Cycling Olympic games-1964-Tokyo
Part of the road cycling route on the Hachioji Highway.

In 1964, there were 20 new countries participating in the Tokyo Olympic Games. Malaysia was participating for the first time, a newly formed federation that included Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo.

If there is one thing you need to know about Malaysia, it is a part of Southeast Asia, which means temperatures are high. As they say in that area, there are three seasons: Hot, Hotter and Hottest. October in Malaysia is probably in the season “hotter”, with temperatures routinely around 27-30 degrees centigrade (80 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit).

Unfortunately, on the day of the 190 kilometer road race in the Western part of Tokyo, it was rainy and cold.

The new Malaysian Olympic squad had 9 cyclists, including Hamid Supa’at of Singapore, a long-distance road racer. Hamid found the conditions very difficult. “My cheeks were red. My hands were very cold. And I could see smoke coming out of mouth,” he told me. “My coach told me to stack newspapers under my shirt to keep me warm. I had never raced in that weather before. It was always hot, hot, hot for me.”

Jpeg
Hamid Supa’at, third from the right, with his teammates at the Cycling Village in Hachioji, not far from Mt Takao_from the collection of Hamid Supaat

Hamid was a spry 19-year old, someone who had raced long-distance road races many times. In fact, he had participated months before in the Tour of Malaysia, winning two stages and two time trials. But nothing prepared him for the cold. And the lack of experience didn’t help either.

Hamid Supaat 5The Europeans were all up front, and most of the Asians were in the back. The roads were wet, so it was very slippery. In the first few kilometers, we were all in one big bundle as we entered the first climb, where the road was very narrow. A few cyclists crashed, so those in front sprang ahead, while the rest got stuck.

Hamid was fortunate that he did not fall, but he had to do quite a bit of waiting before he could pick up any speed behind the crowd. He said he remembered everyone talking in many different languages how they were stuck and couldn’t do anything. In the end, the cold, wet weather took its toll on about 25 of the 132 cyclists who failed to complete the 190-kilometer course. Hamid told me he lasted only about half the race before he bowed out.

But he said it was a great experience as he had a clear view on how the Europeans, the best in the business, ran their race: what gears they used in the climbs, how they took turns, what kind of bicycles they rode. “The Europeans were all very tall and strong,” said Hamid. “If we were motorcycles, they were 1,000cc machines, and we were 500cc.”

Hamid had similar feelings about being in Japan. As the bus took the Malaysian team from

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Three high school friends from Yokohama are on a mission as they take the train to downtown Tokyo. In Goro Miyazaki‘s film, From Up on Poppy Hill (コクリコ坂から), it’s 1963, the Olympics are a year away, and Tokyo is crowded with people, congested with cars, and filled with the sounds of jackhammers and creaking of cranes.

Up on Poppy Hill_construction

Change is coming to Tokyo, for good and for bad. A subplot focuses on the high school students who are protesting the decision to demolish an old mansion that houses the various clubs that make the school’s social tapestry: the philosopher’s club, a newspaper, a group that forecasts the contents of future exams. A small group of students eventually change the views of the majority who had previously believed that “out with the old and in with the new” applied to all places and things. This sweeping change in views saves the club house.

Certainly, that was a powerful societal theme in Tokyo in the 1960s – How do we change and modernize so that the international community looks upon Japan with respect and admiration, while still maintaining who we are as Japanese?

Up on Poppy Hill_Olympic Sign
“For a successful Olympics, make Tokyo beautiful.”

The main plot is a love story between Umi, a girl who lost her father in the Korean War, and Kazuma, a boy who’s real father is a mystery, but was at first suspected to be the same as Umi’s. The mystery unravels as Umi and Kazuma ask questions about their past, learning of the pain and angst of their parents’ generation who lived and died in the turmoil and confusion of the Pacific and Korean wars.

And yet, because this is a story of young love, the tone is upbeat and sweet. The son of acclaimed anime director and screen writer of this film, Hayao Miyazaki, applies a rosy sentimental touch to the times. The film opens with a springy, jazzy tune called “The Breakfast Song”, that speaks of the optimism that comes with the day’s first meal.

The scene when Umi and Kazuma’s love first blooms enters with the bouncy hit song of that time, Kyu Sakamoto’s “Ue o Muite, Arukou” (aka: The Sukyaki Song). You can see that in this clip below (with English subtitles).

