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.
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.
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.
One thing certain about the dates of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics: July 24 to August 9, 2020. It will be hot and muggy!
One less obvious thing recently occurred to me about the dates. The final week of the Tokyo Olympics falls on the 75th anniversaries of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Was it intended to bring attention to the worst days in Japanese history, during the proudest days of the nation’s history?
Of course it was. It’s impossible to imagine that no one in the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee or the IOC noticed that the closing ceremonies of the Olympics would take place on the day the second atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, thus expediting the eventual end of the war six days later.
On the contrary, the organizers must have thought that the final day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics would be an opportunity to solemnly (and hopefully tastefully) implore the world that peace and love trump war and hate.
Such a closing ceremony would provide a poetic bookend to the opening ceremony of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Only 19 years removed from the end of WWW II, it was a 19-year-old student from Waseda University named Yoshinori Sakai who carried the sacred flame up the National Stadium’s steps to light the Olympic cauldron on October 10, 1964.
Sakai was born in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the very day that the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb called “Little Boy” on Sakai’s hometown.
He was one of the biggest stars of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He was the first American to win the 10,000 meters race in the Olympics. And the world press, particularly the American press, celebrated this surprise victory by a Marine lieutenant of Native American Indian stock (Lakota) with blaring headlines of glory.
And yet, when it was time for Billy Mills and his wife Pat to return home to the United States, he couldn’t get transportation to the airport. The Mills were leaving Tokyo a day before the end of the Games so would not be joining the USOC-arranged transport to the airport. When gold medalist Mills asked the USOC to help him get to the airport, they said they wouldn’t do so.
These were the days when only amateurs could participate in the Olympics, and many American athletes had to be very careful financially. Mills had maybe $1.50 in his pocket at the time, he said, so when turned down by his own country, he had no choice but to turn to the Japanese organizers. Mills told me the Japanese were surprised the Americans would not take care of one of their biggest stars. They picked up his bags, put them in “the largest, widest limousine I had ever seen, with Japanese and Olympic flags up front with an American flag on the back. We take off with two motorcycles escorting us to the airport. We left Japan in style,” said Mills to me, with a smile formed of true fondness.
Prior to departing for the 1964 Olympics, Mills said he was looking forward to seeing Japan, how people outside America act and think. In America, he told me he never felt like he fit in, which started when he was growing up, as revealed in the book, Tales of Gold.
There were quite a few white people living on the reservation; probably 1,000 of the 8,000 people there were white. At that time not many Indians were going off to college, so most of the educators were white people. And the whites controlled the economic base of the reservation. They operated the stores and, of course, ran the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Also, there was always the anthropologist who was working on his or her doctorate degree. They would come and study us for a summer and then go back and have a book published. We always resented being studied like some kind of insect.
Mills was advised by his father to compete in sports because “if I competed with the white man – with the dominant society – in sports, I could have fun at the same time.” So Mills tried basketball, tried boxing, before finding joy in running. And yet he could not find joy integrating into white society, feeling pressured into believing there was a zero sum game between the dominant Christian church on the reservation and his Lakota beliefs, which he could never separate himself from.
When Mills arrived in Japan for the 1964 Summer Games, Mills felt an affinity for the Japanese. He told me that he understood the Japanese to be a proud people forced out of seclusion by foreign powers in the 19th century, and had only recently come out of a post-war occupation by the Allied powers, primarily General Douglas MacArthur and the United States.
In Japan, I saw people who were so courteous and polite. I knew underneath there had to be this anger. I could relate to the pain. Almost a sacredness of the way they contained the pain, and the respect they showed. They were like the elders I knew, who controlled their pain, and still showed respect to others.
In the 1983 film, Running Brave, the actor Robbie Benson portrays Billy Mills as an intense and tightly wound young man, who hides his emotions behind ambiguous smiles and blank expressions, only to let them out in raw displays of frustration and anger, usually in private.
When, in this film, the track coach of Kansas University comes out to Mills’ high school to see him run, and learns that Mills is native American Indian, the university coach says to the high school coach, within earshot of Mills, “You know as well as I do what happens to these Indian boys. They are gifted runners but they can’t take orders. They have no discipline. They’re quitters! Sooner or later, they all end up back at the reservation pumping gas or dead drunk or on skid row. You know that.”
When Mills’ Kansas University track team is invited to go to a fraternity party, he goes to the party with the joy of a first-time experience, only to be told that Indians aren’t allowed in the fraternity. When he begins dating a Caucasian co-ed at Kansas, he eventually grows frustrated that the parents of his girlfriend, later his wife Pat, did not openly accept Mills initially.
“In retrospect, I can understand now that some of that might have been not because I was an Indian, but because here I was, an orphan, raised in poverty, and the prospect that their daughter might have some security with me was very slim,” he wrote in Tales of Gold, which profiled him. “But at the time, I understood that they didn’t want their daughter to have anything to do with an Indian, even a part Indian.”
The gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was an affirmation for Mills, that he was indeed worthy of his biggest dreams. His success at the Olympics provided Mills with a platform to help young Native Americans. In 1986, he and the founder of the Christian Relief Services Charities, Gene Krizek, formed a non-profit organization called Running Strong for American Indian Youth.
Running Strong helps to ensure that the survival needs of American Indians – food, water and shelter – are met. This NPO also develops and implements programs that perhaps Mills himself would have benefited from when he was a youth – development opportunities to help build self-esteem and purpose.
Mills often talks about how important it is for people to “look behind the hurt, the hate, the jealousy, the self-pity, all of those emotions that destroy you.” And in 1964, he told a New York Daily News reporter that his biggest memory from the Tokyo Olympics was the young man, Yoshinori Sakai, who carried the Olympic flame to the top of the National Stadium steps, to light the Olympic cauldron. Sakai was born on August 6, 1945 in Hiroshima, the day that an atomic bomb was dropped on his city. Sakai survived. He did not let hate or self-pity keep him down. Instead, at those 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Sakai elevated himself.
Olympic champion, Dick Roth, referred to pain as his advantage. The 1964 gold medalist in the 400-meter individual swimming medley believed he could tolerate more pain than almost any of his competitors. And when you’re an Olympic-level swimmer, a combination of holding your breath and stretching your body to its physical limits creates oxygen debt.
Oxygen is vital to breaking down glucose to provide your body with energy. But when the body can’t get enough oxygen to create energy, it releases lactic acid, a substance that can create energy without oxygen. When there is more lactic acid in your blood than can be burned off, you get pain. And the more intense your physical activity, the more intense the pain can be.
And Roth’s pain was intense. As described briefly in an earlier post, Roth was one of the young American swimmers favored to do well in his swimming event. But literally hours after the Opening Ceremonies of the Tokyo Summer Games, Roth was tossing and turning in discomfort and then tremendous pain.
Roth got himself out of bed at 6 am, got to the Olympic Village infirmary. The nurse poked and probed. The swim team doctor did blood tests and then left him alone in his bed. He was 24 hours from competing in the Olympic Games. “This was not the way to calm me down,” thought Roth. Then finally, they told him. He was going to be transported to a US Army Hospital in Western Tokyo and have his appendix removed.
“I was so blown away they had to bring in a counselor to calm me down,” wrote Roth. “The ambulance ride to Tachikawa is a blur. The only thing I remember is pulling up to the hospital entrance and thinking I was going to die.”
The doctors told Roth that they would have to take out his appendix ASAP. He said no. They somehow prepped Roth for the operation and asked a member of the US Olympic Committee to sign off on the operation since Roth was still a minor at 17, but the USOC didn’t want to take responsibility. They eventually tracked down Roth’s parents who of course wanted to OK the operation. But their son was adamant. “My parents came in to see me before they signed, thank god. I begged them not to let the doctors take it out. I really wanted to swim. What if they were wrong? So began hours of debate back and forth with phone calls to the States for third and fourth opinions. In the end, my parents made a deal to take all responsibility, an unbelievably tough decision.”
The Roths and the doctors agreed that Roth would not exercise except to swim in the heats and that he would have blood tests every four hours. Roth was back in the Olympic Village that evening and went to sleep. The next day, he swam relatively poorly in the heats, 15 seconds slower than his personal best, but still made it into the finals.
“Everyone is on the same level physically,” Roth told me. “So it is all mental. On any given day anyone can win. We all knew about pain. You had to swim through the pain. I would get myself into oxygen debt and when I couldn’t add 2 and 3, when I thought I couldn’t go any further, I knew I was in the right place.”
And as he was resting in bed waiting for the finals to begin, he wrote that pain was a part of his mental preparation. “All that day I swam the race in my mind and felt the pain over and over and over. I was obsessive. But I got to watch my confidence build back up. I remember it very clearly.”
What Roth didn’t remember clearly was the 400 meter finals race, which is 100 meter sprints in four different styles: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. “I really don’t remember the race very well,”
Yoshinori Sakai (坂井義則) was born on August 6, 1945, the day the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. As a symbol of Japan rising from the ashes, Sakai momentously carried the Olympic torch into the National Stadium, and lit the Olympic cauldron at the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo Games.
He was on the Waseda University track team and won gold and silver at the 1966 Asian Games in 4X400 relay and in the 400 meter race.
With the explosion of television as a mass media channel in the 1960s in Japan, it was clearly apparent to Sakai, who was the focus of attention of billions of people in the most global event in the world, that mass media was a booming industry. Sakai decided in 1968 to join Fuji Television, a major network in Japan, as a journalist.
And while he never represented Japan in an Olympic Games, he worked as a reporter in them. He was at the Munich Games in 1972, when Israeli athletes were murdered by terrorists. He put on a Japan Team uniform and snuck