I'm not sure anyone expected the IOC to pull off an Olympics during a raging pandemic, but the games of the XXXII Olympiad are now over and were largely successful, even if all the stadiums and arenas were bereft of fans. But it's not this Olympics I choose to write about today. I have a couple of vague memories of the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome--the medal won in the Light Heavyweight boxing competition by one brash Louisville brawler named Cassius Clay, soon to become Muhammad Ali, as well as the medal to the Decathlon champion, Rafer Johnson. The latter was important because in the '60s the winner of the Decathlon was generally considered to be the greatest athlete in the world. But the rest of those games is fuzzy for me. The first games I do recall pretty well were those held in Tokyo in 1964--the first Tokyo competition, the games of the XVIII Olympiad, held in October of that year.
Actually, the Olympics were supposed to be held in Tokyo way back in 1940, but World War II got in the way. So, 1964 was the first time the Olympic games were held in an Asian country, and the people of Japan (and especially the host city of Tokyo) wanted their global competition to be special. For the first time, thanks to satellite technology, events could be broadcast live around the world. Back in 1960, the competitions were recorded on videotape and then shipped to different countries for later presentations. But now people could see the events live as they happened. Some of it in this new format--color TV! In 1964, though, especially with a twelve-hour time difference, there wasn't much shown live. I doubt there were even fifty hours shown on television over the span of two weeks. The most memorable Olympics for me was still four years away--Mexico City in 1968. But there were glorious moments in the 1964 Olympics, and I'll share a couple of memories.
As always, politics reared its ugly head. South Africa was banned from the games because of its racist policy of apartheid. And there can be no doubt that the Cold War was in an intensely hot mode. The huge delegation of athletes from the United States was surpassed by the enormous group coming from the USSR, the combined communist nations that formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In America, the desire was to win the most gold medals to prove that our country was superior to all others. At the very least, we had to cop more medals (especially gold ones) than the USSR did.
Unlike today's Olympics, there were not many sports represented at the games--only 19 sports and 163 events. The 2021 Olympics, by comparison, had 339 events in 33 different sports. Very few of these competitions made it to American broadcasts. We mostly got to see recordings on tape delay of some of the most popular events. America has a long tradition of dominant swimmers--think Michael Phelps or Caeleb Dressel. The first dominant swimmer I ever remember was Don Schollander, who took two individual golds and swam on a relay team that took two more golds. He was just 18. His picture was on the cover of all the magazines. I don't recall women getting much press for swimming competitions until 1968, but a 15-year-old American girl named Sharon Stouder won three golds and a silver.
Joe Frazier won the Heavyweight boxing gold medal (with a broken thumb!), launching a career that was capped by three legendary bouts with Muhammad Ali at a time when to be the Heavyweight champion made one the most famous athlete in the world. Bob Hayes won the 100 meter sprint. Whoever won that race in the Olympics was invariably dubbed the "Fastest Man in the World". Hayes would eventually be nicknamed "Bullet Bob" and became an outstanding receiver for the Dallas Cowboys.
But the event that meant the most to me in 1964 was the 10,000 meter race. There was no expectation that the US would do especially well. World record-holder Ron Clarke was the prohibitive favorite. He usually set a blistering pace until one-by-one his competitors would drop away. America's second best participant in this race was Billy Mills, an Oglala-Lakota Indian and United States Marine from South Dakota who had been an orphan since the age of twelve. He posed no threat to Ron Clarke with an average race time a full minute slower than Clarke's record time. But as the race unfolded, Mills stuck with the pack in front, and as others slipped behind, Mills hung tough. There was a good deal of shoving as the runners jockeyed for position. With the final lap ahead, Mills made his extraordinary "kick" and sprinted for the finish line. An American announcer got caught up in the excitement shouting "Look at Mills!" This rare show of emotion cost the announcer his job! No American had won this event before or since. The humble and taciturn Native American had stunned the rest of the world in one of the most famous "underdog" victories ever. Below is a clip of Billy recalling his historic achievement followed by a clip of the breathtaking final lap of the race:
They made a movie about him in the early '80s called Running Brave. In a sport where beating your best time by a second or two is the norm, Mills had bested his previous mark by nearly 50 seconds! What an extraordinary achievement. You can see highlights of the race here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5F5iCsymMj0
And below are some of the highlights of the entire Olympics. The legendary Japanese director Kon Ichikawa was asked to make the Olympics film for 1964 and it was released in 1965. It's a beautiful chapter of history, memorably photographed, and worth checking out.