Bodybuilder and Olympic weightlifter Tommy Kono, left, inspired a young Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The inspiring life of one of the greatest modern Olympic athletes is captured in a public TV documentary set to be distributed nationally in August. “Arnold Knows Me: The Tommy Kono Story” depicts an Olympic hero at the peak of his powers in Helsinki, Melbourne and Rome. The half-hour program will debut on KVIE-TV in Northern California on Aug. 3.
Tommy Kono, who grew up slender and asthmatic in downtown Sacramento’s vibrant Japanese American community, inspired two generations of weightlifters and body builders, including former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Kono and his family were incarcerated in the Tule Lake Relocation Center in World War II. The mountain air cleared up his health problems, and a group of older teens got him interested in weightlifting. When Kono came home after the war, he was passionate about the sport and started to win local competitions. But he was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War and was trained to be a cook. Waiting to be shipped out to Asia, Kono’s talents were recognized, and he instead was put into an Olympic training program in advance of the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.
Surprisingly, Kono won gold, and he did it again in 1956 in Melbourne. He then competed in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where he earned a silver medal. Kono also excelled in bodybuilding competitions — he won the Mr. Universe title three times and Ironman Mr. World once.
As a teenager, Schwarzenegger watched Kono compete in Europe and he became such a fan that he placed a photo of Kono on his bedroom wall and shortly thereafter followed his idol’s path to international fame. Kono noted that people asked him if he knew Schwarzenegger. “Do I know Arnold?” he recalled in the documentary. “Arnold knows me!”
The friendship Schwarzenegger developed with Kono became lifelong, and Schwarzenegger has also said that without Kono’s inspiration, he wouldn’t have come to America, nor become a political leader or worldwide boxoffice superstar.
“The Tommy Kono Story,” a collaboration with the Center for Sacramento History, is the first documentary film for its producer, Suzanne Phan and director, Ryan Yamamoto.
“It’s been great to have a project where we could really dive in,” said Phan. “To sit down and interview Tommy Kono was a chance to interview someone’s father, someone’s grandfather. It was a chance to document his story for his family and for so many others to learn from. It was a chance to share his story.”
Yamamoto feels that the remarkable feats of the weightlifter, excelling during the time of the Cold War, go far beyond the realm of athletics.
“When you can tell that story through a guy like Tommy Kono, I think people will listen,” said Yamamoto. “I think people will learn about Tule Lake, they’ll learn about the Japanese internment as they’re learning about this great athlete named Tommy Kono.”
Kono passed away in Honolulu earlier this year at the age of 85, but in addition to his Olympic medals, his legacy includes coaching Olympic athletes here and abroad as well as authoring several books on lifting techniques. His hometown of Sacramento is also home to an annual Tommy Kono competition.
In addition to national public TV exposure around the Rio Olympics, the production team plans to enter the documentary in several film festivals.
Check your local listings for premiere dates of “Arnold Knows Me: The Tommy Kono Story.”