In today's world of overwhelming athlete egos, doping scandals and league lockouts the story of Japan's Sueo Oe 大江 季雄 and Shuhei Nishida 西田 修平 is both refreshing and heartwarming. If you haven't heard of Oe and Nishida, don't feel too bad. These two world-class pole vaulters competed back in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and their story has been swallowed up in the days since. But the truth be told, it's a story of friendship, teammate loyalty and character that should be shared time and time again.
These two athletes competed in an era where today's fiberglass poles, soft landing mats and six meter vaults were but figments of the imagination. As a testament to their resolve and athleticism, vaulters in those days used a straight pole and landed feet first in a pile of sawdust (the now-famous "Fosbury Flop" wouldn't be created until 1968). I can only imagine the number of blown knees and shot ankles that resulted, but you have to give them credit for the guts and skill it must have taken.
And skill it was since there was no use of today's specialized equipment to provide extra speed, lift and force to achieve greater heights. And competitions in those days didn't have the fixed number of attempts like modern events with ties being decided on countbacks. At the 1936 Games where Oe and Nishida would compete, Earle Meadows of the United States won gold with a 4.35m vault. The two Japanese teammates cleared identical heights of 4.25m. Nishida and Oe and then “competed fiercely over five hours under night lighting” in order to break the tie. The judges called an end to the competition by 9:00 PM for reasons that have never been clearly stated, then told "the Japanese teams to determine among themselves who would be given second place.” Nishida won silver since he cleared 4.25m in his first try, Oe was awarded bronze since he vaulted over the same height with his second try.
But neither vaulters were completely satisfied with the results. Being such good friends, when they arrived in Japan Oe and Nishida went to a local jeweler and had their gold and silver medals cut in half. They then paid the jeweler to soder one half of each into a pair of mixed medals, thus giving them equal halves of bronze and silver. Their act, one that has rarely been seen in sport history, gives us a legacy of what it means to be a true teammate, a true sportsman/woman and a true friend.
No wonder their two medals became known around the world as the Medals of Eternal Friendship.