press pass _revisedThis was my father’s identity card for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Through his work for NBC News, and NBC’s sustained relationship to the Olympic Games, I was a fan of the greatest sports competition in the world. I was only one years-old at the time of the Tokyo Olympic Games, and of course remember nothing of it. But come 2020, when the Summer Games return to Tokyo, I will be there.

Coca Cola Booth Roppongi Hills 1
Coca Cola booth at Roppongi Hills

 

It was August 6 and I had just watched the opening ceremonies of the Rio Olympics, which was being broadcast live in Japan that lazy Saturday morning. Quite coincidentally, my wife and I reserved a Brazilian barbecue place in Roppongi for dinner that evening.

Roppongi is a hive of activity, a center of commerce, entertainment and shopping that bustles 7 days a week. In our stroll through Roppongi that day, I came upon two examples of how official Olympic sponsors have begun marketing the Olympics, not only as a lead in to the Rio Olympics, but also as a proud reminder that Tokyo will be the host of the XXXIII Olympiad in 2020.

Coca Cola is one of 12 worldwide Olympic sponsors, part of the so-called TOP program – TOP standing for “The Olympic Partner”. Like other TOP sponsors, Coca Cola has exclusive rights in the food and beverages industry to use the word Olympics and the five-ring symbol of the Games in its global marketing and advertisements, among other exclusive rights.

And in the popular Roppongi Hills square was a Coca Cola booth, with kids and adults lining up to get in. Inside the booth was a large screen displaying a swimming competition computer game. A pair of contestants would line up in front of the screen, get a motion-sensing band attached to their wrist, and then furiously roll their arms as their watched their avatar on the screen race to the finish. At the end, they were awarded a medal with a bottle of Coca Cola attached.

After dinner, we walked to my old work haunt – Midtown Tower. This popular office complex was built by Mitsui Fudosan, a major real estate developer in Japan. Mitsui Fudosan is not a TOP partner, but is instead a Tokyo 2020 Gold Partner. In the Olympic hierarchy of sponsors, the IOC allows the local national Olympic committee to select local sponsors that have exclusive rights in Japan to market and advertise using the word “Olympics” and related logos.

Sumitomo Fudosan Midtown Tower Olympics Exhibition 1

Mitsui Fudosan used the open area in front of Midtown Tower artfully. Dotted throughout the square were sculptures of figures in athletic pose, gleaming white and geometrically fashioned. A female basketball player and a wheelchair tennis player greet us at the entrance. A sprinter climbs the glass cover of the escalator leading down to the underground shopping areas. Synchronized swimmers rise from a shallow pool of water, a paralympic runner strides, and a pair of judoka negotiate a fall.

Mitsui Fudosan wants you to “Be the Change”. In a missive at the display area, the JOC Olympic sponsor states that like athletes, whose daily efforts and countless beads of sweat and tears, have shaped them into Olympians with unique and wonderful stories, Tokyo is also being shaped on a daily basis, building by building, each with their own stories. The last line of the missive states, “Next, it’s Tokyo’s turn. The Olympics will be on our stage. What fantastic stories will be told?”

Sumitomo Fudosan Midtown Tower Olympics Exhibition 2

Michael Phelps
The incredible Michael Phelps

Gymnast Oksana Chusovitina, representing Uzbekistan, competed in her seventh Olympics in Rio at the age of 41.

American cyclist, Kristin Armstrong, won a gold medal in the individual road time trial in Rio, the third consecutive Olympics she has done so, at the age of 42.

Equestrian Phillip Dutton won a bronze medal in individual eventing for America at the age of 52.

Relative to Chusovitina, Armstrong and Dutton, swimmer Michael Phelps is a spring chicken. But at the age of 31, Phelps’ phenomenal Olympic career, particularly based on his results in Rio, is most definitely an outlier vis-a-vis his rivals and rival-wannabes. According to The Washington Post, “over the past 10 Summer Games, the oldest athlete to swim in the finals for the same events in which Phelps is scheduled to compete has been 29 years old, with the average age just under 22 years old. And, not surprisingly, times get slower as an athlete ages.” (Yes, Anthony Ervin winning gold in the 50-meter freestyle at the age of 35 is an even greater outlier.)

