The Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games produced the most painful gold medal in Al Oerter’s discus-throwing career.
And perhaps the most satisfying.
Six days before the competition began, Oerter tore rib cartilage when he slipped on a wet concrete throwing area. It caused internal bleeding and severe pain. He was advised by doctors not to compete.
Oerter did compete, not only winning the third of his four Olympic gold medals in the discus but doing so in what was then an Olympic record of 200 feet, 1 inch.
In 1979, while being interviewed for a TV documentary that aired in 1980, according to Olympic historian Bill Mallon, Oerter said: “I think of that competition 15 years later and it still hurts.”
Oerter’s gold medal 50 years ago was one of 90 medals won by the United States at the 1964 Olympic Games and one of 36 gold medals. Those Games began with the Opening Ceremony 50 years ago today.
“This is the one that sort of made him legendary because he was injured pretty badly,” Mallon said of Oerter, who died in 2007.
Among the other U.S. winners at the lavish games in Tokyo were swimmers Don Schollander, who won four gold medals, and two-time Olympian Donna de Varona, who won two gold medals.
After breaking his thumb in the semifinals, future world heavyweight boxing champion Joe Frazier won a gold medal at the only Olympic Games he competed in.
Billy Mills made history by becoming the first American runner to win gold in the men’s 10,000-meter race. He remains the only American to win the 10,000.
“That was just unheard of,” Mallon said.
Also unheard of was the big money spent on putting on the Tokyo Olympic Games. Tokyo, Mallon says, played a big part in ushering in the grand Olympic Games that exist today. Tokyo’s expenses ($1.9 billion) were more than 15 times that of any other previous Olympic Games, as the Japanese wanted to show the world their country had overcome World War II. It was also the first time the Games had been held in Asia.
Beyond the big money were big performances.
Until Schollander arrived in Tokyo, no swimmer had won four gold medals at one Olympic Games. Schollander won gold in the men’s 100- and 400-meter individual freestyles, and also won gold in the men’s 4x100 and 4x200 freestyle relays. He went on to win three more gold medals and a silver medal at the Mexico City 1968 Olympic Games.
De Varona, who was the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic swimming team at age 13 in 1960, won two gold medals in Tokyo. She won the women’s 400-meter individual medley and helped the United States win the women’s 400 freestyle relay.
At 17 years old and already a three-time Olympic gold medalist (she also won a gold medal at the Rome 1960 Olympic Games), she retired.
“I was one of the 1960s generation,” she told Bloomberg News in a 2013 interview. “I retired from my sport at the age of 17 because there were no opportunities.”
De Varona went on to a sports broadcasting career with ABC and NBC, and was the first woman to cover the Olympic Games for a television network. She also became a member of the International Olympic Committee’s Women and Sports Commission.
Among the U.S. swimming achievements in Tokyo were five gold medals in the relay events: men’s 4x100 freestyle, men’s 4x200 freestyle, men’s 4x100 medley, women’s 4x100 freestyle and women’s 4x100 medley.
Five-time Olympian Lones Wigger began his incredible Olympic run by winning the 50-meter smallbore rifle 3-position with a world-record score. He also won a silver medal. Wigger is the only USA Shooting member to be inducted into the United States Olympic Committee Hall of Fame.
The U.S. men’s basketball team, which included future NBA stars Bill Bradley, Walt Hazzard, Luke Jackson and Jeff Mullins, won all nine of its games and defeated the Soviet Union in the gold-medal game. Also on that team was future coaching legend Larry Brown.
The United States had finished just fourth in the 1967 basketball world championships as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia had become world powers. But in Tokyo, the only team to push Team USA was Yugoslavia in a pool-play game. Team USA defeated the Soviet Union 73-59 in the championship game.
The experience helped shape the future for Bradley, a Basketball Hall of Famer who played pro basketball with the New York Knicks and became a New Jersey senator after he was done with hoops.
“Going in (to the Olympics), you feel a part of your nation and at the end you feel a part of the world,” he told the Japan Times.
On the track, Wyomia Tyus won the women’s 100-meter, then repeated her gold-medal performance four years later to become the first athlete — male or female — to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in the 100. Tyus led a 1-2 American finish in the 100 in 1964 as teammate Edith McGuire won the silver medal.
Tyus also won a silver medal in Tokyo in the women’s 4x100 relay.
The United States won both 100-meter races in Tokyo. Bob Hayes won the men’s race in 10 seconds, and he also won gold in the men’s 4x100 relay.
The men’s eight-boat won a gold medal in rowing, and divers Lesley Bush, Robert Webster and Kenneth Sitzberger each won gold medals.
While U.S. track athletes, swimmers and shooters were among the big winners in Tokyo, the U.S. Olympic volleyball teams were just starting out. Volleyball and judo joined the Olympic program in 1964. Neither the men’s nor women’s volleyball teams made it into the medal round. That would come in later years.
Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic sports since 1990 and was Olympic assistant bureau chief for Morris Communications at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games. He also writes about Olympic sports for the Springfield (Mass.) Republican. Bowker has written for TeamUSA.org since 2010 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.