Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Arnold Knows Me: The Tommy Kono Story (KVIE-TV, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After that KPBS showed a half-hour documentary on Tommy Kono, a Japanese-American weightlifter who discovered the sport when he was interned at the Tule Lake camp in 1942 in that hysterical over-reaction the U.S. government engaged in, basically declaring virtually all Japanese-Americans in Hawai’i and the West Coast enemy aliens, driving them from their homes, forcing them to sell all their belongings (including, in some cases, thriving businesses) at fire-sale prices and moving them to camps in out-of-the-way locales Edward G. Robinson, by way of explaining why all the Japanese villains in U.S. World War II movies were played by Chinese actors, called “America’s version of Dachau” (and Robinson, a Romanian Jew who no doubt would have been a Holocaust victim if he’d stayed in his native land, was not the sort of person to make Nazi comparisons lightly). As hellacious as the internment was, it ironically had a good effect on Kono; before the internment his family had lived in Hawai’i and then in Sacramento, California, and Kono had had a chronic case of asthma which went away in the superior climate of Tule Lake. He started developing an interest in athletics in the camp, playing not only baseball but basketball as well (even though his short, wiry frame was not the stuff of which basketball players are usually made), and when the Kono family were finally released in November 1945 — two months after the Japanese surrender formally ended World War II — he focused on weight-lifting as his chosen sport. He bought a set of weights from a friend who was replacing his old set with a new one, and turned the Kono family garage into a workout room. War interfered with his life again in 1950, when he was drafted by the U.S. army and was about to be sent to Korea as a cook when someone in the army noticed his weight-lifting potential and essentially furloughed him so he could train for the 1952 Olympics, where he won gold in the welterweight class. He moved up to a heavier weight class and won in 1956, and he also entered bodybuilding contests and won Mr. World once and Mr. Universe three times. In 1959 he participated in an exhibition in Vienna, Austria and a boy named Arnold Schwarzenegger was in the audience and was so impressed he decided to make bodybuilding his career. Hence the title of the documentary; years later, when Schwarzenegger was governor of California and Kono was living in retirement in Sacramento, Kono was often asked if he knew Schwarzenegger — and he would reply, “No. Arnold knows me.” The photos of Kono (both footage of his remarkable achievements and stills) make it not only amazing that someone so slightly framed (women are sometimes referred to as having “hourglass figures” but Kono is one of the few men who had one) could become so accomplished a bodybuilder he could lift four times his own weight regularly, they also take us back to a day when someone could win Mr. Universe and still look credible as a male human being (and a quite attractive one, too) instead of becoming so muscular they ended up looking like a relief map of a mountain range.