John Shearer: Looking Back At 1964 Tokyo Olympics -- And All The Activity In Chattanooga At The Time

Friday, August 6, 2021 - by John Shearer

As someone who loves a variety of sports and cultural geography, I have once again thoroughly enjoyed all the fascinating storylines of the Tokyo Summer Olympics, despite the empty stadiums and somewhat lower TV viewer ratings due to the pandemic.


The excitement has included American Allyson Felix winning an inspiring bronze medal in the 400-meter dash in track at the age of 35, American wrestler David Taylor upsetting an Iranian competitor, and two high jumpers sharing the gold medal rather than having a jump off.


The Olympics has also made me want to be even more active.

I now would like to learn to ride a horse and jump over an obstacle, take up rowing and artistic gymnastics, and maybe even figure out how to climb a wall!


And as someone who also loves history, I was also curious to see how the 1964 Olympics were covered in the Chattanooga paper the last time they were also in Tokyo. It was fascinating to read the old Chattanooga Times from that year on microfilm at the Chattanooga Public Library, and I also found out that several major events happened in Chattanooga at that time.


While the current TV announcers on NBC have been talking about all the Japanese heat this year along with the various racing heats, the 1964 Olympics were held in October, when the temperature was cooler and the typhoon season of September had passed. The memorable 1968 Olympics in Mexico City would also take place in October.


The 1964 Tokyo games were held from Oct. 10-24. In contrast to more recent years, when the opening ceremonies are held on a Friday night and the closing ceremonies on a Sunday, the opening and closing events were both on a Saturday back then.


Tokyo had been selected to host the games way back in 1940, but that invitation was withdrawn after Japan invaded China, and Helsinki was selected instead before they were canceled entirely. This was also the first Olympics staged in Asia, and Japan was no doubt ready to welcome the world in 1964.


Regarding the venues used in 1964 and 2021, the current track and field stadium and site of the opening and closing ceremonies is new, although it is located where the stadium used in 1964 was. The old national stadium, by the way, was once named for 1939 Heisman Trophy winner Nile Kinnick from Iowa, who was killed in World War II. The name was given while the Americans occupied Japan after World War II.


The old gymnasium used for swimming and basketball in 1964 has been used for handball this year, and the martial arts facility is also being reused for those disciplines. The equestrian, shooting and yachting/sailing facilities are also the same as in 1964, although they have been repurposed.


While Tokyo was blossoming into a modern city in 1964 – just 20 years after World War II – I have been fascinated seeing the pictures on TV of the Tokyo skyline of 2021. It looks like a beautiful and never-ending urban landscape and inspires me to want to visit it. In fact, it appears to have at least a half dozen Manhattan-like skylines going off in different directions.


Looking at the TV lineup on NBC, or Channel 3, in the paper in 1964, it seemed as though only a minimum of TV coverage was enjoyed, perhaps on Saturdays mostly. There had been an issue over why the opening ceremonies were not shown live, although they would have begun at 10 p.m. Pacific time. 


The World Series, meanwhile, was shown on TV every day during daytime hours, with St. Louis beating the New York Yankees, four games to three. 


For its coverage of the Olympics, the Chattanooga Times usually had one story on the sports page and a New York Times News Service column by Arthur Daley, Red Smith or Will Grimsley,


The 1964 opening ceremonies – which, like the closing ceremonies, the track and field competition, and the swimming events had been sold out for months -- included the playing of some electronic bells that reproduced hauntingly pretty and classic Japanese music. Also, five jets made smoke trails like the Olympic rings, and the torch was lighted by an 18-year-old, who had been born on the day Hiroshima was bombed in 1945. 


On a lighter note, some doves were released, but one for some reason refused to fly. Needless to say, the bird was likely soon looking for another job. 


In contrast, a competitor who was quickly on the move was Don Schollander, who won his first gold on Monday, Oct. 12. Also 18 years old like the Japanese ceremony participant, he was from Oregon, had trained with the Santa Clara club in California and was an incoming Yale freshman. Despite reportedly being in a swimming slump, he would go on to win four gold medals, the most for an American in any sport since Jesse Owens in 1936.


According to one online article, the medals of this young man who looked a lot like astronaut Neil Armstrong are displayed at a Bank of America in the Oregon town of Oswego. 


The American swimming team collectively also had a breakout meet and began their domination for which they would become known in subsequent decades. The U.S. men under coach “Doc” Counselman from Indiana University won nine of 12 events, and the women won 7 of 10. 


One young American woman who won a silver in the 200-meter breaststroke, an event long dominated before then by Europeans, was Claudia Kolb, who was only 14.


