The day that Japan sent a message of peace to the world with its post-atomic bomb Olympics

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This October 10 marks 56 years since the cauldron was lit by Yoshinori Sakai, a 19-year-old boy born near Hiroshima two hours after the United States destroyed that city.

The Olympic Games Tokyo 1964, the first to be carried out in Asia, are considered the catalyst for Japan’s rebirth after World War II and a quest to stitch up the wounds that had caused the war and two atomic bombs dropped by the United States.

In that sense, the opening ceremony, of which This Saturday October 10 will be 56 years old, served to send the world a sign of fellowship, but also an invitation to remember one of the most chilling situations that society had experienced until then. It is that the one who lit the cauldron was Yoshinori Sakai, 19, born on August 6, 1945 near Hiroshima. Yes, the same day that city experienced atomic devastation.

That October 10, 1964, the Olympic torch completed a journey that had begun 50 days ago. The flame had been lit on August 21 in Olympia and had started a relay tour that had taken it to Istanbul, Beirut, Tehran, Lahore, New Delhi, Calcutta, Yangon, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Hong Kong and Taipei, before arriving in Japan on September 7.

He had crossed the country on four different routes. On October 9, the day before the opening party of the Games, the four flames had gathered for a ceremony in front of the Tokyo Imperial Palace, which was attended by a crowd.

Twenty-four hours later, the 85,000 people who packed the Olympic Stadium watched the parade of the 93 delegations; listened to speeches by the President of the Organizing Committee, Daigoro Yasukawa, the President of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, and the Emperor Hirohito; they heard the Olympic hymn sung by 350 choreographers; and saw Yoshinori Sakai running down the track.

At the time, Sakai was a freshman and a member of the Waseda University athletic team. At the end of August, he had been chosen to be the last reliever and the one in charge of lighting the Olympic cauldron.

Why? Sakai was born on Monday, August 6, 1945, in Miyoshi, 60 kilometers northeast of Hiroshima, just two hours after the Enola Gay dropped from just over 10,000 meters the first of the two atomic bombs that the United States dropped on Japanese territory (the second was on Nagasaki, three days later) and that took the life of around 140,000 people.

“My choice is proof of the great hopes that Japan places in the younger generation. Happily, I don’t know anything about war. 19 years have passed since that time and I have grown carefree in the atmosphere of freedom of a peace loving JapanSakai had said at the time of his appointment.

Dressed in a muscular white with the emblem of the rising sun on his chest, the young athlete, who ran into the National Stadium, ran down the ash track and climbed a long flight of flower-lined stairs to reach the top of one of the tribunes. There he held the torch aloft in his right hand and then brought it to the cauldron to light it.

Then 8,000 homing pigeons were released, the Japanese anthem was sung, and five jets drew the Olympic rings with colored smoke. Thus ended the party that gave the green light to the Games that Tokyo, the city that had been chosen to organize them 24 years earlier, but had not been able to do them due to the start of the war with China in 1937, a prelude to World War II.

To host these Games, Tokyo embarked on a plan to modernize its infrastructure that included the construction of the Metropolitan Highway and the commissioning of the first high-speed rail line, which linked the capital with Osaka, in addition to the construction of world-class sports venues, such as the Yoyogi National Stadium (hosted the swimming and ornamental jumps events) and the Nippon Budokan (venue for the judo competition).

After his planetary exposure during the opening ceremony of the Games, Yoshinori Sakai, whose parents had been athletes, had a short but outstanding career as an athlete: he won the silver medal in the 400-meter test and the gold medal in the 4×400 post in the 1966 Bankok Asian Games.

After graduating from college in 1968, he served as a commentator on the Fuji Television Network and had a long career as a journalist. He died on September 10, 2014, at the age of 69, as a result of a brain hemorrhage, in a Tokyo hospital.

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics featured the participation of 5,151 athletes (4,473 men and 678 women) from 93 countries, who competed in 163 events. They were the first to South Africa was not allowed to participate as a consequence of its policy of racial segregation. Nor could the athletes from Indonesia or North Korea intervene.

The competitions were a success of the convocation: more than two million entries for the different enclosures that housed tests. In addition, they were the first Games to be broadcast live via satellite to much of the planet. The audience was estimated to have been between 600 and 800 million viewers.

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