The long distance runner isn’t always lonely – József Sütő’s and Kōkichi Tsuburaya’s race in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, part 1

I’m almost certain that many readers will remember the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. For others, the 1960s are history rather than living memory. But, whichever group you’re in, I think that most of you will find it worthwhile to learn about one event from that year.

Hungary was represented by 182 athletes at this particular Olympics and ended up in 6th place among the participating countries. Hungarian athletes won 22 medals including 10 golds, in wrestling, soccer, modern pentathlon, shooting, fencing, and water polo. In later years we would have the opportunity to read and hear more about these outstanding performances. But there was one story I found moving that never made it into the spotlight and was never picked up by the media. This story is about two wonderful athletes, two remarkable performers and the fantastic effort that led to the fifth best Japanese and second best Hungarian Olympic marathon performance of all time. (The very best placed Hungarian was Gyula Kellner, who ran in Athens in 1896. He originally finished 4th but the Greek competitor who finished ahead of him was disqualified which put Kellner in medal position with a time of 3:06.35.) Still, 10,000 kilometers away from Hungary the names Tsuburaya and Sütő are widely recognized. Two names that are inseparable and the two men that bear them are a legend.

I’d like to honor József Sütő’s sports performance and his overall career and to voice my gratitude by telling his story.

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József Sütő, who took 5th place in the marathon in the Tokyo Olympics
(Source: Hungarian Olympic Committee – mob.hu)
 

I’d like to begin this fairy tale with a phone call I received two years ago. The caller wanted to know if I’d be willing to interpret an interview between a Japanese author and Mr. József Sütő. I’m a runner myself. I’ve been an amateur runner for nearly 20 years and have completed a number of half-marathons, but I still couldn’t place the name. Still, when I learned that the subject was sports, involved Japan, and included an Olympic runner, I was more than happy to take the job. A couple of months later I picked up the Japanese writer, about whom I knew nothing, at a Budapest hotel and drove him to Lake Balaton. The address I had been given was a normal enough house, but with some very individual features. The picket fence was painted a sparkling bright red and blue on alternating boards, which I recognized as the colors of the Vasas Sports Club. There was a huge clock on the outer wall of the house, which Mr. Sütő, now 77 years old, still uses to time himself as he runs 9 kilometers a day. And there were two sets of running shoes, one Nike and one Adidas, in the hallway just inside the door.

A kind elderly gentleman invited us in and the next thing we were traveling backwards in time. A video recording of a small portion of Mr. Sütő’s 1964 run started the tale, which was followed by a stack of newspaper articles that the Japanese writer set out on the table. Every photo showed two lean men and two numbers: 77 and 29. The Japanese writer spoke at length about the race, the details of which he had learned through the media. His version was rather academic, but Mr. Sütő filled in the emotional aspects with his own memories of the happenings. Suddenly, the mood changed and I started feeling the runners with the breeze blowing on their skin, the drops of perspiration on their foreheads, and the roar of the crowd in the background. I couldn’t feel the exhaustion of the long run, merely the commitment and professionalism of the athletes. Is this what it’s like when a writer asks specific questions? He asks about facts, smells, odors, sounds, temperature … and suddenly, the story comes to life. It was the first time I experienced anything like that.

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Kōkichi Tsuburaya is in front, followed by József Sütő at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics
(Source: sankei.com)
 

The day was over in the blink of an eye, ending chapter one of the story. Then, two years later the phone rang again. “I’m going to Japan!!” Mr. Sütő said happily.