Michael Phelp's Aging Curve Compared_Washington Post

Role models are so important to aspiring athletes. And it’s not just adolescents and teenagers whose passions are ignited by their heroes. It’s Gen X. It’s even the Baby Boomers. They see Chusovitina and Phelps as trailblazers for those of us in our 30s, 40s and 50s, whose daily lives are filled with marketing meetings, children’s soccer matches, evening social gatherings, and attempts to overcome sleep deprivation on the weekends.

More and more commonly, men and women past their “prime” are making the time and taking the challenge to up their game in high performance athletics. The “Olympics” for athletes of age groups from 35 to over the century mark is the World Masters Games. The number of participants since 1985 has grown from over 8,000 to close to 30,000 in 2009, which was more than twice the number of athletes who took part in the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000.

Oksana Chusovitina in Rio

As the nations of the industrialized world see their populace age rapidly, the people with the most money and influence are the aged demographics. Clearly, their interest in staying healthy and happy grows as they collectively age. As the human body’s production of hormones that enhance the benefits of physical exertion diminish from the age or 35, we can feel very clearly our strength diminishing over time. But considerable research and thought is going into how to increase flexibility, strength and staying power the older you get.

And the research tells us that exercise, low intensity or high, done on a consistent basis, will yield positive results for practically everybody. But the fact of the matter is, our busy lives demotivate so many of us from making that daily effort. This personal coach explains that making the effort is just a matter of making a decision.

The hard part about this for maturing athletes is that job and family responsibilities may make getting to bed early difficult. You need to make a choice as to the type of life you want to lead. If you’ve made the decision that you want to live a healthy, fit life, then going to bed early is part of it. That will likely mean the end of midweek social events, skipping TV after dinner, and strict adherence to stopping work after 8:00pm.

But to get to competitive levels of athletic performance, no matter your age, you need to dream. Photojournalist, Susana Girón, has followed these silver athletes taking their pictures, and concluded that age is not an issue if you have that burning passion for excellence

Sport in the elderly is not simply an issue of health. It is said that once you become older, you stop dreaming and become less passionate about things. The bodies of these athletes might dwindle with each year, but the passion with which they live and face the events remains stronger than ever, especially as they become aware that every championship might be their last. Living with passion means to remain forever young.

Phillip Dutton in Rio
Phillip Dutton

Thiago Braz da Silva and his winning vault
Thiago Braz da Silva and his winning pole vault

Renaud Lavillenie was above them all, figuratively and literally. The man from Barbezieux-Saint-Hilaire, reigning Olympic champion, didn’t deign to pole vault the first two heights of 5.50 and 5.65 meters. He was after all the world record holder at 6.16 meters. The men’s 800-meter finals were on, and he wasn’t doing anything anyway…so he watched David Rudisha win gold while he waited on his competition to get through their pedestrian heights.

When his rivals reached 5.75 meters, Lavillenie decided to join the competition. With the crowd clapping and cheering, the Frenchman rose above the bar with ease. As he did at 5.85.

The bar was raised to 5.93, which the announcer said was about the same as “vaulting over the average house”. In other words, the bar was getting pretty high.

Renaud Lavillenie making a vault
Renaud Lavillenie making a vault

Lavillenie is up first and he makes it with a roar. The Frenchman is yet to miss. But 5.93 proves to be a few centimeters too high for Jan Kudlička of the Czech Republic, Piotr Lisek of Poland and Sam Kendricks of the US, the eventual bronze medalist. Hometown favorite, but relatively unknown Thiago Braz da Silva of Brazil, also misses his first attempt at 5.93. But the 22-year old from the town of Marília, Brazil, running to the cheers of the crowd, makes it over the bar.

And now there are two. The Champion versus the Kid.

Lavillenie readies himself to win his second consecutive Olympic championship in the pole vault. He is up first, waits for the bar to be raised to 5.98, and clears it easily. By making 5.98 meters, Lavillenie has set a new Olympic record.

