Don Schollander was lost.
Halfway through the swimming events at the Olympic Games Tokyo 1964, Schollander decided to visit his parents, whose tour group was based in a city hotel.
“My mom gave me directions on the subway system,” recalled Schollander, who was en route to becoming the first swimmer to win four gold medals at one Olympic Games. “I transferred, but I couldn’t find where they were staying at the hotel. I asked directions and these people were so nice they just stopped and took me there.”
Fast forward more than half a century and Tokyo is two years away from welcoming the world again. The Japanese capital will host its second Games beginning July 24, 2020.
Schollander and fellow Team USA athletes have fond memories of friendly people, a bustling city packed with new construction including state-of-the-art venues, and a well-organized Games held for the first time in Asia.
Ollan Cassell, who ran the lead-off leg on the victorious 4x400-meter team, remembered seeing holes in buildings from the 1945 firebombing of the city during World War II.
“I was amazed,” he said, “that a country 20 years after being totally destroyed was able to produce an Olympics like they did.”
It was a simpler time. “One day I forgot my credential for the trials of the 400-meter individual medley,” said Donna de Varona, who went on to win the gold medal in the event, “and the Russian coach talked the official into letting me swim.”
Gary Anderson, who won the first of his two career shooting gold medals in 300-meter three position rifle, celebrated his 25th birthday two days before the Games began.
“The organizing committee figured out it was my birthday and brought a birthday cake to my room,” he said.
Anderson said when the athletes left the Olympic Village, “any time we went out on the street, we were mobbed by people. If you had a uniform on, they wanted a picture. And if they figured out you were a medal winner, then they went crazy.”
One of Anderson’s favorite pictures was taken after his victory ceremony. “A couple had a young daughter and they wanted me to hold the daughter and take the picture,” he said. “Somehow they got me a copy. They wanted to have a relationship with the Olympians and wanted to have a bond of friendship.”
Facts And Figures
The Tokyo Games took place Oct. 10-24 to avoid the stifling summer heat. Televising the Olympics was still in its infancy, so NBC – which was broadcasting its first Games (and also its first live coverage of any kind from Japan) – wasn’t worried about bumping up against football in the fall.
However, it was the rainy season.
“The Japanese would all have umbrellas and when I went to the stadium I was always afraid I would get poked in the eye,” said Cassell. “I was about 6-2 and they were much shorter, so the umbrellas were just about my eye level.”
Team USA was composed of 346 athletes – 267 men and 79 women – in 19 sports. There were 5,081 competitors from 93 countries, including only 683 women – a paltry 13.4 percent.
Gold-medal-winning sprinter Edith McGuire Duvall remembers that the American women wore gloves in the Opening Ceremony and carried purses, which came in handy when the pigeons were released.
She still laughs about the photos of her with teammate Wyomia Tyus “putting our purses over our heads and ducking from the pigeons.”
The United States won the 1964 gold-medal count with 36 golds, 26 silvers and 28 bronzes for a total of 90 medals, although the Soviet Union had more overall medals with 96 (30 golds, 31 silvers and 35 bronzes).
In track and field, Team USA won 24 medals, including 14 golds. “Bullet Bob” Hayes and Tyus won the 100-meters while McGuire Duvall won the 200. In one of the biggest surprises in Olympic history, Billy Mills came from behind to win a thrilling 10,000-meter, then four days later Bob Schul had a great finishing kick to win the 5,000. Injured Al Oerter won his third of four straight gold medals in discus.
The United States ruled the pool. Team USA won 29 medals in 18 swimming events, securing at least one medal in every event and sweeping two. After 1976, nations were restricted to two swimmers in each individual swimming event.
In diving, Team USA won eight medals, going 1-2 in men’s springboard for the 10th straight Games while sweeping the event. Kenneth Sitzberger, Robert Webster and Lesley Bush won golds.
The men’s basketball team, led by Bill Bradley, won the gold medal after cruising through the round robin with a 236-point differential in seven games.
Joe Frazier won the heavyweight boxing gold medal.
The Tokyo Games featured the last cinder track and the first electric timing touchpads in swimming.
The sports of judo and volleyball made their Olympic debuts, although judo was male-only until 1992.
Setting The Stage
“What comes to the surface is how sophisticated and well-organized they were,” said de Varona, who not only won the gold in the inaugural 400-meter IM for women but also swam a leg on the winning 4x100-meter freestyle team. “They really set the bar high.”
De Varona swam at the 1960 Rome Games at age 13 and was asked to help bring attention to the Tokyo Games a year later.
“I traveled all over Japan going to schools giving exhibitions,” she said. “You’d go to places that were all rice paddies and there would be a 25-meter pool there with stands. Thousands of people would come out to see us perform and I used to swim against a relay of young boys and swim a 200-meter individual medley. They’d empty the stadium and then a whole other group would come in to watch us.”
Did she win every time? “Yeah, I did,” de Varona said. “In fact, I don’t how much those guys suffered after that.”
