25 October, 2020
Yoshinori Sakai running with the Flame to the Olympic Cauldron
Yoshinori Sakai running with the Flame to the Olympic Cauldron

The cynosure of all eyes is on the city of Tokyo as the world awaits staging of the postponed Summer Olympic Games of 2020. The worldwide coronavirus pandemic forced to postponement of the extravaganza from July 23, 2020 to August 8, 2021. This is the first time that an Olympic Games has been rescheduled during peacetime. Before the pandemic, the Olympic Games had only ever been cancelled because of war, but never postponed. These will be the Summer Olympic Games that conquered COVID, the light at the end of the tunnel.

Tokyo becomes the first city and the country in Asia to host the Summer Olympic Games twice. Fifty-six years on, the Olympic Games are returning to Tokyo. There can be no doubt that Japan is truly an Olympic nation. The Games of 1964 in Tokyo is now seen as the real catalyst for Japan’s rebirth in the 20th century. These Games also enjoyed global success due to the fact that they were the first in history to be broadcast live via satellite. Tokyo 1964, officially known as the Games of the XVIII Olympiad was held from October 10 to 24, 1964.

The 1964 Summer Olympics featured 19 different sports encompassing 25 disciplines. A total of 5,151 athletes - 678 women and 4,473 men took part and medals were awarded in 163 events. Tokyo had been awarded the hosting of the 1940 Olympics, but this honour was subsequently passed to Helsinki due to Japan’s invasion of China, before ultimately being cancelled due to World War II.

The previous Olympics in Rome in 1960 started in late August and experienced hot weather. The Tokyo 1964 Games were scheduled for mid-October to avoid the city’s midsummer heat and humidity and the September typhoon season. Ninety-three nations were represented at the 1964 edition while 16 nations made their Olympic debut: Algeria, Cameroon, Chad, Congo, Ivory Coast, Dominican Republic, Libya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mali, Mongolia, Nepal, Niger, Northern Rhodesia, Senegal and Tanzania.

Athletes from East and West Germany competed together as the United Team of Germany, as they had done previously in 1956 and 1960. Libya took part in the Opening Ceremony, but its lone athlete withdrew from competition. Indonesia was banned while North Korea and China chose not to attend the Tokyo Games. It marked the exclusion of South Africa for the first time due to its apartheid system in sports.

Zambia declared its independence on the day of the closing ceremony of the 1964 Summer Olympics, thereby becoming the first country ever to have entered an Olympic Games as one country and leave as another country. This was celebrated in the ceremony itself by the team using a placard with “Zambia” instead of the “Northern Rhodesia” placard from the opening ceremony.

Yoshinori Sakai, who lit the Olympic flame, had been born in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the day an atomic bomb was dropped on that city. He was bestowed the honour in homage to the victims and as a call for world peace. Makoto Fukui, a swimmer was the flag bearer for Japan at the Opening Ceremony while Yuji Koseki composed the theme song.

Kumi-daiko (ensemble of drums) was first exhibited to a worldwide audience at the Festival of Arts. These were also the first Olympic Games to have colour telecasts, albeit partially. Certain events such as the sumo wrestling and judo matches, sports popular in Japan, were tried out using Toshiba’s new colour transmission system.

Highlights of Tokyo 1964 Olympics

The United States emerged first in the medals table with 36 golds, 26 silver and 28 bronze medals. The Soviet Union came second with 30G, 31S, 35B. The host Japan came third with 16G, 5S, 8B. The United team of Germany, Italy and Hungary secured 10 golds each to secure fourth to sixth positions respectively. The first official ‘Fair Play Trophy’ for setting an outstanding example of sportsmanship was awarded to Swedish yachtsmen Lars Gunnar Kall and Stig Lennart Kall, who gave up their race to come to the aid of two other competitors whose boat had sunk.

The success of the Games was also down to the Japanese athletes, who performed well to win 16 gold medals – five each in gymnastics and wrestling, three in judo, one each in weightlifting, volleyball and boxing. Judo and volleyball, both popular sports in Japan, were introduced to the Olympic Games. Japanese men accounted for 15 golds while the women could secure just one in volleyball. Takehide Nakatani of Japan created history by becoming the first Olympic gold medalist in judo. Reigning world champion Osamu Watanabe capped off his career with a gold for Japan in freestyle wrestling, surrendering no points and retiring from competition as the only undefeated Olympic champion at 189–0.

