Artistic Gymnastics

Japanese gymnasts and the art of winning gold

In October 1964, Tokyo hosted their first Olympic Games. To celebrate, Tokyo 2020 will bring you some of the most incredible and historic moments that took place 56 years ago. In the latest part of the series, we take a look at how Japan re-wrote Olympic history on home soil. 

The background

Gymnastics is one of Japan’s most successful Olympic sports, and they've accrued a total of 98 medals (31 gold, 33 silver and 34 bronze).

Aside from the likes of Nadia Comaneci, Simone Biles, Věra Čáslavská and Larisa Latynina, there is one name that is synonymous with gymnastics in the country: UCHIMURA Kohei - a seven-time Olympic medallist.

One could say the legend of Japanese men’s gymnastics was born at the Tokyo 1964 Games, as the competition almost unfurled like a statement of intent from them to the world.

Japan had won nine medals including four gold in the men's gymnastics at Rome 1960 - but four years on they would look to go even further.

Yukio ENDO

The moment

ENDO Yukio and ONO Takashi led the Japanese challenge at Tokyo 1964, and they faced stiff competition in the individual events from the Soviet Union’s Boris Shakhlin and Viktor Lisitsky. In fact, Shakhlin had the better of Ono in the individual all-around event four years earlier by pipping him to gold.

Despite a successful outing in Rome, Japan was yet to win an Olympic individual gold medal in the all-around event and Endo took it upon himself to challenge the status quo.

Japan's male gymnasts had been training harder than ever to counter the Soviet Union with former Olympian UESAKO Tadao revealing the team's aim to reach a level that was beyond the ‘C’ grade - considered the toughest in gymnastics in terms of scoring.

Endo had been a top-class performer when it came to team events, winning gold in Rome, but he also began to make his mark in the individual competitions at the 1962 World Championships, where he won gold in the floor exercise.

Up against defending Olympic champion Shakhlin and newcomer Lisitsky in the individual all-around event, Endo produced a stunning performance to claim gold, while the two Soviet athletes had to settle for silver. Interestingly, no bronze medal was awarded with three silvers given to Lisitsky and Shakhlin, along with Endo’s compatriot Shuji Tsurumi.

After winning the first-ever individual all-around gymnastics gold for Japan, Endo bagged gold in the parallel bars and helped the team win gold in the all-around team event.

Japan and the Soviet Union were involved in a close-fought battle for superiority in the men’s gymnastics events, with the host nation coming out on top, winning five gold medals out of a possible eight.

HAYATA Takuji and YAMASHITA Haruhiro were the other individual gold medallists at Tokyo 1964, as Japan smashed the Soviet Union’s dominance in men’s gymnastics.

Although the Soviet Union won more medals in the end by virtue of their performance in the women’s events, Japan finished on top of the table with more golds and 10 medals in total. It was an astonishing achievement.

Men’s Artistic Gymnastics at Tokyo 1964

The host nation had a very successful run in Men’s Artistic Gymnastics at T...

What happened next

Their performance at Tokyo 1964 propelled the gymnastics team to greatness and elevated Endo to legendary status back home. In fact, his performances in Tokyo and the World Championships two years later (by claiming two individual silvers) earned him the honour of being the flagbearer for Japan at the Mexico City 1968 Games.

Japanese male gymnasts have since continued the legacy created by their predecessors in the 1960s and achieved success at several editions of the Olympics since.

With seven Olympic medals and 10 World Championship golds, Uchimura Kohei is considered by many to be the greatest male gymnast of all time. However, the likes of Uchimura owe a lot to the legacy created by the Japanese men’s gymnastics team in 1960s, especially at Tokyo 1964.

And with Tokyo 2020 beckoning, the host nation are set to pull out all the stops to inspire a whole new generation into the sport.