When Tommy Kono became Mr. Universe for the third time in 1961, his dominance inspired a certain 13-year-old in the crowd to pursue his own bodybuilding career one day – some kid named Arnold Schwarzenegger. Many years later, whenever someone learned about Kono's background as a champion weightlifter and bodybuilder, they naturally asked him, "Do you know Arnold?"
Kono had the perfect response:
"Arnold knows me."
That reply has become the title of a 30-minute documentary about Kono, a Japanese-American athlete considered the "greatest weightlifter in U.S. history" who died of liver disease at 85 in April. KVIE, the PBS affiliate in Sacramento, will host a premiere screening event for "Arnold Knows Me: The Tommy Kono Story" on July 26 and then air it several times beginning August 3.
If the name Tommy Kono is unfamiliar to you, the film's producer understands. Ryan Yamamoto, a news anchor at KOMO in Seattle, began producing the documentary in a personal effort to rectify the injustice of Kono's anonymity.
"The primary motive for me was definitely just telling a story that no one ever heard about," Yamamoto said. "I mean I had never even heard of this guy until 2006 or 2007 when I finally met him for the first time, and after I knew what his resume was, I'm like, 'How come more people don't know who this guy is?'"
Focusing on the clean and press, clean and jerk, and hang snatch events, Kono rose to superstardom in the 1950s, winning gold medals in weightlifting at the 1952 and 1956 Olympics and a silver in 1960 – while also earning six consecutive first-place finishes as the World Weightlifting Championships from 1953 to 1959. (The World Weightlifting Championships were not held during Olympic years until 1964.)
As a bodybuilder, Kono's achievements were equally impressive, winning Mr. World in 1954 before his three Mr. Universe titles in four attempts. Overall, he held 26 world records and seven Olympic records across various weight classes at the time of his retirement in 1964.
But Kono's prestigious career almost never even got underway. Kono suffered from asthma, hindering his breathing early in life. He and his family were placed in a Japanese-American internment camp in California during World War II, where they were subject to horrendous living conditions and severe prejudice.
"You know I don't like saying this, but it's probably true that a lot of it has to do with race," Yamamoto said when asked why he felt Kono is not a household name. "Asian-American athletes weren't celebrated. One, because there weren't many of them, and two, because it just wasn't of the psyche of society to celebrate them.
"I think if Tommy Kono was doing what he did back then right now, he would be a star, but he was kind of forgotten back then. You have to remember back in the 50s, the Japanese were still not fondly looked upon in America. We're less than a decade out of World War II, and you know, there was probably still a stigma at that time. It's interesting because he would never talk about [his lack of attention], he was very humble about that, but I think deep down he maybe thought the same thing, that he didn't get the credit that he was due."
Yamamoto is now an expert on Kono's triumphs and struggles, but he was once as clueless as anyone else. In fact, it was a complete chance encounter that connected them, and they clicked immediately.
"At his alma mater in Sacramento, they used to run a weightlifting tournament called the Tommy Kono Classic, and he used to come out there every year," Yamamoto said. "I was a sports reporter for the ABC station in Sacramento at the time, and I actually went down there just to cover the tournament and get some shots of some kids and a small little story. One of the guys over there said, 'Hey, wanna meet Tommy Kono?' And I was just like, 'Well, who's Tommy Kono?' … So I ended up talking to him for a while, and I even did a small story on him that night. I was like, 'Wow, this guy's phenomenal, and I really need to do more,' and that's how it all really began.
"We weren't like buddy-buddy, but we kept in touch through email. As we started to get a little serious about the documentary, I think we shot the first interview in 2012 or 2013. From there, we kind of just kept in touch, and then last September we got really serious and started really flushing it out. The ball really started rolling late last year."
Understandably, Yamamoto was nervous about his transition from on-screen reporting to the world of documentaries, but the two-time Emmy winner ultimately managed to create a product he and his team are proud of.
"I'm a first-time filmmaker, and even though I've done a lot of sports and news on television, we're used to doing one or two-minute pieces, and all of a sudden to do a full half hour, that was a bit of a challenge," he said. "But I learned a lot about the process of making a film and telling a long-form story. I had a lot of help along the way – one guy I really want to mention is David Hosley, the former general manager of KVIE, who was kind of a guiding light in this whole thing. He kind of set the groundwork ... He made it so much easier, and he opened so many doors for us."
Yamamoto said his lone legitimate regret was that Kono didn't live to see the final product.
"It was wild timing because we did our final interview with him in October and honestly he was still in great shape, so we had no idea," Yamamoto said. "After that interview in October, I'd send him email updates and he would usually respond. … It was late January or early February when his daughter ended up responding to one of my email updates. That's when she told me that he was not doing so well. At that point, we had almost everything shot already. Our timeline was [to finish] this summer to begin with, and obviously we were trying to get something done – we got the trailer done, so he was able to see that – but unfortunately we weren’t able to get the full piece done for him to see it."
In addition to the aforementioned KVIE airings, Yamamoto said he is confident that a channel in Hawaii, where Kono eventually settled, will air the documentary, while also hoping that San Francisco and Los Angeles stations would do the same.
The project has a GoFundMe page with a goal of $8,000 to help cover costs. With a week before the Sacramento premiere, the campaign needed a little more than $2,200 to hit the target, but Yamamoto said that even if the number isn't reached by air time, the show will still go on.
"I think when you watch it, you'll walk away and you'll get a sense of, 'Here's a guy that did it because he loved it, and he wanted to pass on his sport to the younger generation,'" Yamamoto said. "He wasn't in it for the money – he didn't get money. He remained proud and prideful even though he probably didn't get the recognition he deserved. This guy is an incredible athlete, an accomplished athlete, and people should know who Tommy Kono is when you say his name."
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