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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They had begun in warmth and sunlight, in a great barrage of natural color, and now, 14 days later, the Games of the XVIII Olympiad were ending in the ice-bucket coolness of a Japanese October, with skyrockets and Roman candles embroidering the black Tokyo sky with light as strikingly artificial as that of the opening day was real. In between, the lights had been brightest in the eyes of Western athletes, particularly the Americans, as they took in the sights and the majority of the gold medals. The noise of the Games had become the cluck-clucking of tongues over wild Western successes that seemed to beget success: Kansan Bill Morris, for example, a shotgun shooter of clay pigeons who had won a bronze medal in the afternoon, happened past an American slot machine that night in the Sanno Hotel, risked an American nickel and won $250.

Now, however, as in the beginning, the noises were from the electronic gongs the Japanese call kane and which sound like a hangover put to music, and from the eerie reeds one remembers from Charlie Chan movies. The closing ceremony was appropriately Far Eastern and when, at last, the athletes from 94 nations made the final swing out of Tokyo National Stadium, 75,000 people stood to applaud. The butane Olympic flame had been turned off and a blazing "SAYONARA" flashed on the scoreboard in capital letters. At that moment of opportunity, a maverick group of nine New Zealand athletes had a second thought. Grinning preposterously, they broke ranks and began loping around the track in one last ceremonious romp, pausing in their progress to dance impromptu jigs and to sing sudden songs. In front of the imperial box, they repeated their comic opera for Emperor Hirohito himself, bowing from the waist in an exaggerated series of jerks. Distance Runner Bill Baillie threw the Emperor a record-breaking kiss (of the numbers who had stood in his imperial presence, no one had ever done that before). Remarkably, nobody hurried to intervene. The Emperor smiled in spite of himself, and doffed his Western hat.

The Games now had had—and seen—about everything. There had been two weeks of holding together under severe outside influences—men rocketing into space, nuclear bombs going off, Communist blocks getting knocked off, capitalist scandals being exposed—and a steady stream of inside intrigue. In the last two days four Hungarians defected to the West, a Nationalist Chinese pistol shooter defected to Communist China—which hardly needs another gun—and two Bulgarian athletes got married at the Olympic Village in a language they did not understand.

For all that, the Games went on and then off with barely a wrinkle, and Tokyo survived. It survived them honorably, with dignity, having staged them with dispatch and with that extra little touch of precisioned grace that characterizes the Japanese. The Japanese had, as a poet once said of them, demonstrated "the skill to do more, with the will to refrain."

There was an eagerness and an awareness among the Japanese that was astounding. School kids recognized Avery Brundage, the president of the International Olympic Committee, on sight, and begged for his autograph. The Mainichi Daily News was so well up on athletic goings-on that it felt qualified to level a stiff editorial blast across 4,500 miles of ocean at America's National Collegiate Athletic Association for "meddling" in Amateur Athletic Union affairs. On the day Bikila Abebe, of the Ethiopian palace guard, pounded along the Koshu Highway on his way to becoming the first man to win two Olympic marathons, the crowds began gathering at sunup and during the race were five and six deep along the 26-mile route. A television station carried the entire race.

Of the 2.1 million tickets printed for the Games, 98% were sold, as compared with 46% in Rome in 1960. Some went on the black market at four times their face value. Happily, and significantly, in view of the Japanese regard for their young, every venue on every day had 20% of its seats put aside for black-uniformed school kids, their places in the stands guaranteed by the Minister of Education.

With that will to refrain, the Japanese averted their eyes from loud-talking restaurant guests and 3 a.m. hotel hallway strugglers, and steeled themselves to the Anglo-Saxon cries of "Down in front!" and, "Get that stupid ref a rule book!" and, "Hey, you!" Days after his defeat, Ranatunge Karunananda of Ceylon, who was lapped four times in the 10,000 meters and finished on a deserted track, still received gifts and letters from sympathetic Japanese. "I saw you on TV, running all alone," wrote one house-wife, "and I could not keep back my tears." American Wrestler Bobby Pickens found he could not pay for a drink in one Japanese bar, where his size—6 feet 4, 245 pounds—was the object of large quantities of admiration and the negotiable equivalent of any credit card. By sad contrast, one calloused restaurateur in the gaudy Akasaka district did not hesitate for a moneymaking second to let 17-and 18-year-old American swimmers, out on the town after their magnificent showing the week before, get their hot hands on cold beer, and even as late—or early—as two in the morning. Even pickpockets showed more class than that—of 194 arrested in two weeks, only four in the Olympic area had dipped a foreign wallet.

Japanese athletes wound up with 16 gold medals, only nine less than their total accumulation from 1896 through 1960, and in the final compilation third to the U.S. team, which led with 36, and Russia, with 30. The host country usually does well—the Italians were outstanding in 1960, the Australians in 1956—and the hosts in Tokyo took billowing pride in the five golds won in wrestling and the victory of their unbeatable and wondrously adept girls' volleyball team (SI, March 15). (There was one note for future reference: Mexico, which will hold the Games in 1968 and which had 105 athletes in Tokyo, won only one medal, a bronze in boxing.)

But in the end the Japanese needed to do some prodigious refraining to maintain their humble, good-natured front, because face was just as good as obliterated in what was, for the Japanese, the single most important match of the Games, the all-weights division of judo competition. In that national disaster, 265-pound Dutchman Anton Geesink pinned the Japanese champion, Akio Kaminaga, 45 pounds lighter, in nine minutes. Composed the next day, a Tokyo columnist gave Geesink "humble thanks" for his contributions toward making judo an international sport, though it will not be included in the 1968 Olympiad in Mexico City.

In the Olympic Village, sportswriters had recurrent visions of Soviet athletes popping over the back fence and dashing for the U.S. Embassy. One report got around that Broad Jumper Igor Ter-Ovanesyan was practically under house arrest. The truth was that if concern was rampant among Soviet worriers over life in post-Khrushchev Russia, there was no panic and defections were not likely. Ter-Ovanesyan seemed to have complete freedom of movement and freedom of speech—he even talked of his hopes of attending an American school sometime in the next two years on the exchange program—and on the Friday night before the Games ended he joined Valeri Brumel, the high jumper, and a couple of Australians, including Tony Sneazwell, another high juniper, in a relaxed, impromptu celebration of Brumel's victory.

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