Perhaps the most inspiring story by an American, though, was that of 26-year-old Billy Mills, an orphaned member of a Sioux-affiliated tribe, who became the only American to date to win the 10,000 meters race. He was not favored or even on anyone’s radar. Ron Clarke of Australia was the favorite, while America’s best hopes were with Gerry Landgren, another 18-year-old, but he had stepped in a hole and injured his ankle two days earlier.


On Wednesday, Oct. 14, Mr. Mills passed everyone at the end for the gold medal in what was the last Olympics held on a cinder track, and he became an instant legend. He would also be one of only two Americans to place in the event, with Galen Rupp winning a silver medal in 2012.

Among the other highlights were Bob Hayes of Jacksonville, Fl., winning the 100-meter dash on his way to a career with the Dallas Cowboys, and future heavyweight boxing champion Joe Frazier winning a gold despite having an injured thumb and being an unknown after replacing the injured American Buster Mathis.


Also, Wyomia Tyus of Griffin, Ga., and Tennessee State University won the women’s 100 in track and field; Al Oerter won his third gold medal in the discus throw, despite having a painful injury; and John Thomas tied Valeriy Brumel of Russia after they both cleared 7 feet, 1¾ inches in the high jump, but he lost with more misses.


The kick-and-roll form of jumping they used in the high jump that year would eventually be replaced by the Fosbury flop developed by Dick Fosbury on his way to winning the high jump in 1968.


Among the non-American track runners who also inspired, Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia won the marathon again, although unlike in Rome in 1960, he wore shoes in Tokyo. It was a race in which Abraham Fornes of Puerto Rico had to be aided by first responders, or four stretcher-carrying men in white suits, as they were identified in the 1964 newspaper.


Also in track, the great Peter Snell of New Zealand uniquely won both the 800 and 1,500 meters.


As the medals were counted, the Americans were proud, as they won more gold medals than any other country, although the Soviet Union won more overall medals. The Soviets/Russians had dominated the previous two Olympics, and the 1964 games were a slight disappointment for them, particularly in track and field.


When the hourlong closing ceremonies of the Olympics came on Oct. 24, the emotion continued and climaxed. A Japanese version of “Auld Lang Syne” was played to the fans no doubt starting to feel sentimental as the long-awaited games were winding down, some Japanese Naval men lowered the Olympic flag, and such words as “We meet again in Mexico City 1968” and “Sayonara” (goodbye) were flashed on what was apparently one of the first electronic scoreboards ever used. 


An unplanned incident apparently occurred when a scantily clad actor from Sierra Leone ran out on the track and danced and ran laps as the athletes were informally marching in. Many, including Emperor Hirohito, apparently paid little attention to him. There was no tackling by security officials, as would have been the case in more recent years.  


Despite this incident, the final gathering was considered a successful closing ceremony. As Mr. Daley of the New York Times wrote, “All in all, it was a superb show that the Japanese staged with consummate grace, elegance, cleverness and craftsmanship.”


Chattanoogans apparently did not pay as much attention to the Olympics as they would in later years, due to the time difference, limited TV viewing opportunities, the fact the World Series was taking place, and it was the middle of pro and college football season. Tennessee and Georgia fans were following closely the first seasons under future successful coaches Doug Dickey and Vince Dooley, respectively.


Local residents also had plenty of local political, retail and arts happenings to occupy their time as well during those two weeks. 


The then-popular Fannie Mennen’s Plum Nelly Clothesline Art Show was taking place on Lookout Mountain in Dade County that first weekend. And that Saturday of the opening ceremonies, future president Richard Nixon came to Memorial Auditorium and spoke to a full crowd in support of Republican Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential race. He also rested at the Read House Motor Inn, the newer part of the old hotel.


Not to be outdone, the Democrats were also busy in Chattanooga. Sen. Hubert Humphrey spoke at the airport at Lovell Field on Oct. 17 in support of President Lyndon Johnson, under whom he would begin serving as vice president a few weeks later.


On Oct. 24, the day of the Olympic closing ceremonies, Mr. Johnson himself appeared at the airport in front of a big crowd on his way to election victory a few days later.


And those who wanted retail over rhetoric could enjoy the opening of the discount retail chain, Zayre, in the Golden Gateway on Oct. 14. On this day when an effort was still being made to encourage people to shop, if not live, downtown, some 2,000 entered the store. Also on hand was President Stanley Feldberg of the Zayre operating family. 


According to some online information, the name of the chain had been decided upon by some key officials after one person ended a phone conversation with the Yiddish phrase, “zehr gut,” which means “very good.” They decided to use a simplistic spelling, Zayre, for the name.


The same phrase could have been used to describe the 1964 Olympics as well!


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