Alan Hubbard

If there is a God, then He - or She - surely will make a divine intervention to ensure that the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games go ahead next year as scheduled.

It is imperative that the greatest sporting show on Earth finally takes place as a panacea to the gloom and doom that has enveloped us all thanks to COVID-19.

Of course there is always the hope that by next July we will all have had the jab which would make us immune and new normal returns to the old normal. Or the real normal. But would you bet on it?

Whatever, I firmly believe the Games are needed as a deserved tonic for us all, and must take place rain or shine, pandemic or no pandemic, crowd or no crowd.

The joyous sight of athletes from all sports and all nations doing their thing will not only cheer us up but remind us that there is life after the coronavirus, or even during it.

As an example take last weekend here in Britain. The thrilling Premier League derby on Saturday (October 17) between Liverpool and Everton uplifted locked down Merseyside. It was full of skilled entertainment, well-crafted goals and considerable controversy - just don’t mention the VAR to the Reds’ German manager Jurgen Klopp. 

A day later we Londoners were similarly enthralled by the televised match between Tottenham and West Ham which also lifted the spirits (especially of this Hammers fan) and enabled us to forget, temporary at least, the growing pandemonium over the pandemic. Two great draws in every sense.

If the virus is still with us, or even if it has been conquered, that feeling would be multiplied millions of times through the Olympics and make a world of difference to, well, the world.

Officials from Tokyo 2020 and the IOC have insisted the Games will go ahead in 2021 ©Getty Images
Officials from Tokyo 2020 and the IOC have insisted the Games will go ahead in 2021 ©Getty Images

This is not to suggest that the Games would be the best ever, at least as far as the sport itself is concerned. How could it be when so many of the 10,000 or so competitors may have had their training restricted by the virus shutdowns. Or even suffered from it themselves. But by golly, they will be eagerly watched and applauded come what may. And you can be sure the Japanese will put on a spectacle that will linger in the memory, despite the burgeoning obstacles and headaches outlined by my insidethegames colleague Michael Pavitt on Sunday (October 18).

One of the things that has crossed my mind should the Games proceed with a crowd - even a socially distanced one - is how the Chinese team would be received when they march into the Olympic Stadium for the Opening Ceremony.

Japan and China have never been exactly bosom buddies and with parts of the world believing that China was responsible - or rather irresponsible - for the origin of this vicious virus either in a murky provincial wet market or, for whatever reason, a laboratory, it would be no surprise if the traditional Japanese hospitality turned to hostility at that moment.

There is another reason why I am so keen to see Tokyo 20/21 up and running. For nostalgia lingers in my nostrils.

It is exactly 56 years to the day when, as a fresh faced newlywed, probably still a bit wet behind the ears, I was reporting from the Olympic Stadium at Tokyo 1964. Although I had covered a world title fight in the United States and several football matches in Europe, this was my Olympic baptism, the first of the dozen Summer Games I have attended. And as they say, you always remember your first.

I certainly do. It was a wonderful experience, probably the last of the Olympic summer wine. It rained quite a lot but this never dampened the sweet fragrance of cherry blossom in an atmosphere that embraced the unique charm of the Orient.

I had not long been in Fleet Street so it was not without some trepidation that I boarded a BOAC VC10 at Heathrow and jetted off for my initial Olympic adventure, via Bangkok and Hong Kong.

For one thing, the parting words of my late father-in-law, Jack, whose daughter I had married just a few weeks before, still echoed in my ears. "Good luck," he said. "You are going to need it. Those Japanese are nasty b*******. You’ll hate them. Bloody savages."

There was good reason for his bitter sentiments. During the Second World War the Japanese had torpedoed the troopship he was on in the Pacific and after clinging to a life raft he was rescued only to become their reluctant guest as a prisoner of war in the notorious Changi prison camp for almost four years, and later on the equally notorious Burma Railway.

He had observed unspeakable atrocities, and, we suspected suffered some of them, though he would never speak about it. A sturdy man, he weighed just four-and-a-half stone when he was finally repatriated.

Yet he could not have been more wrong about the Japanese. For here, 20 years on, was a new generation, warm and welcoming, courteous, helpful and respectful. And remorseful. I had to confess to Jack later that I never met a Japanese I didn’t like.

Tokyo last hosted the Olympic Games in 1964 ©Getty Images
Tokyo last hosted the Olympic Games in 1964 ©Getty Images

Those Games were not only enjoyable but trouble-free. No scandals, no commercialism, no boycotts and no terrorism. And, as far as we could tell, no drugs. How things were to change in the ensuing years. That purity of sporting spirit was not to prevail.

Jack’s words were replaced in my ears by the catchy jingle that woke us every morning and I still hum from time to time: "Good morning Tokyo, happy to be greeting you."

As I have written here before these really were a happy Olympics, especially for Great Britain, who despite finishing tenth in the medal table won 18 medals with long jump golds from Lynn "The Leap" Davies and the delightful original golden girl Mary Rand. Plus Ann Packer’s astonishing and unexpected triumph in the 800 metres.

The Olympic flame was lit poignantly by the 19-year-old Yoshinori Sakai, a young athlete born in Hiroshima on the day of the atomic bomb.

Bob Hayes, one of the fastest men ever seen, returned the 100m sprint title to the United States and his compatriot Billy Mills surprisingly defeated Australian favourite Ron Clarke in the 10,000m, becoming the first Native American to win Olympic gold.

The 5,000m was also a sad affair for the demoralised Clarke, who finished fourth to another American unknown, Bob Schul.

I have dined out on the story of how I almost changed the course of sporting history. One afternoon I was walking towards the athletes' apartments the Olympic Village, when around a corner – furiously pedalling a bike – hurtled a large, thick-thighed young man in shorts.

He saw me rather late. I jumped; he swerved and fell off heavily. I recognised him from his T-shirt as a member of the United States team, one Joseph William Frazier, their heavyweight representative in the boxing tournament.

I gulped as he got up, glancing down at his grazed knees. "My God," I thought. "Am I in trouble here!"

Young Joe - he was just 20 - glowered at first, then grinned sheepishly and apologised. "Sorry man, I guess I was going a bit fast," he said. "You OK?"

I nodded and introduced myself. We shook hands and I wished him luck, hoping that our near-collision had not damaged his prospects. It hadn't. He went on to win the gold medal, deploying the wrecking ball of a left hook that was to become his trademark.

Joe Frazier, left, won Olympic boxing gold at the Tokyo 1964 Games ©Getty Images
Joe Frazier, left, won Olympic boxing gold at the Tokyo 1964 Games ©Getty Images

The next time I saw that left hook in such explosive action was at Madison Square Garden seven years later when it crunched the jaw of Muhammad Ali in the final round of the first epic contest of their historic trilogy.

At least I had the satisfaction of doing something Ali could not in 42 rounds of conflict - putting Smokin’ Joe on the floor.

The sad, sudden passing of Frazier at 67 from liver cancer evokes memories of the time when Olympic champions like himself, Ali and George Foreman fought for genuine titles and not disparate bits of bling. Several years later after our first encounter I interviewed Frazier at his gym in Philadelphia point. He was then moonlighting as the lead singer in a rather forgettable pop group called The Knockouts.

I asked him if he recalled the incident in Tokyo. He thought for a moment, then grinned: "Oh yeah man. You’re the guy! I still got sore knees you know."

Ironically, these days I have sore knees too. Which means, such is my restricted mobility, that, even should the second Tokyo Olympics Games happen - and I fervently hope and pray they will - I won’t be able to repeat that memorable experience of 56 years ago. But I shall still be there. Virtually, of course.