Ming Campbell on the first Tokyo Olympics: 'I was bored out of my skull'
As Tokyo 2021 faces its own challenges with a spike in Covid-19 cases leaving the city a spectator-free zone, there were different hurdles to cross in 1964.
After arriving in the city, Lord Campbell and fellow members of the GB team had to spend a full four weeks in the athlete’s village on a treadmill routine of sleeping, eating, and training. The regime followed issues at the previous games in Rome, where some British competitors never fully acclimatized and consequently underperformed.
“At the end of it, I was bored out of my skull,” said the Liberal Democrat peer, who represented Great Britain in the sprints.
Glasgow-born Lord Campbell, former leader of the Liberal Democrats and chancellor of St Andrews University, was once hailed as the “fastest white man in the world”. Now 80, he is now one the few competitors from Tokyo ‘64 who is still active in public life.
His Tokyo adventure got off to an inauspicious start. He was approached at Heathrow airport by a tabloid journalist, who offered him £5,000 to dish the dirt on his fellow athletes – naturally, he refused. The flight took 32 hours thanks to engine trouble, which led to an unscheduled stop in Karachi. It was hardly ideal preparation, but his enthusiasm was undimmed.
“It was a huge excitement. I’d never been anywhere like that before. It was only 19 years after the end of the war and its importance to the Japanese was self -evident,” he said.
The 1964 games marked the readmission of Japan into the family of nations and heralded a new dawn in the land of the rising sun. The awkward recent past was acknowledged with the games opened by wartime emperor Hirohito and the flame lit by Yoshinori Sakai, who born on the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
But after the ceremony, the clear intention was to move forward. Evidence of the militarism that had dominated Japan in the preceding decades was hard to find.
“There were no soldiers to be seen anywhere,” he said.
Every effort was taken to ensure this new Japan was presented in the best possible light. Enormous sums were spent on massive infrastructure projects that included the construction of the still impressive Shinkansen bullet train. The city, or at least those parts likely to be scrutinized by visiting media, was beautified, even to the extent of the rounding up and euthanizing of 200,000 stray cats and dogs.
However, the recent past could not be entirely expunged. The Olympic village was on the site of the former base for US Air Force soldiers and close to the graves of the worst war criminals. But there was no appetite for recriminations.
"The extraordinary efficiency and determination to do well blew away any potential for negative feeling,” he said.
There were traces of the martial in the spartan athletes accommodation. Lord Campbell lodged with three other competitors in a tiny room with shared facilities and dodgy plumbing. But the food was something else, abundant and international.
‘”t was extraordinary. For those of us brought up on post-war rationing it was lavish in the extreme. There was enough ice cream to sink a battleship,” the peer recalled.
A point was clearly being made that Japan had fully recovered from its post war privations and was replacing its historic insularity with an appetite for world culture.
On a personal level, Lord Campbell found the Japanese guarded but faultlessly polite. Everything went well, save for one curious incident that pointed to a lingering mistrust behind the immaculate, welcoming facade.
“We were well received, by and large, but had one bad experience in a bar. It was conveyed to us by the manager that some of the other customers were resentful of our presence. We were asked to leave,” he said.
Fabulous sporting facilities and well-marshalled events defined the 1964 games for the young sportsman although anything unexpected posed problems from organisers.
“It was wonderfully organised up to a point, but when something happened that wasn’t in the playbook, it was chaos,” Lord Campbell said.
While Tokyo ‘64 generally achieved its aim of helping to reinvent a nation and pass the baton from the murky past to the more hopeful future, it also marked the end of a period of sporting innocence. Lord Campbell believes the first Tokyo games were probably the last clean Olympics.
“We weren’t even tested. We were amateurs. If there was any drug taking, it was minimal,” he said.
Lord Campbell and his 4X100 metre relay teammates performed to their credit, making the final in one of the last races ever run on a cinder track. The disappointment of an 8th place finish was offset by a new British record, thus “honour was satisfied”.
He ran competitively for three more years. A late career curiosity was his defeat of O.J Simpson in a 100-metre race in 1967.
Lord Campbell had hoped to attend the upcoming Tokyo games but Covid has ruled out a return visit. He’ll be cheering on team GB though, perhaps from the comfort of the House of Lords tearoom, the images from Tokyo rekindling memories of a different time, and a different world.