De Varona’s parents came to Tokyo to watch her swim and stayed with a Japanese family.
Her father David had been slated to compete in rowing at the 1940 Games, which were awarded to Tokyo before Japan invaded China in the run-up to World War II. Helsinki became the new host city before the Games were cancelled altogether.
“What I remember was the incredible hospitality, the interest by the press, the attention to detail, the fact they advanced it by bringing us in to pre-popularize the Olympics,” de Varona said. “This was their calling card after World War II. Japan wanted to let the world know we were welcome and that they wanted a new image. They were struggling after WWII and the Olympics helped jump start a lot of it.”
De Varona, then the world record holder in the 400 IM, won by almost 6 seconds with an Olympic record time in a U.S. sweep. Sharon Finneran was second and Martha Randall was third.
De Varona appreciated the touchpads. “I remember in 1960 waiting for 10 minutes in freezing water in the 100 free,” she said. “It was nice to know what your time was right away.”
Hair-raising First Impression
Francine Fox was only 15 when she went to Tokyo, but she had a built-in chaperone. Her partner, Glorianne Perrier, was 35. They won the silver medal in kayak pairs 500 meters, which is still the best showing by Team USA women in flatwater.
“The big culture shock was to get in the taxi cab and drive on the left side of the road up these steep winding hills narrow curves,” Fox said of the drive to Lake Sagami. “You looked down over the side and there are cars and buses that had tumbled over the side that were still there for you to see. Driving too fast in a taxi cab, I thought we were going to die.”
They made it and spent four weeks training to acclimate to the altitude, with the kayak events near the end of the Games.
“We were laser-focused, no sight-seeing, no other sports,” said Fox.
Well, they did have a diversion one day. “We had a tea party,” she said. “Here were big Olympic American women being dressed up in kimonos and little foot coverings. They had to put men’s on me because my feet were twice as wide as theirs were. It was cultural enrichment.”
The U.S. canoe/kayak team poses for a photo at the Olympic Game Tokyo 1964 in Tokyo.
Finally, it was time to compete. Teammate Marcia Jones Smoke won the bronze medal in kayak singles 500 meters and an hour later Fox and Perrier were at the start.
“It was foggy, almost a drizzle when we raced,” Fox said. “We were told it was monsoon season and anything could happen.”
Two days later, instead of going to the Closing Ceremony they went shopping. Since Fox was just 15, she didn’t want to break with the adults. “We went on the train to Yokohama and saw a little bit of Japan,” she said. “We wore our USA sweats and had pins with us, so we were diplomats.”
Fox went on to become a high school mathematics, French and German teacher and every year on Oct. 22 she would bring her medal to school. “I’d bring it out for show-and-tell,” Fox said, “and 150 students for 27 years did see a real Olympic silver medal.”
The Olympic Village in Yoyogi Park was on the site of a pre-World War II Japanese barracks that became housing for U.S. military families during the post-war occupation. Olympic organizers renovated it for the athletes, with the women separated from the men by a wire fence.
“The funny part is we had a guard at our gate,” McGuire Duvall said. “The men didn’t. You just couldn’t come into where the women stayed.”
Tyus remembered going up and down stairs. “There were no elevators,” she said.
The Village had several dining rooms catering to different cuisines. Cassell said the French athletes had wine, the German athletes had beer and there was mostly Coca-Cola to accompany American food.
“I just loved French omelettes,” Schollander said, “so I would eat in the French dining room for breakfast.”
McGuire Duvall remembers the rice. “I had not been a big rice eater, but it was so good,” she said. “I remember I did not want to weigh myself before my event, because I felt like I gained so much weight because I ate so much rice.”
Tyus had her first introduction to sushi. “No thank you, that’s all I can say,” she said. “And still no thank you. That’s not something I need to experience any more.”
De Varona often had dinner with Bradley, the basketball player. “We talked politics,” she said. “He said he’d probably run for president someday.”
Because the Village was spread out, organizers provided bicycles.
“The team became very efficient at locating a bicycle so you could use it when you had to get to the bus,” said Anderson. “You had to go out at 8 or 9 o’clock, and there were still a few bicycles so you would park it in your room.”
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Team USA won 13 of the possible 18 gold medals in swimming at the Yoyogi National Stadium, which was built for the 1964 Games. Now it is used mostly for ice hockey and basketball.
“The architecture was magnificent,” Schollander said. “We were competing in the best environment you could imagine. I found the people to be so hospitable and polite and loving swimming as a sport. They showed up for practices.”
While Schollander made history with his four gold medals, he could have won more. He won the 100 free, the 400 free and swam legs on the 4x100 and 4x200 free teams. U.S. coaches opted not to put him on the medley relay and his best event, the 200 free, was not yet on the Olympic program.
Don Schollander competes at the Olympic Games Tokyo 1964 in Tokyo.