Want to take a nostalgic look at Japan in 1963? Watch From Up on Poppy Hill.

Cathy Ferguson_Life_30October1964
From Life Magazine, October 30, 1964

Watching the build up to the 100-meter backstroke finals at the 1964 Olympic Games must have been like being in a pressure cooker. In the first preliminary heat, American Ginny Duenkel set the world record. In the next heat, American Cathy Ferguson broke Duenkel’s record. And finally, in the third heat, French women, Kiki Caron, set the world record yet again.

On October 14, 1964, three women who set three world records the previous day, were about to face off. As Ferguson wrote in the book, “Tales of Gold“, each of us had set a new world record, but only a fraction of a second separated us. In the finals, that would make the difference between gold and bronze.”

And so, in the pressure cooker of the National Gymnasium, the three record holders held even at the 50-meter mark when Ferguson began to pull ever so slightly ahead. In the end, Ferguson won the race at 1 minute 7.7 seconds, setting yet again, a world record.

You can see her crying on the podium as she hears the national anthem play, not only happy to win, but relieved it was all over.

I quit competitive swimming right before the ’68 Games. People ask me why I didn’t go on. But I knew I couldn’t win anymore, and when you know you can’t win, you can’t go on. I was only 19, but I just couldn’t get up for the races.

Most people do not understand just how much training takes out of you. It’s lonely in the pool. Just think of the countless hours in the water when you scarcely talk to another human being. All you have is that black line. It becomes your best friend. How many people can take that for more than six or seven years? I can remember being so tired at the end of the day that there was no way I had any energy left over to talk to the other kids.

Ferguson understood that her training and eventual triumph was worth it as her competitions and achievements took her to amazing places to meet incredible people. But her life, the life of a high-performance athlete can take its toll. In fact, when she was interviewed in the mid-1980s for the book “Tales of Gold“, she commented that athletes also need a program to help them transition out of life as an athlete.

I feel very strongly that we need some kind of detraining program for our former athletes. The East Germans have a program that helps their athletes get ready to move back into a normal life. It was very hard for me to be totally in the world of swimming and then, all of a sudden, to be completely out of it, then try to put that piece back in, only to find it doesn’t fit.

I felt quite empty when I left swimming. The thing I substituted for that programmed life was my first marriage. I was 19, and my husband was 26. in some ways I was probably 26 as well, but I had missed many of the experiences of being a teenager. Traveling all over the world and meeting important people was a fantastic experience, but I also needed those experiences that help one grow emotionally. When I was swimming, I was pretty much in control, but when I stepped out of that warm, secure cocoon, I didn’t control everything in my environment. I couldn’t control my husband, and I couldn’t control what was happening to me. At the time, I loved him dearly, but there was a needed growth period. Unfortunately, we both used marriage as a kind of sublimation for something else. I didn’t quite understand it then, but all I really needed was just to become “normal” again.

Cathy Ferguson_ESPN
Cathy Ferguson (center); Art Rickerby/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Apparently, that is something psychologists and the International Olympic Committee are coming to grips with. That the more you commit to the goal of achieving at the highest levels, the more people surrender their own personal identity to what is now being called the “Athletic Identity”. Psychologist, Chris Shambrook, explains this phenomenon in the book, The Secret Olympian.

There is a whole area of research around a concept called Athletic Identity. Athletic Identity is all about how closely my identity is allied to my performances as an athlete. If I am my results. If I am my performance. If I’ve handed ‘me’ over to that – that puts me in a very, very challenging place when the results and the performances aren’t there anymore. And it’s doubly challenging because you have to get pretty close to handling your personality over to that (mentality) in order to give yourself the best chance of winning. But it leaves you very vulnerable afterwards.

Individual Men's Road Race_Merckx
Eddie Merckx in the blue shirt and Belgium tri-colors (at least I believe it is). From the book, Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Service

Eddy Merckx is called the greatest cyclist of all time. As listed by Sports-Reference.com, he had won or had tied for the most championships in “the Tour de France (5), Giro d’Italia (5), World Championship road race (3), Milano-Sanremo (7), Gent-Wevelgem (3), La Flèche Wallonne (3), and Liège-Bastogne-Liège (5), and in that list, only Merckx’s five Tour de France wins has been surpassed, intially by Lance Armstrong, with seven, prior to his doping disqualifications.”