Among all the track and field athletes, Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia, became the first ever to successfully defend the Olympic marathon and the first to win two medals of any colour in Olympic marathons. A total of 68 athletes from 41 nations started the tedious course. Unlike in Rome 1960, when Abebe ran barefoot, he wore shoes this time. He ran the very flat and straight course of 26 miles, 385 yards with great determination to bag the gold medal with a new world record at 2:12:11.2 surpassing his Rome 1960 Olympics performance of 2:15:16.2. He succeeded in leaving an indelible mark in the history of the Olympic Games.

Bob Hayes won the 100m title in a time of 10.06 sec, equaling the world record and set the record for the fastest relay leg in the 4x100m. New Zealand’s Peter Snell became the only athlete to win golds in both 800m and 1500m in the same Olympics. Billy Mills, an unfancied runner, became the only American to win the gold in the men’s 10,000m. British runner Ann Packer set a world record in becoming the surprise winner of the 800m, having never run the distance at elite level before the Games. The women’s pentathlon was introduced to the athletics events for the first time.

In swimming, Don Schollander of the United States won four gold medals to emerge the most successful athlete of the 1964 Olympic Games. Sharon Stouder, as a 15-year-old, won three gold medals and one silver at Tokyo 1964. Australian swimmer Dawn Fraser won the 100m freestyle event for the third time in a row.

Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina won two golds, a silver and two bronze medals. She held the record for most Olympic medals numbering 18 made up of 9G, 5S and 4B. Gymnast Vera Caslavska from Czechoslovakia won three golds.

It also proved fourth time lucky for Greco-Roman wrestler Imre Polyak, who finally won gold after finishing second in the same division at three previous Olympics. Joe Frazier, future heavyweight champion of the world, won a gold in heavyweight boxing while competing with a broken thumb.

In gymnastics, Yukio Endo won two golds in the Men’s individual all-around and parallel bars. The most memorable moment for Japan was winning the gold in women’s volleyball, beating the formidable might of the Soviet Union without dropping a single set.

New Transformative Olympic Games

Japan is all set for another historic and transformative Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Since 1964, the number of athletes and nations have grown significantly, with over 11,000 athletes from 206 nations expected to descend on Tokyo. The Games will also be the most gender balanced in history with female athletes making up 49 per cent of competitors. The athletes will compete across 339 medal events under 33 sports, with four new sports being added: karate, sports climbing, skateboarding and surfing. Moreover, baseball makes its long-awaited return to the Olympic stage after a 12-year absence.

Fans attending next year’s Games won’t have to look far for memories of 1964, with five venues being reused at Tokyo 2020 including Yoyogi National Gymnasium, Nippon Budokan, Equestrian Park, Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium and Enoshima Yacht Harbour. The organizers of the Tokyo 1964 Games succeeded in their effort to make it the “Technology Games”. They contacted the US authorities in Washington. “They got a warm reception,” said John Slater, a professor from Western Carolina University, in the North American Society for Sport History periodical, in 2000. The Japanese Broadcasting Corporation built a transmitter site north of Tokyo and the United States Navy modified its communication facility at Point Mugu, California, to receive the signals.

NASA relocated Syncom II from the Atlantic to the Pacific to test the concept and then launched and positioned a new satellite, Syncom III, in August 1964 to carry out the broadcast. The U.S. Department of State coordinated the use of the necessary radio frequencies. The system worked. Therefore, from the USA and Canada to Europe, via Asia, for the first time, Olympic fans watched the events live on their TV screens. What seems normal in the 21st century, in the communication era, was a huge first in 1964.

The Tokyo Organizing Committee 2020, will make the most of the advances of the 21st century to again stage “Technology Games” - using 100 per cent renewable energy (solar and wind power for the Athletes’ Village and competition venues); recovering small quantities of gold, silver and bronze from mobile phones to make the 5,000 medals; recycling 99 per cent of the materials used during the Games; providing self-driving taxis for which phones are used to unlock the doors and pay for the journey; having a wide-scale presence of robots serving as interpreters and load carriers and so forth.

In athletics, vaulting with a pole has been practised since time immemorial. There are signs of people using stiff wooden poles to cross-waterways or various obstacles in ancient times.

The activity became a competitive sport in the second half of the 19th century in Europe and the USA, with wooden or bamboo poles used at first. Pierre de Coubertin included the discipline on the Olympic programme of the first Games of the modern era in Athens in 1896. The “box” appeared, as did the landing mat, known as the “pit”.

Later, in the 1940s, the poles were made of metal. This was how the USA’s Don Bragg triumphed in Rome 1960 with a leap of 4.70m. Shortly afterwards, with space technology developed by NASA, fiberglass poles appeared. They were much more flexible and released more kinetic energy than the materials used to date. While metal poles could bend 45°, athletes now tried to reach 90° to propel themselves in the air when the pole straightens out. Then came Fred Hansen and the Tokyo Games, he won the Olympic gold clearing 5.10m.