Schollander wasn’t expected to win the 100 on the second day of the Games. He came from behind to defeat Robert McGregor of Great Britain by one-tenth of a second in Olympic record time. Schollander’s gold medal was the first won by the U.S. in any sport in Tokyo.
Although he missed the Opening Ceremony because he was competing the next morning, Schollander earned the honor of carrying the U.S. flag at the Closing Ceremony.
“The U.S. Olympic Committee said, ‘First of all, don’t dip the flag as you go by the emperor,’” he said, “’and don’t try to carry it in one hand like the Russian.’”
Four years after Wilma Rudolph dominated the sprints at the Rome Olympic Games, the U.S. team featured other Tennessee State University Tigerbelles coached by Ed Temple.
While McGuire Duvall was mobbed by reporters who expected her to repeat Rudolph’s performance, Tyus was in the background, having never beaten her teammate.
“I was running against my best friend, Edith McGuire,” Tyus said. “Mr. Temple didn’t see me wining a medal. He said, ‘You made the Olympic team, you’re young, we’re not looking for great things for you. I’m grooming you for ’68.’ He wanted to bring me along slowly."
“Tyus, who had turned 19 years old before the Games, ran with no pressure. Then she won every race leading into the 100-meter final. While warming up, she said Temple told her he was still looking at 1968 for her, but “you may have an opportunity to win a medal.”
“As I was running around the track, I thought, ‘I could win a gold,’” said Tyus, whose memoir, “Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story” will come out Sept. 4. “It was one of these crazy thoughts. In the finals, I was running down the straightaway, and I felt myself out front and I was going, ‘Where’s Edith? I know she’s going to be there.’”
Tyus said that McGuire Duvall usually passed her in the last 5 meters or with a lean at the tape. “I could hear her footsteps, I could hear her breathing,” Tyus said. “She was that close. The race was over and I didn’t know I had really won and she said, ‘You won it, you won it!’”
(L-R) Edith McGuire Duvall and Wyomia Tyus compete in the women’s 100-meter final at the Olympic Games Tokyo 1964 in Tokyo.
McGuire Duvall was just as jubilant. The Wilma Rudolph comparisons had weighed heavily on her. “Getting through that 100 was a struggle,” she said. “In the semifinals I got third and I really started to question myself, and say, ‘Well, you’ve got to get it together.’
“When I got second, you would have thought I had won, I was so happy. Coach Temple says I told him, ‘I’m going to win the 200.’”
And she did. But the 100 was historic.
“We were both from Tennessee State and both from Georgia,” McGuire Duvall said. “I don’t think that has ever been done, same state, same school to get 1-2 in the 100.”
Team USA won the silver in the 4x100, with Poland taking the gold in world record time. The United States also broke the existing world record. Three years later, Ewa Klobukowska failed a sex chromosome test, although she passed the visual exam.
“What I don’t understand,” Tyus said, “is we have the world record, but they have the gold medal.”
Cassell has traveled to stadiums around the world as executive director of the AAU and The Athletics Congress and as an IAAF vice president, but he has never seen anything like the National Stadium in Tokyo.
“The Japanese didn’t want anybody walking across the track, so they built a tunnel from the warmup area under the track” he said. “You came up on the infield. People couldn’t believe it when you would tell them. They didn’t think anyone would go to that depth to keep people from walking across the track.”
Although National Stadium has been torn down, Cassell said he has been told that the plaques with the names of the champions will be moved to the new stadium.
He said the only thing that compared to winning the gold medal in 1964 was the birth of his six children, but he missed his daughter Colleen’s birth. He was in Tokyo.
Looking Ahead To 2020
Tyus has only been back to Tokyo once since 1964 and that was for a pro track meet in the 1970s.
She longs for a return in 2020.
“I think it’s going to be fabulous,” Tyus said, “and I want to be there.”
Anderson was competition manager for shooting at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and worked with the international shooting federation at London 2012 and Rio 2016, so he has firsthand knowledge of the organization of the Games.
“I don’t know that there’s the same narrow sense of purpose they had in 1964,” he said. “I think they really were trying to prove something, demonstrating that Japan has recovered and is a good citizen of the world.
“Today, Japan is a relatively wealthy, rich, diverse culture and I don’t see the same sense of focus coming through so far. I’m sure the Japanese in the end will do a very good job, but there’s some aspects of the 1964 Olympics that will be difficult to beat.”
He still treasures the dinner he had at a Japanese home. He and a couple of teammates were invited by people they met on the street.
They took their shoes off and sat on the floor at a low table, Japanese style.
“I’ve worked in places all over the world and I don’t remember many countries where families would open up their home to basically strangers,” Anderson said.
The shooters didn’t run the invitation past Team USA officials to see if it was OK.
“We didn’t even think to ask in 1964,” he said. “We said, ‘It sounds like an interesting invitation. Thank you very much. We’ll be there.’”
Tokyo has extended another invitation to the entire world.
Dōmo arigatōgozaimashita. We'll be there.