We revisit Mel Watman’s Tokyo 1964 memories to mark one year until the start of the rescheduled Olympic Games in Japan

I was lucky enough to be in Tokyo in 1964 to report on the Games for AW. They were my second Olympics – and I went on to attend seven more – but the 1964 edition remains my favourite. It wasn’t just because of the British triumphs, although being of roughly the same age as most of the team and forming friendships with many of them helped me identify with their aspirations. No, those Games were special because I was privileged also to watch some fantastic sprinting, a monumental 800m/1500m double, a sensational 10,000m, an amazing marathon, a dramatic discus contest and so much more.

The first day of athletics was Wednesday, October 14, and the British team could hardly have got off to a better start. Here is how events unfolded, day by day.

October 14

Shortly before the Games I interviewed Mary Rand and asked her what would mean more to her: an Olympic gold medal or a world record. She replied: “I would much rather have a world record than an Olympic medal really. To be best in the world, even if it was only for a day, would be absolutely marvellous. Of course the greatest thing of all would be to do a world record at the Olympics. Needless to say, that’s what I would like to do in Tokyo!”

And she did! After setting an Olympic long jump record of 6.52m in the qualifying round she returned for the final which started at 3.03pm.

A couple of minutes later a German journalist sitting near me pronounced the contest over. He had just watched Mary open her account with a UK record of 6.59m. That was just the start of an astonishing series. She reeled off 6.56m, 6.57m, another Olympic and UK record of 6.63m, a fifth round world record of 6.76m into a 1.6m/sec wind and 6.61m. Remember this was from a rain-soaked cinder runway and it’s not fanciful to suggest that with the wind in her favour on an all-weather run-up she might have jumped seven metres.

Mary thus became the first British female athlete to claim an Olympic gold medal. Her predecessor as world record-holder, the Soviet Union’s Tatyana Shchelkanova, suffered an off-day and the unexpected silver medallist, with a world junior and Polish record of 6.60m, was 18-year-old Irena Kirszenstein, who under her married name of Szewinska would go on to set world records in the 100m, 200m and 400m.

October 15

A second gold medal for Britain courtesy of the late Ken Matthews in the 20 kilometres walk. Four years earlier, in the searing heat at the Rome Olympics, he had collapsed and was taken to hospital. It was warm also in Tokyo but this time he judged his race to perfection.

By halfway he was 24 seconds clear, a lead he extended to 1min 40sec by the finish where in those less security-conscious days his reward was a very public kiss from wife Sheila. That walkers were still unfairly regarded as second class citizens in the world of athletics became apparent when Britain’s other three Tokyo gold medallists very quickly featured in the Queen’s Honours List but it wasn’t until 13 years later that, following a campaign organised by the Race Walking Association, Ken at last received his richly deserved MBE.

Ken Matthews on his way to 20km race walk gold. Photo by Mark Shearman

To this day he remains Britain’s most successful walker, having also won the 1962 European title and finished first in the first two editions of the Lugano Trophy team competition.

October 16

John Cooper personified the fighting spirit of the British team. Ranked 10th among the entrants for the 400m hurdles, on successive days he had equalled his UK record of 50.5 in his heat and trimmed it to 50.4 when winning his semi, while in the final a lung-searing surge over the run-in took him to a silver medal in yet another record time, 50.1. His arduous winter training alongside Robbie Brightwell had paid off handsomely … and he would later excel in the 4x400m relay as well.

Another member of that Loughborough training group was Ann Packer, who had the previous day won her 400m heat in the UK record time of 53.1, and in her semi clocked a scintillating if extravagant European record of 52.7, ranking her second on the world all-time list.

Yet another multiple UK record-breaker was triple jumper Fred Alsop. He had led the qualifiers with 16.41m for a massive improvement over his previous best of 16.13m and in the first round of the final he added another 5cm to his new record to lead the field. He held second place after rounds two and three and was third after round four but eventually had to settle for a meritorious fourth place … a stunning breakthrough by a man who had rated only 19th on pre-Tokyo best marks.

Two days after her glorious long jump victory, Mary Rand was back in action on the first day of the pentathlon. She started well with 10.9 for 80m hurdles but was let down by a shot put of only 11.05m, conceding 384 points to the USSR’s Irina Press (17.16m) in that event.

A personal best equalling 1.72m high jump brought her score to 2917 for fourth place overnight behind Press (3245), her team-mate Galina Bystrova (3055) and Mary Peters (3004).

October 17

Three more silvers for Britain, each with a national record-breaking performance. Steeplechaser Maurice Herriott was delighted with his medal, Mary Rand was resigned to being outscored by a world record-breaking Irina Press in the pentathlon, while Ann Packer was gutted at losing the inaugural Olympic women’s 400m, a race she had fully expected to win.

