Tommy Kono — Japanese American Olympic Champion

Tommy Kono shown here in 2002,
holding the Olympic gold medal he won
as weightlifter in 1952 at the Helsinki Games.
File, York Daily Record

Tamio ‘Tommy’ Kono (1930-2016) is one of the most successful U.S. Olympians that you probably never heard of. He was a weightlifter who set 26 world records, seven Olympic records, and eight Pan-American Games records. He won gold medals at the Helsinki Olympic Games in 1952, a gold at Melbourne in 1956, and a silver at Rome in 1960 – each in a different weight division.

His amazing story started in Sacramento, California where he was born on June 27, 1930 to Kanichi and Ishimi Kono. His father owned a print shop. As a young boy Tommy suffered from asthma and missed a lot of school. At the age of 11, he and his family were incarcerated along with over 120,000 other people of Japanese decent, 2/3 of whom were U.S. citizens like Tommy Kono. His family was at Tule Lake high in the mountains (about 4,000 feet above sea level) of northern California. Ironically, the mountain air alleviated his asthma. He wanted to stay healthy, so he started weightlifting after a neighbor gave him a 15-pound dumbbell and introduced him to Olympic-style lifting.

He was an incredible inspiration to young weightlifters, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, who saw him win the World Weightlifting title in Vienna in 1961. After retiring from lifting due to a knee injury, he went on to coach Olympic weightlifting teams from three different countries: Mexico in the 1968 Games, West Germany in 1972, and U.S.A. in 1976. He was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in Minneapolis in 1990. In 2005, in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the International Weightlifting Federation, they named him “Lifter of the Century.” He passed away at his home in Hawai’i at the age of 85. Tommy Kono is certainly one powerful example of the continuing contributions of Japanese Americans in the U.S.

Learn more about past and present Japanese-American Olympic athletes, a history of the Olympics in Japan, and discover some of the country’s favorite games and pastimes with the links provided below:

Sakura Kokumai Summer 2021 Let the Games Begin! Online Exhibition

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