The Tokyo 1964 Games brought the Olympics to Asia for the first time. More than 5,100 athletes from 93 nations competed, with greater representation from Africa and Asia expanding the multi-cultural community present at the Games.
After being humbled by the Soviet Union at the two previous Games, the United States returned to the top of the medal table, winning 36 gold. The Soviet Union was second with 30 gold, easily ahead of the host nation in third place. Australia’s total of 18 medals, including six gold, placed it eighth.
Among the heroes of Tokyo were two stars of the previous Olympics in Rome: Australian’s Dawn Fraser and Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila. Fraser won her third successive 100m freestyle gold, the first swimmer to achieve the rare treble. She also won a relay silver. Bikila became the first athlete to win back-to-back Olympic marathons, this time wearing shoes on his flying feet. In gymnastics, the Soviet Union’s Larissa Latynina won two gold, two silver and two bronze medals. She retired after Tokyo, her third Games, and remains the greatest medallist in Olympic history with 18 medals. She shares the record for most gold medals with nine. Like Fraser, Latynina became the first athlete to win three consecutive gold medals in her sport, her success coming in the floor event.
At the pool, swimmers from Australia and the US dominated, winning all the gold medals except one. Hungary led a European sweep of medals in football, while the United States continued its gold medal run in basketball (both sports only had men’s events at the time). Striker Ferenc Bene scored 12 goals for Hungary in the football tournament. It remains the Olympic record. The bad news for Hungary was its men’s fencing sabre team had its first Olympic loss in 40 years, ending its gold medal streak at seven. In boxing, American Joe Frazier won the heavyweight gold medal. He would later turn pro and have one of the great boxing rivalries with Muhammad Ali. On the track, New Zealander Peter Snell won the 800m and 1500m double to continue his country’s great run at middle distance events.
As the Olympic program continued to grow and diversify, two new sports were added: volleyball and judo. Both had huge followings in Japan and local victories were expected. The brilliant Japanese women’s volleyball team won gold, with the men taking bronze. However, the surprise was at the judo venue, where Dutch giant Anton Geesink beat the Japanese favourite to win the open gold medal. The host nation was shocked, but applauded Geesink’s stunning victory.
Australia at these Games
Australia sent a team of 250 to Tokyo, 208 men and 42 women, and won 18 medals: six gold, two silver and 10 bronze. Fencer Ivan Lund, competing in his fourth Olympics, at the time the record for Australian participation, carried the flag in the Opening Ceremony.
Without question the star of the Aussie team was Dawn Fraser. She became the first swimmer to win three consecutive titles when she won the 100m freestyle, and also won a silver medal in the 4x100m freestyle relay. This was Fraser’s last Games, her marvellous Olympic record standing at four gold and four silver medals. Ian Thorpe (nine medals), Susie O’Neill (eight) and Petria Thomas (eight) are the only other Australians to have won so many.
Fraser also became the first person to carry the nation’s flag at the Closing Ceremony when a new tradition was added to the final event of the Games. However, Fraser’s Games were to end in bitterness and disappointment when swimming officials suspended her for 10 years for a series of minor misdemeanours in Tokyo, an absurd and sad end to the greatest swimming career the world had seen. Despite a national outcry, and a reduced ban, Fraser retired from her sport.
Another icon of Australian sport, 1956 Golden Girl Betty Cuthbert, returned to the Games and won her fourth gold medal, this time in the 400m. It was the first women’s 400m ever contested at the Olympics. A trio of men’s swimmers added to the gold medal table: Kevin Berry in the 200m butterfly, Ian O’Brien in the 200m breaststroke, and Rob Windle in the 1500m freestyle. The final gold medal was Australia’s first sailing (yachting) victory: gold to Bill Northam, Peter O’Donnell and James Sargeant in the 5.5m class. Northam, at age 59, was a grandfather. He was the oldest gold medallist in Tokyo and remains Australia’s oldest Olympic champion.
Australia also reached the podium in some new sports. Ted Boronovskis won a bronze medal in the open judo event. The men’s hockey team won its first medal, a bronze. Ron Clarke, who had lit the Olympic cauldron as a teenager in Melbourne eight years earlier, won a bronze medal in the 10,000m.