The Olympics Games represent a high standard high among sporting events, not just in athletic prowess but in the ethos that surrounds them. And at no time is the “Olympic Spirit” more important than in periods of real-world conflict and prejudice. And when Japanese pole vaulters and pals Shuhei Nishida and Sueo Oe realized they were in a tiebreak at the 1936 Berlin games, they devised a plan that chose friendship over victory.
The history of sport can often be traced by its great rivalries. Indeed, if you were a fan of tennis in the 1970s and 80s, you probably watched with bated breath to see who would win the latest clash between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, or Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. More recently, the first part of the 21st century has been dominated by the battles of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, or sisters Venus and Serena Williams.
And it’s unsurprising that many sporting rivalries come to a head at the Olympics. It is, after all, one of the biggest sporting events in the world and every great athlete wants chance to win an Olympic gold. Indeed, the battle for such glory was even the subject of a BAFTA and Oscar-winning film in 1981.
Chariots of Fire tells the story of Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, who ran at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. Abrahams was Jewish and challenged anti-Semitism with his success. Meanwhile, Liddell was a devout Christian who believed his running was a way to honor God. Eventually, the latter did not enter his preferred race of 100 meters as it fell on the Sabbath, and it was eventually won by the former. Liddell instead won a surprising gold in the 400 meters.
More recently, the dominance of record-breaking swimmer Michael Phelps meant an array of others wanted to challenge his crown. Fellow American Ryan Lochte and South African Chad le Clos have both had enough success to be considered rivals to the swimmer, though Phelps himself constantly came back stronger.
Meanwhile, the original Olympics took place in Ancient Greece. They began in around 776 B.C. and continued until roughly 393 A.D., if not later. Greece was once one of the great civilizations of the ancient world, and around 40,000 spectators were attending the event at its height.
Like today, the Olympics were a series of sporting contests designed to test athletes to the limit. However, back then participants actually competed completely naked and regulations were minimal. Boxing in particular saw a lack of time limits, weight classes or a formal scoring system. Indeed, there was event the risk of death in boxing and other sports.
Indeed, some sports in the ancient Olympics will be familiar to fans of the modern event. They included discus, javelin and the long jump. Others, such as chariot racing and the pankration – a no-holds-barred mix of boxing, wrestling and street-fighting – are now more notes of historical interest.
But there was more to the ancient Olympics than sport. That’s because they were also a religious celebration. For the first 250 years, the games took place at Olympia, a town in the Peloponnese that was alleged to have once been home to Zeus. In Greek mythology, Zeus was king of the gods and there was an altar to him in Olympia, which for many years was used as the finishing point for races.
According to one myth it was Zeus’ son, the demigod Herakles – also known as Hercules – who founded the Olympics to celebrate his father. The first stadium was built in the area of Zeus’ sanctuary. Olive wreaths were given to winners, cut from Zeus’ sacred olive tree, which also happened to mark the races’ finishing line.
For most of the year, Olympia was a mostly quiet location and the athletics stadium was even used for growing wheat. And then for one week athletes, artists, orators and tourists from around Greece would descend on the site. It was not just about the sports, indeed anyone who wanted the chance to be noticed at the busiest event in the calendar could show up and advertise their wares.
Meanwhile, in 480 B.C., Persia attempted to invade Greece, and the city states agreed to unite to produce an army and defend their homeland. But it wasn’t as easy as it sounds, because the conflict overlapped with the Olympics, and the men who would have been fighting in the army instead wanted to compete in the games.
For women, the Olympics was a closed shop, as they weren’t allowed to compete. Some, however, managed to make use of a clever loophole. In chariot racing, the owners of the vehicles were declared winners, rather than those who rode them. And as women could own chariots, Kyniska of Sparta managed to claim two victories without actively competing.
The Roman conquest of Greece then led to the decline of the games, as they viewed naked athletics as degrading. Meanwhile, Roman gladiatorial combat as a public show was considered completely unrelated to the Olympics as a sporting contest. And eventually, the Emperor Theodosius I banned the Olympics completely, due to the event’s association with paganism.
Amazingly, it was not until 1896 that the Olympics were reborn. Indeed, a number of individuals helped lead the creation of the modern sport. But the man most commonly attributed with the revival is French physical education specialist Pierre de Coubertin, who worked with British doctor William Penny Brookes.
However, earlier in the 19th century, what is now the modern Greek Olympiads had been taking place in Athens. A Greek poet called Panagiotis Soutsos had been advocating a return of the Olympics since 1833 and a man called Evangelis Zappas had been using it as inspiration for his Greek-only Olympics since 1859. Meanwhile, Brookes wanted to turn Zappas’ idea into an international event.
But it was Coubertin who made an official proposal for the games at a 1894 Paris conference on international sport. And despite an initial lack of enthusiasm, the proposal was voted through and the International Olympic Committee was created that same year. Indeed, this body is still responsible for organizing the games and ensuring they uphold the “Olympic Spirit.”
The first modern Olympic Games then took place in Athens in 1896. And James Connolly from the United States was the first man to become an Olympic champion in over 1,500 years when he won the triple jump. In total, more than 40 events were contested by over 240 athletes from 14 different countries.
And since that time, the Olympics have attempted to uphold both sporting excellence and the values of the event. They have also been used to promote unity and peace in divided times. And sportsmanship can become a symbol of ethical conduct that the whole world can admire and attempt to emulate.
Meanwhile, in 1924 a separate and alternative Winter Olympics was created. And both events take place over an Olympiad, or four-year interval. Initially, both games took place in the same year, but since 1986, they have occurred every two years.
