Tokyo has been awarded the honor of staging the Summer Olympic Games three times. The first occasion, thanks mostly to the exertions of Jigoro Kano (1860-1938), was the 1940 Olympic Games, but they were later cancelled owing to the outbreak of the Second World War (1939-1945). Next was the year 1964 when a most successful event was held. The third time will be this year, because 10,000 leading athletes from 205 nations are scheduled to converge on Tokyo and compete from July 24 to August 9, 2020 in the 32nd Olympiad.
It was way back in 1909 when the French ambassador to Tokyo was requested by Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937), a French educator and father of the modern Olympic Games, to invite Jigoro Kano to become the first-ever Japanese member of the IOC (International Olympic Committee). In keeping with Coubertin’s demand that the Olympic Games be open to all nations and all peoples, Kano accepted and he thus became in effect the first appointed member from Asia. Until that time, it was mainly US and European competitors from some 25 nations that competed regularly in the Olympics. There was no Asian presence whatsoever.
Kano was largely in favor of the spirit of the Olympic Games and so he wished Japan to take part in the subsequent Games that were to be celebrated in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1912. The previous venues of the modern Olympics had been Athens in 1896, Paris in 1900, St. Louis in 1904, and London in 1908. This, the 5th Olympiad, was to be staged between May 5 and July 22, 1912 and was expected to attract some 3,300 competitors from 28 nations. Because few Japanese or indeed any other Asian people knew much about the Olympic Games in those days, Kano had, in accordance with IOC rules, to create a Japan Amateur Sports Association, spread word of the Olympics, and then select a team of athletes for Japan to become the first Asian nation to compete. The below-mentioned notice was placed in Japanese newspapers inviting young men to try out for Japan’s first Olympic team.
‘Men over the age of 16 are invited to participate in elimination contests in order to select athletes to represent Japan in the forthcoming Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, in July 1912. The following are eligible: secondary school students and graduates, university students and graduates, and members of the military and young men from rural areas who can produce a letter of recommendation from their local mayor. Marathon runners must submit a doctor’s certificate of health.’
Selection heats were thus conducted, but only two of the ninety-two candidates, Yahiko Mishima (1886-1954) a sprinter and judoka was chosen to run in the 100, 200 and 400-meter races and Shizo Kanakuri (1891-1983) a long-distance runner, who had run a marathon in 2 hours and 32 minutes, which was something of a record at that time, were considered to have any chance at all against top-flight US and European athletes of the day.
In 1912, both Mishima and Kanakuri travelled by sea to a port on Russia’s eastern seaboard. They then journeyed most of the way on the longest railway in the world, the Trans-Siberian rail line some 6,600 miles long to Stockholm, a total journey-time of around 18 tiring days. Whereas the US athletes and others could adequately keep in trim by exercising on board ship en route to Sweden, the Japanese, in a cramped railway carriage, had little opportunity of maintaining fitness prior to the Games. Therefore, during every brief station stop on the way to Stockholm, Kanakuri and Mishima would alight, run up and down the station platform in a determined effort to try to keep physically active in preparation for their forthcoming races.
At Stockholm they needed some five days to recover from their marathon journey, however, even so their station platform running efforts proved of no avail. Mishima failed to reach the finals in any of his events. In the midst of a heatwave of some 32 degrees Celsius, the marathon was run. One Portuguese competitor with a personal best time of 2 hours 52 minutes, Francisco Lázaro (1891-1912), a carpenter by trade, collapsed at the 30-kilometer mark and became the only athlete to die during an Olympic marathon race. A week later, a memorial service for Lázaro was attended by 23,000 people at the Olympic Stadium. Approximately $US 3,800 was collected for his wife, and later a monument of Lázaro was placed at the marathon’s turning point at Sollentuna, Stockholm. His name was given to a street in Lisbon and to the home stadium of football club Benfica. In the case of Kanakuri, he retired after 16-kilometers. Only half the entrants managed to finish the marathon course. The Japanese public were naturally disappointed when learning that both Mishima and Kanakuri had failed miserably. Nevertheless, in his speech, Kano said that failure to win a medal was, of course, a matter of regret, but the fact that Japan like Portugal had taken part and competed on the world stage for the very first time was something to be celebrated. He also mentioned that he was confident that in future Japanese athletes would achieve Olympic success.
