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.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike in Rio, accepting the Olympic Flag in the closing ceremonies of the Rio Olympics.

The Rio Olympics were coming to an end, but there was still one thing left to do – hand the Olympic flag over to Japan. And there she stood on stage, to the left of IOC President, Thomas Bach, waving the flag, and accepting the heavy responsibility of the 2020 Olympic Games.

Japan is very much a man’s world, particularly in Japanese politics and government. So it was a powerful image to see Yuriko Koike, elegant in a cream and gold-colored kimono, representing Japan on the biggest sports stage in the world. While the world awaits to see whether America will elect its first female president, Tokyo has already gone ahead and elected its first female governor.

A former journalist who speaks Arabic, Koike was elected to an Upper House seat in 1992 for the Japan New Party, which no longer exists. After serving 8 terms, she was tapped to be the Environment Minister from 2003 to 2006 under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. In other words, Koike is an experienced politician.

And yet, when the former Tokyo governor, Yoichi Masuzoe, reluctantly resigned due to his personal use of public funds, Koike’s own party did not race to support her. Suspecting that support might not come her way, Koike declared her candidacy for the governorship, much to the anger of the LDP. Her party’s lack of support was not an issue as Koike won the election in a landslide on July 31, 2016.

She ran on a platform that included a call to revisit the Tokyo 2020 budget. But her opening salvo was directed at the planned move of the famous fish market in Tokyo from Tsukiji to Toyosu, 2 kilometers south of the current site. Toyosu would apparently have more room for expansion, as well as more modern facilities. The new site was previously the home of a large gas processing plant, the grounds of which had become heavily contaminated.

The Tuskiji fish market in Tokyo

Thus the condition for approving the move to Toyosu was to ensure no traces of contamination. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government was charged with removing 2 meters of soil, decontaminating it, and then placing another 2.5 meters of new soil to ensure that the food, 1 million tons of fresh fish, fruit and vegetables, could be stored, prepared and sold in total confidence of safety. This work was completed in 2014 at a cost of about JPY86 billion (USD800 million).

When the new governor asked for confirmation whether these safety measures were carried out or not, she learned that the space underneath the five main structures on the site, over 30% of the entire site, did not have the required 4.5 meters of decontaminated and fresh soil underneath them. Instead of soil, hollow spaces were created underneath the buildings.

Here’s how this editorial from The Japan Times interpreted the situation: “Whatever the explanations may be, the metropolitan government lied to the public in that its website stated that the whole site was covered with clean soil to block the effects of toxic materials.

This is an example of Koike’s reporter’s instincts to challenge authority and uncover unjust practices. Already she has challenged previous administrations in the Tsukiji Market relocation. What else will be uncovered? Will anyone be held accountable? What will happen to Tsukiji Market?

Who knows. But right now, the right questions are being asked. What are the implications for the 2020 Olympics? Perhaps, a bit of the same…..

Yoshiyuki Tsuruta winning gold in the 200 meter breaststroke at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.

We think of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics as Japan’s debut on the international sports scene, as the time when Japan told the world “We are here!” But the first time the world caught attention of Japan as a sporting power was the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. Mikio Oda won the triple jump competition, becoming the first Japanese to ever win a gold medal. Hitomi Kinue became the first Japanese woman to win a medal, taking second in the 800-meter finals. And Yoshiyuki Tsuruta also won gold, winning the 200-meter breaststroke, starting a long proud Japanese swimming tradition.

At the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics.

Tsuruta was the second of 12 children, born in Kagoshima, Japan. As a member of the Imperial Japanese Navy, he may have had opportunity to train as a swimmer, emerging as the best breaststroker in Japan, consequently being selected for the 1928 Japanese Olympic squad.

According to John P. Lohn, in his book, They Ruled the Pool: The 100 Greatest Swimmers in History, Tsuruta deserves recognition as one of the all-time greats.

Tsuruta captured the most prestigious medal of his career at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. In one of the most anticipated races of the early Olympic movement, Tsuruta battled Germany’s Erich Rademacher, the world-record holder. Ultimately, Tsuruta produced a comfortable victory, defeating his rival by nearly two seconds. Tsuruta and Rademacher were so far ahead of the rest of the world that the bronze medal was won with a time more than five seconds slower than Rademacher.

Like his fellow Olympians from Amsterdam, Tsuruta returned to Japan with little fanfare. He enrolled in Meiji University and went about becoming an even better swimmer, going on to set a world record in a competition in Kyoto in 1929. In 1932, he defeated his fellow countryman, Reizo Koike, in the 200-meter breaststroke at the Los Angeles Olympics to become the first Japanese to win back-to-back gold medals in consecutive Olympics.

As the International Swimming Hall of Fame put it when they inducted Tsuruta into their hall in 1968, “In the history of the modern Olympic Games, since 1896, only one man has repeated as gold medal winner in the 200 meter breaststroke.” Kosuke Kitajima went on to match that feat, not only in the 200-meters, but also in the 100-meter breaststroke in 2004 and 2008.

