At Bangkok's well-scrubbed national stadium one scene became almost a ritual. The public address announcer would proclaim that a victory ceremony was about to start and a Japanese athlete, or more probably two of them, in bright red sweat clothes would amble onto the field to accept his due. Three Thai beauty queens in shiny, ankle-hugging silk dresses and high, complicated hairdos would march forward bearing gold, silver and bronze medals (the gold one more often than not went to a Japanese), and at the opposite side of the stadium a scruffy police band would break into Kimigayo, the Japanese anthem.
This year's Asian Games, the fifth held since they were inaugurated in 1951, would have been a whole lot more fun if the Japanese had not come. Their victories became so predictable that the games lacked suspense. Japan won 78 of the 140 gold medals being offered, plus 53 silver and 33 bronze medallions. Its flashy distance runners were often dueling each other for first place, blithely lapping a huffing field. At the swimming pool Japan won all 28 events, and since there was no band at the pool, three recordings of Kimigayo were soon worn out.
The Japanese took it all in their strides, accepting congratulations at the finish line with weak smiles. Back at their headquarters at the neat games village they charted their progress on two long cardboard sheets, but they only bothered to underline the names of those who had won gold medals.
Red China, which claims some topflight sprinters and supposedly the world's best high jumper in competition today, might have challenged the Japanese, but was excluded. Instead, it entered the rival games of the emerging Asian nations held a few weeks earlier in Pnompenh, Cambodia against North Korea, North Vietnam and Cambodia, which is forever having border disputes with Thailand. But more conspicuously absent from Bangkok were the Russians, who are classified by the games authorities as Europeans, a judgment that would surprise a lot of Siberians. Nor did Australia qualify. The Japanese claim that the athletic Australians live in Oceania, which may be true, but the Aussies were not represented at the South Pacific Games in Noumea, New Caledonia either. These ran almost concurrently with the Asian Games and were strictly for the people of Oceania. But 18 countries did make it to Bangkok, including Israel and Taiwan, neither of which was able to compete in the 1962 Asian Games in Indonesia because Sukarno refused to invite them. So much for the complicated ethnology of it all.
January 2, 1967
Japan had many heroes and heroines in everything from Ping-Pong to the pole vault. None did better than Michiko Kihara, a stringy 18-year-old high school girl who won the 100-and 200-meter freestyle swimming races and then anchored two successful relay teams. The most dramatic Japanese victory, though, came in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Willowy Taketsugu Saruwatari, who works for Yawata Iron and Steel (as do a large number of Japan's athletes), was content to let Iran's Mohammed Mir Husseini lead for all but the last lap of the race. Then, turning it on, he was pulling steadily away to an easy victory when, kerplunk, he went face down in the water at the last water hurdle. He picked himself up and hurried off—and still won the race by 15 yards.
The games' most controversial athlete never participated. Mona Sulaiman, the Philippines' star sprinter, refused to take a test to verify that her sex was indeed fair. At first, in fact, she would not come to the games. Then, apparently succumbing to heavy pressure at home, she changed her mind. Amid great publicity Mona flew to Bangkok just before the games started, but once there refused to see a doctor. Unyielding officials still insisted on the sex test, and Mona again said no. Amid even greater publicity she returned to Manila, where she was soon summoned before a congressional committee.
Still left unanswered is the question of whether Mona is a Filipino or Filipina. "She acts like a girl, but she talks like a man. I think she's a girl," concluded one of Mona's teammates. Team Physician Antonio Vergara was less generous. "Of course, I have my doubts," he said. The question is more than academic. In 1962 Mona set Asian Games records in the 100-and 200-meter dashes—records that still stand.
The best answer to the sex test was the one rendered by Israel's Debra Markus, a modern-dance teacher at The Hebrew University. "My husband never had any doubts," she said, and then went on to prove that she could run, too, dramatically winning the 200-meter race for women with a last-minute lunge at the tape that nipped Japan's onrushing Miyoko Tsujishita. Debra hit the dirt track hard, fell unconscious and had to be carried off the field on a stretcher, but an hour later she was spry enough to accept a gold medal at the victory ceremony.
Israel, as it turned out, was the surprise team of the games. Although it was represented by only 23 entrants, one of the smallest contingents, almost every one of its athletes ended up with a medal. The Israelis gave the Japanese the stiffest challenges they faced in the swimming events, and Israel's towering basketball team, with a starting five who averaged 6 feet 2, ran away from the smaller Asians.
India was another impressive also-ran. Although the decision to send its team came less than a week before the games started—there was a cabinet-level squabble over how much foreign exchange could be spared—its athletes did wonderfully well in track and field, winning two middle-distance races, the discus, the shotput and the high jump. Its brawny field-hockey team, composed almost entirely of bearded, long-haired Sikhs, beat Pakistan for the championship in a bruising game in which Kashmir as well as a gold medal seemed to be at stake.
No national team took itself quite so seriously as the bellicose Iranians, who were an interesting counterpoint to the soft-spoken Orientals. The day of the opening ceremonies the Iranians threatened to pull out of the games if they could not march ahead of the Israelis, who, according to the Thai alphabet, should have come first. Treating the Iranians as spoiled children, the Israelis solved the problem by letting them go ahead.
A few days later the Iranians were again threatening to quit the games. After losing to Japan in a riotous soccer game, Hussein Mobasher, president of the Iranian Football Federation, stormed onto the field to protest to the hapless Thai referee, a fellow who listed his name as P. Rophoethong. The chunky Rophoethong replied with a fast right jab to the eye and then drifted back into a layer of policemen. "I would have hit him back," said the incensed Mobasher, "but there were too many people around." The Iranian delegation huffily protested that it was going to walk out of the games unless an official apology was forthcoming, but the apology never came, and the Iranians decided to stay anyway.
As for the home-town Thais, they were busily acquiring for themselves the reputation of being the worst sports in Asia. When their soccer team was eliminated by a more agile Japanese team, the Thai players took to slugging the Japanese behind referees' backs but in full view of 40,000 fans, most of whom thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle. In basketball the Thais proved more adept at elbowing than at shooting and, as a result, reached the finals, although there were clearly better teams in the tournament. In a semi-final game against Korea, Forward Rangsan Supachitranan guarded Korea's star Shin Dong Pa by ducking down every time Shin went up for a jump shot. When Shin came down, he met an elbow or a shoulder that usually sent him sprawling and finally made him gun shy. On one inspired occasion Supachitranan managed to duck a shoulder under Shin's crotch to catch him on the way down.
The city of Bangkok, however, survived the games without visibly suffering from the ordeal and the Thais, who are not noted for precision (one of the popular phrases in their language is taam ngaan sabai, which means work leisurely), did a tolerably good job of organizing the games. A miscalculation in erecting the new swimming pool, leaving it an inch short of 50 meters, was corrected a month before the games began. Most events started at the time they were supposed to. Dozens of Asian Games records were set, but only two, both world records in weight lifting, were of international consequence. The Japanese, who set most of the records and should have been pleased, were not particularly. To them the games were merely warm-ups for the 1968 Olympics, and their coaches would have been happier if there had been more competition. Determined to make a better showing than they had at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, where they won no major gold medals, they have developed ambitious long-range training programs in track and field and in swimming. The programs, explains Noriyuki Sakurai, a cautious gentleman who is in charge of foreign affairs for the Japan Amateur Sports Association, consist simply of "training people at a younger age and training more trainers." In Bangkok two weeks ago that, at least, seemed logical enough.