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Recapturing the Olympic Glory of an Asian American Pioneer

Tommy Kono in his prime (photo courtesy of the Center for Sacramento History Sacramento Bee Archives)

When TV reporter Ryan Yamamoto saw the name Tommy Kono, he wondered, “Who?”

Unfortunately, most people today might ask the same question. But thanks to Yamamoto and his wife, fellow TV reporter Suzanne Phan, Kono’s legacy has been captured in a half-hour documentary, Arnold Knows Me: The Tommy Kono Story. The film is making the rounds this month on PBS stations across the country, just in time for the Rio Summer Olympics.

Tommy Kono was a Japanese American athlete who was a gold medal weightlifter during the 1950s, and one of the most influential athletes in the sport.

Yamamoto asked about Kono because a high school weightlifting tournament in Sacramento, Calif., where Yamamoto and Phan worked, was called the Tommy Kono Classic. When Yamamoto noted the name, the organizer asked, “‘You want to meet Tommy?’ ‘Tommy who?’ I asked. I didn’t know who he was.”

After he was told about Kono’s achievements, Yamamoto says, “I was like that’s impossible. If he was that great, I would know about him. That’s an incredible résumé. As a sportscaster, and as a Japanese American, I was embarrassed that I didn’t know who this guy was.”

So Yamamoto met Kono, who had long since retired to Hawaii, and filed a report about the champion. It chronicled Kono’s amazing career: two Olympic gold medals and one silver; eight World Weightlifting titles; 25 world records; seven Olympic records; and for good measure, one Mr. World and three Mr. Universe bodybuilding titles.

What was most amazing about Kono’s achievements is that he had been imprisoned with his family in an American concentration camp during World War II, along with 110,000 other people of Japanese descent. Kono was born in Sacramento, but his family had been rounded up and sent to Tule Lake in northern California. That was where the skinny 12-year-old overcame his early asthma and began weightlifting.

After meeting Kono, Yamamoto wondered if he could create a longer story about the Olympian. The idea “sat on the shelf for a couple of years,” Yamamoto admits, until he attended an Asian American Journalists Association leadership program. It was there that Yamamoto was asked, “What’s your dream job?”

“I would like to do something long-form, something meaningful,” he said. In 2012, he began fleshing out the idea for the Kono story.

The project finally came together in 2015. Yamamoto and his wife found support from public television stations, who set a deadline of airing the film during the 2016 Summer Olympics. Yamamoto and Phan, who now work at KOMO-TV in Seattle, responded to the deadline pressure. They flew to Hawaii for one final interview with Kono, and funded the rest of the project through credit cards and a GoFundMe campaign. The 27-minute film is available on DVD through the film’s website.

Kono, who died in April 2016 without ever seeing the documentary, also influenced the man whose name appears in the film’s title. Arnold Schwarzenegger acknowledged that he was inspired as a teenager after seeing Kono in a lifting competition and then at a bodybuilding competition in Vienna. He had a photo of Kono on his bedroom wall and arranged to meet his hero when he was governor of California.

Kono says in the film, “Lots of times people would say, ‘Do you know Arnold?’ Meaning Arnold Schwarzenegger. I would say, ‘What do you mean? Arnold knows me!’”

Here’s the trailer for the film:

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