The Olympic Games Return to Tokyo with Some Familiar Storylines

By Erin Redihan

This summer the Olympic Games return to Tokyo for the first time in fifty-six years, bringing with them some familiar storylines that resemble the news leading up to the 1964 summer contests. The last time Tokyo hosted, the Cold War was not quite raging, but still impacted how the Soviet and American teams approached the Games—and each other. In 1964 the venue was newsworthy in itself, as Tokyo was the first non-western city to host the Games. This year the Games will expand in terms of the sports competed.  While the world is no longer mired in the Cold War as it was in 1964, and the Games have since transpired on another continent, South America, there are a couple of interesting parallels that can be drawn between those contests and the storylines to watch as this summer’s Olympics draw near.

Yoshinori Sakai running to light the Olympic cauldron. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s begin with a look at 1964. The Cold War dynamic had long become normalized on both sides of the Iron Curtain and, in the era of the Berlin Wall and the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the conflict had stabilized. Though it was not evident when the Olympic torch was lit, détente was on the horizon. Both superpowers were facing domestic issues that were becoming impossible to ignore. As the American public continued to mourn President John F. Kennedy’s shocking death, the civil rights movement was growing increasingly divisive. Much to Lyndon Johnson’s chagrin, the passage of the Civil Rights Act in July had not brought immediate racial equality. Between the Tokyo and Mexico City games in 1968, several African American athletes would debate whether to boycott the Olympics to draw attention to the ongoing segregation. The Mexico City Games then culminated this debate with John Carlos’ and Tommie Smith’s demonstration on the medal stand. Not long after, the Vietnam War imploded, distracting Johnson’s attention further from both the Cold War and his own ambitious domestic policy agenda.

In Moscow, General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev’s failures were increasingly palpable to all. Khrushchev, in capitulating to Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, had shown weakness while damaging the Soviet Union’s fledgling relationship with Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba. Internal discontent with his leadership began well before the Cuban Missile Crisis. He announced plans to cut back on mandatory education at a time when Soviet students were falling behind the west in math and science. The Soviet standard of living was also lagging, to the point that nostalgia for the Joseph Stalin years was on the rise. At a time when doubts about his capabilities were growing, Khrushchev seemed dangerously out of touch.[1] Realizing this, the Central Committee removed Khrushchev from power during the Tokyo Games. Leonid Brezhnev would soon emerge as his replacement. Between Tokyo and the Mexico City contests, the Prague Spring uprisings would show that discontent in the eastern bloc went a bit deeper than dissatisfaction with Khrushchev.

Despite these growing problems, the sporting Cold War dragged on as the Tokyo Games neared. Throughout his shortened presidency, Kennedy had urged the American public to embrace sport and physical fitness. In articles for Sports Illustrated and his work to resolve the long-running disputes among the country’s amateur sporting bodies, Kennedy made clear the importance of sport to a healthy society.

I believe that as a nation we should give our full support, for example, to our Olympic development program. We will not subsidize our athletes as some nations do, but we should as a country set a goal, not in the way the Soviet Union or the Chinese do… generally to produce a standard of excellence for our country which will enable our athletes to win the Olympics-but more importantly than that, which will give us a nation of vigorous men and women.[2]

In this speech, given at the 1961 National Football League Hall of Fame Banquet, Kennedy not only discussed American sport, but gave a nod to the Cold War too.

Soviet sportswriters embraced the athletic Cold War too. One area of pride was the Soviets’ improvement in basketball, likely because this had been an American-dominated sport to this point. The official Games preview noted, “It is not so long ago that Soviet basketballers were inferior to the sportsmen of the USA, the original home of basketball. But, today, Soviet teams—not only the selected team of the country, but also those of Soviet republics—frequently beat their American rivals.”[3] But the Tokyo Games did not quite go as planned for the Soviet team. They found themselves in a position comparable to the Americans after the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome—asking what went wrong, a situation not lost on American sportswriters. The Soviets won the overall medal count once again, yet they did not perform nearly as well as most had anticipated.