That 400m proved a cracker. Betty Cuthbert, seeking to relive her teenage Olympic sprint triumphs of 1956, went off very fast and held a clear lead over Packer at halfway. She entered the final straight some four metres ahead and although Packer strove hard to wipe out the deficit the Australian held on to win in a Commonwealth record of 52.0 (52.01 electronically) to a European record of 52.2 (52.20). Only North Korea’s mysterious Sin Kim Dan (51.9) had ever run faster.

It’s possible that Packer might have prejudiced her chances of victory by running much quicker than necessary in the preliminaries (53.1 and 52.7) as against 56.0 and 53.8 by Cuthbert. She did not hide her disappointment.

“I suppose a lot of people would be very happy with a silver medal,” she said. “But I had hoped for the gold and I was favourite for the gold. I just wasn’t good enough on the day.”

Although Mary Rand “beat” Irina Press in the final two events of the pentathlon, making it three out of five, that huge difference in the shot meant there was no way to bridge the gap. The muscular Soviet athlete – whose sister Tamara would win both the shot and discus – finished with a world record score of 5246 points while Mary, long jumping 6.55m and running 200m in 24.2, totalled 5035 for second place also on the world all-time list. Mary Peters, whose own golden moments were still eight years away, placed fourth with 4797 points.

Mary Rand won long jump gold and pentathlon silver in Tokyo. Photo by Mark Shearman

Controversy surrounded Maurice Herriott’s tactics in the steeplechase where, after setting a UK record of 8:33.0 in his heat, he finished a fast closing second in 8:32.4. Chris Brasher, the 1956 gold medallist, felt that Herriott threw away his chances of winning by allowing Gaston Roelants to open up an immense lead … some 50m at the bell.

However, had he attempted to follow in the Belgian’s slipstream he might well have suffered the fate which befell France’s Guy Texereau, who slipped back from second at 2000m to a distant sixth at the finish. Herriott spurted past the USA’s George Young into second place 200m from the end and closed to within 10 metres of Roelants (8:30.8) at the finish line. Roelants was at the time recognised as the world’s greatest ever steeplechaser and so it was no disgrace to be beaten by him.

October 18

Lynn Davies made a nervous start to his day of days. Conditions for the morning qualification were awful – waterlogged cinder runways, pouring rain, cold weather – and the Welshman made a hash of his first two attempts: a poor 7.39m followed by a foul. The pressure must have been intense as he adjusted his checkmarks, took a deep breath … and kicked his way out to 7.78m and a place in the final.

Conditions weren’t much better for that final and after four rounds the situation was that defending champion Ralph Boston (USA), the world record-holder at 8.34m, led with 7.88m ahead of the USSR’s former world record holder Igor Ter-Ovanesyan (7.80m) and the young upstart Davies (7.78m).

As I reported in AW at the time: “The fifth round opened quietly with fouls by the Spaniard Luis Areta and Boston. Next up was Davies, who while not exactly revelling in the conditions was less disconcerted by them than was the case with most of his rivals. The measuring seemed to take an eternity but the delay was justified when the figures 8.07m flashed up on the indicator board. Lynn was way out in the lead with the best jump of his life. Ter-Ovanesyan had his jump to come; it was a fine leap but at 7.99 it sufficed only for second place. And so to the last round.

“The pressure was really on Boston. The tension was unbearable, not least on Davies, who admitted that he covered his eyes … and peeked through his fingers. Boston hit the board smack on and rose high into the air. It was a good jump, but how good? Again one’s eyes were glued to the electrically operated indicator. “8” flashed up, followed by “0”, followed by – joy of joys – “3”. The great Ralph Boston had fallen short and Davies was champion.”

Lynn Davies wins the long jump. Photo by Mark Shearman

There was another boost to Britain’s medal haul when Paul Nihill finished second in the 50 kilometres walk in a UK record 4:11:32, just 19 seconds behind the Italian winner, Abdon Pamich, as the first 12 home finished inside Don Thompson’s 1960 Olympic record – including himself in tenth place. Nihill went on to become Britain’s most versatile walker, winning the 1969 European 20km title, breaking the UK mile best in 1970 and setting a world 20km best in 1972.

October 19

Robbie Brightwell had looked a potential winner of the 400m when taking his semi-final easing up in 45.7, equalling Adrian Metcalfe’s UK record. Next day, in the final, he again ran 45.7 – but was devastated. Whether he could have run as fast as the 45.1 which won the title for the USA’s Mike Larrabee is a moot point but his hopes were destroyed by overcooking the first 200m, which he covered in 21.8, over half a second faster than planned. It was all over by the time he turned into the finishing straight.

“A wave of despair and hopelessness swept over me,” he said. “The oxygen and glucose banks were empty and I was running on carbon dioxide. I knew I was going to lose. The last 60 metres was more an agony of mind than body. I gave up. If I could not win a gold medal it was the end of the dream. I finished fourth.”

