brightness, which could help to provide more accurate angular elevation of stars over the horizon, if it would be necessary to determine the ship’s exact position in space. In the meantime, Yegorov conducted his medical studies. To the surprise of his crew mates, Yegorov succeeded with most of his program of taking blood samples, measuring pressure and pulse.

After the 15th orbit, Voskhod entered the earth’s atmosphere and returned safely, landing in a field on a state farm. Different from landings by American spaceships, which send the returning capsules splashing down into the ocean, the Soviet Union brings them back to terra firma. Figuring out soft landings are thus an imperative, and it appears that Soviet scientists and engineers had made advancements in braking methods, employing parachutes and applying retro-rockets just before hitting the surface.

So on the third day of competition the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, “Sunrise” again was the biggest headline in the Land of the Rising Sun.

They say it is the highest rated television program in Japan’s history. It was 7pm on Friday, October 23, 1964, and it may not be an exaggeration to say that almost anyone near a television was watching the gold-medal match of the women’s volleyball championship at the Komazawa Indoor Sports Arena.

It was a day before the ending of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, a fortnight during which all of Japan was collectively holding their breath, simultaneously hoping that their young men and women would exceed expectations, and that nothing horribly embarrassing would happen during Japan’s debut on the global stage.

In this particular case, the Japanese women’s team were expected to win. They had already steamrolled through the US, Romania, Korea and Poland, conceding only a single set during the entire two-weeks of round-robin play. Their opponents in the final round, the Soviet Union, had done the same, winning every set against the same teams.

Oriental Witches_8_ Bi to Chikara
Olympic champions at last, from the book Bi to Chikara

Despite the fact that volleyball was making its debut at the Olympics at the 1964 Tokyo Olympiad, Japan had a rivalry. In 1960, Japan lost its debut in international competition to the Soviet Union in the championship match in Brazil, thus igniting volleyball fever in Japan. Two years later in 1962, Japan again made it to the finals of the world championships against the Soviet Union, in Moscow. Somehow, the women from Japan won.

When it was also announced that volleyball would become an Olympic event at the ’64 Olympics, the Japanese public wildly agreed that their women’s team had the best chance at gold in the 1964 Games to be held in Tokyo.

The pressure on the team was immense. One of the players was quoted in the Sankei News a day before the finals as saying, “if we lose, we might have to leave the country.”

To say the weight of an entire nation was on the shoulders of these women would be an understatement. To make matters worse, the finals match didn’t start anywhere close to the scheduled time of 7pm, so the players had to wait around and stew in their tension for an extra 30 minutes. And yet, when the game finally began, the women of Japan simply went about their business, taking the first two sets 15-11 and 15-8.

As team captain, Masae Kasai, recalled in her autobiography, Okaasan no Kin Medaru, (Mom’s Gold Medal), she reminded herself to stay calm, but couldn’t help but wonder, “What the heck is wrong with the Soviets?”

Oriental Witches_9_ Bi to Chikara
The Soviet Team after their loss to the Japanese, from the book Bi to Chikara

In the third set, Japan raced to an 11-3 lead, and Kasai thought in that instant, “It’s possible, victory is possible.” But then in the next instant, Kasai got mixed up with a teammate when attempting to receive, and according to the team captain, the Soviets seemed to catch a second wind. Still Japan battled to a 13-6 lead, and got to match and championship point at 14-8. But then momentum switched suddenly to the Soviets, as they clawed their way back to within a point – 14-13.

The team’s coach, Hirobumi Daimatsu called time out. “What are you doing? Calm down. All you need is one point to win, right. Take it easy.”

It was Kasai’s turn to serve, and she hoped to decide the match then and there, but the Soviets got the serve back. (This was a time when you could only win points on your serve.) And back and forth it went, both teams failing to capitalize on their own serve five times in a row.

Oriental Witches_7_ Bi to Chikara
Coach Hirobumi Daimatsu lifted in the air in celebration, from the book, Bi to Chikara

Emiko Miyamoto, whipped her super slim left arm through the air, rocketing the ball across the net to the Soviet back court with such velocity that the Soviet receiver’s return, which should have been a pass to a teammate in the frontcourt, ended up flying across the net. The Soviet player in the front court saw it heading towards her and hoped to change the ball’s direction, but when she tapped it, the ball had already passed over the net. A Japanese player reacted and sent the ball back to the Soviets, but the referee ruled a stoppage of play.

And in that moment, 9:01 pm, the players realized that they had finally reached the peak of a very tall mountain, coming together with jubilant hugs and tears, as a nation erupted in celebration.

 

Note: Special thanks to Marija Linartaite, for her help in the research for this article.

 

tokyo-gourin-ondo-2

A New Year’s Eve tradition in Japan is to watch NHK’s “Kouhaku”, which is a five-hour songfest of live music that continues on until just before midnight. This is a light-hearted battle between women singers and bands (“kou” or “red”) and male singers and bands (“haku” or “white”).

This year, singer Kouhei Fukuda performed the 1963 hit, “Tokyo Gourin Ondo”(東京五輪音頭), which roughly translates to The Tokyo Olympic Dance Song.

In 1963 and 1964, the year of the Tokyo Olympics, Tokyo Gourin Ondo would go on to sell 1.3 million records, and in some ways, made the singer of that song, Haruo Minami, the face of the Tokyo Olympics. Minami was already a well known singer in Japan, performing the popular music of the time which would later be referred to as enka. Minami stood out because he performed in kimono, which was not common for men in the 1950s.

