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

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endo_yukio_3
Japanese gymnast, Yukio Endo celebrates his gold medal victory in the parallel bars in 1964, with teammate Shuji Tsurumi, who won silver, in an era when the Japanese ruled in men’s gymnastics.

 

Officials in Japan are aiming for 16 gold medals at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

“Medals will encourage athletes,” Olympics minister Toshiaki Endo was quoted as saying in this November 27 Japan Times article. “It will be better to have a goal, so that the state can support (those who would be able to) offer hopes and dreams to children.”

Fifty-six years ago, on the eve of the start of the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo, Kenkichi Oshima, head of the Japanese Olympic delegation, said basically the same thing, stating that Japan must win at least 15 gold medals as “an encouragement to this country’s upcoming generation.”

The Japanese team pulled in 16 gold medals in 1964, with the third highest medal haul in those games. It is common for the host country to do well in the medals race, but the Japanese team continued its success vis-a-vis other countries through the early 1980s, as you can see in this table.

Japan Medal Table.PNG

But as the number of countries rose, as did the level of competitiveness, Japan began to slip in the medal rankings between 1988 and 2000. With a renewed effort, Japan matched its 16 gold medals in Athens, and more recently in London grabbed 38 overall medals, more than it had ever done before.

Over the years, judo, gymnastics and wrestling have been Japan’s strongest competitive advantages, with assists from weightlifting and archery, but in recent years, Japan has become a power in swimming.

Is a target of 16 gold medals in 2020 reasonable for the third largest economy in the world? Rio in 2016 will give us a clue.