Finally, at odds with all these technological advances, but already with an eye to the future, the athletics at Tokyo 1964 were the last to be staged on a cinder track. The lanes were first separated by ropes, then in the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo, by vinyl lines. The cinders were always uneven and needed long spikes, which dug into the track and attracted the material into the shoes. This made it more difficult to glide and run like on a cloud.

The world record of 10.00 sec set by Bob Hayes in the 100m final, on the Tokyo “cinders” was the last to be set on this surface. Later, synthetic athletics tracks became widespread and their properties were very different.

The all-weather track made it necessary for shoe companies to make special shoes with much shorter spikes, often called brush spikes, to keep the damage to the track to a minimum. You could also get a better stride rhythm with less resistance.

The Tokyo 1964 Olympic Legacy

The 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo celebrated Japan’s progress and reemergence on the world stage. The new Japan was a peaceful country and this transformation was accomplished in fewer than 20 years.

To host such a major event, Tokyo’s infrastructure needed to be modernized in time for large numbers of expected tourists. Enormous energy and expense was devoted to upgrading the city’s infrastructure, including new buildings, highways, stadiums, hotels, airports and trains.

There was a new satellite to facilitate live international broadcast. Multiple train and subway lines, a large highway building project and the Tokaido Shinkansen, the fastest train in the world, were completed. Tokyo International Airport and the Port of Tokyo were modernized. International satellite broadcasting was initiated and Japan was now connected to the world with a new undersea communications cable. The YS-11, a commercial turboprop plane developed in Japan, was used to transport the Olympic Flame within Japan.

For the first time in Tokyo 1964, the Olympic swimming pool was modified to allow for impulse sensors to be fitted on the wall. A new timing system started the clock by the sound of the starter gun and stopped it with touchpads. The photo finish using a photograph with lines on it was introduced to determine the results of sprints. All of this demonstrated that Japan was now part of the first world and a technological leader and at the same time demonstrated how other countries might modernize.

Tokyo 1964, of course, a catalyst in the country’s urban development and economic growth. Nevertheless, they also played a key role in the subsequent sporting boom that took place in Japan. It was thanks to the Games that sport became part of the day-to-day lives of the Japanese people.

The start of operations for the first Japanese “bullet train” between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka was scheduled to coincide with the Olympic Games. The first regularly scheduled train ran on October 1, 1964, just nine days before the opening of the Games, transporting passengers 515 kms in four hours or so and connecting the three major metropolitan cities of Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka.

Most Glorious Hours of Tokyo 1964

For Tokyo 1964, Kon Ichikawa directed a film in 1965 that has gone down in Olympic history. The Japanese filmmaker opted for an artistic approach to showcase the beauty and intensity of sport, its joys and exertions and the faces of athletes from all over the world, in a lyrical work of stylistic beauty that has left a truly lasting impression.

“It was to be a film; it has turned out to be an epic instead, comparable to a book of the hours illuminated in the Olympic colours; a sumptuous illustration – of the heights to which men are capable of rising when they are not engaged in war, politics or petty rivalries,” wrote Claude Morgat in the November 1965 edition of the Olympic Review. “It was to be an account of Tokyo’s most glorious hours; it has turned out to be a paean of praise extolling man in the act of surpassing himself.”

Ichikawa’s classic opens with a close-up of a blazing sun, followed by images of old Tokyo buildings. These are then replaced by modern Tokyo and new Olympic venues, while a voice-over lists all the Games starting with Athens 1896, before coming to Tokyo 1964, the 18th.

The entire remainder is devoted to athletes who made the Tokyo Games. Then the film focusses the entry of the greatest Olympic marathon runner, Abebe Bikila to a packed stadium to breast the tape to win amid applause from a packed stadium and followed immediately by the colourful closing ceremony.

Night, and the fire returns to the sun: for humans dream thus only once in four years and amid cheerful waving of athletes the curtain comes down. Claude Morgatsums up: “It turned out to be a living fresco, depersonalizing the star in order to personalize the individual. In the final analyses, man alone appears to be an end in himself, it gives us a marvellous lesson in humanity. Out of this, man emerges the winner. That is to say, a better individual.” Finally, the scoreboard at the Olympic stadium displayed Sayonara!

(The author highlights spectrum of sports extravaganza and spotlight iconic athletes. He is the winner of the Presidential Academic Award for Sports in 2017 and 2018 and recipient of the National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc)