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1963 Czechoslovakia Japan

1963: Japan vs. Czechoslovakia

In 1963, Japanese gymnasts traveled to Czechoslovakia for a dual meet. Not surprisingly, the Soviets, specifically Yuri Titov, made a trip to Czechoslovakia to film the routines, and the East Germans were there with their notepads.

According to an article in the Czechoslovak sports magazine Stadión, the Japanese men’s artistic gymnasts were breaking new ground on rings and high bar, while the Czechoslovak women’s artistic gymnasts were showing original elements on beam and floor. (Though, the Japanese women’s artistic gymnasts were the queens of turns on beam.)

Here’s a short account of what happened.

Reminder: This was a competition between the top teams in the world. The Czechoslovak men’s team finished third at the 1962 World Championships while the Japanese men finished first. The Czechoslovak women’s team finished second in 1962 while the Japanese women finished third.

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Books Japan MAG

Kato Sawao Was a “Secret Gymnast” When He Started the Sport

Kato Sawao, the 1968 and 1972 Olympic gold medalist in the all-around, didn’t set out to become a gymnast. In fact, he originally wanted to be a baseball player. But his physical education teacher saw potential in him, and that’s how he became a “secret gymnast” who participated in gymnastics without telling his parents. 

In his autobiography, The Path of Beautiful Gymnastics: The Story of Kato Sawao (美しい体操の軌跡加藤沢男物語), Kato recounts his start in gymnastics. Below, I’ve translated and woven together a few chapters of his book to tell that story.

The caption reads: June 1962, around the time of the first year of the Niigata Minami High School gymnastics club. Prefectural tournament inter-high school preliminaries
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1971 Japan MAG WAG

1971: The “Japan vs. Europe” Competition

In a competition advertised as “Japan vs. Europe” in Bern, Switzerland, the Japanese men and women were supposed to compete against Europe’s best gymnasts. In the end, the marketing overpromised. Only some of the top European gymnasts competed. Notably absent were the Soviets and East Germans.

Nevertheless, there was some excitement. On the men’s side, Kato Sawao, the 1968 all-around gold medalist, returned to competition after an Achilles tear. On the women’s side, Ilona Békési had a breakout performance, even after the uneven bars collapsed literally on top of her.

Reminder: This naming convention would be quite common at competitions like “The USSR vs. the World.”

Hirashima Eiko (Japan)
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1970 Chunichi Cup Japan

1970: The Inaugural Chunichi Cup

In 1970, Japan held its first Chunichi Cup in the city of Nagoya. The field was a mix of established gymnasts like Nakayama and Köste and up-and-coming gymnasts like Korbut.

Eventually, the Chunichi Cup became one of the premier international competitions. For example, Tourischeva competed at the competition in 1972, and Nadia Comăneci did the same in 1976. But in 1970, very little was written about the meet.

What follows are the results, as well as the newspaper articles that I’ve unearthed in the archives.

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1970 Japan World Championships

1970: Kato Sawao Tears His Achilles Tendon

At the 1970 World Championships, the favorite for the men’s all-around title should have been Kato Sawao, the winner of the all-around in Mexico City in 1968. However, in February of 1970, he tore his right Achilles tendon while tumbling on floor. It was a major topic of conversation at the World Championships in Ljubljana. Here’s just one news report on the matter:

Endo: “Early this year [Kato] suffered an Achilles tendon injury during a dismount, which was difficult to heal. By the time things got going again, he was already eliminated. Too bad for him, but there was nothing that could be done about it.”

De Tijd, Oct. 31, 1970

Endo: “Begin dit jaar kreeg hij bij een afsprong een achillespeesblessure, die moeilijk genas. Toen het weer een beetje ging, was hij al geëlimineerd. Jammer voor hem, maar daar was niets aan te doen.”

