The long-distance runner isn’t always lonely – József Sütő and Kōkichi Tsuburaya running in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, II.

In the first part of this story I told how József Sütő, who was placed 5th in the marathon at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, revisited Japan 50 years later and how exceptionally he was received. Now I’d like to offer more details on Mr. Sütő’s adventure.

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József Sütő József at the 32nd. Tsuburaya memorial meet

The 32nd Tsuburaya Memorial Meet was run in the city of Sukagawa in the Fukushima prefecture on 19 October 2014. If you haven’t had any personal experience of the mood of this meet, you might think it was “only” one running event among the many. I think I need to take that back immediately because, to my knowledge and in my experience, every runner finds every single event to be unique and exclusive in some way and it is never “just one event among the many.” Still, there was something very special about this event. This meet has its own group of “old timers” who use it partly to get together once a year, and that alone gives it a very special atmosphere.  They are the people who knew Tsuburaya – his friends, schoolmates, and running mates, the people who trained with him, and who studied under him. They not only run in one or another of the distances offered, but prior to the meet they get together to pay a visit to Tsuburaya’s grave. Then they meet for dinner, to talk and reminisce. Their connection is more than their own acquaintanceship; it is on a higher plane – their one-time link to Tsuburaya himself. The way this group received Sütő was an honor though, given what I just said about them, it was no surprise. Though none of them had known Sütő personally, they were all linked by the same bond. So Sütő became an accepted member of the group by Day Two, the day of the meet itself.  And that was a completely different feeling than “simply” being a foreign runner for a far-away land.

The event, in the sports arena of this town with its 76,000 residents, began with an opening ceremony steeped in respect. Speeches were followed by introductions, when the chief organizers, the municipal and county champions, and the special competitors such as Sütő, Kimihara, and Miyaji were introduced to the spectators. The latter three were introduced through a sentence or two telling of their links to Tsuburaya. So, well before the start, Sütő’s face was recognized by the whole crowd.

We were told at the opening ceremony that 2912 competitors had entered the meet, to be run over 5 distances in 21 categories. The shortest distance, 1.4 kilometers, was for children aged 3-9 who ran alongside their parents (186 children entered). The longest distance was a half-marathon.  There was a 2 km race for 10-12 year-olds, a 3 km event for 13-15 year-old girls, a 5 km event for boys of the same age, a 5k event for 16-18 year-old girls and a 10k run for boys. There were two events for grown-ups, a 10k, and the half-marathon. The men in the 10k run were divided into five age categories. I’d particularly like to point to the over-60 group, in which there were 93 entries. The largest single group was the 13-15-year-olds with 924 entries. That was followed by the 10k race for grown-ups with 645 entries and the half-marathon with 519 entries. But enough of the numbers for now.

Warm up time had arrived. The weather had been very kind to us, giving us s sunny 20oC temperature and no wind at all. As I learned from Sütő, it was exactly the same as on the day of the Olympics. It was so beautiful that even I felt the urge to run. But my job was to observe, so I pulled back and watched everything and everyone. I found it interesting to realize that, no matter how huge the crowd, Sütő always stood out. All I had to do in fact was watch to see where everyone else was looking and there he was!

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József Sütő among Japanese high school students

We didn’t have much time for photo-ops with his fans or for reminiscing, since we had to get to the track. Still, we made use of every chance for a bit of fun. The organizers invited Sütő into the front row of runners giving him the chance to wait for the start gun as in the photo below.

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Waiting for the start

Sütő ran the race in 27 minutes 8 seconds. And, more important, he showed the same enthusiasm and love of life when crossing the finish line as at the start. After crossing the finish line, Sütő told the local television viewers the same thing he had said in the cemetery the day before; that he had been thinking of Tsuburaya and thanking him as he ran. Sütő said he believed he would have run the distance “hand in hand” with Tsuburaya, were he still alive.

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Before and after the race

Watching the race was wonderful, feeling the pulse, seeing Sütő there and then. But that was not the end of the day’s events. After a pleasant meal together, we all went to the memorial museum attached to the sports arena. First we wandered through the museum itself, a single room affair which, despite its small size, had a wealth of interesting items. The first item on display was a poster advertising the 1964 Olympics. That was followed by a number of items in display cabinets (Tsuburaya’s training shoes, the shoes he ran in at the Olympics, his Olympic uniforms, a Tsuburaya handprint, his medals, etc.), and finally, five seats from the Olympic stadium which a visitor can sit in while watching a summary of the marathon. In the meantime, there are images of Tsuburaya smiling down on us from posters on the wall, of the Tokyo marathon route and the interval times of the Olympic medal winners for the various points in the race.