In 1964, this cyclist from Belgium in 1964 headed into the Tokyo Olympics as a favorite to win the gold as he had won the Amateur World Championships in Sallanches, France. Merckx was called the “Cannibal”, for his ferocious competiveness, and his attacking, devouring style towards the end of a race. And at Sallanches, he showed early evidence of this aggressiveness according to author, William Fortheringham in his book, “Merckx: Half Man Half Bike“.

He fell on the quarter after a few kilometers of chasing. He had barely given himself time to breathe before he attacked again…one by one his erstwhile companions fell back. Accelerating again to the final climb of the road that climbed to Val d’Assy, Merckx forged a lead of a hundred meters in spite of the courage Luciano Armani showed in hanging on to his back wheel. It was enough of a lead to earn him the world title by a clear margin. He was the youngest world amateur champion to that date: nineteen years old.

From there, it was on to Tokyo with dreams of gold.

Individual Men's Road Race
From the book, Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Service

The Men’s Individual Road Race in Tokyo took place in a twisting winding 194 kilometer-race, that was essentially 8 laps of a 25 kilometer course. This course took the 132 cyclists on a tour of Hachioji, a suburban town on the outskirts of Western Tokyo. According to an AP report, “the route took the competitors past the Tama Mausoleum of Emperor Taisho and Empress Teimei eastward on the Koshu Highway and through Hachioji City. The riders then pedaled toward the town of Hino and across the Tama River. They then sprinted on a three-kilometer flat stretch between the towns of Tachikawa and Akishima. From this point on, the road starts climbing on the Tama Mountain range, and winding then through a scenic rural area and returning to the starting point past the town of Tobuki.”

 

Roger Swerts and Eddy Merckx Olympic Village.gif
A quiet evening dinner in the Olympic village in Tokyo with two members of the Belgian AMATEUR cycling team: ROGER SWERTS and EDDY MERCKX.

Despite being a heavy favorite to win gold due to his recent Amateur World’s title, Tokyo was an early blip on Merckx’s legendary career. He finished twelfth in the men’s individual road race. As explained by Fortheringham, his cannabilistic tendency was not so apparent. And the author claims that Merckx was not yet so entitled that the three other members of the Belgian cycling team would naturally support him, and that perhaps a failed attempt to monetarily persuade led to his mediocre results:

Merckz achieved his dream of racing at the Tokyo Olympics later that year, but while the ambition to ride the event had driven him since his early teens, the race itself was anything but a defining occasion. As the amateur world champion, he was no longer just another rider. He was heavily marked by the entire field as he attempted to split the race apart – not the last time he was to find this happening. He suffered from cramp. He rode a less restrained race than in Sallanches, and was chased down by Gimondi when he made his move three kilometers from the finish. Fate had stepped in. the night before, his wallet had been stolen from his room in the Olympic village; in it were the 12,000 Belgian Francs he had brought to pay his teammates. That was the best way to be absolutely certain that they would help him to win. Instead the Belgian team rode for themselves: the gold medal went to an Italian, Mario Zanin, with Godefroot winning the bronze medal and Merckz tweflth. His meteoric amateur career was all but over. Merckx turned professional on 24 April 1965 for the Solo-Superia team led by Rik Van Looy.

Ada Kok Sharon Strouder butterfly 1964
From left to right: Ada Kok of the Netherlands, Sharon Stouder and Kathy Ellis of the United States.

 

She used to train with the boys – big boys, who were boxers during the day and bouncers in bars at night. Ada Kok was a teenage swimming phenom, asked to join the Dutch national swimming team at the age of 13, but in the early 1960s in Amsterdam, athletes were on their own.

“In those days, you just had a swimming coach but nothing for any condition training. The coach of the boxing team helped me. I ran in the park with the other boxers. I skipped rope. And my friends made sure that boys didn’t give me trouble when going out in Amsterdam because they’d tell them, ‘I’ll punch you in the nose if you don’t do right by her’.”

Inspired by her sister, who competed on the Dutch swim team at the 1960 Rome Olympics, Kok became the premier butterfly swimmer in the world, setting the world record in that discipline in September, 1963, and again in May, 1964. At the age of 17, Kok was the favorite going into the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo.

