Elegy for a Heartbroken Medalist


SUKAGAWA, Japan — More than 70,000 followers within the National Olympic Stadium — and thousands and thousands extra watching on tv — roared as Kokichi Tsuburaya ran on to the observe, one lap from securing a silver medal on the 1964 Tokyo Games. The Japanese had not gained a medal in observe and subject, and now Tsuburaya was about to make historical past.

Abebe Bikila, the Ethiopian who captured the gold medal in Rome in 1960 whereas working barefoot, completed 4 minutes earlier, setting a world file. As Bikila did calisthenics within the infield, Tsuburaya headed to the end line wanting exhausted and pained.

The farm-boy-turned-soldier was working in simply his fourth marathon, and his gutsy effort would reaffirm the broadly held perception in Japan that perseverance and psychological toughness can overcome deficiencies in uncooked expertise.

A medal would additionally add an exclamation level to the Tokyo Games, which had been being celebrated as proof of the nation’s emergence from the devastation of World War II. Tsuburaya’s success in probably the most grueling of races spoke to the nation’s collective sacrifice.

The celebration was untimely and the occasions that had been about to unfold would enter Japanese lore in ways in which would each encourage and hassle the nation. To at the present time, Tsuburaya’s journey to Olympic fame stays a mannequin for schoolchildren. Yet his failure to satisfy his — and the nation’s — excessive requirements are additionally a cautionary story.

The frenzy Tsuburaya created when he entered the stadium grew when Basil Heatley ran on to the observe simply 40 yards behind. The Englishman rapidly closed that gap and surged past Tsuburaya, ending 4 seconds forward of him. Tsuburaya noticed his silver medal flip to bronze.

The surprised silence turned to cheers as the group hailed Tsuburaya’s extraordinary achievement. After Bikila and Heatley left the rostrum, he stood alone showered in cheers. He held his medal aloft and bowed to the followers and towards the field the place the crown prince and princess sat.

Inside, Tsuburaya burned with disgrace. If Heatley had handed him earlier within the race, few would have observed. But to a soldier who felt as if he had been working on behalf of the nation, letting the silver medal slip away as the entire nation watched was humiliating.

“I committed an inexcusable blunder in front of the Japanese people,” he later informed his teammate Kenji Kimihara. “I have to make amends.” He vowed to win gold on the Mexico City Olympics in 1968.

Kimihara, who crossed the road in eighth place, was unable to talk to Tsuburaya within the hubbub after the race. But he noticed his pal’s glum expression.

“Getting caught and passed made him feel like he let people down,” Kimihara, now 80, mentioned. “That’s why he had such a sad face.”

Tsuburaya by no means made it to Mexico City. Eager to reclaim his honor, he doubled down on his coaching. But his physique was unable to deal with the brutal workload then favored by distance runners. By 1967, he was battling a herniated disc, lumbago and accidents to his Achilles’ tendons, which required surgical procedure.

He was additionally working by heartbreak. Tsuburaya needed to marry his longtime girlfriend, Eiko, however as was the customized on the time, he wanted permission from his elders to wed. Hiro Hatano, Tsuburaya’s coach, and Tsuburaya’s commanding officer supported the union, however a senior officer mentioned Tsuburaya couldn’t marry till after the Mexico City Games.

Hatano protested the choice and was eliminated as coach. In an period when ladies had been anticipated to marry younger, Eiko’s household frightened that their daughter can be left ready for Tsuburaya. Her household referred to as off the engagement and Eiko married one other man.

When Tsuburaya returned to his hometown, Sukagawa, for the New Year’s holidays firstly of 1968, his father informed him that his sweetheart had moved on. Tsuburaya responded matter-of-factly. But after the break, he returned to his dormitory and on the morning of Jan. 8, he used a razor blade to chop his carotid artery. He was discovered lifeless holding his bronze medal.

In his bloodstained suicide be aware, which his household made public, Tsuburaya thanked his dad and mom and siblings for their assist and wished his nieces and nephews nicely.

