Tokyo Olympics 1964 and 2020/21


Peter Snell takes the lead in the Men’s 1,500m Final at the National Stadium during the Tokyo Olympics, October 21, 1964. Wikipedia/public domain

There was not much else to do in sports-mad New Zealand in October 1964 other than join the legions cheering on our most famous athlete, Peter Snell, at the Tokyo Olympics.

He remains the only athlete since 1920 to win the 800m and 1500m event at the one Olympic Games. The Tokyo medals came four years after Snell, then an unknown, sneaked away with the 800m gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960.

The 1960s was one of New Zealand’s golden eras of sport, with the All Blacks kings of the rugby world and runners like Snell, Murray Halberg, Bill Baillie, John Davies and Barry Magee winning medals and breaking records.

It might be 57 years ago, but I recall jostling for position outside the appliance store in our small town which was broadcasting the Olympics on a black and white set, centre stage in the shop window. I was only 4ft 10 then, so had a mate give me a leg up to watch Snell take the lead on the turn and draw away with a 15 metre margin. Team-mate John Davies finished third, so all in all, a good day at the arena in Tokyo. It was also one time when watching sport on a black and white TV was not a disadvantage. (For those not familiar with New Zealand, their sports uniform colours are black and  white)

The crowd outside the shop with the TV in the window thinned out and we settled in for some more free entertainment. If this seems backward, New Zealand did not get television until 1960 and it took another four years for a relay station to be built in our region. Colour TV did not arrive until 1973.

Snell’s win, immortalised here in this YouTube video, shows why this record of winning the 800 and 1500 meters has not since been broken.

World Athletics recalls how Snell, coached by Arthur Lydiard, ran his last 300m in 38.6 and his last lap in 53.2, despite unleashing his full sprint only in the last 220 metres. The only faster time was Herb Elliott’s world record of 3:35.6 set in Rome four years earlier.

Snell’s 1:45.1 in the 800m in Tokyo was an Olympic record and the second-fastest performance of all time, behind only his own world record of 1:44.3.

Sebastian Coe, who later won Olympic medals at the same distances,  credited Snell with changing the way athletes prepared for middle-distance running – both physically and mentally.

“He would think nothing of a 20-mile training run,” said Coe. “He was unbelievably fit, with the physique of a rugby player. For four years he never lost in global competition, and he would still be a medal contender in Tokyo 2020 with the sort of times and runs he was producing in 1964.”

I was mad keen on (playing and watching) sports as a lad – just bloody useless at team sports. So I took up tennis and running. Pretty shit at that too, but at least there were no team mates to let down.

As a teenager growing up in small town New Zealand, I would spend Wednesday nights competing in track and field events (under lights). Third in a field of four was my PB!

Imagine our excitement when it was revealed that Peter Snell would appear at an exhibition run at our sports oval (and sign autographs afterwards). He apparently did this quite a bit in the early 1960s – inspiring future generations of would-be athletes.

Snell gave the local runners a head start. As one competitor recalls: “In the 880, I had 220 yards head start. I kept that until the last 220 when he flashed past me! It was a great night.

These stories of adolescence came rushing back when I was stuck at home this week, nursing a not-Covid virus and binge-watching the Olympics. I’ve been amazed at the skill shown by athletes competing in the ‘new’ BMX freestyle and skateboarding events. I sometimes watch the kids doing tricks on skateboards and BMX bikes down at our local skate bowl. I worry about the ones who don’t wear helmets and hope they don’t try to copy some of Logan Martin’s tricks.

Gold-Coast-based Martin  became the first  winner of the men’s BMX freestyle competition, clearing out from his nearest rivals. The Guardian reported that Martin, who calls the sport ‘gymnastics on a bike’, took a $70,000 gamble on winning gold when he built a replica of the Ariake Skate Park in his back yard. He did so as he was unable to travel to Tokyo to practice. Covid had also closed his local training ground, the indoor BMX park at Coomera.

Martin, 27, took to BMX after his family moved near a skate park in Logan City when he was 12. As The Guardian’s Kieran Pender put it, “Logan from Logan has been on an upward trajectory ever since, taking to the sky with his death-defying flips.

Overall, Australia’s doing very well (so far). Last time I looked (2pm), we had 42 medals, including 17 gold.

But I’m sure no one will begrudge New Zealand its 19 medals, (seven gold) for sports including rowing, canoeing and rugby. Why the focus on NZ, you might ask? Well, Tokyo 2020 is that country’s best OIympic gold result since Los Angeles in 1984, and it’s not over yet. That year, New Zealand athletes won 8 gold medals in equestrian, boxing, rowing, canoeing and sailing events to make the top 10.

Furthermore, just to show there is a database for everything, on a per capita basis, New Zealand is in third position on the medal table. The aim of this table is to show which countries punch above their weight. In this case, Australia is struggling to make the top 10.

Ah well, it will soon be over, as will (hopefully), this unspecified virus we have caught. Japan will be left thinking about how to best utilise the venues created for two weeks of international sport.

It will be Brisbane’s turn in 2032, after Paris (2024) and Los Angeles (2028).

Not everyone thinks it’s a good idea. Maverick north Queensland politician Bob Katter criticised Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk. Katter, the Member for Kennedy in far north Queensland, said the Premier would be sending Queensland into economic ruin after it was announced Brisbane would host the 2032 Olympic Games.

Known for staging publicity stunts, Katter blew up a makeshift ‘state economy’ to represent his distaste of the State hosting the Games. The State, for its part, has said the Olympic budget is $3.5 billion.

The VIP delegation which travelled to Tokyo to sell  Brisbane as the 2032 host city told reporters that 84% of the OIympic venues and arenas would be existing, refurbished or temporary structures. The famous Gabba cricket ground in Woolloongabba, already earmarked for the opening ceremony, has been promised a $1 billion makeover. There’s talk of a new stadium at Albion and of course there’s existing infrastructure originally built for the 1982 Commonwealth Games. They include the QEII (ANZ) Stadium at McGregor and the Sleeman Centre at Chandler.

As it’s still about 4,075 sleeps away yet, there’s a bit of water to flow under that particular bridge. What new sports will the Olympic Committee allow in 2032 and can Australia be competitive? It’s not that many years ago (1912-1948), that painters, sculptors, writers and musicians competed for Olympic medals. Now wouldn’t that be a thoroughly justifiable bonus for artists who suffered through the Covid restrictions?

Oh right, you can’t eat a gold medal.


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