New York Times columnist Arthur Daley phrased this letdown bluntly. “Humiliating is the only word that fits the Soviet debacle. The Russians won only two men’s events. The United States won 12, which is as many as the rest of the world combined. …It had to be close to disaster for the Red brothers. They have slipped back, and it has to be mortifying for them to realize that the American way is the better way.”[4] The demanding Soviet government had predicted and had come to expect excellence in all sports. That the Americans had triumphed in the most hotly contested sports—track and basketball—intensified this disappointment. Neither superpower could truly claim supremacy in Tokyo, though the United States inched closer to Moscow in terms of the total medal count. The challenges that both countries would come to face between the 1964 and 1968 Olympics would relegate sports to the back burners of the Cold War propaganda machines.[5]

Moving forward to this year’s Tokyo Games, the Cold War has receded into memory, but Russian-American relations remain uneven. Since Boris Yeltsin became president of the new Russian Federation in 1992, the two countries have had an inconsistent and unpredictable relationship. Although sometimes it seemed as though a breakthrough was on the horizon, the rise of Vladimir Putin to the presidency on New Year’s Eve 1999, and his gradual consolidation of power, has returned a sense of mistrust between the two governments. Accusations of Russian interference in United States elections in 2016 as well as American disapproval of the ongoing Russian military intervention in the Ukraine since 2014 have pushed relations to perhaps their lowest point since the first Ronald Reagan administration.

At the same time, both countries face ongoing domestic challenges and tumult that could deflect attention from the Olympics. The political in-fighting in the US coupled with a heightened focus on the 2020 presidential election may overshadow the Games. In Russia, Putin’s increasingly autocratic tendencies and the constitutional changes he announced in January elicit comparisons to Soviet-style leadership and propaganda efforts.[6] Yet, a return to a formal, Cold-War style Russian-American rivalry comparable to the original Tokyo contests is unlikely. In 2019, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) banned Russia from international competition for the next four years, making its athletes ineligible to compete in 2020.

Concerns about athletes doping were on the rise during the 1960s, but professionalism of Soviet athletes emerged as a more troubling issue. At the same time, most American Olympians worked full-time and were prohibited from accepting payment of any kind for their sporting endeavors. While the Soviet sporting bodies argued that their elite athletes were amateurs, in reality most held state-sponsored jobs that required little work beyond training for and achieving athletic glory. Given this disparity in how athletes on both sides of the divide financed their athletic pursuits and the flaunting of amateur tenets in the eastern bloc, perhaps the political charged sports commentary prevalent in many American newspapers seemed justified.

The debate over professionalism at the Games has subsided since the 1980s, with the IOC relaxing its amateurism rules after Avery Brundage’s retirement in 1972. Today’s controversy involving Russian athletes centers on the widespread use of banned substances. In December 2019, WADA recommended that Russia be banned from the Olympics and other world sporting events for four years because of Russia’s long-running cheating scandal.[7] Technically, athletes are allowed to appeal the ban and compete under a neutral flag. Many are likely to do so, considering 168 Russian athletes competed independently at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang during another WADA ban. Two of these athletes tested positively for banned substances at the Games and were stripped of their medals. This led to calls for stricter standards and harsher punishments.[8] At this point, however, neither is likely.