2014 marked the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. And we all know that Tokyo will be the venue of the 2020 Games. A sizable Hungarian delegation traveled to Japan in October 2014 to discuss both past and future. However, only medalists were included in the delegation, so it was pure luck that Mr. Sütő had decided to travel to Japan in 2014, even if he had to cover the costs himself. Things quickly speeded up. Following innumerable exchanges of emails and phone calls, on October 17 I boarded a plane and the great adventure began. Mr. Sütő arrived in Japan on the 18th. Together with the Japanese writer, Mr. Masuyama, we were at the airport to greet him, and then began a weeklong program at Japanese tempo. What do I mean by this? Well, seven minutes after meeting Mr. Sütő at the airport we were on the express train, and five minutes later we had transferred from the express train to the shinkansen (bullet train), and when we arrived at our shinkansen destination a car was waiting for us. Thirty minutes later we were in a small town where we were given 13 minutes to freshen up, change clothes, and get ready to move on. That is what I mean by Japanese tempo. So if you are 77 years old, and have been traveling for nearly 18 hours, that is quite a performance.

Here we need to stop for a second. I need to tell you exactly why Mr. Sütő came to Japan, to set things into the proper focus. One purpose was to visit Mr. Tsuburaya’s grave and to run in the Tsuburaya Memorial Race (in the city of Sukagawa in Fukushima Prefecture) and the other was to visit the Japanese Olympic Committee and revisit the route of the one-time Tokyo Olympic marathon starting from the national stadium.

What had I known before we arrived in Sukagawa on October 18?

I knew that on October 21, 1964 Mr. Sütő was wearing number 29 and Mr. Tsuburaya was number 77 when they took off from the start line to run the marathon. The two men, aged 27 and 24, had never met before that time. Even as they waited for the starter’s pistol, they didn’t know about one another. Then the gun sounded and they were off. They got to the 21st kilometer, the turning point and all of a sudden everything changed. The two runners discovered one another and suddenly each felt that he had found a competitor who he could run alongside, sort of hand in hand, mutually supporting one another over a reasonable portion of the race. This shared run lasted for nearly 20 kilometers. There were times when they were running in second and third places, first the one and then the other setting the pace. Finally, a hill at the 38-kilometer mark separated the two runners. Mr. Tsuburaya was able to pick up his tempo which eventually put him in 3rd place at the finish line, while Mr. Sütő came in 5th with the best Hungarian Olympic marathon time ever with 2:17:55.8 (to date the three best Hungarian Olympic marathon times have been 1. Ferenc Szekeres 2:15:18 (1980, Moscow), 2. József Sütő 2:17:55 (1964, Tokyo), and 3. Gyula Borka 2:20:46 (1992 Barcelona)). The 1964 gold medalist was Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia, one of only two athletes who were able to successfully defend their titles. Mr. Bikila first won in Rome in 1960, running the entire distance barefoot.

Tsuburaya

Tokyo, 1964. Men’s marathon medalists, left to right: Basil Heatley, Abebe Bikila, and Koukichi Tsuburaya
(Source: http://otonashiokamae.blogspot.hu/2012/02/abebe6.html)
 

It was sad that Britain’s Basil Heatley, who finished second in 1964, overtook Mr. Tsuburaya just 100 meters before the finish line. The times of the three medalists were: 1. 2:12:11.2 (ETH), 2. 2:16:19.2 (GBR), 3. 2:16:22.8 (JPN). Tsuburaya was unable to overcome his shame of “such a disgraceful loss” in front of his countrymen. Although he himself said that the only way to remedy his “failure” was to keep running and win for Japan at the 1968 Mexico Games, he soon realized that he would be unable to do so. He began suffering serious back pain (lumbago) following the Tokyo Olympics and a few months before the Mexico Games, on January 9, 1968 he committed suicide.

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Koukichi Tsuburaya running, 10.21.1964
 

Mr. Sütő had spent years planning to visit Tsuburaya’s grave on the 50th anniversary, thus expressing his respect for and thanks to his competitor for helping him do so well, and had decided to run in the Tsuburaya Memorial event being held for the 32nd time in the Japanese runner’s home town.

