Tsuburaya’s sad story inspiring Japan’s marathon runners
Legacy of an inspirational if tragic figure still being felt in the Land of the Rising Sun
Gold medalist Abede Bikila of Ethiopia with, left, silver medalist Basil Heatley of Great Britain and blonze medalist Kokichi Tsuburaya of Japan on the podium at the medal ceremony of the Men’s Marathon during the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. Photograph: Sankei Archive/Sankei via Getty Images
The plan was to be the best prepared of anyone and this time leave nothing to chance. There are no guarantees in sport, especially not in a 26.2-mile race that comes round once every four years, and still we sometimes forget how impossible and foolhardy it is to predict exactly how things might turn out.
The people of Tokyo got a reminder of that on Sunday – in more ways than one. Instead of the usual 40,000 people running their big-city marathon, the fear of Covid-19 meant the event was whittled down to a small group of elite men and women, and there’s certainly no predicting how the continuing spread of the virus that might yet impact on their hosting of the Olympics this July and August.
That brought back another reminder too. Because of all the countless tales of triumph and tragedy throughout Olympic history, few have left such lasting pain and legacy as the life and death of Japanese marathon runner Kokichi Tsuburaya. Now read on.
Tokyo also served as one of the final trails for the Japanese marathon team to be selected for the Games later this summer, Suguru Osako improving his national record to 2:05:29 in fourth and already considered an Olympic medal contender, and once the three men and women are confirmed next week it’s been agreed that one of the first things they will do together is visit Tsuburaya’s grave at his home city of Sukagawa, 150 miles north of Tokyo, and recall exactly what unfolded when Tokyo last hosted the Olympics 56 years ago.
Japan’s marathon project leader is Toshihiko Seko, a man who knows all about the great honour and pressure placed on their long distance runners, especially when it comes to the Olympics.
Seko won a series of big city marathons in the 1980s, including London, Boston, Chicago and Tokyo, but couldn’t quite live with the expectation when it come to the 1984 Olympics in LA (finishing 14th) and again in Seoul in 1988 (finishing ninth).
Tsuburaya was under a different sort of pressure when he lined up in the field of 68 Olympic marathon runners from 35 countries, on the afternoon of October 24th, 1964, and set out from the old National Stadium on the out-and-back course to Tobitakyu-machi, in west Tokyo.
He was 24-years-old and had already finished sixth in the 10,000m, and wasn’t even considered the strongest Japanese entry, with team-mate Toru Terasawa boasting the fastest time, and Kenji Kimihara winning the final selection race.
As the leaders approached the finish suddenly all the pressure was on Tsuburaya. It was the final day of the Olympics, the National Stadium already packed to capacity ahead of the closing ceremony that evening and Japan was keenly anticipating the prospect of actually claiming a single athletics medal.
First to enter the stadium for a final lap of the track was Abebe Bikila, with that becoming the first man to defend an Olympic marathon title, winning in a then world record of 2:12:11.
After almost four minutes, Tsuburaya entered in second place, followed about three seconds later by Britain’s Basil Heatley, who probably didn’t realise Bikila had just broken his world record. Instead Heatley was entirely focused on catching Tsuburaya, which he did, passing him around the final bend. After 26 miles of running, Tsuburaya’s Olympic silver medal turned to bronze inside the final 385 yards.
It’s all neatly captured in Kon Ichikawa’s 1964 documentary Tokyo Olympiad, now available in full on the Olympic YouTube channel, and it’s impossible not to feel some of the Tsuburaya’s disappointment as he crosses the line exhausted and falls straight into the arms of the track officials.
Of course, to some, Tsuburaya was a sporting hero, winning Japan’s first athletics medal of the Games, the Rising Sun raised inside the National Stadium for the first time. But to others, including Tsuburaya himself, it felt like he had let his country down. Mortified by the late silver medal loss to Heatley, he later told his team-mate Kimihara. “I committed an inexcusable blunder in front of the Japanese people. I have to make amends by running and hoisting the Hinomaru in the next Olympics, in Mexico.”
That is not how things turned out.
Ichiro Aoyama’s book, The Other Side of Glory and Loneliness: The Kokichi Tsuburaya Story, details the hardship he endured in the aftermath of Tokyo. He’d joined the Japan Ground Self-Defence Force straight out of school, becoming a soldier like his father, and his senior offices there were among those expecting him to deliver a gold medal in Mexico four years later. When word got out of his engagement to a woman named Eiko, his reporting officer promptly told him to call it off and focus all his efforts on Mexico.
For all his preparations, leaving nothing to chance, things gradually went astray. A chronic back injury was made worse in 1967 he injured his right Achilles tendon, later requiring surgery, and during the rehab it became increasingly clear Tsuburaya could not produce the same high-quality training as before.
Still harbouring that sense of humiliation from Tokyo, something Tsuburaya could never quite shed, he returned to his military base on January 9th 1968, after spending time with his family over the New Year break.
Alone in his dorm, his lifeless body was found the following morning still holding his Olympic bronze medal, plus a short suicide letter which finished with the words:
“My dear Father and my dear Mother, your Kokichi is too tired to run anymore. Please forgive me. He is sorry to have worried you all the time. Your hearts must never have rested worrying and caring for me. My dear Father and Mother, Kokichi would have liked to live by your side.”
This pain and also lasting legacy is what the Japanese marathon team of 2020 will mark at his grave, his 1964 team-mates Kimihara (now 78) and Terasawa (85) also agreeing to attend, the intention being it might further inspire the team’s medal hopes, when the Olympic marathon takes place in Sapporo, 500 miles to the north of Tokyo.
It is impossible to predict.
And impossible too as it is to view any sporting event as a matter of life and death in the face of something like Covid-19, the life and death of Tsuburaya is a reminder of what the Olympics can mean to the Japanese, and why cancelling the Games outright will and should be the absolute last resort. Bill Shankly at least would understand that.