In 1936, Two Japanese Olympians Combined Their Medals in a Touching Show of Friendship

Sueno Oe and Shuhei Nishida in 1930

Sueo Ōe (left) and Shuhei Nishida (right) in 1930. (Photo: Asahi Shinbun, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Olympic Games are known for their ability to not only bring together the world's top athletes, but to spark friendships and encourage camaraderie. Nowhere was this more evident than during the Berlin 1936 Olympic Games. It was there that the “Medals of Friendship” were born, forged from the love and admiration between two teammates.

Sueo Ōe and Shuhei Nishida were both members of the Japanese track and field team, competing in the pole vault. During the event, 25,000 spectators watched as the last five competitors in the pole vault battled it out for medals. They'd all cleared a height of 4.15 meters (13.6 feet), but now it was time to go for the gold. Several competitors dropped out and one, America's Earle Meadows, cleared 4.35 meters (14.3 feet), which was enough to secure gold.

But who would take home the silver? After yet another Olympian dropped out after failing to clear 4.25 meters (13.9 feet)), it was up to the Japanese friends and teammates. They were set to jump off for the medals and both cleared 4.25 meters. And that's when something incredible happened, something that can only happen at the Olympics where athletes understand the sacrifice and determination it takes to make it to this stage—they both refused to continue. Rather than proceed with the showdown, they wanted to share the podium as equals.

Olympia 1932 / Bild 46

Unfortunately, back in 1936, the Olympic officials didn't quite believe in the noble gesture and told the Japanese team that a decision on who took silver and who took bronze needed to be made. So, based on the number of attempts it took the men to clear the height, Nishida was awarded the silver medal and Ōe the bronze. If the story ended there, it would already be touching, but it only continues as the teammates returned to Japan.

Undeterred by the official standings, the men went straight to a jeweler when they arrived in Japan. Their medals were split down the middle and then fused together—half silver and half bronze. These “Medals of Friendship” have become a lasting reminder of the deep bonds that form during Olympic preparation and competition. The story is even more incredible when one remembers that the 1936 Berlin Olympics were hosted in Hitler's Germany under a tense atmosphere. Still, these games were the first to be televised and were even filmed. In fact, Nishida and Ōe's competition is in a scene from Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia.

So where are the medals now? Ōe, unfortunately, passed away just five years later in the war after joining the Imperial Japanese Army. His medal is privately owned, but luckily Nishida's is on display at Waseda University. Though Nishida passed 1997, his medal stands as a lasting reminder that the Olympic Games are about much more than simply winning or losing.

Japanese Olympians Sueo Ōe and Shuhei Nishida decided to share their 1936 Olympic medals when their wish to declare a tie was denied.

Sueo Oe and Shuhei Nishida at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

Sueō Oe and Shuhei Nishida sawing a pole at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (Photo: Asahi Shinbun, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

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Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Staff Editor and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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