72,000 paris of eyes followed a lone 19-year-old Waseda University student as he circled the track at the Olympic Stadium with effortless grace. The date was October 10, 1964, the opening day of the Tokyo Olympics. The runner was Yoshinori Sakai, the final Olympic torchbearer. Step by step he climbed the 182 stairs and, extending his right arm, ignited the flame that burst forth from the Olympic cauldron. Below him spread a sea of multicolored uniforms, and beyond the assembled teams stretched the horizons of a Tokyo in a time before modern high rise buildings. "It was the best seat in the house," Sakai recalled.
Sakai was born in Miyoshi, Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 just an hour and a half after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The perfect symbol of recovery from defeat, the foreign media dubbed him "Atomic Boy," but Sakai told foreign journalists, "The war has nothing to do with me. Please look at who I am now, today, not at the past."
Sakai began running in junior high school. His senior year at Miyoshi H.S. he won the National Sports Festival 400 m, and in 1966 at the Bangkok Asian Games he took silver in the 400 m and gold in the 4x400 m relay. Sakai ran for Waseda University but didn't qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. "Coach Kiyoshi Nakamura wanted to make him into a marathoner, but it didn't really work out," recalled former TV announcer Yoshiro Matsukura, 72, who went the same route as Sakai from Waseda to a career at Fuji TV.
Sakai's son Atsuhiro, 44, followed his in father's footsteps to the TV industry, becoming a producer at TBS where he was in charge of the May, 2014 special covering the demise of the 1964 Olympic Stadium. During the preparations he stood next to the Olympic cauldron. "So this is where dad stood, I thought," he said. "It really was a spectacular view."
Sakai passed away September 10, 2014, just 69 years old. He had been looking forward to seeing the opening ceremony of the second Tokyo Olympics together with his two grandchildren, but it was not to be. Sakai kept the torch he had carried and frequently brought it to lectures and other events. It will be on display in Miyoshi beginning this month to serve as inspiration for those to come.
Atsuhiro is involved with the 2020 Games. "Dad really disliked seeing how the Olympics have become more and more commercial," he said. "I think post-2020 is what's really important, what legacy will be left to the next generation, to the children."
translated by Brett Larner