Yoshinobu Miyake and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics: No option but Gold

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Yoshinobu Miyake – two-time Olympic gold weightlifting champion

To meet the man who has achieved Olympic greatness, I must first walk through a narrow winding passage within the Komazawa-daigaku Olympic stadium, which has come alive on a Saturday afternoon as the city commemorates the 1964 Olympics.

A kids’ carnival has been set up on the large patch of grass outside. Inside, basketball matches for the wheelchair-bound are in session and in different rooms within the gymnasium, former Olympic champions have gathered to speak, to those who will listen, of moments they cannot easily forget.

I am led to a small sitting room in the basement of the gymnasium. A minder tells me that I have exactly forty minutes for the interview, and a few moments later, I hear the shuffling of footsteps. A door at the left corner of the waiting room opens, and Yoshinobu Miyake enters, unassuming, with no fuss or fanfare.

At only 1.54m tall, the 74-year-old has a diminutive frame but still manages to cut a figure of immense strength with his upright posture and wiry build. He grips my hand firmly in a handshake and offers a polite smile.

Easing himself into a black leather couch, he cuts to the chase quickly: “There are so many Olympians from the ’64 games. Why did you pick me?”

I tell him through the help of a translator that I had seen videos of him weightlifting and had found him very charismatic. This, aside from the fact that Miyake-san is regarded as among Japan’s most gifted Olympians in history.

True to Japanese form, he says “thank you” modestly and then asks, with a curious glint in his eye, if the videos from decades back are easily accessible today. I answer in the positive, and he makes no further comment, only grinning.

This reminds me instantly of that same energy and vigour I saw in a 24-year-old Miyake from videos of the past. Our interview begins.

Yoshinobu Miyake needs no introduction. The two-time Olympic gold medallist is widely considered as one of the best weightlifters of all time. In addition to competing in four Olympics (bagging two Golds and one silver over a span of 16 years), Miyake also won several world championships, set 25 world records and had a frog-styled lifting technique named after him – the Miyake pull.

As a 15-year-old school boy, Miyake first caught a glimpse on television of a weightlifter during the Melbourne Olympics in 1956: “I found it fascinating and entertaining, and that’s how I ended up here, with the Olympics as my life and the gold medal as the ultimate goal.”

“That was my dream. Weightlifting makes me feel like the harder I try, the more power and strength becomes visible, and I wanted to push myself further.”

Many people dream of achieving greatness, but few are able to fully realise it, and I ask Miyake if he knew he had the talent and strength to go far from the instant he set his heart on becoming a weightlifter.

He laughs and then merely says: “I love it, I was born to do this.” There is a twinkle in his eyes that suggests he voluntarily chooses to understate his ability.

The sportsman and now grandfather of five speaks in a measured tone throughout our interview, peppering comments with philosophical phrases to describe his state of mind during some of the most critical moments of his weightlifting career.

The 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics figures prominently in these memories.

Just four years earlier, at the 1960 Games in Rome, Miyake, the sixth son of an impoverished farmer and a housewife from Miyagi Prefecture, had already brought home a silver in the Men’s Bantamweight category.

It was the then-20-year-old’s first trip overseas, as well as his first time competing in a global arena.

“I believed I could get gold. I had the strength, power and capability. But I was too focused, too pressured, I couldn’t think of anything else – muga muchuu,” he says, to describe the state of being feverishly absorbed in the heat of the moment, rendering him unable to perform to the best of his abilities.

Like all hungry athletes, the end-result was far from enough.

“A silver wasn’t good, it was’t satisfying,” he says.

Miyake would get the chance to go for gold again four years later, but in vastly different circumstances – he would be fighting for victory right at home.

This time, the weightlifter switched to the featherweight category.

“There was no option but to win gold, in my mind,” he says in the months leading up to the Games.

“The Olympics was held in Japan in ’64 and was a symbol of our country’s recovery from wartime devastation. It was the first time it was held in Asia, and the weightlifting event was to be the first event, they were all counting on me to win. This medal was not just for me, I could give the Japanese people a sense of encouragement and braveness,” he explains.

I ask Miyake, who currently manages the weightlifting team at Tokyo International University, if that was an overwhelming amount of pressure to be dealing with as a 24-year-old, but he brushes this aside gently.

“It’s not really about pressure. It’s my duty. I was destined to do this, and if I couldn’t do it, who would?” he asks in return.

There is a firmness of stance when speaking of the concept of destiny that recurs as Miyake speaks, and which seems to have anchored his state of mind and his approach to competing. On the day of the weightlifting finals, he recalls, the nerves were mounting, but with his elderly parents and relatives in the stands, ware ni kaeru, he says poetically, to describe the state of “returning to my true self, and to reality.”

There was nothing left to do, but to fight. He fought hard, lifting a total of 397.5kg to clinch top spot on the podium.

“I realised then I just had to do what I was meant to do. I believed in myself, there was no forcing, no pressure. It was like returning to a state of nothingness.”

Success, he says, is a state of mind achieved when he let go of everything else – pride, ambition, fear.

That a young man could tune out the immense amount of the external noise that must have been surrounding him in the lead up to the biggest tournament of his life, is a testament to his mental fortitude.

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Miyake during the featherweight finals at the 1964 Olympics (picture from Olympic.org)

“When the Japanese flag flew and the national anthem played, I felt like my job was finally complete.”

Miyake is quick to respond to questions he feels he is equipped to answer, but will also flatly decline to do so, if he feels words cannot do justice to his feelings. There is something fascinating in the way he does not try so hard to make himself understood.

“I cannot explain this feeling,” he says twice, when asked to compare winning Gold at home, and then again, four years later in Mexico.

“In Mexico it was so different, there was no longer the whole country watching, it was an inexplicable experience, hard to put down in words” says Miyake, who later went on to become Japan’s national weightlifting coach. His brother Yoshiyuki would also clinch a weightlifting bronze in the ’68 Olympics.

Our forty minutes are quickly drawing to a close and I ask him to ponder about the future.

In six years, Tokyo will once again play hosts to the world when it organises the 2020 Olympic games. Miyake will be 80, and is unsure of the ways in which he will be able to contribute.

“But even from behind the frontlines, I want to give my support. I was helped so much in the ’64 Olympics, and it is my turn to repay this debt.”

He imparts one more philosophy – fighting fair and square – or seisei doudou – which he hopes all young athletes will bring with them to the Games.

“Accept the challenge, and don’t fight dirty.”

Right on cue, Miyake’s minder enters the room once more, signalling the end of our interview. He stands up, gives me another firm shake, smiles, and walks back out.

His departure is done in as unassuming a manner as the way he enters, but somehow, leaves an indelible impression of what forms the core of a truly great champion.

(This YouTube clip is of Miyake’s featherweight finals at the ’64 Olympics)

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