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In What Would’ve Been The First Week Of The 2020 Games In Tokyo, Take A Look Back At Athletes Who Made Headlines In 1964

By Peggy Shinn | July 31, 2020, 9:30 a.m. (ET)

This would have been the first week of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, and Team USA athletes like Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky, and Noah Lyles would have been splashed across headlines.

With the 2020 Olympic postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these athletes—and everyone else—are now waiting until next year.

While our minds are on Tokyo, let’s look back to 1964 when Japan’s largest city last hosted an Olympiad. 

It was the first time that an Asian country had hosted the Olympic Games, and Tokyo put on a show. The Japanese wanted the world to know that the country had recovered from World War II, and Yoshinori Sakai—who was born 42 miles from Hiroshima on the day that the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb in 1945—lit the Olympic cauldron.

The 1964 Games were also a celebration after postponement. The 1940 Olympic Games had originally been given to Tokyo. Then due to the Second Sino-Japanese War, they were given to Helsinki. When Soviet troops invaded Finland in 1939, the 1940 Olympic Games were finally cancelled. 

“So these Olympics were far more meaningful to the host nation than any previous set of Games,” wrote The New York Times’s Arthur Daley in his “Sports of The Times” column. The same might be written next year.

In the height of the Cold War, it was also a Games that felt like the U.S. vs USSR. Almost every day, reporters led with the growing medal count. And the two nations finished far ahead of every other country in the medal count.

Here’s a look at the American athletes who lit up newspaper headlines over 50 years ago at the Tokyo Games. 

(L-R) Don Schollander and Billy Mills at the Olympic Games Tokyo 1964.


Don Schollander Claims 4 Gold Medals
Three days after the Opening Ceremony—where athletes and officials from 94 nations paraded into Tokyo’s National Stadium in front of a crowd of 75,000—Don Schollander looked at the scoreboard after the 100-meter freestyle final. His name was missing an ‘l.’ But the 1 in front of his name made up for the error. 

It was the first Olympic gold medal for Team USA in Tokyo.

Schollander, an 18-year-old from Oregon who was supposed to be midway through his freshman fall at Yale, was not even the favorite. Gary Ilman, who had won the 100 free at Olympic Trials and led the way in the heats in Tokyo, was the favorite. Schollander, a “handsome, blue-eyed blonde,” had been in a slump.

“I can’t win, Bill,” The Times’s Daley recounted Schollander telling his roommate Bill Craig. “I’ve lost my sprint.”

“You’ll win, you’ll get it back,” Craig reassured Schollander.

And he did—in the final five meters of the 100 free. 

“For those last few feet, I just ‘ran’ as fast as I could,” Schollander said after the race.

Schollander next set a world record in the 400 free and anchored the U.S. to two more gold medals in the two freestyle relays.

With four gold medals, Schollander was the star of the 1964 Games. And he would have won a record five had coaches not replaced him in the medley relay. Teammate Steve Clark had swum a faster 100 in the 4x100 free relay—a world-record-tying 52.9 seconds—than Schollander. So Clark swam the freestyle leg of the medley relay. 

For the Closing Ceremony, Schollander was chosen as the U.S. flagbearer.

Relative Unknown Billy Mills Wins 10,000
Coming to Tokyo, no U.S. runner had ever won the 10,000 at an Olympic Games. Distance running was the domain of lithe Europeans—Paavo Nurmi (the Flying Finn), who won nine Olympic gold medals, Czech legend Emil Zatopek, and the Soviets who had won the previous two Olympic 10,000s. 

The U.S. finally had a contender in 1964. Gerry Lindgren “represented the strongest threat the United States ever had produced for the 10,000-meter run at any Olympic Games,” wrote Daley. 

But Billy Mills knew otherwise. 

For years, Mills—a Lakota Sioux orphan who had taken up running to get in shape for boxing—had written “Gold medal, 10,000-meter run” in his workout journal. The night before the race, he added, “God has given me the ability, the rest is up to me. Believe, believe, believe.”

Although Mills had challenged Lingren at Olympic Trials, the Associated Press still considered Mills “a 1,000-to-1 shot.”

From the start of the Olympic 10,000, Mills stayed near the front with the favorites, including world-record-holder Ron Clarke from Australia.

On TV, the commentators pointed out, “Billy Mills is in there,” but added that he was  “a man no one expects to win this particular event.”