“My dear father and my dear mother, your Kokichi is too tired to run anymore,” Tsuburaya wrote. “Please forgive him. He is sorry to have worried you all the time. My dear father and mother, Kokichi would have liked to have lived by your side.”

Tsuburaya additionally despatched a letter of apology to the chairman of the Japanese Olympic Committee. “I’m sorry that I was unable to keep my promise,” he wrote. “I pray for your success at the Mexico Games.”

He was 27.

For the primary time, the Japanese individuals noticed Tsuburaya not simply as an nearly legendary Olympic hero, but additionally as a heartbroken younger man. The pressures that led to his demise — his complete dedication to working, his incapability to buck authority and the lack of his fiancée — had been very actual to peculiar Japanese.

“Hard work, perseverance, humility, accountability, friendship, fidelity — Tsuburaya connects a lot of cultural dots,” mentioned Roy Tomizawa, creator of “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan.” “The simplicity and poetry of the suicide note that he left behind is quite moving even though it’s very simple and understated. I can see why so many Japanese were moved by his story.”

Prominent novelists lauded the be aware, including a surreal twist to the tragedy. But to most Japanese, Tsuburaya’s loss of life was a reminder of the darkish aspect of a hierarchical tradition that bestows huge powers on elders, bosses and coaches who drive underlings to do issues towards their will, a dynamic referred to as “power hara,” or harassment.

“I think Tsuburaya was a victim of the Olympics rather than a moving story,” mentioned Minoru Matsunami, a sports activities historian at Tokai University. As in different Japanese sports activities, “athletes had to listen to their directors.”

Japanese society has develop into extra tolerant since Tsuburaya’s day, yet “power hara” scandals are still commonplace in corporate life, schools and sports like gymnastics, judo and sumo. In this manner, Tsuburaya’s plight stays acquainted to on a regular basis Japanese.

Tsuburaya is well known for having the “guts” to endure ache in his coaching, however to Akio Hattori, who watched the marathon on the streets of Tokyo as a teenager, there’s a nice line between an athlete who is set and one who’s being abused.

“I think about the various downsides, such as ‘guts’ in Japanese sports and the culture that limits individual freedom and the culture of shame at that time,” Hattori mentioned.

Still, Tsuburaya stays an inspiration. In 2018, a play about him referred to as “Before the Light, Runners at Dawn” was carried out in Tokyo. In Fukushima, schoolchildren study his life. At the Kokichi Tsuburaya Memorial Hall in his hometown, they obtain a pamphlet referred to as “Pride of Sukagawa” that describes Tsuburaya’s humble roots and heroic journey.

There is little dialogue of the abuse that led to his downfall. But Kikuzo Tsuburaya, who nonetheless lives on the town, didn’t draw back from the subject in an interview in 2019. He nonetheless resents how his youthful brother, Kokichi, was handled after his coach, Hatano, was dismissed and changed with an officer with little expertise with runners.

“I’m saying a bad thing, but the director of the Self-Defense Forces Physical Education School didn’t know anything,” Tsuburaya, 89, mentioned. “It’s tough for the athletes to follow a person who doesn’t know anything about marathons leading a team, giving orders, and then making them follow it.”

The Tsuburaya museum contains his spikes, uniform and medals, in addition to a laminated image of his suicide be aware. His life story can also be defined. He was born in 1940, the youngest of seven kids who labored from an early age on the household farm, hauling greens and fruit. As a little one, he ran exterior along with his brothers. His father, a disciplinarian, thought of the exercise frivolous, so the brothers ran at evening whereas their father was within the tub.

Kokichi ran by ache. His left leg was shorter than his proper leg, and he developed tuberculosis arthritis, which impacts the hips, knees and ankles. He started competing in highschool after he noticed Kikuzo and his pal run on a distance relay crew. He rapidly found that he was good at working and ran the 5,000 meters at a nationwide meet. He didn’t win and shaved his head to publicly atone for his loss.

After highschool, he joined the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force and the long-distance relay crew. He ran the longest leg of races with a slipped disk that he didn’t disclose. Because of his capability, he was despatched to the Ground Self-Defense Force’s bodily coaching faculty, the place many future Olympians skilled. In 1962, he and different distance runners traveled to New Zealand to coach, his first journey abroad.

