From Tokyo 1964 to Tokyo 2020: Reflections of an Olympic activist

Long distance runner Bruce Kidd, in the red shorts, represented Canada at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964

Professor Bruce Kidd of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education is the winner of this year’s prestigious Distinguished Scholar Award of the International Society of History of Physical Education and Sport. Kidd, a former Olympian and internationally renowned scholar of sport history, was awarded for his engaged and influential work in the field of sport history, and his significant contributions to the international expansion of knowledge in the field. Kidd received the award at the society’s annual congress, hosted virtually this year in Sapporo, Japan. In his acceptance speech, he reflected on the 1964 Olympics in Japan and the challenges the Olympic Games face today. 

Thank you very much for this great honour and for your perseverance during these unsettling times. I regret that the pandemic makes it impossible for us to meet in person. 

Much has changed within the Olympic Movement and the world since the first Tokyo Olympics in 1964. The spirit of sport for personal growth that characterized the amateur era has been replaced by a thorough-going professionalism, incentivized by governments and corporations. The number of national communities engaged in the Olympics has more than doubled; women have won the right to compete in equal numbers; and representatives of virtually every known demographic now take part. The live, international telecasts, which began so tentatively with Tokyo in 1964, have become the most important enabling factor for the Games and the entire Olympic Movement, reaching worldwide audiences and providing billions in revenue. 

The intervening years have also seen the end of apartheid, the end of the Cold War, the unrelenting acceleration of capitalist globalization, and the increasing focus on human rights. Yet the world continues to be torn by violent conflicts and displacements, devastating pandemics like HIV/AIDS, Ebola and COVID-19, and increasing inequality, climate change and famine. Any history of the Olympic Movement during the span between Tokyo 1964 and Tokyo 2020 would have to touch on all these happenings.

This is not a comprehensive history of the Olympics during that time, however, but a personal reflection upon the 1964 Games and their trajectories, prompted by the occasion of the congress with the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Despite the postponement of the 2020 Games and the possibility that they may never take place, I will stay the course, because the 1964 Olympics had a profound effect upon me and have provided an intellectual and emotional frame for my thinking ever since. In fact, the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo transformed my life, opening up new horizons and possibilities I had barely thought about before. 

It is not the usual story of life-changing athletic triumph. I didn’t come close to winning my races. While I was one of the favourites for the men’s 10K in athletics, and half the people in Canada assumed I would win, others I had previously beaten, notably Billy Mills from the US and Ron Clarke from Australia, took the medals and I finished poorly. I thought my life was over. I did learn an important lesson, though. I gradually realized that if I could survive the humiliation of defeat at the Olympics, I could survive anything. 

The Tokyo Olympics pushed me towards a career as a social scientist and historian with the ambition to study sport. My friend John MacAloon of the University of Chicago dates it from the last lap of that same 10,000 metres. Clark, Mohammed Gammoudi of Tunisia and Mills, the eventual winner, lapped me as they sprinted furiously towards the finish, so I stepped into lane three and cheered them on. According to John, that’s when I became more of an observer than a participant. I spent much of those magnificent Games watching, collecting, and writing, starting to think about the very questions that many of us will explore at this congress. It was one of the most fascinating field trips of my life. 

As was the custom in those distant days of amateurism, the Canadian team arrived one full week before the Opening Ceremonies and we stayed until after the Closing Ceremonies. Today, many athletes arrive just for their events, compete and go home. In 1964, we had ample time to explore the venues and the city and even travel across the country. We were encouraged to do so by the organizing committee, which arranged visits to Japanese homes, cultural performances and shrines, and helped us obtain information Japanese society. I still have the 35 mm slides I took and the English-language documents about Japanese sports and physical education I collected at the time. I’m sorry I can’t share some of them today, but because of COVID-19, they’re currently inaccessible in the University of Toronto Archives. 

I needed the material. I was writing three columns a week for Canadian student newspapers. In addition to the facilities and competitions, I wrote about the Games as a social, economic and political intervention. I also had to get to know the city to get my copy back to Canada. Canadian University Press could not afford the cost of cables, so it made a special arrangement with Canadian Pacific Airlines. Three times a week, I folded my column, typed directly on to paper, into a paper envelope and took the new subway lines and the new monorail to the newly modernized Haneda International Airport. I walked right through the terminal and handed the envelope to the pilot in the cockpit, who delivered it to an editor at the gate in Toronto 18 hours later. It was a different world. 

Tokyo was the Olympics of my dreams, exemplifying the Olympic ideal in every way. There were extraordinary performances in every sport, with established stars like the vaunted Japanese women’s volley ballers coming through, unheralded newcomers like  Mills charging into the spotlight and new events like judo on display.

It was a thrill to be in the Olympic Village, a former housing estate of the US army of occupation turned into an international community of sport and peace. I reconnected with athletes I knew, met many more I had only heard about, and tried out all the dining halls and their extraordinary variety of menus. Getting around was easy—there were free yellow bicycles everywhere, my first experience with such an intelligent policy initiative. We could walk to many venues. The practice track was located within the Village and the National Stadium was only 30 minutes away. Right next door was the breathtaking two-facility National Gymnasium designed by Kenzo Tange, used for swimming, diving and basketball. I’d never seen poured concrete look so lyrical. The only problem was that it was rainy and cold for days in a row.

The Opening Ceremonies were inspirational. They set a new standard for ceremonies as an art form, with fireworks, jet planes tracing the Olympic rings, thousands of balloons and pigeons and broadcast music--all for the first time. While we huddled on the infield, it was clear that the Olympics meant much more than sport. I particularly remember the haunting re-broadcast of a speech by Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin that was first played at the 1936 Olympics a year before his death. His famous saying was emblazoned on every scoreboard:

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.

What was it about Tokyo that changed my life so significantly? While it’s difficult to recreate my thought processes, let me recount three important realizations.

In the first place, I quickly came to see that the Olympics, and by extension, international and domestic sport, touch upon and are integrated with every other aspect of society. We take that for granted now. But in the age of Avery Brundage and ‘sport and politics’ do not mix, when very few governments outside the Soviet bloc were significantly involved, conventional wisdom had it that sport was a world apart. The scholarship that would document and elaborate the extensive, inextricable interrelationships between sports and societies was still in its infancy. The International Committee on Sport Sociology, the first such body in the social sciences, only met for the first time the following January.  

Yet even for my 21-year old self, it was impossible to miss that the Tokyo Olympics were linked to every aspect of Japanese society. They were ‘maximal’ Games, undertaken as the integrating capstone of a multi-year plan to rebuild Tokyo and the Japanese economy after the devastation of World War 2, two atom bombs, and the US occupation. The Games provided the ‘big idea’, some of the capital and expertise and the adrenalin for ambitious technological, social and cultural regeneration across Japanese society. They spurred new highways, the new subway lines and monorail I took to the airport and the remarkable high speed ‘bullet train’. The national government revitalized sports, physical education and workplace fitness with new parks, facilities and programs. The private sector, too, coordinated investment with the Olympics, bringing colour television sets, other electronics and their brands on to the market just in time for the Games.

Up until then, although I studied political economy at the University of Toronto, and my professors encouraged my running, they and I kept my interest in sports completely fenced off from my studies. After the Olympics, I began to wonder out loud whether I could bring the political economy lens to sports. I found an enthusiastic mentor in Professor J. Stephan Dupré, a specialist in intergovernmental relations. Because the Canadian government had just passed legislation to assist amateur sport and to provide funds to the provincial governments for fitness and physical education, he encouraged me to write my undergraduate thesis on the new programs. That paper led to jobs, publications, and eventually teaching assignments for the course I developed on the political economy of sports. It was the first of its kind in North America.

My second realization was that the world was much bigger, diverse and worthy of attention than the largely white developed areas of North America, the UK, Europe and Australia I had studied in university and came to know through my travels as a track athlete. The known world was rapidly changing. Ron Clarke said it revealingly after the 10K. ‘Crikey. I ran away from the very best in the world, only to find myself still battling an Ethiopian (Mamo Wolde), a Tunisian (Gammoudi) and a Red Sioux Indian (Mills)!’ It was the beginning of the African running revolution, with 12 new African National Olympic Committees, accelerating the entry of countries that had freed themselves from colonialism that continues to this day. The non-western world brought different cultures and different politics to international sports, along with fascinating possibilities for study and adventure. Japanese customs, food and architecture were intriguing too. After my events, I spent several days travelling in the south of Japan, staying in traditional Japanese inns and eating exclusively in Japanese restaurants, communicating for the most part by gestures. It was the first time I had travelled outside European cultures or allowed myself (lest I get sick) to try foods so different from my own. The trip whetted my appetite for further travel in Asia. Up until that point, I had always assumed that I would enrol in law school immediately after graduation. After the Olympics, I started to plan a trip around the world. Eventually, I spent the following year travelling across Asia and teaching in India, which further whetted my appetite to study sport in different societies. 

