1964 Olympic legacy: Thai torchbearer on power of sport

Hundreds of runners across Asia took part in the Olympic torch relay for the 1964 Tokyo Games. The first torchbearer in Bangkok was a national athletic champion whose life was disrupted by the Cold War.

Katesepsawasdi Bhakdikul is a retired army officer and former national high jump champion. He was one of about 50 runners who carried the Olympic torch in Bangkok over half a century ago. He says he remembers everything from the event like it was yesterday.

Katesepsawasdi holding the torch at his house
Katesepsawasdi Bhakdikul was the first runner in Thailand’s Olympic torch relay in 1964. He received the flame at Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport.

Touchdown in Bangkok

The plane carrying the flame arrived at Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport on August 31, 1964. Katesepsawasdi saw the Japanese delegation coming down from the plane with the fire burning inside a safety lamp.

Japanese mission getting down the plane with a lamp
The Japanese mission carried the flame to 11 cities across Asia. It arrived in Thailand on August 31, 1964.

He was a student at a military academy at the time of the relay, and was excited to be the first Olympic torchbearer in Thailand.

Katesepsawasdi was ready to start running as soon as the fire was put to the torch. He was confident that he could finish on time, but something unexpected happened.

The delegation chief started giving a speech in Japanese after lighting the torch, and it went on for quite a while. Katesepsawasdi watched the clock nervously, thinking the fuel might run out.

“I ran with all my might after receiving the torch,” Katesepsawsdi says. “I was so fast, the photographers couldn’t even catch me. Even motorcycles couldn’t keep up.”

Katesepsawasdi running with the torch
After a delayed start, Katesepsawasdi says he ran like the wind.

As he was running, the fuel started leaking down the torch handle, but Katesepsawsdi was determined to continue, no matter what. “The flame came all the way from Greece,” he says. “It was meant to burn out only after the Tokyo Games were over, not here in Thailand. I couldn’t ruin our reputation.”

Katesepsawasdi says he saw excited crowds all around on both sides of the roads, applauding the runners. He says he later received many letters from around the country wishing him luck at the Tokyo Olympics. It was something that wouldn’t have happened before the torch relay.

“Sport was not so popular back then. There were way more athletes than spectators during sporting events,” says Katesepsawasdi. “But after the torch relay, people started to fill the stadiums, not only for athletics, but for all kinds of sport.”

Asia hosting the Olympics as one

About a month later, Katesepsawasdi went to Tokyo to participate in the Olympic Games with 53 other athletes from his country. He was Thailand’s flag bearer at the opening ceremony.

“This will be where I tell the world who I am,” Katesepsawasdi thought to himself while the Thai delegation marched in unison.

Thai delegation in Tokyo, Katesepsawasdi as flag bearer
Katesepsawasdi was Thailand’s flag bearer at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympic Games.

After the parade, he saw the last torchbearer from Japan run into the stadium, completing the flame’s journey across Asia.

“I could see him running with the torch. It looked exactly the same as the ones we had held,” Katesepsawasdi says. “Japan was the host of the Olympic Games in 1964, but we felt that all Asian countries were hosting the event together.”

Sakai Yoshinori, the last runner, running with the flame
The Olympic flame reaches the end of its journey on October 10, 1964.

Thailand’s team ended the Games without any medals, but he says that didn’t matter. “Sport is not about winning or losing. It’s about participating and doing your best.”

Dream disrupted by the Cold War

After the Olympics, Katesepsawasdi graduated from a military academy and saw action at a time when Southeast Asia was becoming a battlefield for proxy wars between superpowers.

He was shot in the knee during an ambush by Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge. It ended his career in athletics.

But that didn’t break Katesepsawasdi. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to jump anymore, but I don’t like to lose,” he says. “So, I became a target shooter and aimed for the Olympics once again.”

Katesepsawasdi didn’t have any sponsors to help with his training, but he practiced hard and at the age of 38 qualified for the 1980 Moscow Games. He was eagerly waiting for the Olympics after going through all the required procedures.

But the Cold War again had other plans for him. Thailand, along with many other countries, boycotted the event to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

“It was such a shame. I should have had a chance to go to Moscow,” says Katesepsawasdi. “Sport and politics must be separated from each other. If we keep choosing sides and boycotting each other, we won’t be able to go anywhere.”

Moscow’s Lenin Stadium
Thailand joined the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

Bringing people together

Katesepsawasdi competed in target shooting for 20 more years before retiring. He now lives with his family not far from Don Muang Airport, where he received his torch so many years ago.

Katesepsawasdi with his family
Katesepsawasdi believes sport may hold some answers to conflict.

The man who dedicated his life to both sport and war thinks the former may hold some answers for humanity.

“To be honest, if people care more about sport, they will understand each other better,” he says. “There will be fewer wars--that’s the truth.”