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Exhibition: Taking on the World and Pushing Limits—The Era of Pioneers in Waseda Sports

Hisanori Ito
Research Associate, Waseda University Archives

[Photograph 1] Exhibition poster

With Tokyo’s selection as a host of the 2020 Summer Olympics and the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics being held, Olympic-related topics have been the subject of much attention since last year. As part of this trend, I feel that there is also increasing interest in the philosophy and history of the Olympics.

“Victory is no means for judging the success of an individual; rather, success should be judged by effort,” said Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who is known as the father of the modern Olympic Games. Our exhibition features Waseda sports pioneers who embodied the sportsmanship idealized by Fredy and left their mark on the Olympic history (Photograph 1).

The exhibition places a particular focus on the Waseda University Track and Field Team, which was founded almost 100 years ago. The Track and Field Team had its golden age during the turbulent times of the early Showa Period. The team was led by 4 athletes featured in our exhibition—Yoshio Okita, Mikio Oda, Chuhei Nambu and Shuhei Nishida (Photograph 2). Many people may have heard of these athletes before.

[Photograph 2] From left: Yoshio Okita, Mikio Oda, Chuhei Nambu and Shuhei Nishida

Each of these 4 athletes left outstanding records in Japanese and world track and field events. It would be possible to fill an entire venue with materials and photographs on any one of the athletes. However, instead of simply explaining the mark left by these 4 athletes, our exhibition places a spotlight on their character and friendship. These men did not rise to the level of global athletes by relying only on innate talent. Instead, they were driven by different sources of motivation and spurred by friendly rivalry. An episode of this drama is introduced below.

Although Oda and Nambu would later win gold medals, their encounter with track and field came relatively late. They started competing in the early 1920s, when they were in their final years of junior high school. However, there was still little recognition for track and field events at that time, and it was difficult for them to find coaches or instructive materials.

Consequently, Oda and Nambu were starved for information. They questioned how to jump 1 centimeter farther and how to run 1 second faster. In other words, before becoming independent competitors, the two athletes were forced to blaze through uncharted territory. As a result, they understood the importance of friends and rivals for exchanging information and sharing techniques.

After entering Waseda University, these pioneers spent their days training on a field (actually, it would be best described as an empty lot) with a circumference of about 280 meters. The field was located near the current location of the building for the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences. The athletes practiced every day, as evidenced by the haiku poem “snowy days and Okita throwing the discus.” One story recounts how runners practiced passing a baton on the road to a public bathhouse. The athletes shared their living and practice time.

[Photograph 3] Chuhei Nambu’s uniform (upper photograph; from the collection of the Historical Museum of Hokkaido) and Mikio Oda’s spikes (bottom photograph; from the collection of Kaita Town, Aki County, Hiroshima Prefecture

Okita and Oda had been good friends since they entered Hiroshima Daiichi Junior High School. They lived at the same boarding house, using a tatami mat room as a track and the lintel of sliding doors as a high jump bar. Nambu, who came to Tokyo from Hokkai Junior High School, motivated himself by posting a picture of the renowned athlete Oda in his room. In turn, since Nambu was unable to return home during vacations, Oda invited him to his hometown. In this way, the athletes established a close relationship (Photograph 3).

In 1928, Okita, Oda, Nambu and Nishida were all members of the Waseda Track and Field Team, marking the beginning of the team’s golden age. They had already overwhelmed the competition in Japan and set their sights on overseas. Thanks to the efforts of Coach Tadaoki Yamamoto, they were able to compete against the Achilles Club, a group composed of students and alumni from England’s famous Cambridge University and the University of Oxford. Although the Japanese team lost by a slim margin, it marked the first time that an independent Japanese track and field team competed overseas.

Shortly afterwards, Oda became the first Japanese gold medalist by winning the triple jump at the Amsterdam Olympics. Oda had finally become a world champion. On the day before the finals, Oda felt the crushing weight of pressure. However, he was finally able to sleep once he recalled the words of an Achilles Club member—“Competition is about giving your best effort, not about the final results.” I would also like to note that among the 16 members of the Japanese men’s track and field team, 9 members were from the Waseda Track and Field Team.