The young Brazilian, on the other hand, has never won a medal at an international event of any significance. He’s young, is improving very quickly, and clearly ballsy. Instead of trying to match Lavillenie at 5.98, da Silva says he wants the bar raised to 6.03. da Silva’s never cleared 6 meters, and yet he’s going for it.

Lavillenie calmly sips from a water bottle, sharing laughs with others. Da Silva fidgets with his poles, deciding which one he should use to propel him to new heights. With the new height, it’s back up to Lavillenie. He makes it over on his first attempt, but grazes the bar with his right hip on the way down – it’s the Frenchman’s first miss.

The pressure is intense. da Silva runs to the pit, extends the pole, but just as he raises off the ground, he gives up and falls harmlessly to the ground. It’s back to Lavillenie, a man who’s cleared this height many times in his career, encouraging the crowd to clap. And again, Lavillenie clears the bar only to knock it off as his stomach hits the bar. That’s two misses.

da Silva settles into the runway, victory potentially within his grasp with a miracle leap. He runs, he stabs, and he climbs into the air. He makes it! “What a jump,” shouts the announcer. “What a leap into the record books. What an all mighty chance he has now of taking the gold. Six oh three. The 20th man to go over 6 meters!”

Thiago Braz da Silva new Olympic record

Lavillenie sits in preparation, his face clearly showing concern. He’s likely thinking, “Where did this guy come from?” Looking for answers in the ground. he walks around to screw up his concentration for one final, enormous leap. Lavillenie decides to raise the bar, setting it at 6 meters 8 centimeters. If he makes it, da Silva has to make a very high leap. But the stakes are high for Lavillenie – miss it and the gold falls from his grasp.

The champion zips up his suit as he readies his pole for flight. He runs, he plants his pole, and he launches into the air. But this time, on the rise, Lavillenie’s feet hit the bar, which falls to earth. A new champion has been crowned – Thiago Braz da Silva is an Olympic champion, and Brazil’s newest hero.

No Brazilian has ever qualified in the Olympic pole vault. But in these Rio Olympics, da Silva not only competed, he set the Olympic record and ripped gold from the champion’s hands, vaulting into the hearts of Brazilians all.

Lavillenie loses

Conlan landing a right on Nikitin
Michael Conlan landing a right on Vladimir Nikitin.

As Russian boxer Vladimir Nikitin and Irish boxer Michael Conlan prepared for the start of the quarterfinal bantamweight bout at the Rio Olympics, the announcers set the stage with perceptive foreshadowing.

“Let’s hope this is a fair decision. We’ve had some absolutely shocking decisions, including last night in the world’s heavyweight final. All we ask is that Michael Conlan is judged fairly.”

“Nikitin got a lucky decision against Chatchai Butdee from Thailand in his last fight. A lot of observers here in the press gantry couldn’t believe he won the fight.”

Yes, the announcers on the broadcast feed I watched were Irish.

In the first round, Conlan, in red, was quick, aggressive going both to the body and the head. Nikitin, in blue, appeared to me to land several successful blows to Conlan’s head. Prior to that Conlan was getting a few shots to the left side of Nikitin’s head, and you could see a welt getting redder on Nikitin’s close-cropped scalp. Apparently that had been opened up in the previous bout with the Thai boxer. At one point, the judge stopped the fight to wipe blood off of Conlan, but that was probably Nikitin’s blood.

In the waning seconds of the first round, the Russian appeared to me to land successive blows to Conlan’s head – six or seven maybe, to which Conlan replied with a right. The announcer described it this way: “Attempts from Nikitin not really scoring, and Conlan comes across with a right and another.” The “another” was blocked by Niktin’s glove in my view.

As the round ended, the announcer said, “It’ll be very interesting to see what the judges are scoring. Will they be looking for the aggression or will they be looking for the boxing?” Presumably the announcer meant that Nikitin was making a show of being an aggressor, while Conlan was boxing his way to a first round edge. “I hope the judges are seeing a fair fight here,” the announcer said, almost anticipating the judges to score it in Nikitin’s favor.

When the 1st round scores came up, all three judges had Round One for Nikitin 10-9. The announcers were incredulous. “10-9 for Nikitin! What! What are they watching? What are they watching?”

