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Naoto Tajima at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

There was a time when the Japanese were seen as great jumpers. In the years between the great world wars of the 20th century, Japanese men in particular were frequent medalists in the triple jump, long jump and pole vault. Shuhei Nishida won silver in the pole vault at the 1932 and 1936 Olympics. Sueo Oe won bronze in the pole vault in 1936 as well.

Naoto Tajima won the gold medal in the triple jump in 1936, making it the third consecutive Olympics that a Japanese won the hop, skip and jump – Mikio Oda won it in 1928 in Amsterdam, while Chuhei Nambu took gold at the 1932 LA Games.

Tajima may have won gold in the triple jump, but he enjoyed his bronze medal in the long jump even more. He is said to have considered the triple jump just a simple matter of technique while the long jump was more of a profession, something requiring a more serious, in-depth approach. Perhaps also significantly, Tajima’s long jump competition at the 1936 Olympics was one of historical significance, not just in sports but also geo-politically.

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Bronze medalist Naoto Tajima, gold medalist Jesse Owens, and silver medalist, Luz Long at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, medal ceremony of the long jump competition.

Tajima took a relatively unnoticed bronze to Jesse Owens‘ gold and Luz Long‘s silver in the long jump. Owens had already won gold in the 100 meters, winning the title “fastest man in the world” in front of Adolph Hitler. A day later, on a day Owens would have to run a heat in the 200-meters race, he took on a strong German team in the long jump. In this oft-told tale, the battle for gold came down to Owens and Long. While Owens led throughout the competition, Long stayed close behind, as you can see in the round-by-round details here.

In the end, Owens won with a stunning 8.06 meter leap which set an Olympic record, and that Long could not match. Long put his arm around Owens after the American’s victory, creating an image worldwide that encouraged those who believed a world of peace and brotherhood was possible. But while we may forget there were other competitors, we should be reminded there was a third person on the medal stand – Naoto Tajima of Iwakuni, Yamaguchi.

His medal in the triple jump and the long jump at the 1936 Berlin Games were the last for a Japanese in Athletics, until Naoko Takahashi won the women’s marathon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Mikio Oda competing at AmsterdamMikio Oda (織田 幹雄) is the first Japanese (in fact, Asian) to win a medal, taking gold in the triple jump in the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Oda first competed in the Olympics in Paris in 1924, where he finished sixth in the triple jump. Hopping, skipping and jumping to a personal best of 14.35 meters gave Oda the motivation to try again in 1928.

When he took off for Amsterdam, he joined his fellow members of the Waseda University track team and spent two weeks on the Trans-Siberian railway to make their way through Europe. Oda was disappointed with the food, finding it expensive and not to his taste, and bored with the long trip particularly because he couldn’t train on the train.

Oda portrait Asahi

Oda eventually made it to Amsterdam, and was one of the favorites in a field of 24 competitors. It appears that Oda was a confident person. Part of the reason was because he was the Far East Champion through much of the 1920s. Another reason was that on the day of the competition, the track team supervisor, a man named Takeuchi said out loud, “Today is a lucky day.” As Oda explained in an interview conducted likely in the 1990s, “this utterance was quite suggestive for me and I could be confident that I can win.”

His first jump was strong at 15.13 meters, and Oda was particularly confident since the two people he thought were his major competitors, Ville Tuulos of Finland and Nick Winter of Australia, fouled in their first attempt. Oda said that he believed the soft grounds due to rain had made Tuulos and Winter nervous. Oda eventually achieved a competition best 15.21 meters, doing so three times, while Lee Casey, the silver medalist from the United States could only come as close as 15.17 meters.

While Oda’s achievement was the first time the Olympic Games became known to the Japanese, Oda was not celebrated when he returned from Amsterdam.

“Japanese people at the time were not overly interested in the Olympics,” said Oda. “Therefore I was lucky. I didn’t have to be nervous. Interest to Olympics grew after the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, and to its highest at Berlin in 1936. When I won, I didn’t become a star. Newspaper issued a special edition. There was no TV and instant communication systems of today were not yet developed yet. There was no homecoming party. Waseda University also held no party. I think that was just the natures of sports in the public’s mind at that time. The only welcoming party was at my birthplace Kaitaichi-machi in Hiroshima.”

After Amsterdam, Oda graduated from Waseda and joined the Asahi

From the book
From the book “The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad – Volume 16”

He was the best at the triple jump in the 1960s. He held the Olympic and world records in that discipline. He hopped, skipped and jumped his way to two gold medals, one in Rome in 1960 and the second in Tokyo in 1964.

And yet, there’s not much available in English about Jozef Szmidt, triple jumper extraordinaire from Miechowice, Poland.

In addition to being the first human to ever triple jump over 17 meters, Szmidt held the world record for an incredible 8 years from 1960. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Guiseppe Gentile of Italy extended 2.75 inches further than Szmidt’s mark. Gentile held that record for moments before Viktor Sanyeyev of the USSR, Nelson Prudencio of Brazil and then Sanyeyev lept progressively further for record marks.