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Tsuburaya Memorial Hall, Sukagawa Fukushima

We explored the museum, escorted by none other than Kikuzo Tsuburaya. This fragile little man spoke with stunning and wistful affection for his brother, spontaneously telling us how he was wearing his brother’s Olympic parade uniform, as he did every year on this day. Finally, with a smile he added that he’d had to have it taken in a bit or he would have been lost in Kōkichi’s suit. I got goose-bumps listening to his words and translating them. And that feeling didn’t change at all later, when I found myself sitting next to Sütő on one of the seats from that Tokyo stadium and watching him as he responded to every moment of that video clip.

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Watching the clip from the 1964 Olympics in Tsuburaya Memorial Hall

As we finished our tour of the museum, it was taken over by an army of journalists and television crews. They sat Sütő, Kimihara, Kikuzo Tsuburaya, and Miyaji down next to one another in the stadium seats and proceeded to ask question after question, putting an official end to the event.

We then had another surprise dinner to participate in, with a different video clip, this one of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. We didn’t know what to make of it, up until a Japanese lady who had been among us but hadn’t said a word until then pointed at the screen and whispered: “There’s my father, just now running into the stadium!”

These were our first hours in that wonderful town in the land of Japan. The next day we took to the road and, after a day of bathing, we arrived in Tokyo. Of course, we still weren’t your average tourists who visit the places in the guide books. We had three days, and Mr. Masuyama organized programs for us on two of them. On the afternoon of our arrival in Tokyo, on October 21, 2014, we had a date with the Japanese Olympic Committee for 3 o’clock in the afternoon. We arrived on time and were immediately ushered in. Everything ran smoothly, as it usually does in Japan. Sütő was received by the communications chief and the head of the department organizing the 2020 Olympic Games. The initial conversation was a bit dull and colorless. Sütő spoke enthusiastically and the two Japanese gentlemen sitting opposite him took copious notes. It was clear that all they knew about József Sütő was what they had found in their office records.  Then Masuyama pulled out a few newspaper articles and photographs, set them on the table, and suddenly things began to perk up. The story gained a bit of color, but then Sütő unexpectedly interrupted the conversation by saying “Gentlemen, 50 years ago on this date and at this moment I was taking the turn into the Olympic stadium … and I’ll cross the finish line in a moment!” As he said this, time stood still. You could almost hear everyone’s thoughts as they conjured up the image. A fraction of a second later everyone returned to October 21, 2014 and the Tokyo office, but by them it was vibrant with color. We spent a full hour with the JOC members. We looked through the phasing charts and the architect renderings of the facilities, and a whole series of thick publications. Things had turned into a pleasant and friendly conversation.

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Visiting the Japanese Olympic Committee (Sütő alongside Mr. Nakamori and Mr. Hibino)

Shortly after that came the event that may have been the single best moment of Sütő’s trip to Japan. First we visited the stadium where the race began 50 years previously. Since work was already underway to upgrade the stadium for the 2020 Games, we were unable to go inside. Instead, standing outside the arena, Sütő reminisced and imitated what it felt like after running the distance. 🙂  Afterwards, given the pouring rain and icy wind, we took a taxi and traced the entire marathon route. Masuyama continuously asked Sütő whether he remembered the places and the buildings, but all Sütő remembered was a wide road and the character of the tiny houses on the roadside, plus the impressive rows of trees on the two sides of the road from which he could see his progress. We got closer and closer to the spot where everything changed on that long-ago day. Finally we reached the turning point, the 21st kilometer. Although Masuyama had repeatedly visited the spot we still almost missed it and nearly slipped by under the sign that marked the turning point. Not calling a halt would have been a big mistake, I knew. I knew it because I saw Sütő’s face when he got to see the signs up close:

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The starting point and turning point of the marathon at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games

For some people it was just a sign and nothing special, while for others … I only understood this as I saw it.

And that was the moment the organized portion of our visit came to an end.