On the bell lap, Mills surged by Clarke. The Australian matched his stride. So did Tunisian Mohamed Gammoudi, who then shot to the front. Both men had about 10 yards on Mills, as the three worked their way through lapped runners. 

Then, with 85 yards to go, Mills saw in his peripheral vision an eagle insignia on a lapped runner’s singlet.

“It was so powerful to me,” he said recently. “Not words in my mind but energy flowing through my body. My Dad’s words: wings of an eagle, you do these things, and some day you’ll have wings of an eagle.”

Mills flew across the finish line in Olympic record time.

Gammoudi took silver, Clarke bronze. Lindgren, who had twisted his ankle three days earlier, finished ninth.

The Tunisian silver medalist, who had suggested Mills train for “more speed” after beating the American in a race the previous year, described Mills’s finish sprint “like an arrow being shot out of a bow.” 

The “major upset” was, as The New York Times’s James Roach wrote, “about as exciting as a foot race can be.”

(L-R) Al Oerter and Bob Hayes at the Olympic Games Tokyo 1964.


Al Oerter Wins Three In A Row
After winning his first Olympic gold medal in the discus at the 1956 Games, “Big Al” Oerter declared he would win four more. He succeeded at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games.

But in his third Games in 1964, Oerter—a 28-year-old computer analyst for the Grumman Aircraft Company—knew it would be a struggle. He was suffering from a chronic cervical disc issue, so wore a neck harness. And Czech thrower Ludwik Daněk, the current world record holder, was on a winning streak.

Then a second painful injury almost took Oerter out of the competition.

During practice one day in Tokyo, Daněk threw 211 feet. Oerter knew he had to throw farther than he ever had before if he wanted to defend his Olympic title.

But then, out of nowhere, “it went.” Oerter ripped cartilage off his lower ribs. Doctors recommended that he rest for six weeks.

He rested, but only for a few days. His only training was “two short walks to the track,” he told reporters. Mostly, he sat around icing his ribs. 

On the day of the discus competition, he walked to the circle, his ribs taped and injected with Novocain. His first practice throw made him double over in pain. Still, he managed to qualify for the final with a throw of 198-feet-7.5-inches.

“I was thinking of dropping out,” said Oerter. “Then the competition came and the adrenalin started flowing and everything worked.”

In the final, Daněk’s first throw sailed 195 feet 11 inches. Oerter’s first attempt landed more than six feet short of Daněk’s mark. Dave Weill from the U.S. moved into silver-medal-position on his second throw: 195 feet 2 inches, almost four feet ahead of Oerter.. 

On his fourth throw, Daněk’s discus landed at 198 feet 7 inches. The gold medal looked like it was his.

But on his fifth throw, Oerter summoned the strength to hurl the discus 200 feet 1 inch—an Olympic record. Daněk tried to surpass Oerter on his sixth and final throw but came up 12 feet short.

At the Tokyo Games, Oerter became the first track and field athlete ever to win the same event three consecutive times at an Olympic Games. He would win again in 1968, forever cementing his legacy in track and field. Only Carl Lewis (long jump, 1984-1996) and Michael Phelps (200 medley, 2004-2016) have matched this feat.

Bob Hayes, “Fastest Man in the World”
“When Bob Hayes comes off the starting blocks,” said Jesse Owens, “he looks like a guy catching a ball behind the line of scrimmage and dodging people.”

So began Daley’s “Sports of the Times” about Hayes winning the 100-meter dash. It was a fitting description for a man who would go on to play nine seasons as wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys.

“Bullet Bob”—who attended Florida A&M University on a football scholarship but also excelled in track and field—came to Tokyo on the heels of an injury that had forced him to miss the Olympic Trials. But in a secondary trials event, he qualified for the 100 and was so fit by October that year that he set an unofficial world record in his wind-aided Olympic semifinal (9.9 seconds).

Then in the final, Daley wrote: “Hayes careened down the red-clay track in the Olympic 100-meter final with a burst of such unbridled fury that he had his championship all locked up in the first couple of strides, then he won, going away, by daylight in 10 seconds, equaling the world record.”

Hayes was recruited by the Cowboys in the 1964 NFL Draft. When the Cowboys won Super Bowl VI in 1972, Hayes became the only athlete to earn both an individual Olympic gold medal and a Super Bowl victory ring, wrote David Wallechinsky in The Complete Book of the Olympics.

(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.”

Peggy Shinn

An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.