But Kitajima doesn’t have a bronze statue. In a park in Tsuruta’s hometown stands a symbol of one of Japan’s earliest international sports heroes. And like all heroic symbols, there is a plaque that includes a poem that reflects Tsuruta’s philosophy, a powerful reflection of Japanese values.

It’s not suffering.

It’s evidence you have yet to push yourself.

Doing so, it becomes second nature, an afterthought.

True suffering is just the beginning of knowing who you are.






Yoshiyuki Tsuruta’s statue in Kagoshima
Nina Ponomareva in Rome.

In the midst of the Cold War, the Soviet Union were finally invited to the Summer Olympic Games. In 1952, with a will to establish the superiority of their system through sport, the Soviets garnered 71 total medals, including 22 golds, to finish second in the medals race.

The first gold went to Nina Ponomareva, who won the women’s discus throw, and glory for her country, setting an Olympic record as well. “Only after I had felt a heavy golden circle in my hand, I realized what happened. I am the first Soviet Olympic Champion, you know, the first record-holder of the 15th Olympiad…Tears were stinging my eyes. How happy I was!

She would go on to win bronze in Melbourne in 1956, and then gold again at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. That’s an impressive track record. Unfortunately, when Ponomareva passed away in August, she was remembered for something else.

In 1956, prior to the Melbourne Games, the Soviets were invited to a bilateral track and field meet between Great Britain and the Soviet Union in London. Ponomareva stepped into a C&A Modes, which The New York Times informed me was a low-priced clothing store on Oxford Street, and was said to have shoplifted. According to the Herald Scotland, Ponomareva was “arrested on charges of shoplifting four feather hats (white, mauve, black, and yellow) plus a red woolen one, costing a total of £1.65.”

Nina Ponomareva in Helsinki.

When the team manager Konstatin Krupin heard of the arrest this doctor’s wife, teacher and 27-year-old mother, he pulled his team from the competition with Britain. The Bolshoi Ballet, which was headed to London, threatened to cancel their trip if British authorities did not retract the arrest and apologize. The UK Ambassador was summoned to the Kremlin for a good tongue lashing.

Forty four days after the arrest, Ponomareva came out of hiding in the Soviet Embassy. She was found guilty of shoplifting in court and asked to pay three guineas in costs. After that, she went straight to the harbor and got on a ship back home. Later that year, she failed to defend her Olympic championship in Melbourne (finishing third), but rebounded for gold four years later.

It is the legacy of the five hats that lived on beyond her golden glory. According to this obituary in The New York Times, Ponomareva’s name was cited during a debate on Britain’s actions during the Suez Crisis in the House of Commons. Labour member had this to say about the leading party’s foreign policy. “If the (Suez) Canal is vital to us, we take it,” he said. “This is the morality of Nina Ponomareva – ‘I like your hat, I will have it.'”

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – SEPTEMBER 10: Sophie Pascoe of New Zealand celebrates after winning a gold medal in the Women’s 100m Backstroke S10 final on day 3 of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at Olympic Aquatics Stadium on September 10, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images for the New Zealand Paralympic Committee) Getty Images

I’ve never spoken publicly about Sophie’s accident before; I’ve always kept it to myself. I don’t think I’ve really recovered from it, actually. It just leaves a black dot in my life. You never get over something like that. Never. It haunts me to this day; it absolutely haunts me.

“It” is an accident that occurred in 1995, one that Garry Pascoe had refused to talk about until the release of the biography of swimming giant, Sophie Pascoe in 2013. What had been known was that Garry accidentally ran a power lawn mower over her 2-year-old daughter, and as a result, Sophie had to have her left leg amputated below the knee.

Sophie Pascoe getting ready_Kirk Hargreaves/Fairfax NZ

To the credit of the Pascoes, Sophie took charge of her life. Amazingly, she claims in this article from The Telegraph that the accident was “the best thing that ever happened to me”. That is very hard to believe, but it is also hard to argue with her results.

At the age of 7, she learned how to swim, and has never looked back. Eight years later, Sophie Pascoe of Christchurch New Zealand won three gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games. By the time she turned 23, she was a veteran Paralympian, having won a total of 15 medals over the past three Paralympic cycles, including 9 golds.

Pascoe’s father, Garry, quite understandably, had not publicly discussed the accident. But when Sophie’s biography, Sophie Pascoe – Stroke of Fate, came out, so too did the state of mind of her father on that horrible day of September 23, 1995. Here’s an excerpt from the book published in a New Zealand paper, The Press.

I was mowing the raised section of lawn and was in low gear because the surface was a wee bit bumpy. Blow me dead, I went to go in reverse and the mower wouldn’t move. I thought what the s… has happened?’ I looked down and there was Sophie under the mower.

It devastates me to think about it even now. I picked Sophie up and ran next door to the nearest neighbours. But they couldn’t help so I ran to Alistair Bull’s place. We got into his car and shot straight through Halswell up Lincoln Road towards the hospital.

