Series12 May 2021

Japan’s seven wonders: Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games


Abebe Bikila, Iolanda Balas, Billy Mills and Bob Hayes at the 1964 Olympics (© AFP / Getty Images)


In the countdown to the Tokyo Olympics, we take a closer look at the major global athletics events that have been staged in The Land of the Rising Sun.

We kick-start our series by focusing on the last time Tokyo staged the Olympic Games in 1964.

Setting the scene

Tokyo was chosen as the host city for the 1964 summer Olympic Games during the 55th IOC session in West Germany in May 1959. Tokyo defeated bids from Detroit, Brussels and Vienna. The athletics programme – which took place from October 14-21 – hosted 36 events with 24 for men and 12 for women.

Broken records

In a Games full of so many outstanding memories, eight world records were either broken or equalled. In the men’s events Bob Hayes thundered down the track to equal the men’s 100m record of 10.0 and later featured in the world record-breaking US men’s 4x100m quartet (39.0). The US also took out the men’s 4x400m world record (3:00.7). In the marathon, Abebe Bikila slashed more than a minute-and-a-half from the world record as he recorded a stunning time of 2:12.11.2 to retain his title.

British duo Anne Packer in the women’s 800m (2:01.1) and Mary Rand in the long jump (6.76m) also broke world records en route to gold. Poland secured the women’s 4x100m mark with a time of 43.6, while Irina Press of the Soviet Union claimed the pentathlon world record with 5246.

Headline acts

The middle-distance star of the Games was Peter Snell, who emphatically retained his Olympic 800m title in an Olympic record time of 1:45.1 before taking the 1500m crown. In so doing, the New Zealander became the first man since Great Britain’s Albert Hill in 1920 to complete the Olympic 800m/1500m double.

The star of the men’s sprints was Bob Hayes who won 100m gold and anchored the US men’s 4x100m to victory. The aforementioned Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia created history as the first man to successfully defend an Olympic marathon title.

On the women’s side, Romanian high jump great Iolanda Balas retained her high jump title and did so by a massive 10-centimetre margin from the silver medallist. Australia’s Betty Cuthbert won the inaugural women’s Olympic 400m title to add to the 100m, 200m and 4x100m golds she won at the 1956 Melbourne Games.

Home stars

Kokichi Tsuburaya became a national hero as he earned Japan’s first track and field medal for 28 years with bronze in the marathon. On the final day of the track and field programme, and running in only his fourth career marathon, he entered the stadium second behind gold medallist Abeba Bikila. Badly fatigued, Tsubaraya was passed on the final curve by Great Britain’s Basil Heatley, but the Japanese runner, who earlier in the Games had finished sixth in the 10,000m final, managed to hold on to third place, ending Japan’s Olympic track and field medal drought.

Unfortunately, injury cut short his career and in January 1968 he prematurely ended his own life. He was aged 27.

Talk of the town

One of the most exhilarating races in the Games came in the men’s 10,000m as relative unknown Billy Mills of the USA stunned the world to strike gold. Competing against the highly-fancied world record-holder Ron Clarke of Australia and defending champion Pyotr Bolotnikov, Mills produced an electrifying late burst of speed to outsprint the opposition and take gold in an Olympic record of 28:24.4 – a time 46 seconds quicker than his previous best.

The Press sisters – Tamara and Irina – captured three gold medals between them as the Soviet siblings provide one of the chief storylines of the women’s track and field programme. Tamara completed the shot and discus double while Irina claimed victory in the inaugural women’s pentathlon.


The 1964 Games were the first to be telecast internationally without the necessity for tapes to be flown overseas. It was also the first Games to have colour telecasts of some events.

Computers were used for the first time to record statistics, enabling athletes’ performances to be shown on TV screens. Seiko made its debut as the official timekeeper of the Olympics. Linking the starting gun with a quartz clock and photo-finish camera, this made it possible to record times down to one thousandths of a second for the first time.


The last Games to use a cinder track, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics will be remembered for many magical moments. It also marked a small step in the right direction towards equality between the men’s and women’s events as the Tokyo Games introduced a women’s 400m and pentathlon for the first time.

Bikila’s retention of his marathon title further cemented East Africa’s growing influence over global endurance running. While the Games also witnessed the rising strength of East European athletes – particularly on the women’s side – which would remain in place for more than quarter of a century.

The building of the National Stadium for the Games helped attract a slew of top-drawer international events to the venue, including – some 27 years later – the hosting of the 1991 World Athletics Championships.

Steve Landells for World Athletics





























ブブカのマラソン連覇は東アフリカの長距離種目における影響力を確かにしたものであった。そして東ヨーロッパの特に女子選手達の力も確実に証明された大会であり、その強き状 況は一世紀ほど続くこととなった。


World Athletics Steve Landells
訳:World Athletics 大久保マイケル拓