(L-R) Cathy Ferguson in Lane 2 and Joe Frazier at the Olympic Games Tokyo 1964.
USA Swimming Laps Up The Medals
Before the 1964 Games, the U.S. swim team was billed as “the greatest ever.” In Tokyo, the American swimmers lived up to expectations. And in the USA vs USSR medal-count competition, the red-white-and-blue swimmers kept the USA in the lead for the entire first week of the Games.
Led by Don Schollander—“the newest wonder of the waves”—the U.S. men won seven Olympic gold medals in 10 events.
In addition to Schollander’s four gold medals, Jed Graef led a USA 1-2-3 sweep of the 200-meter backstroke (and set a world record in the event), while Dick Roth—who “fought off” appendicitis—won the 400m individual medley in world record time. The U.S. set world records in all three relays as well.
Reporters claimed that the women (or “girls,” as they were called; all were 18 or younger, and two were 14) did “virtually” as well. In fact, they did better, claiming almost three-quarters of the medals in swimming’s individual events.
Ginny Duenkel and Donna de Varona led USA 1-2-3 sweeps in the 400 freestyle and 400 IM, respectively, setting Olympic records in the process. Cathy Ferguson and Sharon Stouder set world records in the 100-meter backstroke and 100 free, respectively. Stouder and de Varona then helped the U.S. set a world record in the 4x100 freestyle relay.
Across 18 races, American swimmers claimed over half the Olympic medals on offer (53.7 percent).
In an age where Americans were sometimes viewed as spoiled and lacking incentive to work hard, U.S. men’s coach “Doc” Counsilman told reporters: “This proves America is not a decadent society. … We’ve shown we’re certainly not softies.”
In declaring the 1964 U.S. Olympic swimming team the best ever, Counsilman predicted that “we will never reach this peak again.”
Except they did. At the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, American swimmers won 52 medals (21 gold) and swept all the medals in four races.
Joe Frazier Wins Heavyweight Boxing Crown
While U.S. athletes were ruling swimming and track and field, Russian and Polish athletes dominated six of ten weight classes in boxing at the 1964 Olympic Games. Until the heavyweight final on the last day of the Tokyo Olympiad. In that bout, 20-year-old Joe Frazier stepped into the ring.
A butcher in a Kosher slaughterhouse in Philadelphia, Frazier only made the 1964 U.S. Olympic team after the then-number-one heavyweight boxer, Buster Mathis, broke a knuckle.
Frazier seized the opportunity, dominating his first three opponents, including Soviet boxer Vadim Yemelyanov. Twice in the second round, Frazier knocked down Yemelyanov. But in punching the Russian, Frazier broke his left thumb.
In the final, Frazier faced Germany’s Hans Huber, a former wrestler who was not favored to win. Still, the match was close. According to The Times’s James Roach, Frazier “won the heavyweight title by a margin as thin as the sliced raw fish they serve as appetizers in Tokyo’s Sushi Restaurant.”
The next day, Frazier was offered $1,000 for his professional boxing debut at Madison Square Garden. He went on to dominate heavyweight boxing in the 1960s and early 70s, defeating Muhammed Ali in what was called the Fight of the Century.
Frazier’s last world title bout was in 1975—the Thrilla in Manila, which Ali won. Frazier retired from pro boxing in 1976.
U.S. Beats USSR In Gold-Medal Count
“The United States has won a major battle for prestige in the Olympic Games at Tokyo,” began the AP article written the day the Tokyo Games concluded.
“For the first time in a dozen years, American athletes have won more gold medals than athletes of any other nation.”
The total gold-medal count for the U.S. at the 1964 Tokyo Games: 36, six more than the Soviet Union. It was a point of pride for the nation during the Cold War.
Although the USSR won the overall medal count—with 96 to the U.S.’s 90—the Soviets fell short of their record haul of 103 medals won four years earlier at the 1960 Rome Games. At the time, they had bragged that they would do even better in Tokyo.
Instead, they “stumbled badly,” wrote Daley.
“Although these Games are supposed to serve only as measurements of individual excellence, with the nationalities of the medal winners officially disregarded, this lovely theory has been ignored for the last dozen years,” wrote Daley. “Ever since the Soviet Union entered the Olympics in 1952, these international muscle-flexing exercises have been unofficially regarded as a dual meet with trimmings—between the Americans and the Russians.”
The U.S. team did the most damage in swimming and track and field—where they collectively won 27 of the 36 gold medals.
On the track, American athletes ran, jumped, and threw to 14 gold medals—“counting both guys and dolls,” wrote Daley—compared to “a skimpy five for the steppers from the steppes.”
Besides Bob Hayes’s gold in the 100, Billy Mills’s come-from-behind win in the 10,000, and Al Oerter’s 200+-foot discus toss, other headlining gold-medal winners from the U.S. included Bob Schul, the first American to win the 5,000 and Wyomia Tyus in the women’s 100.
Mike Larrabee, a 30-year-old math teacher who had taken a punch to the gut while practicing karate with a student, garnered the most amusing headline after he won the 400: “Old Man With a Weak Stomach Scores in 400.”
Team USA also took an important victory against the Soviets in basketball. It was the Americans’ sixth consecutive Olympic win on the court.
As the athletes bid “sayonara” to Japan, Daley described the Games of the XVIII Olympiad as a “superb show that the Japanese staged with consummate grace, elegance, cleverness, and craftsmanship.”
“The Olympic flame is gone,” he concluded, “but the memory of what it symbolized will blaze with undiminished brightness for many years to come.”