The injury wasn’t just a major topic of conversation at the 1970 World Championships; it was also a major moment in Kato’s life. In his autobiography, The Path of Beautiful Gymnastics: The Story of Kato Sawao (美しい体操の軌跡加藤沢男物語), Kato dedicates two entire chapters to his Achilles tear, his recovery, and his mindset after the injury. What follows are translations of short excerpts from his book.

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – OCTOBER 24: Sawao Kato of Japan competes in the Floor of the Artistic Gymnastics Men’s Individual All-Around final during the Mexico City Summer Olympic Games at the National Auditorium on October 24, 1968 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
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1966 Japan North Korea South Korea

1966: South Korea, North Korea, and an FIG Judges’ Course in Japan

North Korea caused a lot of excitement before the 1970 World Championships. The country’s gymnasts were supposed to compete, which left many gymnastics pundits speculating about North Korea’s chances of placing in the men’s competition. For example, this is what a Swiss newspaper wrote:

The Koreans, in the opinion of Bulgarian specialists, who visited them, do not train less than eight hours a day, at the rate of five practices per week, and, when one knows their natural gifts, one can be certain that their participation “will hurt.” From there, we will have, in our opinion, a peloton comprising the United States, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Switzerland fighting for 5th place.

L’Express, Oct. 22, 1970

Les Coréens, de l’avis de spécialistes bulgares, qui les visitèrent, ne s’entraînent pas moins de huit heures par jour, à raison de cinq entraînements par semaine et, lorsqu’on connaît leurs dons naturels, on peut être certain que leur entrée « fera mal ». Dès lors, on aura, à notre avis, un peloton comprenant, les Etats-Unis, la Tchécoslovaquie, la Pologne et la Suisse luttant pour la 5me place. 

North Korea’s road to participating in FIG competitions and events was a bumpy one, to say the least. While it was hard to gain information on North Korean gymnastics in the 1960s, one story was reported extensively.

At the end of June 1966, the FIG hosted a judges’ course in Tokyo. North Korean delegates were supposed to attend, but there were some hiccups. Let’s take a look at what happened.

Downtown Tokyo streetscape, 1966, Japan, incorporating flyovers and elevated railways
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1969 East Germany Japan Politics USA USSR

1969: East Germany vs. Japan’s Foreign Office

The Japanese Gymnastics Association wanted to invite East Germany to a competition with the Soviet Union and the United States. However, Japan did not have diplomatic relations with East Germany until May of 1973.

So, what would happen if an East German gymnast won the competition? Would the meet organizers still hoist the flag for a nation that Japan didn’t recognize?

Unless you lived through the Cold War, it’s hard to imagine the complicated diplomatic hoops countries had to jump through. The following article painstakingly details many of the scenarios that the Japanese meet organizers had to consider when inviting East Germans to a gymnastics competition.

The East German Flag, 1959 – 1973
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1969 Japan MAG USSR WAG

1969: Olga Korbut’s Win at the Japan vs. USSR Dual Meet

At the 1969 European Championships, Mikhail Voronin was looking ahead to the competition between Japan and the Soviet Union. However, he didn’t end up competing in the meet.

But you know who did compete? 14-year-old Olga Korbut.

And you know who won the meet? Olga Korbut.

Let’s take a look at what happened and watch some of her routines…

Länderkampf BR Deutschland, UdSSR und Kanada 1972 in Schwäbisch Gmünd, Lyudmila Turishcheva (li.) und Olga Korbut (beide UdSSR) Countries struggle BR Germany USSR and Canada 1972 in Schwäbisch Gmünd Lyudmila Turishcheva left and Olga Korbut both USSR

Note: This photo is not from 1972 — not the 1969 dual meet with Japan.
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1967 Japan Training

1967: Training MAG and WAG in Japan

What was it like training in Japan in the late 1960s? How many hours did they train? How was the Japanese gymnastics system set up? Did they use spotting belts?

Let’s take a look…

TOKYO, JAPAN – JULY 14: Kazue Hanyu competes in the Balance Beam during the Artistic Gymnastics Mexico Olympic Qualifying at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium on July 14, 1968 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)