The first Tokyo Olympics

SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - May 18, 2021 - 12:00am

In July, Tokyo is scheduled to host its second Olympics under circumstances extremely different from when Japan’s premier city staged the Summer Games nearly 60 years ago. Despite assurances from IOC to the contrary, there remains serious doubt that the coming Olympics will push through. Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani called it a “suicide mission” to gather 11,000 athletes for the Olympics as Japan endures a fourth wave of a COVID-19 surge. Rakuten is an online retail giant whose logo appears on the Golden State Warriors jerseys. A few days ago, the Tokyo governor received a petition to cancel the Games with over 350,000 signatures. If the Japanese people themselves are calling for a cancellation, surely the organizers won’t ignore the clamor.

How times have changed. In 1964, hosting the Olympics was a historic milestone in Japan’s history. “The Japanese were determined to show the world that they could host the Summer Olympic Games, the first in Asia, and regain the world’s trust after the upheaval of the Second World War,” wrote Roy Tomizawa in the book “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan … How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes.” “One can argue that the 18th Olympics held in Tokyo in October 1964 has become a symbol of the immense collective joy of the time … never was the nation more aligned, never was the nation prouder than in 1964 … it is perhaps a measure of their success that despite all the surrounding turmoil, the Games they produced came to be known as the ‘Happy’ Olympics.” If the Olympics proceed and succeed this year, it would be the “Triumphant” Olympics to mark humanity’s victory over the scourge of the virus.

It’s not widely known that Tokyo would’ve hosted its first Olympics in 1940. The IOC awarded the rights to Tokyo in 1936 over Barcelona, Rome and Helsinki. But after Japan’s invasion of China, the IOC reversed its decision and passed the baton to Helsinki. The 1940 Games were eventually cancelled because of the outbreak of World War II. Helsinki would later stage the Olympics in 1952 and Tokyo in 1964.

The Philippines was represented by 47 athletes who competed in 10 sports at the 1964 Games. The only medalist was featherweight boxer Anthony Villanueva who brought home a silver. It was the country’s first-ever Olympic silver medal and first medal since Miguel White took the bronze in the men’s 400-meter hurdles at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, ending a drought of nearly 30 years. On the way to the final, Villanueva disposed of Giovanni Gigrenti of Italy, Tahar Ben Hassen of Tunisia, Piotr Gutman of Poland and Charlie Brown of the US.

In the battle for gold, Villanueva faced Stanislav Stepashkin of Russia. It was a bloody brawl. The Filipino’s forehead began to spew crimson in the opening round. His nose bled profusely in the second stanza after Stephaskin landed a hard right to the face. But the gutsy Villanueva came back to rain blows from all angles, staggering the Russian with a left to the jaw as the bell rang. In the third and final canto, both protagonists bled from nasty cuts. British referee Dick Gittins interrupted the action to check on Villanueva’s cuts then signaled the bout to resume. The fighters slugged it out near the ropes with Villanueva getting the better of the exchanges. Blood poured out of Stepashkin’s nose. Twice, the Russian was warned for low blows and stooping down.

Most ringsiders saw Villanueva the winner but three of the five judges gave their nod to the Russian with Giacinto Aniello of Italy and B. Guellaty of Tunisia scoring it 60-58 and Elie Khalife of Lebanon, 60-59. German judge H. Hussgen initially had it a draw, 59-all then gave it to Villanueva after a countback while Khalil El-Maghrabi of the United Arab Republic scored it 59-58 for the Filipino. Curiously, Villanueva had earlier eliminated a Tunisian and an Italian so could their countrymen have exacted revenge in the final? Renowned columnist Red Smith raised a howl and called it “one of the worst decisions in Olympic competitions.” Peter Wilson of the London Daily Mirror said he saw Villanueva the winner of each round “by a wide margin.” Buck Canel of AFP said writers were “astonished” and castigated the judges for the raw deal. Ring Magazine founder Nat Fleischer said it was “a bare-faced highway robbery.” The decision, however, stuck and to this day, the Philippines is still in the hunt for its first Olympic gold medal.

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