“We saw this last night with Tishchenko.”

“Yeah, another Russian boxer!”

Nikitin lands on Conlan

In the second round, Conlan appeared to be taking the fight to Nikitin, landing far more blows than the Russian. With a minute left in the of the round, the fight was stopped and blood was cleared from Conlan’s nose and Nikitin’s head. When the fight resumed, they came out swinging. And again the fight was stopped to clean up the side of Nikitin’s head. But when they came back out, you could see that Conlan had opened up a new wound as blood streamed from the area of Nikitin’s left eyebrow.

“He is beating off Vladimir Nikitin here. And if the judges don’t see that, you just give up for amateur boxing, because this is absolutely brilliant by Michael Conlan.”

At this stage, again with my untrained eyes, I would have to say Conlan won the second round. He landed more blows, and there were times when Niktitin looked like he was flailing in the wind. I wouldn’t say Conlan won overwhelmingly, but solidly yes.

The judges agreed, each giving the second round to Conlan 10-9. Two-thirds of the way through, the two boxers were tied – even steven.

Conlan starts off the third round landing five or six punches as Nikitin kept his blue gloves up around his face, where they had been throughout the entire match.

It’s as if the announcers were trying to contain their own anxiety and will Conlan to victory for Ireland, as it turns out, the last boxing hope for Ireland in the Olympics.

“He’s the last boxer left standing, arguably the best boxer on this Irish team, the most talented. Michael Conlan, boxing for a place in the semi finals.”

“I’m not sure what I’m seeing him do here. He’s boxing lovely. He’s making Nikitin miss, but he did this in the first round and it all went against him.”

But in the second half of the final round, the two boxers stood toe to toe, exchanging punches, although to my eyes, Conlan was more aggressive, and landed more frequently. Towards the end, you can see both fighters were exhausted, both landing punches here and there, but no one really establishing any semblance of dominance.

As they lined up with the referee, Conlan was looking confident, raising his hand as the voice intoned that the victory was unanimous.

“It has to be Conlan. Surely. Surely.”

Nikitin defeats Conlan

As soon as the announcer said, “In the blue corner…” Nikitin dropped to his knees and looked up to the sky in joy. As the referee, still holding the arms of both boxers, twirled them around 360 degrees to display the winner to the entire audience, Conlan probably felt he was being dragged around like a rag doll. The judges from Brazil, Sri Lanka and Poland all scored Nikitin ahead 29-28, which meant that all three judges scored round 3 10-9 in favor of Nikitin.

“It’s another shocker,” said the announcer.

Was it? OK, I’d give Conlan the edge in round 3, and I believe he should have advanced. But I’m not a boxing expert. I’m only a casual fan of the sport. I grew up adoring Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, admiring their skill, determination and confidence as they ruled as champions. And when I think of Olympic boxing matches absolutely stolen, the benchmark to me is superstar Roy Jones Jr, when he clearly won his bout with Korean Park Si-hun in the light middleweight gold medal match at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, although the judges saw it differently, awarding gold to the Korean.

But may be I’m in the minority. After the decision, Conlan blew up in front of the press. Raising a nasty finger to boxing officials, shouting, “They’re f&@%ing cheats. They’re known to be cheats. Amateur boxing stinks from the core right to the top.”

Vladimir Nikitin Victorious

Conlan was referring to officials from AIBA (The International Boxing Association), who a day later recognized issues within their judges and referees. In a statement released soon after the Nikitin-Conlan fight, AIBA released this statement:

gabby douglas rio
Gymnast Gabby Douglas in Rio.
The Twitterverse can be very petty.

After the US women’s team dominated the team gymnastics competition and won gold at the Rio Olympics, gymnast Gabby Douglas got hit by a social media storm. Why? Because she did not have her hand over her heart during the medal ceremony.

One of the uglier images that made the rounds was an image of two photos placed in contrast to each other: one of the US women’s gymnastics team and the other of the US 4×100 men’s freestyle swim team. The top caption was “Understand the difference”. Under a picture of the swim team, in which Ryan Held is wiping tears from his eyes, are the words “took hand off of heart momentarily to hide tears of pride, joy, and accomplishment.” Underneath the picture of the US women’s gymnastics team, which shows Gabby Douglas with her hands at her side, are the words “blatant disrespect”.

