An Olympic nerd’s journey from Tokyo 1964 to Tokyo 2020

Roy (far right) with some of the 1964 Olympians from Singapore. From L to R: Anwarul Haque (field hockey), C Kunalan (track), Hamid Supaat (road cycling) Photo: Roy Tomizawa

10 Oct 2019
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By Ignatius Koh

When Tokyo won the rights to host the 2020 Olympic Games, American-Japanese writer Roy Tomizawa grew curious about the Japanese capital and its ties with the Olympics.

While the city had hosted the Summer Games in 1964, there is precious little information in English today about that major event which marked Japan’s “coming-out party” after the World War II.

“I thought it was strange that there were all these generic statements from publicity efforts, and no real documentation in English, so I went into research mode,” said the 56-year-old, a self-confessed “Olympic nerd”.

View of Mount Fuji and the five rings formed by jets at the 1964 Olympic Games (Photo: IOC)

The Greatest Year

He began cold-calling Olympians from the 1964 Games. One anecdote led to another memory, and one inspirational story morphed into a gripping narrative.

As the months stretched into years, he realised he had a book. In July this year, he published his first title “1964 – The Greatest Year in the History of Japan”.

“When you talk to 75-year-old athletes who haven’t talked about their experiences in a while, they are excited to share,” noted the New York-born former journalist, who also worked in DBS Bank in Singapore from 2011 to 2013.

For four-and-a-half years, he gathered accounts from 78 interviewees across 16 countries, including one from Singapore, which competed under the Malaysian flag in 1964.

He features cyclist Hamid Supaat’s freezing adventures in Tokyo, while he also counts sprinter C Kunalan and field hockey goalkeeper Anwarul Haque as his friends, and meets up with the trio whenever he is in Singapore.

Since May 2014, he has been updating his blog with Olympic-related stories daily. He has since published more than 1,100 stories.

It was hard for him to pick a memorable interview, but after some contemplation, he decided on American basketballer Jerry Shipp, a shooting guard who won gold that year.

“He was top scorer in a team that lacked superstars. When he received his medal, he yelled into the camera and called out his junior high teacher for saying he wouldn’t amount to anything,” Tomizawa laughed as he recounted the conversation.

Japan’s pride was salvaged by the women’s volleyball team whose gold medal victory on the final evening of the 1964 Games would go down as one of Japan’s great sporting achievements (Photo: IOC)

A homage to the past

The Nippon Budokan will host the Judo and Karate events for the 2020 Games. It was venue to the judo competition in 1964 (under construction – top photo). Photo: IOC

The book is also a tribute to Tomizawa’s Japanese heritage. “It’s a way to show I’m connected to Japan as I’m proud of my ancestry. It was a heavy responsibility because I want to be truthful and not invite controversy,” he added.

Coming from a family of journalists, he mentioned that this book was “a way of paying respect” to his grandfather, who moved to San Francisco from Japan’s northern Tohoku region in 1903.

Growing up in New York had a profound impact on his love for the Olympics. His father, who was a journalist with NBC, was part of the crew that broadcasted the 1964 Games in the United States.

He fondly remembers the 1980 Winter Olympics held at Lake Placid in his home state, singling out the ice hockey matches as his favourite moments.

“The American team was just a bunch of college students and weren’t given much of a chance, but they kept winning games after falling behind. They eventually beat frontrunners Finland and the Soviets to win gold,” reminisced the writer, who works in American insurance company MetLife.

However, he enjoys adrenaline-pumping athletics events, specifically the 100m dash and 4x100m relays, the most. He remembers his unbridled joy when the Japanese men’s relay team took silver in the 2016 Rio Games, behind an Usain Bolt-led Jamaica.

“It must have been the same feeling for Singaporeans when Joseph Schooling won the 100m fly,” he said.

Looking ahead, Tomizawa is already prepared for the 2020 Tokyo Games. He has tickets to the women’s basketball gold medal game, but is hoping to watch more games.

The city is also relishing its status as host – sponsors have generated more than US$3 billion, more than twice the amount of any other Games, while a call for 80,000 volunteers has brought in at least 200,000 signups.

“The metrics for success has already been hit, and we haven’t even started yet,” he said. “My dream for the people I’ve interviewed to make it to Tokyo and we can watch the games together.”

1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan can be purchased from bookstores such as Kinokuniya, Amazon or Book Depository.