And this is where the writer reappears. Mr. Masuyama had been working on a book for the 2 years following our first meeting. The book is a novel about running, about the 1964 Olympic marathon, about the joint effort of Tsuburaya and Sütő, and about the opportunities and challenges today’s young people face. Mr. Masuyama had spent years collecting material in Sukagawa, meeting with Tsuburaya’s friends and fellow runners, and this is why he came to Hungary to interview Mr. Sütő. So, it was natural that Mr. Masuyama would be our guide in the Fukushima Prefecture. A few hours after landing in Tokyo we arrived by car in Sukagawa where a small group of enthusiastic Japanese sports fans greeted us with Hungarian flags and a huge poster reading, “Welcome, Mr. Sütő!” There were two other names alongside Sütő’s: that of Kenji Kimihara (who was 8th in Tokyo in 1964 and the silver medalist in 1968 in Mexico) and Miyaji Michio, who trained with Tsuburaya and who had been the fourth member (the backup person) on the team running for Japan in the Tokyo Games. To add even more spice to the story, while the names of the two Japanese runners were written on the welcoming poster, they both appeared in person and waved Hungarian flags to welcome Mr. Sütő. Mr. Masuyama bowed deeply as he introduced them to Mr. Sütő. However, the deepest bow was reserved for a tiny and fragile elderly man who turned out to be Mr. Tsuburaya’s brother, Kikuzo. Thirteen minutes later this group accompanied us to the graveside, where first Kikuzo greeted everyone. Then, one by one, the others stepped onto a platform by the grave, placed sticks of incense, and finally bowed by the grave and then towards Kikuzo. Once everyone had paid their respects, Kikuzo placed a tray of sweets onto the edge of the platform, offered it to the men bowing their heads by the grave, and told them that this was the sweet his brother had eaten before each training session. We couldn’t let the opportunity slip by, so we each took a bit of the sweet, broke it into small pieces, and put it in our mouths to let in a bit of the past.

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Left to right: József Sütő, Kimihara, Kikuzo Tsuburaya, and Miyaji at the Tsuburaya memorial museum (seats from the 1964 Olympic Stadium are in the foreground)
 

In the evening a bigger group got together in one of the town’s traditional restaurants, to give friends, family, fellow-runners, and acquaintances the chance to celebrate together. The groups settled into two halls. One group was made up of Mr. Tsuburaya’s personal friends and acquaintances, and the other consisted of young runners who had no personal connections to Mr. Tsuburaya but viewed him as their role model. A whole bunch of photographs was passed around at the dinner table, to be studied most intently by the two runners, Sütő and Kimihara, accompanied by Mr. Masuyama.

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Left to right: Sütő, Masuyama, and Kimihara studying the starting line photo of the 1964 marathon
 

Although this had already been a very busy day, it still wasn’t quite over. The small group that had created the Tsuburaya memorial race and had been running it for 32 years was waiting for us at the home of one of the group, with a video they wanted to show us. The lights were dimmed and suddenly it was 1964. The nearly 15 minute film was a summary of the marathon in which the numbers 77 and 29 appeared repeatedly. Every time the number 29 flashed on the screen those of us sitting in the room broke into wild applause. In the midst of this, József Sütő, sitting in the first row, gave us a quiet and respectful running commentary.

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Sitting together and watching the 1964 video (József Sütő is on the far right)
 

Eventually evening took over and we headed for our hotel, since we had an exhilarating event to look forward to the next day, a wonderful race … especially for Mr. Sütő.

Over 2,900 school children were on hand to watch the two legendary runners, Messrs Sütő and Kimihara, who were to run with them. What did Mr. Sütő feel, standing at the stadium entrance again after 50 years, and what mood was conveyed by the sentence he voiced at the Japanese Olympic Committee office: “Gentlemen, 50 years ago on this day, in these same minutes I was taking the turn leading into the stadium … a few more minutes and I’d be over the finish line!” … I’ll be writing about this next time.

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József Sütő (77), Kenji Kimihara (73) on the day of the memorial run

 

Where no source has been marked the photos are my own.

 

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