On Mar. 2 it was learned that the members of the men's and women's marathon teams for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will visit the grave of 1964 Tokyo Olympics marathon bronze medalist Kokichi Tsuburaya. According to a JAAF spokesperson, the three men and three women on the 2020 team will visit Tsuburaya's hometown of Sukagawa, Fukushima next week following the final determination of the team lineup at the Mar. 8 Nagoya Women's Marathon and Lake Biwa Marathon. Before their own tough battle against the world, the members of the team will inherit the legacy of Tsuburaya, who ran to his limit on home soil before slipping from this world.
Tsuburaya finished 6th in the 10000 m at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. In the marathon his teammate Toru Terasawa had the fastest PB on the Japanese team while Kenji Kimihara had won the final selection race, but after racing in the lead pack Tsuburaya entered the Olympic Stadium in 2nd place behind Ethiopian legend Abebe Bikila. On the final lap of the track he was overtaken by Great Britain's Basil Heatley, but Tsuburaya hung on to 3rd, and the Rising Sun was raised over the Olympic Stadium for the first time. Afterward he suffered hardship and setbacks including repeated injuries and not being permitted to get married. Just before the Mexico City Olympics, on Jan. 9, 1968 he committed suicide, leaving a note that said, "Kokichi is too tired to run anymore." He was 27.
With an entirely new Olympic selection procedure starting with last September's MGC Olympic trials race, the JAAF's final step in the new process is the team visit to Tsuburaya's grave. The purpose of the visit is for the team members to learn the legacy of those who came and went before them and to unify their hearts as a single team. It will be the first time for the national team to make this kind of local visit as one.
Tsuburaya's 1964 Olympic teammates Kimihara, now 78, and Terasawa, 85, will also be part of the visit. Both have already been asked to attend and have accepted. The two will share their memories of their late teammate and of how they prepared for the pressure of a home soil Olympics, to the benefit of the young team that will line up on the Olympic start line five months later.
After the Mar. 1 Tokyo Marathon, JAAF marathon development project leader Toshihiko Seko said, "We will compete as One Team." In a system in which training is left to each individual athlete's corporate team it is difficult to coordinate long-term national team training camps. This makes it especially important to share the late Tsuburaya's passion with his successors and to unify their sense of taking on the rest of the world on home soil at the Olympics.
In the sports world t is not unusual to look to the late greats for inspiration. The national judo team customarily visits the grave of Jigoro Kano, the legendary judoka who launched the Japanese Olympic movement. The national swim team vows victory at the monument to Hironoshin Furuhashi, the "Flying Fish of Fujiyama," outside the National Sports Science Center in Tokyo. By knowing history today's athletes can be more competitive.
56 years ago Tsuburaya's run gave energy to a nation struggling to recover from defeat. Citizens lined the roads cheering him on, sharing their own energy with him. Even today, many people say the marathon was their #1 memory of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The flower of the Olympics will blossom in Sapporo instead of Tokyo this time, but that doesn't lessen its importance. With their hearts full of Tsuburaya's passion, the Japanese national marathon team will take on the world on the streets of Sapporo.
Translator's note: Some context on the somewhat troubling tone of this article.
translated and edited by Brett Larner