Douglas is an American star of the 2012 London Olympics, a member of arguably the hardest working gymnastics team in history, who has spent countless days and hours in practice and pain to help bring golden glory to the US again in Rio. Here she was, being ripped apart online because she did not have her hand on heart.

The onslaught was so swift and vicious, Douglas felt compelled to apologize:

In response to a few tweets I saw tonight, I always stand at attention out of respect for our country whenever the national anthem is played. I never meant any disrespect and apologize if I offended anyone. I’m so overwhelmed at what our team accomplished today and overjoyed that we were able to bring home another gold for our country!

Douglas had no reason to apologize. Fortunately, the better angels of the Twitterverse nature agreed, and came to Douglas’ defense.

David Wottle on Winners Podium
David Wottle at the Muinch Games in 1972, Munich, Germany  Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
But we’ve seen this movie before.

  • In 1968 at the Mexico City Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos had their gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter finals confiscated because they lowered their heads and raised their fists in protest of the state of Blacks in America.
  • In 1972 at the Munich Olympics, Dave Wottle won the 800-meter finals in dramatic fashion. At the awards ceremony, he stood at attention, his hand on heart and his trademark white golf cap on head during the playing of the American national anthem. Well, tongues wagged, and the press kept asking Wottle if he was protesting something. Wottle replied very sheepishly that he simply forgot he was wearing it. Wottle is lucky that the Internet was not a factor our lives yet.
  • And for decades, the simple act of carrying the flag in the opening ceremony was a matter of consternation for Americans. Perhaps it’s the fact that America was born out of war of independence from a King in Europe. But it became customary for the flag bearer leading the American team in an Olympic opening ceremony would not dip their flag to the host country’s leader as sign of respect. While Americans dipped and not dipped over the decades, the USOC then decided in 1936 after the Berlin Games to make it policy for the US flag bearer not to dip.

In 1964, during the Tokyo Olympic Games, then head of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, went as far as to recommend that the medal ceremony be dropped from the Olympics. According to a AP report, Brundage said at a press conference that “he doesn’t want national flags raised and anthems played after medal performances in the various sports because they only help to generate extreme nationalism.”

Brundage hopes to eliminate olympics victory ceremony
October 24, 1964 AP
Americans can have thin skins. Raw interpretations of what acts, what behaviors, what words are viewed as patriotic are openly voiced at the water cooler, in the press, and of course in the 21st century, most flamboyantly on the internet. This is true in sports competitions between nations as it is true in the political discourse of the US presidential campaign.

Perhaps it’s fruitless to say that calmer heads should prevail, other cheeks should be turned. But for what it’s worth, President Abraham Lincoln said it best. America’s 16th president presided over one of the most politically tumultuous periods in American history, and in his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, he addressed a country on the verge of civil war. The quote below are the most famous from that address, and resonate today:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Abraham Lincoln

Rio Closing Ceremony_1

The countdown to Tokyo 2020 begins!

The Rio Olympics are over, the Olympic flame extinguished. But before the final lights of the closing ceremony dimmed, Japan sent the world an invitation. After the traditional handover of the Olympic flag from the mayor of Rio to the governor of Tokyo, Japan gave the world a sneak peek, showing why everyone should be excited about coming to Tokyo in 2020, July 24 to August 9. The closing ceremony is an opportunity for the host of the next Olympics to whet the appetite of Olympians, wannabes and sports fans alike. And Japan did not disappoint.

The show at the end of the Rio Olympics closing ceremony was hippy, cutie, techie, sexy, targeting the hippocampus of youth the world over fascinated with Japan, it’s machines, its pop music, it’s kulture of kawaii.

Rio Closing Ceremony_4

An introductory video took us on a jazzy tour of Tokyo, starting us off at the famed zebra crossing in Shibuya. We see the red Super Komachi bullet train which harkens back to the first bullet train introduced 9 days before the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. We see the Sky Tree, Tokyo’s newer, bigger tower, although it can never replace the iconic Tokyo Tower, built just prior to the 64 Games. We see Pacman, Doraemon and Hello Kitty, and athletes lined up in profile, reminiscent of the famous athlete posters designed by Yusaku Kamekura for the 1964 Games.