Another similarity between the 1964 and 2020 Tokyo Games is how the Games themselves continue to expand. In 1964, Japan became the first non-western country to host the Games. Outside of Australia, only European nations and the US had played host until this point. The selection of Tokyo was significant in two ways. First, there was the nonwestern aspect. This showed that the cities bidding to host the Games were outside the traditional Olympic audience, which demonstrated that the Games were drawing interest beyond the west. In turn, it was significant that the IOC acknowledged this by selecting Tokyo, a city that had also bid for the 1960 contests but lost out to Rome. Second, the choice of Japan helped to signify the reemergence of Japan on the world stage in the aftermath of World War II. As the war retreated further into collective memory, the perceived need by the global community to punish Japan was also receding.[9] Today, the cities bidding and winning the rights to host the Games come from all over the world. Going back to the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, the first held in South America, four consecutive Olympics (Rio, PyeongChang, Tokyo, and the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing) have or will take place outside of the US and Europe, further demonstrating their worldliness.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Games were expanding dramatically in terms of where they were held and who was participating. Though the earlier contests were dominated by western nations (and these countries would continue to take home the majority of the medals), many recently decolonized countries were starting to participate. For instance, athletes from 72 countries competed at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne.[10] That figure increased to 83 in Rome in 1960 and then 93 in Tokyo.[11] This was a result of not only the existence of new sovereign nations, but also of increased viewership and interest garnered by satellite television.[12] As more countries began to broadcast the Games, more athletes aspired to compete. The globalization of the Games has continued since to the point that the contests staged today would be unrecognizable to a competitor from the pre-Cold War contests.

Today’s Olympic expansion centers on the types of sports competed in the Games. The 2020 Olympics will include five new sports: karate, surfing, skateboarding, baseball/softball and sport climbing. Technically, baseball and softball, have been Olympic sports previously but neither was part of the 2016 Games. These additions are part of an IOC initiative to keep the Games relevant to young athletes and spectators. According to IOC President Thomas Bach, “We want to take sport to the youth. With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect any more that they will come automatically to us. We have to go to them.”[13] The addition of these sports will not increase the total number of athletes competing. Instead, these efforts show a commitment to keeping the Games relevant to new audiences and drawing in new spectators, which parallels the changing dynamic of the Games in 1964.

In summary, these Tokyo Games offer some interesting parallels to the 1964 events. While we tune in to the Games to watch sports, it is often the stories from off the field that keep spectators interested. Cold War narratives played this role and lured many to follow the action.  Similar narratives may reemerge this summer as the media covers Russian athletes who choose to compete despite the WADA ban. Will they be a source of sympathy, given their lack of flag and anthem, should they win gold? Or will there be open speculation about doping and drug use? And then there are the new sports being contested. Will the “Californication” of the Games draw in a new generation of fans?[14] Or perhaps turn off some of the Games’ purists? We’ll have to watch this summer to find out.

Erin Redihan is a history lecturer at Worcester State University who specializes in Cold War history. She is the author of The Olympics and the Cold War, 1948-1968 and an associate editor of the New England Journal of History.


[1] Walter McDougall, …the Heavens and the Earth, (New York: Basic Books, 1985), 282-284.

[2] John F. Kennedy, “Address in New York City at the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame Banquet,” 5 December 1961, American Presidency Project, Available 11 April 2013,

[3] The Soviet Olympic Team, 1964, (Moscow: Novosti Press Agency Publishing House, 1964), 23.

[4] Arthur Daley, “Sports of the Times: The Red-Faced Reds,” The New York Times, 23 October 1964, 47.

[5] Erin E. Redihan, The Olympics and the Cold War, 1948-1968: Sport as Battleground in the US-Soviet Rivalry,

(Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2017).

[6] Masha Gessen, “The willful ambiguity of Putin’s latest power grab,” The New Yorker, 16 January 2020.

[7] Tariq Panja, “Russia banned from Olympics and global sports for 4 years over doping,” The New York Times, 9 December 2019.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Redihan.

[10] “Melbourne/Stockholm 1956,” International Olympic Committee. Retrieved from

[11] “Rome 1960,” International Olympic Committee, Retrieved from; “Tokyo 1964,” International Olympic Committee, Retrieved from

[12] Todd Kortemeier, “How the 1964 Games brought live Olympics sports to the United States for the first time,” United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, 9 January 2019.

[13] “IOC approves five new sports for Olympic Games Tokyo 2020,” International Olympic Committee, 3 August 2016.

[14] Daniel Reiche, Success and failure of countries at the Olympic Games, (New York: Routledge, 2016), 59.

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