My third realization in Tokyo was that in some way, the Olympics were connected to progressive politics. There were many manifestations of this, but the issues that most deeply affected me were South Africa and Hiroshima. Of the eligible NOCs, all but three took part: Indonesia and South Africa were banned and North Korea stayed away. Although I didn’t fully understand Indonesia’s exclusion—it was only later that I learned that it was because it hosted the 1963 Games of the Emerging Forces as a Global South alternative to the Olympics —I well understood the suspension of apartheid South Africa. We talked about it at length in the Olympic Village and it made sense to me. While the sporting instinct is to reach out and engage, how could you extend that handshake of friendship to those who denied it to their fellow athletes on the basis of race? It was in Tokyo that I became such a determined supporter of the anti-apartheid campaign. 

I was already a supporter of nuclear disarmament, but my experiences in Japan gave it an emotional immediacy. It was the arrival of the Olympic Torch during the Opening Ceremonies that brought home how fervently the Japanese organizers linked Olympic sport to peace. Assembled on the infield, we were all waiting for a celebrated athlete to enter the stadium to light the cauldron, in the manner of Paavo Nurmi in Helsinki in 1952 or Ron Clarke in Melbourne in 1956, but it was an ‘everyman’, 19-year old Yoshinori Sakai, born in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the day the atom bomb was dropped on the city. After he encircled us on the track, ran up the stairs and lit the Cauldron, he stood erect with the Torch in the air, a human emblem of resilience and ‘Never again!’ The following week, I made a pilgrimage to Hiroshima to visit the Memorial Peace Park. Wherever I travelled in Japan, people with no English approached me to bow and say ‘No More Hiroshima’. It was humbling. 

It was impossible not to realize that the symbolism of a common humanity fostered through international sports is what matters for many, perhaps most, people. While I needed to understand those relationships better, even then, I felt proud to be part of an international movement that contributed to healing, regeneration and intercultural understanding. After Tokyo, I had no hesitation about linking sports to progressive causes.

After 1964, my own trajectories increasingly intersected with those of the Olympic Movement. I never did go to law school. I ended up writing and teaching on the history and politics of Canadian and Olympic sports. 

I continue to uphold the Olympic ideals, and have spent many years working to create the material and social conditions to realize them in concrete ways. But it was not long before I lost my glassy-eyed admiration for the actual workings of the Olympic Movement. It was not long, for example, before I learned that much of the construction in Tokyo was done in a heavy-handed and environmentally destructive way, completely without community consultation. In the days before the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, I watched horrified as Mexican troops killed hundreds of unarmed civilians protesting against what they believed were the distorted priorities of the Mexican state, and its investments in international sports (not only the Olympics but the 1970 men’s world cup of soccer). A few days later, I was dismayed when IOC president Brundage had Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who won gold and bronze respectively in the men’s 200 metres in athletics, expelled from the Olympics for their podium protest against racism and poverty in the US. It was a complete violation of their rights. I had been a public supporter of their activism, the Olympic Project for Human Rights, and it was frightening to see them punished for extolling the Olympic values of anti-racism. A few years later, in the build-up to the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, an event I had always wanted to see in my country, I agonized as the organizers rode roughshod over community concerns about public parkland, the environment and expensive white elephants; smeared critics as revolutionaries; destroyed critical art projects; and forced gays and lesbians to leave town.  

Those subsequent realizations have meant years of soul-searching. But such was my reservoir of identification with the Olympics from Tokyo that I could never bring myself to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’. Instead, I developed the position of ‘critical support’ or ‘critical partisanship’ for the Olympics, combining open-ended scholarship, critical education and policy initiatives with advocacy and volunteering—reform rather than abolition. I have spent the intervening years struggling to make sport more inclusive, gender equitable, accountable and fair. I contributed to the international campaign against apartheid sports, fought against the boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, helped create and led the Olympic Academy of Canada and the Commonwealth Sport Development Program, and have mounted or contributed to numerous campaigns for athletes’ and human rights.