Nearly matching her world record time, Kok swam an excellent race in the 100-meter butterfly finals. But she lost to Sharon Stouder of the USA, who broke Kok’s world record. Going into the finals, Kok expected to win, but in retrospect, she now knows she was unwittingly swimming upstream against a US team that was more prepared and more experienced than any other team.

“I was very disappointed,” Kok told me. “I was the world’s record holder for years, and I was training hard for this event. I didn’t know Sharon Stouder. I didn’t think about my competitors. I was confident, not arrogant. But I was also naïve.”

In the end, no other country had the resources to support a swim team like the USA at the time. Not only was the Netherlands 0.4% the size, 6.3% the population, and 43% of the per capita GDP of the United States in 1964, the US had the swim clubs, the coaches and the access to international competition that very few other athletes in the world had.

Ada Kok on bicycle in Tokyo Olympic Village
Ada Kok (left) on a bicycle in the Olympic Village in 1964.

“They were more professional,” said Kok of the Americans. “They had paid coaches. Mine was a volunteer, who had a regular job. Our swim federation didn’t have the money to send us abroad so we competed in nearby countries traveling at minimum cost.”

And yet, the Dutch women’s team still proved to be a powerful force, winning silver in a team race in the women’s 4X100 meter medley relay, a competition where four swimmers swim two lengths of the pool each in four different styles in this order: the backstroke, the breaststroke, the butterfly stroke, and freestyle (which means any style other than the previous three).

As a demonstration of American dominance, the US swim coach did not even use their top swimmers in the heats. And the four swimmers who swam in the finals set an Olympic record, finishing over three seconds faster than the silver medalists, the Dutch. Making it close was Ada Kok, who got some measure of revenge against Stouder by swimming the third leg butterfly stroke over 1 second faster than the American in the finals. “The silver medal for the team was a positive surprise,” said Kok. “We couldn’t get anywhere near the Americans, but to be second as a team was fantastic.”

Kok would regain her world record in the butterfly in August, 1965, as well as win the gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly in Mexico City in 1968. But she was happy with her results in 1964. “You’re always pleased to get a medal. When you’re on the podium, and you see it and touch it, it’s wonderful.”

Pictograms for Women and Drinking Water
Pictograms used at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, from the book, “The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964 – The Official Report of the Organizing Committee”
If you don’t speak Japanese, travelling in Japan is a challenge. You’re in a train, you pull into a station, you peer through the window as the train decelerates desperately trying to figure out what station you’re at, scanning for English, any English at all.

The next best thing to words are symbols. The signs for men and women’s toilets come in a gazillion varieties, but they are most often a variation of a theme. Symbols, if done right, can cut to the chase.

foreign friendly pictograms

With a continued increase in foreign tourists to Japan, and a spike in international guests in Tokyo during the 2020 Olympics expected, the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan (GSI) released a new set of map symbols which they believe will be more intuitively understood by visitors. The old map symbols included an “X”. In the West, “X” may mark the spot of treasure, but in Japan, it meant police station. The old map represented a temple with a swastika, which is too much of an emotional jolt to many with its strong association with Nazism, despite its far longer association with Hinduism and Buddhism.

Fortunately, the GSI decided not to replace the symbol for onsen. The three wavy steamy lines bathing in an oval is a personal favorite.

onsen symbol

The pictograms of today were born out of the pictograms of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. These Games were the first to be held in Asia, and Japan realized they had a language problem. In addition to translation, designers figured that use of symbols would be a powerful and efficient way to get foreigners to the right place. In fact, the Tokyo Olympics proved to be filled with design opportunities for the best in the country as the ’64 Games were essentially the first time an Olympic Games systematically used pictograms to represent each of the sporting events, or direct people to places.

As this blog post states, “…for such a huge national event, needless to say the design side of things was very important too and it engaged the talents of the industry heavyweights at the time.” One of the heavyweights was Yoshiro Yamashita, who designed these event symbols.

events pictograms 1964

The symbols that represented facilities were said to have been created by a team of ten designers.

pictograms at Tokyo Olympics_The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964 Report
From the book, “The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964 – The Official Report of the Organizing Committee”
Yukijirushi butter ad_Asahai Graf Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_November 1964
An ad for butter and cheese by the dairy company, Yuki Jirushi. From the November 1964 Asahi Graf, Tokyo Olympics Special Edition

A derogatory term in Japan for foreigners at the turn of the 20th century was “batta-kusai” (バタ臭い), literally “stinks of butter”.

