- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
At Bangkok's well-scrubbed national stadium one scene became almost a ritual. The public address announcer would proclaim that a victory ceremony was about to start and a Japanese athlete, or more probably two of them, in bright red sweat clothes would amble onto the field to accept his due. Three Thai beauty queens in shiny, ankle-hugging silk dresses and high, complicated hairdos would march forward bearing gold, silver and bronze medals (the gold one more often than not went to a Japanese), and at the opposite side of the stadium a scruffy police band would break into Kimigayo, the Japanese anthem.
This year's Asian Games, the fifth held since they were inaugurated in 1951, would have been a whole lot more fun if the Japanese had not come. Their victories became so predictable that the games lacked suspense. Japan won 78 of the 140 gold medals being offered, plus 53 silver and 33 bronze medallions. Its flashy distance runners were often dueling each other for first place, blithely lapping a huffing field. At the swimming pool Japan won all 28 events, and since there was no band at the pool, three recordings of Kimigayo were soon worn out.
The Japanese took it all in their strides, accepting congratulations at the finish line with weak smiles. Back at their headquarters at the neat games village they charted their progress on two long cardboard sheets, but they only bothered to underline the names of those who had won gold medals.
Red China, which claims some topflight sprinters and supposedly the world's best high jumper in competition today, might have challenged the Japanese, but was excluded. Instead, it entered the rival games of the emerging Asian nations held a few weeks earlier in Pnompenh, Cambodia against North Korea, North Vietnam and Cambodia, which is forever having border disputes with Thailand. But more conspicuously absent from Bangkok were the Russians, who are classified by the games authorities as Europeans, a judgment that would surprise a lot of Siberians. Nor did Australia qualify. The Japanese claim that the athletic Australians live in Oceania, which may be true, but the Aussies were not represented at the South Pacific Games in Noumea, New Caledonia either. These ran almost concurrently with the Asian Games and were strictly for the people of Oceania. But 18 countries did make it to Bangkok, including Israel and Taiwan, neither of which was able to compete in the 1962 Asian Games in Indonesia because Sukarno refused to invite them. So much for the complicated ethnology of it all.
Japan had many heroes and heroines in everything from Ping-Pong to the pole vault. None did better than Michiko Kihara, a stringy 18-year-old high school girl who won the 100-and 200-meter freestyle swimming races and then anchored two successful relay teams. The most dramatic Japanese victory, though, came in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Willowy Taketsugu Saruwatari, who works for Yawata Iron and Steel (as do a large number of Japan's athletes), was content to let Iran's Mohammed Mir Husseini lead for all but the last lap of the race. Then, turning it on, he was pulling steadily away to an easy victory when, kerplunk, he went face down in the water at the last water hurdle. He picked himself up and hurried off—and still won the race by 15 yards.
The games' most controversial athlete never participated. Mona Sulaiman, the Philippines' star sprinter, refused to take a test to verify that her sex was indeed fair. At first, in fact, she would not come to the games. Then, apparently succumbing to heavy pressure at home, she changed her mind. Amid great publicity Mona flew to Bangkok just before the games started, but once there refused to see a doctor. Unyielding officials still insisted on the sex test, and Mona again said no. Amid even greater publicity she returned to Manila, where she was soon summoned before a congressional committee.
Still left unanswered is the question of whether Mona is a Filipino or Filipina. "She acts like a girl, but she talks like a man. I think she's a girl," concluded one of Mona's teammates. Team Physician Antonio Vergara was less generous. "Of course, I have my doubts," he said. The question is more than academic. In 1962 Mona set Asian Games records in the 100-and 200-meter dashes—records that still stand.
The best answer to the sex test was the one rendered by Israel's Debra Markus, a modern-dance teacher at The Hebrew University. "My husband never had any doubts," she said, and then went on to prove that she could run, too, dramatically winning the 200-meter race for women with a last-minute lunge at the tape that nipped Japan's onrushing Miyoko Tsujishita. Debra hit the dirt track hard, fell unconscious and had to be carried off the field on a stretcher, but an hour later she was spry enough to accept a gold medal at the victory ceremony.
Israel, as it turned out, was the surprise team of the games. Although it was represented by only 23 entrants, one of the smallest contingents, almost every one of its athletes ended up with a medal. The Israelis gave the Japanese the stiffest challenges they faced in the swimming events, and Israel's towering basketball team, with a starting five who averaged 6 feet 2, ran away from the smaller Asians.
India was another impressive also-ran. Although the decision to send its team came less than a week before the games started—there was a cabinet-level squabble over how much foreign exchange could be spared—its athletes did wonderfully well in track and field, winning two middle-distance races, the discus, the shotput and the high jump. Its brawny field-hockey team, composed almost entirely of bearded, long-haired Sikhs, beat Pakistan for the championship in a bruising game in which Kashmir as well as a gold medal seemed to be at stake.