Much of my Olympic activism remains framed by the three ‘realizations’ I came to in Tokyo in 1964. 

I still see hosting the Games as a maximal undertaking, affecting virtually every aspect of the host society, shaping land use and infrastructure, preoccupying its best brains and energies for generations to come, and connecting that society to the major social, political, technological developments across the globe. It’s not for the faint of heart, but when it works well, it can afford a society an unprecedented opportunity to mount large-scale social change, leverage outside resources, and better connect with the world. I would be very reluctant to see the Olympics reduced to a television event, broadcast with or without spectators from existing facilities around the world, as several critics of the enormous cost of games have proposed, and as several sports cartels like the NBA and NHL in North America have resorted to in the face of the pandemic. 

That being said, given the demands the Olympics make upon host societies, I believe that no bid should go forward without its endorsement in a referendum by a majority of the citizens that will bear the major costs, after a full and extensive public debate. Bids should also win formal majority support from the athletes, coaches and officials in whose name they are proposed, yet who are rarely consulted, especially about the plans for sports. 

I strengthened these views during two Olympic bids in Toronto. Toronto’s original plan for the 1996 Games was savagely criticized by a broad coalition of labour groups, churches, poverty activists, and environmentalists calling itself Bread Not Circuses. In response, I pushed the city to conduct extensive community consultations and pay the opposition groups to prepare researched presentations about concerns. To address those hopes and fears, I helped develop an undertaking to provide employment equity, social housing and protections for civil rights as core commitments of the bid. We called it the ‘Toronto Olympic Commitment’. Barbara Hall, one of its champions who later became mayor, called it ‘Bread and Roses’. While BNC continued to oppose the bid, taking it all the way to the deciding IOC meeting (which, as it turned out, was in Tokyo), the Commitment was enough to persuade a majority of City Council to support the bid. The lessons from that experience led the leaders of the 2008 bid to incorporate public consultations and socio-economic planning from the start. 

Unfortunately, Toronto lost both bids, to Atlanta and Beijing respectively. 

The recent referenda rejecting bids in Boston, Calgary and Munich, among other cities, have had a salutary effect upon the IOC, pushing it to introduce many new safeguards, including the promise that human rights will be protected in the staging of Games starting with the 2024 Games in Paris. One requirement is the monitoring and evaluation of human and environmental rights. Given the horrible abuses that have occurred, most recently in Sochi and Rio, such monitoring needs to be transparent in real time. Tokyo 2020 has promised such monitoring. I have no indication that it will not happen, but activists fear that abuses will occur in employment, housing, the procurement of uniforms and supplies, and environmental protections.  

In addition to public referenda, the IOC in partnership with the United Nations should consider socializing the costs around the world, with the richest countries and corporations contributing the most, and placing the Games in the Global South where the investments could address the greatest need and contribute the most to social, economic and sport development.  

Secondly, I continue to identify with the extraordinary internationalism of the Olympics. In 1964, there were 96 NOCs; today there are 206. Since Rio, the IOC has also begun to organize a Refugee Olympic Team, to give recognition to the millions of people displaced by war and persecution, living in ‘emergency’ camps that in many cases have become permanent. Except for the United Nations, no other institution acknowledges the diversity and history of the world as comprehensively as the Olympics, and very few people watch the General Assembly of the United Nations on television. 

Nevertheless, this worthy characteristic of the Olympic Movement raises urgent concerns. Decision-making in the IOC and its affiliate bodies does not reflect the world’s diversity. The IOC has been extremely slow to recognize, let alone provide equitable leadership opportunities for women, and to give equal representation to leaders from the Global South. The original plan was to appoint one or two new IOC members for every new nation, but once those nations came from Africa, Asia or the Caribbean, the idea was dropped. In 1976, there were 45 National Olympic Committees (NOCs) in Africa, but only seven IOC members from the continent. To this day, almost twice as many IOC members come from Europe than any other region.