By 1964, he had develop into one in all Japan’s premier distance runners. At a meet that yr in Sapporo, Japan, he set a nationwide file within the 10,000 meters and completed second, behind Kimihara, within the marathon. After the meet, their coach purchased some beers and Tsuburaya, Kimihara and their teammates toasted their success. The future regarded vibrant. “It was the first and last time we had a beer,” Kimihara recalled.

While coaching for the Olympics, Kimihara obtained a nearer have a look at Tsuburaya, his coaching companions and his coach. The soft-spoken Kimihara mentioned he discovered it laborious to interrupt into the tight-knit group of regimented army males. Kimihara heard that earlier than Tsuburaya entered the tub, he would fold his underwear and shirt, not simply toss them in a basket like others.

He admired how nicely Tsuburaya and his crew skilled collectively and their singular concentrate on the Olympics. There was, he mentioned, great strain on athletes to uphold Japan’s honor on the world stage, expectations acutely felt by males from the Self-Defense Force. That seriousness of goal was much more evident after the Games started and Tsuburaya, Kimihara and the third marathoner to qualify, Toru Terasawa, moved into the Olympic Village.

The temper was joyous, and with athletes from world wide and venues close by, there was no scarcity of distractions. After a few days, it grew to become inconceivable for them to coach, in order that they decamped to Zushi, a seaside resort about an hour’s practice experience away. After their exercises, Kimihara and Terasawa would return to Tokyo to soak up extra of the Olympics, however Tsuburaya stayed behind.

On race day, Tsuburaya was calm. Kimihara, although, was nervous, as a result of he had a quicker qualifying time and expectations for him had been greater. Through the primary 10 kilometers, Ron Clarke of Australia, Jim Hogan of Ireland and Bikila shaped a lead pack. By the 20-kilometer mark, Bikila jumped in entrance for good.

Tsuburaya, who was within the second pack, caught as much as Clarke and Hogan. With seven kilometers to go, Tsuburaya was in second place, with Heatley and his British teammate, Brian Kilby, trailing.

Hattori, who watched the marathon about 4 kilometers from the end, noticed Bikila race previous to nice applause. He didn’t know Tsuburaya or Heatley, nevertheless it was apparent to him that Tsuburaya was struggling.

“He had a pained expression because he was running while shaking his body from side to side,” Hattori mentioned. “I felt that he was really doing his best.”

With two kilometers to go and the stadium coming into view, Heatley closed in on Tsuburaya. “I didn’t expect to catch him,” Heatley mentioned. But, he added, “he came back faster than I expected.”

Three years later, Kimihara sat with Tsuburaya within the locker room at a meet in Hiroshima, the place Tsuburaya ran 5-, 10- and 20-kilometer races, setting a nationwide file within the final occasion. “Next year in Mexico City, I’m going to win a medal for Japan,” Kimihara recalled him saying. Tsuburaya, although, by no means competed once more.

Kimihara realized about Tsuburaya’s loss of life when a reporter referred to as his firm to hunt remark.

“I deeply regret that I lost an irreplaceable and important friend,” Kimihara mentioned.

Still, when Kimihara traveled to Mexico City, he didn’t really feel that he was working in Tsuburaya’s honor and he didn’t anticipate to win a medal. That modified firstly line. “I thought Tsuburaya was the one who wanted to be here, so I’ll run for him,” Kimihara mentioned.

And run he did. Kimihara secured the silver medal that his pal nearly gained in Tokyo.

“There was no personal joy,” Kimihara mentioned. “I was just happy I could continue Japan’s marathon tradition.”

Kimihara maintains one other, extra private custom. For greater than 30 years, he has traveled to Sukagawa for the Kokichi Tsuburaya Memorial Marathon to run and discuss his pal’s legacy.

He additionally visits his pal’s grave. After saying a prayer, Kimihara leaves a can of beer, recalling the day in 1964 once they all celebrated their luck.



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