SI Vault
John Underwood
November 02, 1964
The Russians came fast in the final week to win the most medals, but the Americans had the most golds and the real victory. Then the Olympic Games ended—on a high note of fun and unforgettable ceremony
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November 02, 1964

An Exuberant Finish In Tokyo

The Russians came fast in the final week to win the most medals, but the Americans had the most golds and the real victory. Then the Olympic Games ended—on a high note of fun and unforgettable ceremony

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Sneazwell had been eliminated early in the high jump at a height nearly five inches below the Tokyo National Stadium record of 7 feet 2? inches that he himself had set a year earlier, and he was reliving his mistakes. As the evening wore on and communication improved, Brumel, who had cleared 7 feet 1� inches in winning his gold medal (he tied John Thomas of the U.S. but won first place because he had had fewer misses along the way) said that he wished he could have jumped 7 feet 2?.

"If you had jumped 7 feet 2?," said Sneazwell cheerfully, "I would have punched you in the nose."

At 3 in the morning, still raging inside, Sneazwell went back to the Olympic Village, put on his sweat suit and ran 12 laps around the field—or three miles as the angry crow flies. In the morning he got out of bed, went back to the practice field again and tried to get Edward Czernik of Poland, another high-jumping star who failed badly, into a memo a memo contest. "The final," Sneazwell announced grandly, "of the losers."

Other losers had even worse moments. Gray Simons, the U.S. flyweight wrestler and a pre-Olympic favorite, was being consoled awkwardly by a U.S. official after his defeat. The official, trying hard but missing, said, "Well, you just weren't good enough." Miler Tom O'Hara, who had suffered from a virus and never got adjusted to the time change, ran with pains in his chest in his semifinal heat and did not even qualify for the final of the 1,500 meters, which Peter Snell won with a great display of speed and strength to add to his earlier win in the 800. Disconsolate, the boyish O'Hara went to his room and told Jerry Weiland, his coach from Loyola University, that he would never run again. Later, after the initial tremor had passed, O'Hara cut "never" down to a month.

The absorbing two-day, 10-event decathlon was played against a background that included a newly revised scoring table, some typically Teutonic thoroughness in preparation and the shockingly ineffective figure of C. K. Yang, the gaunt, broad-shouldered native of Taiwan who had been such a heavy favorite to bring China its first Olympic gold medal. The scoring table had been revised to bring the 10 decathlon events into better harmony with one another. (The introduction of the height-conquering fiber-glass pole had made the pole vault, in particular, worth a disproportionate number of points in decathlon competition.) The revised table was a blow to Yang, a 16-foot vaulter, but what affected him even more was the sharp competitive condition of the Germans, who had so concentrated on the decathlon that they finished first, third and sixth. The winner was Willi Holdorf, a 24-year-old university student from the tiny factory city of Leverkusen on the Rhine. Holdorf was the best of a cadre of Germans who worked for months under Friedl Schirmer, a tall, friendly West German who had been named national decathlon coach in 1960. Schirmer had boned up on Soviet and American training techniques and worked his charges hard in a series of biweekly training and competitive sessions. In Tokyo, Holdorf took an early lead and held it, though as the exhausting 1,500-meter run, the final event, began, three men were still close enough to beat him. Particularly dangerous were Russia's Rein Aun and America's Paul Herman, both of whom could run much faster 1,500s than the German. "I knew that I could win if I could stay within 60 meters of Aun and 100 meters of Herman," said Holdorf, a tall, balding blond who is built like a wedge of custard pie standing on its point. Aun took an immediate lead, with Herman in desperate pursuit and Holdorf gradually falling farther and farther behind. But at the finish Holdorf, tottering half-conscious over the line, was close enough to salvage victory from Aun by the narrow margin of 45 points.

Yang, below par in most events, did not even vault particularly well. "He's been injured," said Bob Mathias, Olympic decathlon champion in 1948 and 1952, "but he's been hurt just as much by too little competition at a high level." Ninth after the first day, Yang fought back gamely on the second day, but at the end he was a bitterly disappointed fifth, 237 points behind the victorious Holdorf. With no gold medal—with no medal at all—C.K. consoled his weeping wife and announced his retirement from competition.

Robbie Brightwell of Great Britain, who finished fourth in the 400 to miss a medal, saw his fianc�e, Ann Packer, pick up a silver medal in the women's 400 and then a gold in the 800 and a world record to boot. "I ran well because Robbie had not won a medal," said the pert, clear-eyed Ann, who was to these games what Wilma Rudolph was to the Rome Olympics. "I was thinking about him and not about myself, and so I wasn't nervous."

Brightwell came back later with a magnificent anchor leg in the 1,600-meter relay to gain Britain a second place and himself a silver medal, but after his failure in the 400 he said, "If she had not been there when I lost, I think I would have leaped off a building."

"But what is it, really?" Ann said. "So many have won medals. I don't think it is better than doing anything else well. I won a gold medal because I ran twice around a track, that's all."

Brightwell looked at her. "I don't think you realize what you have won," he said. "It will take years, maybe, before you realize what it means to win an Olympic gold medal. But one day you will open a book and see that Jesse Owens won four gold medals in 1936, and you will see your name in the book, too, and then you will realize what you have done."

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