Between the period 1912 to 1930 the Olympic Games became increasingly popular. This was especially so in Japan since the Japanese team won 2 silver medals in tennis at Antwerp, Belgium, in 1920, and its first gold medals in the triple jump and in swimming at Amsterdam, Netherlands, in 1928. On each Olympic occasion, more nations and more athletes competed. As a result, in 1932 the mayor of Tokyo approached Kano and urged him to try to bring the 1940 Summer Olympics to Tokyo, and the Winter Olympics to Sapporo, in Hokkaido. Kano informed the mayor that Olympic venues were usually decided some five years in advance, therefore 1935 would probably be the deciding year when the IOC would vote and finalize the locations.
Eight other cities were keen to secure the Olympics — Rome, Barcelona, Helsinki, Alexandria, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janerio, Dublin, and Toronto were all vying for the honour. At subsequent IOC meetings votes were cast and the field gradually narrowed until just three serious candidates remained: Tokyo, Rome and Helsinki. At each IOC meeting Kano gave impassioned speeches in support of Tokyo’s bid. At the 1936 IOC meeting, a final vote was called for between the two remaining candidate cities, Helsinki and Tokyo. The vote was cast by a very slim majority to award the 1940 Summer Olympic Games to the Japanese capital. Kano was elated.
Sadly, however, some two years later when Kano was returning from the 1938 IOC meeting that had gathered in Cairo, Egypt, he died at sea onboard the Hikawa Maru on May 4, 1938 at the age of 77. The international political situation at that time was becoming increasingly unstable and the world soon after descended into a state of horrifying warfare. Thus, the strenuous efforts of Kano had proved futile when the IOC announced that the 1940 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games and the ensuing 1944 Games that were scheduled for London were both cancelled.
Kano’s prediction of future success for Japanese athletes, however, has proved to be correct, for Japan has so far achieved 497 Olympic medals. Of this number, 84 have been awarded to judo contestants, with 39 gold, 19 silver, and 26 bronze medals. Looking back again to the 1912 Olympics, it is apparent that the efforts of Yahiko Mishima and Shizo Kanakuri did have a positive outcome, for even though they were unsuccessful, their earnest exertions ignited among young Japanese a fervent passion for Olympic sports, especially so in the case of Shizo Kanakuri. He became known in Japan as ‘the father of long-distance running.’ One hundred years ago he played a meaningful role in the establishment of the famous Tokyo-Hakone Round-Trip College Ekiden Race, that was introduced in 1920. This annual ten-member relay road race of some 102 miles, there and back, covers gruelling, hilly terrain. It’s held on January 2nd from Tokyo to Hakone and on the 3rd from Hakone back to Tokyo. Its popularity is yearly maintained nationwide by the mass media. Chiefly as a result, over recent decades Japan has produced both male and female Olympic marathon medalists. To date there have been five male achievers: 1 gold, 2 silver and 2 bronze; and 3 female medalists: 2 gold, 1 silver and 1 bronze.
“The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential
thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” ~
Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937)
“The purpose of judo is to perfect oneself physically, intellectually and morally
for the benefit of society.”
~Professor Jigoro Kano (1860-1938), Founder of Judo
For further information on Judo, the Olympics, and Jigoro Kano see:
The Father of Judo, B.N. Watson, Kodansha International, 2000
Judo Memoirs of Jigoro Kano, B.N. Watson, Trafford Publishing, 2008, 2014
IL Padre del Judo, (Italian) B.N. Watson, Edizioni Mediterranee, 2005
Memorias de Jigoro Kano, (Portuguese) B.N. Watson, Editora Cultrix, 2011
JUDO & LIFE, B.N. Watson, Trafford Publishing, 2019
Brian N. Watson
January 1, 2020