Joe Frazier’s first step towards greatness

From a reserve to a gold medallist... we trace boxer Joe Frazier’s journey in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.


American boxer Joe Frazier fells his Soviet opponent Vadim Yemelyanov in the Olympic Super Heavyweight semifinal in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.   -  Getty Images

Joe Frazier was just a reserve in the US boxing team in 1964 in Tokyo when the Olympics first came to Asia. But shortly before the Games, Buster Mathias broke his thumb, so his place went to Frazier.

Frazier went on to become one of the 10 greatest heavyweights of all time and his bouts against the legendary Muhammad Ali — famously billed as the ‘Fight of the Century’ and the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ — and George Foreman are the stuff of legend.

But at the Tokyo Games, Frazier, the first man to beat Ali, was not a name that turned one’s head. Though he knocked out Uganda’s George Oywello, his first round opponent, he was floored by Australian Athol McQueen in the next before bouncing back to win.

By the semifinal, where he knocked out Soviet Union’s towering Vadim Yemelyanov, Frazier had become confident. But he ended up with a broken thumb.

Frazier did not leak the news, he was determined to fight for gold.

In the final, he faced Hans Huber, a bus mechanic who failed to make the German Olympic wrestling team. Frazier’s lethal hook was not very powerful that day but he fought smartly, using his right well and won a 3-2 decision.

A few years later, he became the world champion.

He made history too

Doping in sport is big news these days. Well, who was the first athlete to be disqualified from the Olympics for taking a banned substance?

Sweden’s Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall tested positive for excessive alcohol and was banned from the modern pentathlon event in the 1968 Mexico Games.

The hurdles turned the tables!

You wouldn’t believe this could happen. After the massacre that left 11 Israeli athletes and coaches dead, the decathlon was the event that reopened the 1972 Munich Olympics.

A classic contest was brewing between the European champion Joachim Kirst, American Jeff Bannister and Pole Ryszard Skowronek. But there was one chaotic high hurdles heat that virtually turned the event upside down.

First Kirst pulled a muscle after hitting a hurdle. Then, in the nearby lane, Jeff Bannister was thrown off stride, hit a hurdle, pushed another one over and was disqualified. The tumbling men distracted another Pole, Tadeusz Janczenko, so much that he slowed down considerably as he had to hurdle over Bannister and messed up his medal chances. A little later the other Pole, Skowronek, pulled a muscle during another hurdles heat, and was forced to withdraw.

But Ukrainian Mykola Avilov, competing for the USSR, kept his cool, worked up a huge lead, set personal bests in eight of the 10 events and set a world record on the way to the gold.

East Germans on a ‘high’

Four years earlier, they had failed to win a single gold at the Munich Games, but at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the East German women swimmers won 11 of the 13 events they took part in. However, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it was discovered in secret Stasi files that every East German swimmer at Montreal was part of a State-sponsored doing programme.

Playing under protest

It must have been heart-breaking for athletes to hear that their country would be boycotting the Olympics. When the US decided to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics, in protest against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan a year earlier, more than 60 other countries stayed away from the Games.

But 80 countries, including Britain and Australia, sent partial teams and many of them came up with their unique way of protesting.

The Belgians were not in their national colours during the opening ceremony, while Britain refused to allow its national anthem to be played during the medal ceremonies.

When a loser became the star

Everybody loves a winner, but at Los Angeles in 1984, a loser was the star. Ski instructor Gabriele Andersen-Scheiss, an American who ran the inaugural Olympic women’s marathon for Switzerland taking advantage of her dual citizenship, was almost finished as she headed into the stadium.

Andersen-Scheiss was weary and every dragging step was taken in pain as her left arm hung limply. She finally finished 37th, collapsing into the arms of three medical staff. Two hours later, she was back on her feet. By then she was a star and there was a long line of media personnel waiting to hear her.

Home ‘advantage’

At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the host Korea’s Park Shi-hun became the Olympic light-middleweight champion after five consecutive disputed wins. And in another incident, Korean boxing officials and security guards physically assaulted a New Zealand referee when he warned bantamweight Byun Jong-II for head butting.

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