What happens when two highly-competitive friends go head-to-head in the biggest competition in the world? Something has to give; will it be friendship or Olympic-sized dreams? When the world’s top athletes gathered in Berlin for the 1936 Olympic games, two Japanese pole vaulters proved that friendship was something more precious than a medal.
When American Earle Meadows secured the pole vault gold medal by clearing a height of 4.25 meters, all eyes turned to the next two contenders to see who would walk away with the silver and bronze medals. Japan was guaranteed to take both medals; the only question was which one of its top athletes would out-jump the other.
The two contenders had much in common. Shuhei Nishida was a student at Waseda University. Sueo Oe was a study at Keio University. Beyond these similarities, the two men were also close friends. This friendship was put to the test when they each cleared the same vault height and were told they would have to compete further to break the tie.
The spectators waited, wondering which of these gifted athletes would outperform the other and claim the coveted silver medal. Much to everyone’s astonishment, however, they refused to compete further and announced that they wished to jointly claim second place.
After a hasty consultation by the judges, their request was denied. Olympic rules dictated that someone would have to take the silver, and someone would have to settle for the bronze. If the men would not compete, then it was up to the Japanese team to decide which man would get which medal.
Ultimately, the Japanese delegation decided that Nishida, who had vaulted 4.25 at his first attempt, should take precedence over Oe, who had needed two attempts at that height. On that basis, Nishida stood on the second-highest tier at the medal ceremony, while his friend, Oe, stood slightly lower. Each man proudly wore the medal assigned to him, but even before the ceremony was over, they started to think of a way to adhere to their original plan of sharing the honors.
Upon their return to Japan, the friends had both medals cut in half and then fused into two hybrid medals, each half-silver and half-bronze. (although the “bronze” was actually copper). The medals became known as “The Medals of Friendship.”
The men’s earthly friendship was not to last much longer. Five years after the Olympic Games, Oe died in World War II. Nishida lived until 1997. Although Oe’s medal remains in private hands, Nishida’s is on display at Waseda University as a lasting reminder that some things are more important than an Olympic medal.
The touching story of these two friends was not the only memorable event at the 1936 Olympic Games. That was, after all, the year two countries showed up for the opening ceremonies, only to then learn that they had identical national flags.