Following the Olympics, Oda and Nambu graduated from Waseda Universiy and began working in Osaka. They both continued to train hard. While competing in the same tournament on October 27, 1931, they both set new world records one after another (Oda set a triple jump record with a distance of 15.58 meters, while Nambu set a long jump record with a distance of 7.98 meters). It is no exaggeration to say that Nambu was inspired to set his record after witnessing Oda’s outstanding achievement. Although the Los Angeles Olympics were held the following year, Oda injured his foot immediately before the games and was unable to compete. In response to his friend’s misfortune, Nambu gave an outstanding performance en route to winning a gold medal in the triple jump and a bronze medal in the long jump.

Also winning a silver medal at the Los Angeles Olympics was Nishida (high jump). Originally, Nishida was a completely unknown competitor. However, after entering Waseda University, he began staying late to practice by himself. His effort captured the attention of the older Oda, who started to provide Nishida with advice. “I was so happy that I wanted to shout with joy after returning to my boarding house,” recalls Nishida.

[Photograph 4] Two friendship medals. Shuhei Nishida’s medal (Waseda University Archives) is on the left and Sueo Oe’s medal (private collection) is on the right.

Nishida carved his name into sports history at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he engaged in thrilling competition with his rival Sueo Oe (Keio University). Their competition resulted in the birth of the “friendship medal.” Nishida and Oe stopped competing once it became clear that one of them would win a silver medal and the other would win a bronze medal. Upon returning to Japan, they cut the medals in half and stuck the different halves together to create a half-silver, half-bronze medal for each of them (Photograph 4). Following World War II, the tale of this friendship medal was published in textbooks as a heroic story. The published version was written by Mikio Oda, who was the object of Nishida’s respect and who had continued to watch over Nishida.

Of course, there is no point in making suppositions—but what if the war was averted and the Tokyo Olympics (cancelled due to the escalating Sino-Japanese War) had been held as planned? Surely, there would have been another star who would win glory following Nishida and his contemporaries. Unfortunately, after that Japan entered an age in which track and field competitions were referred to as “track and field combat.”

Around the time that war broke out between Japan and America, Nambu visited Okinawa several times to coach at schools. However, most of the students that Nambu met there would perish before the end of the war. Moreover, although Nishida somehow managed to survive and return to Japan, his friendly rival Oe from the Berlin Olympics was killed by gunfire.

After surviving the turbulent period of World War II, the 4 pioneering athletes dedicated themselves to cultivating athletes who would compete overseas. In other words, the 4 Waseda athletes embarked on the second phase of their life in track and field. Then, the Tokyo Olympics were held 50 years ago on October 10, 1964. 24 years after the initially-planned Tokyo Olympics were cancelled due to war, the Olympics were finally held in their native country of Japan. Undoubtedly, the 4 athletes were filled with countless different emotions when greeting the Tokyo Olympics. At that time, Oda served as Director of the Strengthening Committee for the Japan Track and Field Team, while Nambu was Assistant Director (appointed by Oda), Okita (Coach of the Waseda University Track and Field Team) and Nishida served as coach.

On a final note, our exhibition has gathered a variety of precious materials which normally cannot be seen under one roof. Visitors can view Oda’s spikes, Nambu’s uniform from the Waseda Track and Field team, and the friendship medals of Nishida and Oe. In addition to people affiliated with Waseda, I hope that this exhibition will be visited by sports enthusiasts and even people who normally have little contact with sports. There are new discoveries to be made by studying the past.

Spring 2014 Exhibition: Taking on the World and Pushing Limits—The Era of Pioneers in Waseda Sports

Date: March 24 (Mon) to April 25 (Fri), 2014
Venue: 1F Exhibition Room of Aizuyaichi Museum, Building No. 2, Waseda Campus, Waseda University
Hours: 10:00 to 17:00 (no admission after 16:30) *Free admission
Closed: Sundays
Sponsor: Waseda University Archives (*During the exhibition period, poster images and leaflets can be downloaded from the link on the left.)

Hisanori Ito
Research Associate, Waseda University Archives

Born in 1978. Completed the Doctoral Program at the Waseda University Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Assumed his current position in April 2011. Specializes in modern Japanese history.