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Olympic lore: Turning Japanese ~ the 1964 Tokyo Games

April 20, 2012

The land of the rising sun rises again: the ’64 Summer Games in Tokyo – a statement of Japan’s return from the wilderness – begins as torchbearer Yoshinori Sakai reaches the cauldron

Ah, the mi-’60s, eh? Not only was London swinging, San Francisco adopting all things ‘hippie’ and Berlin going groovy too, but the Western world was moving ahead technologically – the jet engine was the transport triumph of the age, the Space Race was in its prime and British PM Harold Wilson was boasting of the UK’s white heat of revolution forged in a factory’s coal stove (or some such political cobblers that sounded good at the time). But in the first of seven – yes, seven – posts on this blog tipping their hat to the Olympics coming to The Big Smoke itself on July 27, here’s evidence that in its first venture to Asia, the 1964 Summer Games (10-24 October), the Olympics proved that the real industrial innovator of the time was a nation quickly going from zero to hero: Japan. So, yup, let me saké it to you, folks (sorry)…

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The Magic

For many, Tokyo ’64 will forever be one of the most magical of Olympic Games. Why? For the simple reason that these were the first to be telecast internationally, thanks to the ground-breaking use of satellites to beam black-and-white images from the various venues on to TV screens throughout the world. In which case, the modern romance of the Olympics could be said truly to start with Tokyo ’64.

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The Moment

Many would point to Bob Hayes’ terrific victories (see below), but methinks the real moment of these games has to be by far the most poignant – and perhaps the moment when Japan underlined the fact that it was back on the world stage and ready to move on peacefully from its recent, tumultuous past. It occurred during the opening ceremony when a chap by the name of Yoshinori Sakai ran into the stadium as the final torchbearer; he had been born in Hiroshima the day the city was destroyed by an atomic bomb during the Second World War (6 August 1945) and would later win gold and silver medals at the 1966 Asian Games, after which he became a successful journalist.

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Bullet Bob, bonanza Larisa and bruiser Joe: Bob Hayes (far left and middle left), Larissa Latynina (middle right) and Joe Frazier (far right) – amazing athletes in and out of the Olympics

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The Main Man

Bob Hayes ~ a truly legendary US athlete who at the ’64 Games not only won the 100m (see video clip below) and 4x100m Relay, but also broke the world record in the finals of both (10.06 seconds/ 39.06 seconds). He won the first event in unlikely circumstances, given he was forced to run in borrowed spikes and had drawn Lane 1, whose cinders had been churned up the day before by the 10km Walk. The Relay final was his last ever sprint as he gave up athletics for an American Football career, during which he won the Superbowl with Dallas Cowboys in 1971.

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The Main Woman

Larisa Latynina ~ across the ’56 (Melbourne), ’60 (Rome) and ’64 Olympics, this Soviet – to be precise, Ukranian – gymnast won 18 (9 gold, 5 silver, 4 bronze) medals, more than anyone has managed before or since. She also holds the record for the most individual medals (outside of those won in a team): 14 of those 18.

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Mentioned in dispatches

  • Great Britain enjoyed one of its greatest ever Olympics on the track – both Long Jump events were won by Brits (Wales’ Lynn Davies in the Men’s event and Mary Rand in the Women’s, who also won a silver medal in the Pentathlon and a bronze in the 4x100m Relay), while Ann Packer won and broke the world record in the 800m, after gaining a silver in the 400m
  • Future World Heavyweight Champion Joe Frazier – who famously fought Muhammad Ali three times and George Foreman twice in the ’70s – emulated Ali’s (then Cassius Clay) achievement in the 1960 Olympics by winning the Heavyweight Boxing gold for the USA – he was a late replacement in the US team and fought through the final with a broken thumb
  • About nine months before the Summer Games, the ’64 Winter Games were held at Innsbruck in Austria where to the utter delight – and complete surprise – of the UK, the two-man bobsleigh team of Tony Nash and Robin Dixon won gold in their event. A curve at the St. Moritz-Celerina Olympic Bobrun is named after the pair.
  • But there was a downer to these Games – they were overshadowed somewhat by the major international events that were Nikita Kruschev’s demise as Soviet premier and China’s subsequent decision to stage its first nuclear weapons test (codenamed 596), which occurred on 14 and 16 October respectively

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Brilliant Brits: (clockwise from top r) Ann Packer, Nash and Dixon, Lynn Davies and Mary Rand

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The Memory

No question, the ’64 Games were an unmitigated triumph for the host country. Just 20 short years after the Second World War, Japan successfully used the Olympics to show it was now a peaceful, benign and positive nation eager to welcome and interact with the rest of the world, as well as a technological power once more. Work leading up to the Games included not only ensuring they’d be the first broadcast by satellite to the US, Canada and 21 European countries, but also the building of a high-speed train line, a new highway and multiple train and subway lines, the modernising of airports and the Port of Tokyo, and the introduction at the Games themselves of revolutionary electronic devices to aid the judging of events.

Moreover, in a display of warm openness, the organisers allowed the Cary Grant-starring Hollywood comedy Walk, Don’t Run (1966) (see video clip below) to be filmed at these Olympics. And the Japanese populace were just as – if not more – impressed by these Games as the watching world: 80 percent of the nation viewed the opening ceremony on TV, while 70 percent witnessed their team win the Women’s Volleyball event. Ureshii tsukihi, indeed.

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The Medal Table

Gold Silver Bronze Total
1 United States 36 26 28 90
2 Soviet Union 30 31 35 96
3 Japan 16 5 8 29
4 Germany 10 22 18 50
5 Italy 10 10 7 27
6 Hungary 10 7 5 22
7 Poland 7 6 10 23
8 Australia 6 2 10 18
9 Czechoslovakia 5 6 3 14
10 Great Britain & NI 4 12 2 18

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