But what makes Minami very interesting is his war past, or more accurately, his post-war past. At the age of 20 in 1944, Minami (probably under his actual name Bunji Kitazume), was drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army in Manchuria. Just after the Pacific War ended in August, 1945, Minami and hundreds of thousands of other Japanese were captured by the Soviet Union army. Minami eventually served four years of hard labor in Khaborosk, which is in Siberia.

japanese_soldiers_returning_from_siberia_1946
Repatriated Japanese soldiers returning from Siberia wait to disembark from a ship at Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan in 1946
Although about 60,000 of approximately 600,000 Japanese POW died in the Siberian labor camps, Minami stayed alive until 1949 when he was allowed to return to Japan.

According to a music critic, it is said that Minami sang this song with such passion because of how hard Japan has worked to re-build after the war, and nobody understood that more than a man who returned from the labor camps of Siberia.

Here is Haruo Minami performing “Tokyo Gourin Ondo” at Kouhaku, on either December 31, 1963 or 1964.

world-record-certificate_cockie-gastelaars
Certification of proof of a world record in the freestyle 100 meters for Cocky Gastelaars of the Netherlands_from the collection of Cocky Gastelaars

She was the fastest swimmer in the world. On March 3, 1956, the Dutch swimmer, Cocky Gastelaars, swam the 100-meter freestyle in 1 minute and 4.2 seconds. The record had been held by fellow Dutch swimmer, Willy den Ouden for two decades until then.

Above is a certificate that Gastelaars received from the FINA, the international swimming governing body.

When she broke a world record, Gastelaars told me that special evenings were organized for her, and that she got lots of presents, like food baskets or a pen. She even got a dog.

In early 1956, Gastelaars and her coach knew that the world record was vulnerable, and they planned and trained with a vision of breaking that record. When a person is believed to be on the verge of breaking records, very often the community is alerted so that official timers and lots of witnesses are on hand.

“I made progress every month.” she told me. “I knew it was coming. I broke the record in Amsterdam in a swimming event against other Dutch competitors. It was rather big crowd for the time. My mom and friends were there. My father had to work. He was running an operation of 36 big boats, but he stayed near the telephone. As it turned out, the station interrupted regular radio programming, and my father was able to hear the broadcast on the radio.”

cocky-gastelaars-after-breaking-world-record
Cocky Gastelaars with trainer Dries Peute after breaking world record March 3, 1956

Five weeks later, Gastelaars did it again.

Eight months later, Gastelaars was primed to win gold at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics….when the unthinkable happened. The Netherlands government decided to boycott the Olympics, joining Spain and Switzerland in a protest of the Soviet Union invasion of Hungary. As you can imagine, members of the Dutch Olympic squad were shocked, angry and devastated by the news. Gastelaars never took off for Australia. At the peak of her powers as the fastest swimmer in the world, she was not allowed to prove her championship mettle because of two countries that had nothing directly to do with either Australia or the Netherlands.

I was so sad. All the swimmers were. We trained every day together. When the Games (for us )was cancelled, (our dream) was all gone. So we just went back to school. We didn’t say much. People asked us how we feel, but we didn’t talk about it. I felt awful. You work so hard for something and suddenly it’s over. We definitely would have had a lot of chances for medals. In fact, after the Olympics, we held relays in the Netherlands in all the Olympic events. I think we broke three world records in the relays, and the women’s medley.

Only recently have officials in the Netherlands recognized the 1956 Olympians who never got the chance to compete. The belated recognition is of course good. But to paraphrase Shakespeare, it is perhaps better to have competed and lost, than to have never competed at all.

nina-ponomareva-rome
Nina Ponomareva in Rome.

In the midst of the Cold War, the Soviet Union were finally invited to the Summer Olympic Games. In 1952, with a will to establish the superiority of their system through sport, the Soviets garnered 71 total medals, including 22 golds, to finish second in the medals race.

The first gold went to Nina Ponomareva, who won the women’s discus throw, and glory for her country, setting an Olympic record as well. “Only after I had felt a heavy golden circle in my hand, I realized what happened. I am the first Soviet Olympic Champion, you know, the first record-holder of the 15th Olympiad…Tears were stinging my eyes. How happy I was!

She would go on to win bronze in Melbourne in 1956, and then gold again at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. That’s an impressive track record. Unfortunately, when Ponomareva passed away in August, she was remembered for something else.

In 1956, prior to the Melbourne Games, the Soviets were invited to a bilateral track and field meet between Great Britain and the Soviet Union in London. Ponomareva stepped into a C&A Modes, which The New York Times informed me was a low-priced clothing store on Oxford Street, and was said to have shoplifted. According to the Herald Scotland, Ponomareva was “arrested on charges of shoplifting four feather hats (white, mauve, black, and yellow) plus a red woolen one, costing a total of £1.65.”

nina-ponomareva-helsinki
Nina Ponomareva in Helsinki.

When the team manager Konstatin Krupin heard of the arrest this doctor’s wife, teacher and 27-year-old mother, he pulled his team from the competition with Britain. The Bolshoi Ballet, which was headed to London, threatened to cancel their trip if British authorities did not retract the arrest and apologize. The UK Ambassador was summoned to the Kremlin for a good tongue lashing.

Forty four days after the arrest, Ponomareva came out of hiding in the Soviet Embassy. She was found guilty of shoplifting in court and asked to pay three guineas in costs. After that, she went straight to the harbor and got on a ship back home. Later that year, she failed to defend her Olympic championship in Melbourne (finishing third), but rebounded for gold four years later.

It is the legacy of the five hats that lived on beyond her golden glory. According to this obituary in The New York Times, Ponomareva’s name was cited during a debate on Britain’s actions during the Suez Crisis in the House of Commons. Labour member had this to say about the leading party’s foreign policy. “If the (Suez) Canal is vital to us, we take it,” he said. “This is the morality of Nina Ponomareva – ‘I like your hat, I will have it.'”