Moreover, athletes are woefully under-represented. Although 15 active or recently retired athletes are elected to the IOC at Olympic and Winter Olympic Games, these elections bear little resemblance to the serious public policy determinations we associate with elections in liberal democratic societies. Instead, they have become popularity contests among candidates from the largest delegations; there is never any presentation of programs, let alone debates among the candidates. Once elected, the IOC pressures new members to represent its views to other athletes, rather than the expressed views of athletes to the IOC. In the spirit of the athlete courage that led to the postponement of Tokyo 2020 in the interests of public health, and the increasing athlete moral leadership in the face of the continuing repression of minorities around the world, active athletes should elect 50% of decision-makers, with gender parity as well.

At the heart of the issue of Olympic decision-making is the continuance of ‘delegation in reverse’, the 19th aristocratic system of appointment, whereby the president and the executive board appoint members to lengthy terms to represent the IOC to the world rather than the various constituencies in the world electing its own representatives to the IOC. ‘Delegation in reverse’ may have had its usefulness a century ago, but today, elections to the IOC should be completely democratized, with clear term limits for sitting members.

Thirdly, I still believe that the Olympic Games can be a powerful vehicle for intercultural respect and understanding, both among participants and the vast television audience. They can affirm our common humanity and reveal the worth and vitality of people of different religions, languages and cultures in the way Coubertin dreamed and I experienced so movingly in Japan in 1964. Today, it is urgently needed when so many leaders in the world spew xenophobia, and ratchet up international conflict. The pandemic has necessarily closed borders and discouraged international travel, but one consequence has been the exacerbation of the fear and hatred of others, fanned by racists and intensifying geo-political rivalries. 

Among Olympic participants, I particularly worry that the increased focus on winning and the understandable concern about costs, performance enhancing drugs and security, has relegated the intercultural education I experienced in 1964 to the sidelines. As long ago as the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, I did a study of the extent to which Canadian athletes took advantage of the Olympics to learn about other cultures. I found that very few did. ‘I could have competed in Don Mills (a suburb of Toronto) for all that I learned about Korea’, one prominent athlete told me. The focus on performance to the exclusion of everything else is even stronger today.

In these frightening times, the Olympics must renew the effort to give every competitor the experience of getting to know something about other peoples and cultures, and symbolize to the world through the Opening Ceremonies and the messaging from the venues that international sport stands staunchly against war, racism and hatred in all its forms. ‘No more Hiroshima’ could well be a greeting for our times as well. 

A related concern is human rights. To ensure that every athlete, coach and citizen enjoys the same respect, the Olympics must do a much better job protecting human rights. Historically, the IOC has claimed the ‘autonomy of sport’ and has chosen to pick and choose which rights they will recognize and enforce. While the Olympic Charter promises that ‘the practice of sport is a human right’, recent challenges to the sex test in athletics reveal that sports bodies stand outside the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the various UN conventions protecting human rights. In the case of South African Olympic and world champion Caster Semanya, for example, World Athletics successfully argued at the Court of Arbitration for Sport that its policies are not subject to the full scope of human rights. As the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights recently reported, while states have an obligation to protect their citizens’ human rights, non-state parties like sporting federations are under no such obligation; on the contrary, many continue to sanction inequality and discrimination. The UN High Commissioner recommends that sports bodies ‘commit themselves to protecting and respecting internationally recognized human rights.’ That should include all future organizing committees. In the age of ‘Black Lives Matter’, ‘Indigenous Lives Matter’, this, too, is an urgent necessity.

I’ve book-ended this talk with the two Olympics in Tokyo for the personal reasons I’ve mentioned. But when historians periodize international sport in our times, I suspect that 1964 and 2020 will still be read as major turning points. After COVID-19 and the worldwide, athlete-supported demonstrations for social justice, the world of sport will never be the same. Both the pandemic and the scourge of racist, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee violence that has ignited the ongoing protests have laid bare the frailties and inequalities of the global social contract, and the inter-connectedness of everyone on the planet. More than ever, they compel us to ‘look out for one another’ as we continue to face the threat of the virus, and once a vaccine is found and universally administered, ‘build back better’. In the ‘new normal’, it may well be that future Olympics will look very different from anything we can currently imagine. Whatever the case, I believe the democratization, intercultural and human rights reforms I’ve advocated will be urgently needed.

Thank you once again for this opportunity to share my story.