Until 1971 all athletes competing in the Olympics were designated as amateur sportspeople, and they weren’t paid. Then, they were later paid some money to make up for having to miss time from their regular work. Indeed, professional athletes are now common in the games, though sports like boxing continue to use amateur contestants.
Today, the Olympics are considered to be world’s principle sports competition. At the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games for example, over 300 events were contested by more than 11,000 athletes from 207 countries, with males and females competing in most events. And winners do not win olive wreaths, but medals, with bronze representing third, silver second and gold as the winning prize.
Since the revival of the Olympics, the games have only been missed three times. The first came in 1916, during World War I. Meanwhile, the second and third cancellations occurred during WWII, in 1940 and 1944, when most of the world’s countries were mired in the global conflict. Indeed, there would not be another Olympics until 1948.
But it was the previous decade, the 1930s, which saw a host of seismic events which would lead to war and the Olympics’ cancellation. A stock market crash in 1929 helped lead the western world into a massive economic depression, which in turn played its part in facilitating Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany four years later. Further west, a civil war in Spain raged throughout the latter half of the decade, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths.
But despite the troubles in the world at the time, Berlin hosted the 1936 Summer Olympics. And the event managed to produce some extraordinary moments of sporting history. The most famous is probably the astounding performance of African-American athlete Jesse Owens. Indeed, even today, he is considered one of athletics’ greatest legends.
Not only was Owens an astonishing track-and-field athlete, he was also the antithesis of everything the Nazis stood for. Despite this, he won an astonishing four gold medals in 1936, and was seen as a direct refutation of the racist Nazi rhetoric that surrounded the games. Owens would go on to hold alone or share world records in every sprinting discipline as well as the long jump.
Another event at the 1936 Olympics was the pole vault. This is an event where athletes use a nearly 15-foot pole to propel themselves over an increasingly high bar. It has been conducted at the Olympics since 1896, though the women’s event was only added in 2000.
Pole vaulting began in roughly the 16th century, though there is proof that some form of the sport was practiced in Ancient Greece. Nevertheless, the modern version of it dates back to 1850s Germany. Poles were originally made of wood such as ash or hickory and were eventually replaced by carbon fiber, which is the most common material today.
Indeed, it was a pole vault competition during the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin that would cement the sport into the history books. As the night of August 5 drew in, five men remained in the last stage of the final, having cleared a height of 4.15 meters. And the event was being watched by around 25,000 people, all of whom witnessed the artificial lighting switch on as darkness fell.
At just 4.25 meters, American Bill Graber failed to clear the bar and lost his chance of a medal. But a 4.35 meter-vault allowed his countryman, Earle Meadows, to secure gold, though he later failed at 4.45 meters. Now, all that remained was a jump-off to decide silver and bronze.
A third American, Bill Sefton, failed to pass over the bar on his first try. And now, only two contestants remained: Japanese athletes Shuhei Nishida and Sueo Oe. According to the competition rules of, they would have to compete until one secured silver and the other was left with bronze – but the men refused.
But before we explore why the athletes made such a decision, let’s explore their lives. Shuhei Nishida was born in Japan in 1910 and his first pole vaulting successes came as a student. He competed in both the Student World Championships and the International University Games. Furthermore, between 1928 and 1935 he won a silver and two golds and picked up the prize at the Far East Championships in Japan in 1930.
In 1932 Nishida won a silver medal in the pole vault at the Los Angeles Olympics. His jump, at just over 4.2 meters, was a Japanese record, and only just over a centimeter behind American William Miller. When he competed in 1936, he was an engineering student at Waseda University and would later go on to work for the Hitachi Group.
Meanwhile, Sueo Oe was also a Japanese pole vaulter. Born in 1914, he was both a rival and friend to Nishida. In 1936, he was a student at Keio University. Unlike Nishida, he had never won an Olympic medal before. Meanwhile, three years after the event, Oe would join the Imperial Japanese Army, where he was killed in December 1941 on Wake Island.
But back to 1936, and Nishida and Oe have just refused to compete against one another at the Summer Olympics in Berlin. Indeed, neither had wanted to make the other fail, so they asked to share a joint honor. This baffled onlookers and officials alike, because there was no space for such a request in the rules. Consequently, the two athletes were denied.
Officials then handed the decision over who should take silver and bronze to the wider Japanese team. Earlier in the contest, Oe had taken two attempts to clear the 4.25 meter bar, while Nishida had done it in one. Consequently, the team then decided that Nishida should win the higher silver medal, but that wasn’t good enough for the two athletes.
Nishida and Oe then decided that if the Olympics wouldn’t award them a joint medal, they would do it themselves. So they took their medals to a jeweler back in Japan and had them both split in half. The halves of the silver medal were joined with that of the bronze. This created two hybrids, which later became dubbed “The Medals of Friendship.”
Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, Oe would later go on to join the Japanese Imperial Army and was killed in action in 1941, at the age of 27. Meanwhile, Nishida continued to be active in Japanese athletics after the Second World War finished. At the age of 41, he managed to come third at the 1951 Asian Games in New Delhi.
Nishida’s career also included time as an international referee. He also later managed Japan’s track-and-field team, before spending the 1950s and 1960s as chief executive of the Japan Amateur Athletic Federation. Later, he joined the Japanese Olympic Committee and 1989 he received the Olympic Order in Silver. Sadly, Nishida died of heart failure eight years later.
Meanwhile, Oe’s medal is privately owned, while Nishida’s was donated to Waseda University. Nevertheless, the two medals remain as a testament to sportsmanship and solidarity, even an in intolerant atmosphere such as that of Nazi Germany. And it serves as a constant reminder that the Olympics can be about much more than just sporting victories.