In the 16th and 17th centuries in Japan, when the Portuguese and Dutch established relations and trade with the Tokugawa Shogunate, the Japanese were exposed to non-Japanese who had meat and milk in their diets. The Japanese, due to the influence of Buddhism and Shintoism, were forbidden from eating meat, and thus by extension, dairy products. On top of that, Japanese were generally lactose intolerant.

Because of the fundamental differences in diet, the Japanese thought, quite simply, that Westerners, with the residue of beef, milk and cheese in their systems, reeked.

Milking at a small farm in Japan 1933_Mainichi Photo Gallery
Milking at a small farm in Japan in 1933_Mainichi Photo Gallery

But when Emperor Meiji came to power in the late 19th Century, the emperor and his government embarked the country on a massive modernization campaign to make not only the Japanese military, science and industry equal to the levels of excellence in the Western industrialized world, but also the size and strength of Japanese people.

According to this article, the Meiji Government not only lifted the ban on meat and dairy-products consumption, they put the word out, quietly, that the Meiji Emperor also enjoyed meat, cheese and milk.

Jersey cows arrive to Japan from New Zealand 1953_Mainichi Photo Gallery
Jersey Cows arrive from New Zealand to a farm in Japan in 1953, from the Mainichi Photo Gallery

Clearly, the Meiji Government was also picking up advanced marketing techniques, such as celebrity endorsements to sell products. But when the 1960s rolled around, using data to back your claims was all the rage. The advertisement at the top of the page was published in November, 1964 in Asahi Graf’s Tokyo Olympics Special Issue. The headline text states, “These Children Will be the Strength of Japan in the Future”. The company making this statement is “Yuki-Jirushi”, one of the dairy products companies (along with Meiji) established by the Emperor Meiji.

The statistics shared in the ad show how, from 1955 to 1962, the height of the average 5-year old went from 104 to 106.1 cm tall while the average individual daily consumption of dairy products (I suppose they mean butter and cheese) went from 0.8 grams to 5.4 grams.

Distirbution of Milk Containers 1955_Mainichi Photo Gallery
Distribution of milk containers in Japan in 1955, from the Mainichi Photo Gallery

A few years later, an AP article from May, 1969 cited a government survey indicating the trend was continuing. “A ministry survey showed the average height of 11-year-old boys has increased by 4.6 inches over the past 68 years. Girls of the same age had an increase of 5.4 inches. During the 1900-1968 period, the 11-year-old boys gained 13.6 pounds and the girls 18.9 pounds in weight, the survey said.”

The article went on to explain that the Allied Occupation under the

US Water Polo Team 1964
The US Olympic team in Tokyo, 1964 Olympic Games, Standing L-R: Dan Drown, Ron Crawford, Stan Cole, Bib Saari, Ralph Whitney, George Stransky, Coach Urho Saari. Bottom L-R: Tony van Dorp, Chick Mcllroy, David Ashleigh, Ned Mcllroy, Paul Mcllroy. Source: The history of USA Water Polo in the Olympic Games.

They were tied 1-1 with the Yugoslavians at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Along with Hungarians and the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia was part of a European domination of a sport – water polo. The United States were not on the same par as Yugoslavia at that time. They had never played any teams outside the United States until those Games. And yet, there they were, tied 1 apiece with the Yugoslavians.

“Our first game was against Yugoslavia,” said Daniel Drown, who was on that USA squad. They were supposed to be huge. When we came out of the tunnel at the pool, we didn’t think they looked that big. Then we went to shake their hands and their shortest guy was 6ft 3, and their biggest were 6ft 7. They were huge!”

The US team played even throughout the first half with the Yugoslavians. And in the second half, they caught a break – one of the Yugoslavians was ejected with four minutes remaining, which meant they would be down one man until the US scored. Despite the advantage, the US played tentatively. “We have an extra guy,” said Drown. “If we score, it will be the biggest upset. But everybody was afraid. No one would take the shot. Finally, one of their guys scored and they won 2-1.”

The US water polo team would go on to beat Brazil 7-1, but lose to the Netherlands, and thus fail to advance to the finals.

Drown remembers thinking, “we didn’t deserve to win. We were playing way over our heads.” But he knows the US team played brilliant defense. And he believes the fledgling US water polo program benefited from the coaching of Urho Saari.

