From the 23rd of July, Tokyo will be hosting its long-awaited Summer Olympics, its second time since 1964 when Judo and Volleyball were introduced as new sports into the games. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics introduces four exciting new sports, Karate, Surfing, Sport Climbing and Skateboarding, and reintroduces Baseball (and Softball).
I was only a toddler for the last Tokyo Olympics but even a toddler could feel the buzz around her living in Japan. By far the biggest talk about town was the Women’s Volleyball event. The team, drafted from workers in the textile company, Nichibo Kaizuka, had defeated the Soviet team on their home turf two years earlier in the World Championships. Until then, the USSR team hadn’t lost a single match in something like a decade; they were the epicenter of women’s volleyball. But now that they had, they were back for blood, and the grudge match was on.
The expectation on the ’64 Japanese Women’s Volleyball team was crazy, so crazy in fact that it was rumored that the players would have to leave Japan if they came up with anything short of Gold. So important was the event that even Princess Michiko attended. Filmed in Julien Faraut’s 2021 documentary, Les Sorcières de l’Orient (The Sorcerers of the Orient), the princess can be seen anxiously looking onto her players – her national treasure of Sorcerers with supernatural powers – as they filed onto court in the Finals against the Soviet Union.
The air was thick with anticipation as the two teams met to battle it out for Gold. The Japanese team took the first set, 15-11. The second set was easier, and so too looked the third and final set as the Japanese team led by a comfortable margin of 14-8. But the former champions fought back hard. The Soviet team took the next five consecutive points, silencing the stadium at 14-13. In our homes, where 80% of the population was glued to the TV for the event, we were barely breathing. After just one more point the tides could turn.
The next point seemed long and routine all at once. Then, in a matter of a single heartbeat, the moment came. Of all ways to make the deciding point, it turned out that a Soviet player had fouled, reaching up over the net. A few seconds of confusion followed before the Japanese players could hug and cry with joy and relief. The Japanese Women’s Volleyball team had won, making them the first to win Gold in Olympic Volleyball history. The victory lived on long after the Olympics, spawning the Volleyball anime, Attack #1, and a generation of young Japanese whose sole purpose in life it was to become a spiker who flipped in the air and magically struck down a volleyball into the corner of the court.
The ’64 Tokyo Olympics produced many other big moments. Dutch judoka Anton Geesink caused a huge upset by defeating Judo favorite Kaminaga Akio. Marathon runner Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia became the first marathoner to win the Marathon two Olympics in a row, in 1960 Rome and in 1964 Tokyo. Oglala Sioux Billy Mills became the only American to win Gold in the Men’s 10,000. Future heavy weight champion Joe Frazier won Olympic Gold with a broken thumb. Japan launched their first bullet train, the Tokaido Shinkansen that still links Tokyo to Osaka. And perhaps, most amazingly of all, a country entered the ’64 Tokyo Olympics as Northern Rhodesia and left as Zambia.
For sure, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will feature a different Japan. Taking place in 2021 during a pandemic mired in controversy, it’ll be hard for the final torchbearer to outshine the ’64 Olympics torchbearer, the Waseda freshman, Yoshinori Sakai, born in Hiroshima on the day the bomb was dropped. But there is still hope that some venues will pass on the torch of success. Architect Tange Kenzo’s Yoyogi National Gymnasium, for example, will be used alongside Kuma Kengo’s new and controversial Olympic Stadium with a wooden vault.
Hope lives eternal, especially in the Olympics. 57 years on from the ’64 Tokyo Olympics, I’ll be spectating from a TV in London instead of one in Tokyo with a tiny flame still left inside me from the first Tokyo Olympics. Despite all the bad stuff that has happened before this Olympics – or maybe because of them – I still want to believe that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will turn out to be a great event with some very big moments, some heart-breaking but some, like the Women’s Volleyball Final of ’64, heart-warming enough to last half a century. So right now, fingers crossed, I’m quietly excited, waiting for the opening ceremony at 20:00 JST to finally kick off the games. I’m not at all sure what I’ll look like then but I’m guessing I’ll be flipping in the air spiking that ball in front of my TV set once again.