October 20

It took a while for Ann Packer to find her best events. She competed internationally in the sprints, hurdles and long jump, and was Britain’s fourth-ranked pentathlete in 1963. That was the year she took up the 400m and by the end of the season she ranked sixth in the world with 53.3.

During the winter of 1963-64 she trained ferociously with her fiancé Robbie Brightwell and John Cooper, the objective being to win the Olympic 400m, but in order to test her enhanced stamina she ran her first ever 800m in May, winning in a promising but unsensational 2:11.1. In September she improved to 2:05.3 and won Olympic selection at that event as well as the 400m.

In my AW preview of the Games I predicted Ann would win the 400m ahead of Betty Cuthbert, while at 800m my tip was another Australian, Dixie Willis, with Ann second. However, as Willis had to withdraw due to illness, Ann therefore became my favourite … even though the rest of the media considered her a complete outsider with no chance of winning.

Ann Packer becomes the first British woman to win an Olympic track title, breaking the world record for 800m gold. Photo by Mark Shearman

Learning the lesson of conserving energy in the rounds, Packer was content to run a 2:12.6 heat and 2:06.0 semi, and on paper she was the slowest of the eight finalists. Of course, she wanted to make up for having lost the 400m but her strongest motivation was to win so that she could present a gold medal to Brightwell as compensation for his own disappointment.

It was a journey into the unknown, yet Packer raced with impeccable judgement. Sixth at the bell in 59.1, she was third at 600m in 90.7 and second to Maryvonne Dupureur around the final turn. The Frenchwoman was still five metres ahead entering the final straight but as she began to flag so Packer’s stride lengthened and her spirits soared.

As the crowd of nearly 70,000 roared with excitement and the British supporters went almost berserk, Packer rushed past her defenceless rival some 60m out and, with a beatific smile on her face, broke the tape five metres clear in a world record of 2:01.1 … becoming the first British woman to win an Olympic track title.

October 21

Two silvers and a bronze were added to the British medal collection on this final day of competition. Janet Simpson, Mary Rand (thus completing a clean sweep of medals), Daphne Arden and Dorothy Hyman finished third to Poland and the USA in the 4x100m relay, their time of 44.0 being inside the previous world record, while Basil Heatley struck silver in the marathon.

He may have finished over four minutes behind Ethiopia’s legendary Abebe Bikila, whose time of 2:12:12 was a world best, but Heatley’s performance was gritty in the extreme as he was plagued by a stitch for much of the distance. He was third entering the stadium but I timed him at an astounding 32.3 for his final 200m as he overtook his weary Japanese rival Kokichi Tsuburaya.

Marathon winner Abebe Bikila with, left, Britain’s Basil Heatley and, right, Kōkichi Tsuburaya. Photo by Mark Shearman

The 4x400m provided a fitting climax to these memorable Games. An untouchable American squad set a world record of 3:00.7, but the scrap for the other medals was enthralling. Tim Graham, an unexpected 400m finalist, ran another blinder (45.9) to give the British team a slim lead on the first leg, while Adrian Metcalfe completed his lap of 45.5 behind the USA and Trinidad.

On the third stage John Cooper excelled himself to run 45.4, yet such was the blistering tempo of the race that he conceded a place to Jamaica. The USA were far ahead at the start of the anchor leg, while Robbie Brightwell set out two or three metres behind Trinidad’s Wendell Mottley and Jamaica’s George Kerr. Entering the final straight the two West Indians were beginning to buckle. Now was the British team captain’s chance … and he took it. He caught Kerr 55m from the tape and took Mottley just
five metres from the line.

From fourth to second – the British fighting spirit, so much in evidence in Tokyo, had won through again. The team clocked a European record of 3:01.6, inside the old world record, Brightwell’s split being an heroic 44.8. Redemption!

World records were set in 11 events

Men’s 100m: Bob Hayes USA 10.0 (electronic 10.06)
Marathon: Abebe Bikila ETH 2:12:12
50km walk: Abdon Pamich ITA 4:11:13
4x100m & 4x400m: USA 39.0 (39.06) & 3:00.7
Women’s 100m: Wyomia Tyus USA 11.2 (11.23)
800m: Ann Packer GBR 2:01.1
Long jump: Mary Rand GBR 6.76m
Javelin: Yelena Gorchakova URS 62.40m
Pentathlon: Irina Press URS 5246
4x100m: Poland 43.6 (43.69) (later removed in favour of USA 43.9 (43.92)
National point scores on a 7-5-4-3-2-1 basis: 1, USA 171; 2, USSR 125; 3, UK 84.

» Mel Watman’s eight-page feature was first published in the August 1, 2019, edition of AW magazine

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