Tokyo 1964: A remarkable success story

Now seen as the real catalyst for Japan’s rebirth in the 20th century, the Games of the XVIII Olympiad, held in the Japanese capital, drew large crowds to all the competition venues. These Games also enjoyed global success due to the fact that they were the first in history to be broadcast live via satellite. Fifty-six years later, the Games are returning to Tokyo and look set to be just as successful!

Picture by IOC / KISHIMOTO

The Olympic Games Tokyo 1964 were a success not only on site – more than two million tickets were sold, with the public attending all the events in both indoor and outdoor venues (Opening and Closing Ceremony and the sports events) – but also on television, thanks to the first ever worldwide satellite broadcast, which enabled hundreds of millions of spectators (between 600 and 800 million) to follow the Games live on every continent.

Kicking off proceedings, the Olympic flame was lit in Olympia on 21 August 1964, and the Torch Relay attracted large crowds throughout Asia (in Istanbul, Beirut, Tehran, Lahore, New Delhi, Calcutta, Rangoon, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Manilla, Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei) before the flame’s arrival in Japan on 7 September. From there, the Relay crossed the country via four different routes and, once again, was seen by huge numbers of people. On 9 October, the four flames were reunited in a ceremony in front of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, with a big crowd in attendance.


The Olympic Stadium was completely sold out for the Opening Ceremony, with almost 85,000 enthusiastic spectators. And for each sport the athletes competed in packed-out venues: 519,000 spectators for athletics, 616,000 for football, 154,350 for swimming and diving, 66,621 for basketball and 47,120 for judo.

It is worth noting that a sensible pricing policy for ticketing was put in place by the Organising Committee, allowing for an estimate of the occupancy rate to be made. The Official Report noted that the calculations based on this formula had indicated that, with these rates being applied, 70 per cent of the total capacity would be reached. The actual result, however, far exceeded this estimate, due to certain misassumptions (for example that there would be differing levels of demand for preliminary rounds and finals) and the fruitful promotional efforts to sell tickets.

A two-shift system, with tickets sold for two sessions of a given sport on the same day, was also implemented. Photos in the Official Report show large numbers of Japanese queuing up to receive “priority numbers to entitle them to purchase Olympic admission tickets”. The levels of enthusiasm were remarkable. During the Games, athletes from every country were particularly surprised by the incredible fervour of the Japanese public, and frequently found themselves being mobbed by autograph seekers as they were leaving the Village.


Japanese athletes play their part in Games success

In parallel to the sporting event, Tokyo embarked on a process of modernising its post-war infrastructure, which included the construction of the Metropolitan Expressway and the high-speed Tokaido Shinkansen train line linking Tokyo and Osaka. This major modernisation of the capital, which marked the start of a period of economic growth in Japan, shone a global spotlight on the country’s near miraculous reconstruction, 19 years after the end of the Second World War.  

The enormous success of the 1964 Games was also down to the Japanese athletes, who performed remarkably well with a medal haul of 29 – 16 gold, 5 silver and 8 bronze. One of the most memorable moments was the gold medal won by the Japanese women’s volleyball team, who beat the formidable might of the Soviet Union in the final without dropping a single set.

Many foreign athletes also made real names for themselves in Japan. This was the case with Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila, for example, who retained his marathon title in the packed Tokyo streets, and Czechoslovakian gymnast Vera Caslavska, who won the hearts of many fans with her scintillating performances in the balance beam, vault and all-around events.



The Olympic Games in Tokyo were, of course, a catalyst in the country’s urban development and economic growth. But they also played a key role in the subsequent sporting boom that took place in Japan. It was thanks to the Games that sport became part of the day-to-day lives of the Japanese people. The popularity of football gave rise to the creation of a national league, and sports clubs began to thrive throughout the country. Twenty-eight years later, Japan and the Republic of Korea co-hosted the first ever FIFA World Cup to be held in Asia – the final, in Yokohama, was won by Ronaldo’s Brazil against Germany (2-0). This year, Japan is hosting the first Rugby World Cup to be staged on the continent.

Fifty-six years on, the Olympic Games are returning to Tokyo. The Nippon Budokan, which was built for the 1964 Games and has since become a major Japanese martial arts venue, will once again play host to the judo competitions. The venue, which is also used for concerts (the Beatles performed there in 1966), is likely to be sold out, if the first phase of the ticket sales lottery in May 2019 is anything to go by: more than 7.5 million people entered the ballot on the ticketing website, which was visited more than 24 million times. In total, 3.22 million tickets were sold in this opening phase, which ended in July. There can be no doubt that Japan is truly an Olympic nation.