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John Powers | On Olympics

More than 50 years later, a much different Olympic Games are set to return to Tokyo

Yoshinori Sakai, who was born in Hiroshima on the day the first atomic bomb was dropped, carries the torch up to light the cauldron and start the 1964 Olympic Games.Keystone/Getty Images

Yoshinori Sakai, the young man who lit the Olympic cauldron at the 1964 opening ceremonies in Tokyo, was born in Hiroshima on the day that the atomic bomb was dropped there. It was the host city’s symbolic message that Japan had become both a resilient and peaceful country, living in harmony with the rest of the world.

Those Summer Games, the first to be held in Asia and to be televised live, were significantly smaller, simpler, and cheaper than the 32nd edition that formally will begin July 23. The number of countries, athletes, and events has more than doubled and the official cost has grown more than 50-fold.


Yet the most obvious — and troubling — difference between the Tokyo Olympics then and now is the COVID-19 pandemic that forced an unprecedented year’s postponement of the Games and will have a marked impact upon its participants.

Cones mark out the queuing system at the coronavirus test collection site in the Tokyo Olympics Main Press Centre (MPC) in Tokyo.Carl Court/Getty

The athletes will be living and competing in a state of semi-quarantine. They’ll be tested daily for the coronavirus and will be sidelined immediately if their results are positive. Their movements will be restricted, essentially limited to the Olympic village and their venues. They will perform before half-empty stands with no foreign spectators and head home within 48 hours after their final event. None of the usual downtown dining, shopping, and touring will be permitted. The plan will be plain — arrive, compete, leave.

The organizers’ concern about COVID-19 is an unmistakable sign of how truly global the Games have become. Ninety-three nations participated in 1964. More than 200 will be in Tokyo, including small islands that, the joke goes, are only countries at low tide. Where there were 5,151 athletes competing in 163 medal events in 25 sports disciplines in 1964 there will be more than 11,000 in 339 events in 50 disciplines this time with the addition of surfing, sport climbing, skateboarding, and karate, plus the return of baseball and softball after a 12-year absence.


Unlike in 1964, when 87 percent of the athletes were male, 49 percent will be female this time. Much of the difference is due to the gradual addition of women’s competition in sports such as soccer, basketball, softball, field hockey, water polo, and rowing, as well as the IOC’s commitment to gender balance in offering similar events for women.

The burgeoning size of the Games has sent its official budget soaring from $282 million (in 2015 dollars) in 1964 to $15 billion, and a government audit reckoned that the actual 2020 figure is closer to $25 billion, most of which will be borne by taxpayers.

“Rather than being extravagant and costly, the Olympics will need to change to survive,” observed Yasuhiro Yamashita, president of Japan’s Olympic Committee and an IOC member. “I hope this will be a turning point.”

With the daunting price tag discouraging potential host cities, the IOC has chosen previous sites Paris and Los Angeles for the next two Summer Games, and this month likely will tap Brisbane, which mostly will use existing or temporary venues, for 2032.

If the 1964 Olympics reflected the size of the times, they also were fundamentally amateur. That word, later rendered moot by the presence of state-subsidized athletes from socialist countries, was deleted from the Olympic charter decades ago. The baseball, basketball, soccer, and tennis players, cyclists and golfers will be professionals in Tokyo. Other athletes, such as runners and swimmers, receive significant prize money and endorsements that weren’t available or allowable in the 1960s.


Thanks also to extensive support from the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, whose training centers provide hopefuls with coaching, housing, meals, medical care, health insurance, and performance grants, American athletes now are able to participate in multiple Games. Sprinter Allyson Felix, basketball players Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, and equestrian rider Steffen Peters will be competing in their fifth Olympics, and soccer players Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath, sailor Stu McNay, shooter Vince Hancock, and archer Brady Ellison their fourth.

The US team entering the Tokyo Stadium at the opening ceremonies of the 1964 Summer Olympics.Associated Press

In 1964, most of the US team members were collegians or high schoolers. Sharon Stouder, who won three swimming gold medals, was 15. The face of those Games was Don Schollander (”The Boy Who Swims Like A Fish”), a Yale-bound 18-year-old who appeared on the cover of Life magazine wearing four gold medals.

“He is so young, strong, handsome, and appealing,” remarked USOC executive director J. Lyman Bingham. “Japan has just decided he is something of a god.”

Schollander set a world record in the 400-meter freestyle. His time (4 minutes 12.2 seconds) wouldn’t have come close to making the 2016 women’s final where victor Katie Ledecky’s clocking was nearly 16 seconds faster. Bob Hayes, the “world’s fastest human” whose 10.0 in the 100 equaled the global mark, would have placed seventh with that time in Rio. Al Oerter, who won the third of his four career gold medals in the discus with an Olympic record of 61.0 meters, would have been sixth at last month’s trials.


Olympic athletes undoubtedly are “faster, higher, stronger” than they were more than a half-century ago. Modern tracks and pools, year-round training, and sophisticated sports medicine have much to do with that. So, unfortunately, does doping, which was virtually unknown in 1964. Nearly 150 athletes who competed in the 2012 Games have had their results stricken for drug use, nearly half of them through retests done years later.

The primary offender has been Russia, which has become a political outcast at the Games because of its massive and persistent doping violations. The country has been banned from using its name, flag, and anthem in Tokyo and its athletes will be required to compete as neutrals.

With Russia as its centerpiece, the former USSR topped the medal table all but once between 1956 and 1992. The Motherland has slipped in the standings in recent quadrennia, finishing a distant fourth in Rio. China, which did not compete in 1964, now is the top rival for the Americans, who’ve won the overall count since 1996 and are expected to stay on top in Tokyo.

The United States, which figures to collect medals in at least two dozen events and pick up armfuls in track and field and swimming, boasts extraordinary breadth across the Olympic program. But its primacy owes much to the superiority of its female athletes, who won 61 medals (and 27 golds) in Rio and should fare at least as well in Tokyo.


The most notable reason is Title IX, the 1972 federal law that, among other civil rights protections, provides for gender equity in school and college athletics. The American women have come to dominate virtually every scholarship sport at the Games from track and field to swimming to soccer to basketball to water polo. This summer the most recognizable faces of the US team likely will be female — Ledecky, Felix, gymnast Simone Biles, soccer player Megan Rapinoe.

The Olympics have adjusted as society has changed since the mid-’60s, albeit more slowly. The Lords of the Rings historically have preached that the Games must be above politics, invoking Rule 50 of their charter to ban demonstrations and political, religious, and racial propaganda at Olympic sites.

But, as athletes increasingly have come to view the Games as an appropriate stage for personal statements, the restrictions have been loosened and participants now will have uncommon opportunities to express themselves. That was neither an option nor an issue at the 1964 Olympics.

These Tokyo Games indeed will be unlike any before them. The official slogan, now more pertinent and poignant amid a global disease, is “United by Emotion.” The challenge for the organizers will be bringing together 11,000 athletes while requiring them to keep their distance.