“Saari believed in conditioning, absolute conditioning,” said Drown. “His philosophy was to work us so hard, so that you were sick to your stomach, and you couldn’t eat after a workout. But when it came time to play in a game, we may not have been as good as the other team, but we would be in better shape. We would think, ‘why couldn’t we win?'”

According to this article, Saari was an innovator in water polo. “Saari insisted that more emphasis should be placed on swimming, rapid ball-handling and changes in offensive and defensive tactics. He frowned on rough play and thought that teams should be less dependent on scoring done by the center-forward.”

Urho Saari at the Urho Saari Swim Stadium
Legendary El Segundo swimming coach Urho Saari. Daily Breeze file photo by Jack Wyman

“We would play 3 on 3 keep away for long periods of time, which disciplined you,” explained Drown. “One person had the ball and one would receive and he had better be open, and the third guy better be getting open. Everybody is constantly moving to get away from whomever is guarding them.”

“Saari would also run every night a scrimmage for 90 minutes four on four. He would referee it. When you did something wrong, you could see clearly when something was wrong. They threw to an open space and you

George Hungerford and Roger Jackson in shell
George Hungerford and Roger Jackson after winning gold in the coxless pairs in Tokyo.
They were an afterthought, really.

Canada’s rowing eight was coached by Glen Mervyn, a protégé of the famous Frank Read, who coached the eight crew that got Canada’s only medal at the Rome Olympics – silver. George Hungerford and Roger Jackson were thrown together in the coxless pair, without a coach, in a “clunker of a boat”, only weeks before flying to Tokyo for the XVIII Olympiad.

Hungerford was supposed to row in the vaunted eight, but fell ill, and then, got kicked off the premier crew. That decision led to other decisions. A rower named Wayne Pretty assumed Hungerford’s spot on the eight. And since Pretty had been in the coxless pair boat, Jackson was left without a teammate. With the rowing roster set at 15, and the coxless pair considered a lesser priority to Team Canada, Hungerford and Jackson were asked to pair up to provide representation in this event at the Olympics, assuming Hungerford could get in good enough condition in time to compete.

“When I was selected to the eights, it was a dream come true,” Hungerford told me. But when he was diagnosed with mononucleosis in July, 1964, he was told to rest for four weeks. “It was a depressing time for me. And four weeks later my doctor told me the symptoms were gone, but my chance to join the eights was gone.”

But if they wanted to go to Tokyo, Hungerford and Jackson had to make it work. Team Canada’s expectations for coxless pairs was low. And when Hungerford and Jackson got into a shell to train, they didn’t immediately click on the water. “No, there wasn’t an instant connection,” said Hungerford. “We had to come to terms with our issues. We yelled and screamed at each other after the first few rows. But we realized that if we we’re going to Tokyo we had to put these differences aside and work together.”

Despite the bad luck that brought the two together, Hungerford observed one good bit of fortune – “As it turned out, physically we were a perfect match. We were the same height, same weight, same mental toughness and determination.” Their determination drove them to train hard, harder than anyone else in the remaining weeks to Tokyo.

And their hard work paid off in another bit of fortune. Upon arriving in Tokyo, Canada was able to borrow a boat from the Americans. And it turned out to be a George Pocock shell, a hand-crafted boat from the most reputable craftsman of his time in the US. As Hungerford explained, while everyone else was already in top condition and thus focusing on their mental preparation, Jackson and Hungerford worked hard on their rowing. “We had a full endurance training program in the last week. We were doing interval training, only 500 meter sprints. We hadn’t done a full 2000 meters and we wanted to do a time trial so we asked the eights coach to time us. We knew we had the ‘swing’. We had a sense the boat was moving, the boat was working for us. But after the 2000 meter time trial, the coach told us his watch wasn’t working properly so we didn’t know how fast we were.”

They didn’t know, until they entered the first heat, which they won. After the heat “The coach told me his watch wasn’t really broken, but he hadn’t believed it the first time he timed us,” said Hungerford. “We had the fastest time of all the heats. That put us directly in the finals – no repechages. That gave us confidence. With four or five days between the trials and finals, we kept training and we rowed our hearts out. Rowing and sleeping. Rowing and sleeping. Endurance over 2000 meters was critical.”