I shared in this amazing experience, and had Masuyama and Sütő to thank for it. Since Sütő had told us that during his previous visit he had been unable to meet with the Japanese people or to visit any Japanese homes, I decided that I had something I could offer him on the last day of our trip, in return for all the fun he had given me. It would be an experience he had not yet had. He had allowed me to look into his world and now I felt that it was my turn. Since I am more or less at home in the world of tea artists in Japan, I decided that we would visit a dear tea artist friend on the last day of our visit. This is how we found ourselves in a Japanese home with a tatami-covered floor, where we spent half a day drinking tea and conversing, learning about Japanese tradition and the art of the tea ceremony. I loved assisting Motoki sensei, who, dressed in a kimono and speaking with the humility and refined style of Japanese artists, hosted our little group.

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Visiting a Japanese home and experiencing the art of the tea ceremony

On our final day we had lunch in a sushi restaurant, and dinner and fun in the oldest Hungarian restaurant in Tokyo.

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Lunch in a sushi restaurant

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Dinner Hungarian style

The week was over and it was time to go home.

We came, we saw … we lived through the past and the present, and perhaps a bit of the future. One chapter came to an end and another one began.

One dream was fulfilled – József Sütő’s dream! I hope that another dream makes it, too! Masuyama’s book will hit the Japanese bookshelves (in 10,000 copies) this December. The book is about running, racing, competitors, and life stories. It tells of Tsuburaya and Sütő, and about life and death. It tells of hopes and hopelessness, and takes us to both Sukagawa and Apátfalva. In it we hear Japanese bird song and Hungarian singing too. We get to run along the streets of Sukagawa and the trails of Budapest’s János Hill.

I hope I can help to see that the book gets published in Hungary, too, so that the people in the far reaches of Japan are not the only ones who get to read this tale; that our young people here at home also get to learn from it. In the meantime, I’ll be processing the experience and start planning our next trip together. We took a vow to return to Japan together in 2020!

Józsi and Ili, thank you so much for everything!

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József and his partner, Ilona, at Tokyo Airport moments before they headed for home

I am a numbers person, so I’ll conclude by listing events, races, and times. I hope they motivate us all in achieving our goals!

Kōkichi Tsuburaya began competing at the age of 12, when his primary school organized a sports day and he won the 1 minute race. At age 22 he was first in the national championship at 5,000 m and 10,000 m with times of 14:20.8 and 29:59.0. A year later he was second in the 20 km with a time of 59:51.4. He ran his first marathon in Nagoya on March 20, 1964, finishing 5th with a time of 2:23:31.0. In the 7 months afterward, leading up to the Olympics, he ran two more marathons inside of 2 hours and 20 minutes. In August he broke the national record for 10,000 m with a personal best of 28:52.6. On October 14, 1964 he finished 6th at 10,000 m (28:59.4), and exactly one week later took bronze in the marathon (2:16:22.8).

Tsuburaya’s training partner, Kenji Kimihara, who is now over 73 years old, has run 71 marathons and has never pulled out of a race. To this day, he runs the memorial half-marathon every single year. He ran his first marathon in 1962 at age 21, finishing with a time of 2:18:01. A year before the Olympics he took gold in a Japanese competition (2:20:24), and on October 21, 1964 he finished 8th at the Olympics with a time of 2:19:49 (4 years later, in Mexico, he finished second). At age 42 he ran a time of 2:28:42 in Honolulu and plans to run the Boston Marathon at age 74. He won it in 1966 (2:17:11). Whenever he is interviewed he emphasizes that 6 years before the Olympics, while in high school, he was running 1500 meter races while his friend Tsuburaya was competing in the 5000 m event. There are exactly 6 years between now and 2020 or the next Tokyo Olympics. So he needs to encourage every high school student, based on his own experience, to keep trying because he firmly believes that if you try hard enough you can do anything.

As long as we’re doing the numbers, let me take a look at the Olympic times of Sütő and Tsuburaya. Sütő told Sukagawa television that he ran the best time of his life at the Tokyo Olympics, and that it was nearly 6 minutes faster than his previous best. Sütő believes that he has the coordinated effort of the two runners to thank for his result. Six minutes. That is a long time…but one can still cut that much in a race. Exactly how long is 6 minutes? Let me light it up from another angle. Today’s Hungarian marathon record holder is Csaba Szűcs whose time of 2:12:10 is six minutes faster than Sütő’s Olympic time, and Hungary’s female marathon record holder Judit Földing-Nagy ran 2:28:50, roughly six minutes slower than Sütő’s best time up until the Tokyo Olympics.

I took all the photos appearing in the article. 

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