Rio Closing Ceremony_3

And we see Japan Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, in a car, in a hurry to get from Tokyo to Rio. He can’t get there in seconds….unless of course, he turns in to Super Mario, who ends up taking a plunge down an animated tunnel, landing on the other side of the world in Rio. Abe likely had to be heavily convinced, or plied with much alcohol, to appear in a Super Mario costume in the middle of Maracana Stadium. But he did, figuring that if the Queen of England didn’t mind being parodied for the London Olympics opening ceremonies, then maybe he shouldn’t either.

Rio Closing Ceremony_5
Yes, that’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, making sure he’s seen in a Super Mario costume for as little time as possible.

The video was the prelude to a display of art, dance and technology that was both precise and frenetic, ending in a Tokyo tableau, framed by, what else, that unmistakable silhouette of Mount Fuji. At show’s end, Prime Minister said, “See you in Tokyo!”

So, will we see you in Tokyo? We certainly hope so!

Watch the video here.

Neymar nails the final penalty kick to win gold
Brazil captain Neymar broke down in tears after scoring the penalty that earned his country’s first ever football gold medal (Photo: Getty Images)
It wasn’t a 7-1 victory. The universe did not bestow such poetic justice, the redemptive opportunity for Brazil to equal their slaughter at the hands of Germany at the World Cup in 2014. Brazil hosted that World Cup, losing to Germany by 6, and ending that tournament in shame.

On August 20, 2016, the day before the closing of the Rio Olympic Games, Brazil defeated Germany in the soccer finals, on the razor-thin edge of a penalty shootout. Despite the brilliance and success of Brazilian soccer over the decades, Brazil had never won an Olympic championship. On their 13th attempt, Brazil struck gold, and all of Brazil exhaled, and then danced.

After a tense 90 minutes of play that left the two powers tied 1-1, and then an additional 30 minutes of extra time, it came down to penalty kicks. Germany’s Matthias Ginter was up first, and he slotted the ball into the lower right corner, the Brazilian goalie, Weverton, guessing correctly but not able to handle it. The German goalie, Timo Horn guessed correctly on Renato Augusto‘s shot, but the ball zipped into the upper right hand corner of the net. On Germany’s second attempt, Weverton had Serge Gnabry‘s shot lined up, but it slipped under his arm pit and into the net. Marquinhos of Brazil sent his shot into the upper left hand corner of the net to equalize. And on it went, Julian Brandt, then Rafinha, Niklas Sule, and then Luan, their aim, all true.

When Germany’s Nils Petersen stepped up, with penalty kicks tied at 4-4, momentum was hinting at another score from Petersen. But momentum doesn’t last forever. Petersen’s shot went to Weverton’s left, and the Brazilian goalie got his hands out to block it. When the ball fell harmlessly aside, the Maracanã exploded. Everyone watching knew Brazil was on the verge of a magical moment.

BRASIL E ALEMANHA
Weverton saves the match. Foto: LEONARDO BENASSATTO/FUTURA PRESS/FUTURA PRESS/ESTADÃO CONTEÚDO
Up stepped Brazilian sensation Neymar, who had performed superbly during this Olympic run, and in fact scored Brazil’s only goal on a perfect free kick in the first half of the match. Gold and glory for Brazil was his alone to grasp, as billions around the world held their breath.

Neymar nailed it, his knees buckling as he fell to the grass. A flood of tears streamed down his face, tears for so long kept at bay by the repressive weight of a nation. As he lay there on his back, his hands covering his face, there was nothing left for Neymar to give. But to Brazilians, he had given them everything as the stadium erupted in a cathartic fit of joy.

The fears of the zika virus. The pollution of Guanabara Bay. The impeachment of the Brazilian president. The worst economy in decades. The constant news of corruption and crimes, and the concomitant and constant criticism Brazilians endured not only by foreigners but within their own ranks.

At the moment the ball hit the back of the net, Neymar made it all right.