The Germans and the Dutch were favorites in the coxless pair competition. But once you get to the finals, you have a one in six chance, was how Hungerford and Jackson were thinking. Unfortunately, they started the race by catching a “crab” – one of the oars didn’t hit the water the right way getting the boat off to a slow and awkward start. But another boat had false started so Jackson and Hungerford got a second chance and had a good start.

At 900 meters into the 2000-meter course, they decided to go for it with a power 30 – 30 extraordinarily hard strokes up. “The boat just flew,” said Hungerford. “We were neck and neck up to 900, but then we took a length and a half on the other boats. It was a fantastic feeling. The boat was just moving, an incredible feeling, an adrenaline rush knowing we had the lead. Now we had to not let the other boats catch us. The Dutch boat was challenging. The last 200 meters was hell. Our tanks were drained at 1500 meters – I don’t know where we found that inner strength in the last 500.”

“They might have caught us if the race was longer. I was starting to fade so Roger had to adjust. We’re rowing as a pair in a sensitive boat, sensitive to one rower overpowering the other. You have to perfectly synchronize. If one loses strength the other has to match, match each other in all respects. It was challenging. As Roger told me, he had heard this burst come from the stands. They were calling out in German for the German crew, which was also coming on strong. But as Roger said, ‘there was no bloody way we were going to lose’.”

George Hungerford and Roger Jackson  on podium

In fact, they won. Canadian’s only gold medal of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics came thanks to a pair of rowers who through sickness and circumstance were thrust together in a shotgun marriage. And there they were, jelly legged, nothing left in the tank, standing at the winner’s podium with gold suspended from their necks, listening to the Canadian anthem, the only medal ceremony it was played in Tokyo.

“It was an incredible moment for us,” said Hungerford.

When it was time to leave Tokyo, to pack everything up and say goodbye to a life-changing experience, the Pocock shell, a championship shell, was returned to the American team. The boat had no name. But when they gave the boat back, it had a new decoration on the bow – a decal with the Canadian flag.

Yukio Endo_Tokyo Olympiad_Kyodo News Service
Yukio Endo, from the book Tokyo Olympiad_Kyodo News Agency

By the time the 1964 Tokyo Olympics rolled around, gymnast Boris Shakhlin of the Soviet Union had won nine Olympic medals in Melbourne and Rome, including four gold medals in 1960. Until 1980, his total Olympic medal haul of 13 was the most by any male athlete until 1980.

Shakhlin certainly had an opportunity to continue his championship ways in Tokyo. Except that Yukio Endo, and perhaps all of Japan, stood in his way.

Boris Shakhlin_XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964_Asahi Shimbun
Boris Shakhlin, from the book XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964_Asahi Shimbun

Endo won the men’s individual all-around gymnastics competition, which includes compulsory and optional events in six events: the vault, floor exercise, pommel horse, rings, parallel bars and horizontal bar. After all was said and done, Endo had a total score of 115.95 out of a total 120 points, edging out three competitors who tied for second with scores of 115.40.

In other words, 0.55 separated gold from silver. The problem is, Endo had what could be described as an awful effort on the pommel horse optional. As American gymnast Dale McClements described in her diary at the time, “Endo sat on the horse 2 times and dismounted with bent legs.”

According to the Japan Times, Endo had a considerable lead over his teammate Shuji Tsurumi and Shakhlin before the pommel horse optionals. “Japanese spectators were biting their nails fearing that the last moment error would cost Endo the gold medal. The event was halted 10 minutes as Japanese team manager Takashi Kondo made a strong appeal to the judges that the faults should not be counted too much. While the Russians glowered, spectators burst into cheers when the judges finally raised their scoring flags. All four were unanimous giving Endo 9.1 scores which assured him of the gold medal.”

 

Yukio Endo
Yukio Endo, from the book, Tokyo Olympiad_Kyodo News Agency

Another American gymnast who witnessed Endo’s performance, Makoto Sakamoto, told me that the pommel horse is arguably the hardest of the six disciplines. “It’s the most difficult event to stay on. There are so many opportunities to fall and slip off. You can hit a slick spot, or you sit down. He missed! I remember saying, ‘Darn it, the best gymnast in the world is crumbling.’ Then he got a 9.15, and I thought, ‘what a gift!’ Anyone else would have gotten an 8.2 or 8.4. He got a 9.15.”

In other words, the 0.55 edge would have disappeared if Endo had not