Sophie’s father goes on to relate in the excerpt some rather uncomfortable details. Only two years old at the time, Sophie made it through six hours of surgery. And while she has gone on to tremendous achievements as a swimmer, he cannot erase the memory of that day.

Her swimming success has taken a lot of the pain away. But it will never take away the memory. You just live with it. It’s a big hurdle to live with but I have.

Singapore’s Feng Tianwei, Li Jiawei and Wang Yuegu pose with their silver medals on the podium after the table tennis women’s team finals of the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Singapore has been aggressive in recruiting foreign athletic talent. Trying to punch above its weight, this nation of 5.6 million has a government program called the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme (FST) in which the government recruits foreign athletes with promises of income and training support. In exchange, the incoming athlete takes up Singaporean nationality and represents Singapore in international sporting events.

In 2008, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong explained that the FST is one tactic in a strategy to bring the world’s best talent to Singapore, and thus continue to raise the capability bar.

In the Olympics contingent, there are 25 members, half of whom are new Singaporeans. Why do we need them? Make a single calculation. The Chinese have 1.3 billion people. Singapore has a population of four million … If we want to win glory for Singapore and do well not only in sports but in many other areas, we cannot merely depend on the local-born. We need to attract talent from all over … Look at the Beijing Olympics. Tao Li, the swimmer, she’s done very well. The women’s table-tennis team … they have won an Olympic medal. We welcome foreigners so they can strengthen our team, and we can reduce our constraints. So let us welcome and let us encourage them.

When Feng Tianwei, Li Jiawei and Wang Yuegu won the team bronze medal for Singapore at the 2012 Olympics in London, it was a moment of mixed feelings for Singaporeans. Yes, Singaporeans won an Olympic medal. But were they Singaporean, or mercenaries? According to this 2012 blog post, this did not resonate as a Singaporean victory.

According to a poll by Yahoo! Sports, 77 per cent of the 17,227 respondents polled over three days said they would not be proud if a foreign import won an Olympic medal for Singapore.  It is not clear if the respondents had in mind Singapore’s table tennis teams, which were almost entirely made up of China-born athletes, but they were the only athletes representing Singapore with any real chance of winning any medals.

However, when swimmer Joseph Schooling triumphed over legend Michael Phelps of the US, Chad Le Clos of South Africa, and László Cseh of Hungary in the 100-meter butterfly finals in Rio this past August, Singaporeans went mad over the hometown boy who beat the very best in the world. Schooling is a third-generation Singaporean, and that makes all the difference in the world, according to this blog post from The Online Citizen.

Whenever someone from this little Red Dot goes overseas to represent the country, be it sports, music or arts, people want to feel a part of themselves being represented. Someone whom they can relate to, someone who can speak Singlish, someone who knows his la, lor and leh, someone who loves fried carrot cake, like Joseph Schooling, someone who went through the rigorous Singapore education system. Basically, the Singaporean Identity.

When we bring in foreign players to represent the country, I have no doubt they are going to go to the Olympics to play their hearts out (so those who comment that they will not give their 100%, I think that’s uncalled for), but there is always that nagging feeling that something is missing. The Singaporean Identity. These players do not speak like us, they spent their childhoods somewhere else, they do not have to serve National Service, which is a very integral part of being Singaporean. They may be carrying the pink IC and the national flag, but deep within, where is the Singaporean Identity?

Joseph Schooling Celebrated in Singapore

What’s interesting to me is that Schooling did not develop his world-class skills in Singapore. He did so at the University of Texas in the United States, where he competed among the very best, including Phelps. According to this article in Today Online, some of the comments in support of the Foreign Sports Talent scheme were Singaporean athletes, who “called on the universities to improve on and emulate the United States’ National Collegiate Athletic Association’s competitive environment by attracting top athletic talents to local institutions to compete and train among local athletes.”

Here’s how Singapore Sailing Federation president Benedict Tan and Minister for Social and Family Development argued the point.

By attracting world-class talents here and being in the system, it raises standards, and when you have real competition, they really level up. (Local) universities have been very forthcoming. But whether we create an (sporting) atmosphere or culture … it’s whether we have a critical mass of athletes.

This debate between head and heart is like a ping pong rally, back and forth…hopefully unending….


Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump


On April 10, 1971, members of the US Table Tennis team made a historic trip to China to play ping pong, a significant step in thawing the icy relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. The first official American delegation to set foot in China since 1949 was so successful it prompted one member of the American team to say, “The people are just like us. They are real, they’re genuine, they got feelings.”

Ten months later, President Nixon visited the PRC, and two months later, Mao Zedong came to the United States.

Today, the so-called ping pong diplomacy of the 1970s has yielded to ping pong capitalism of the 21st century. As this New York Times article points out, China has been absolutely dominant in ping pong at the Olympics, winning 28 of the 32 gold medals up for grabs since the sports debut in 1988. As national sports bodies note their lack of world-class table tennis players, as well as the glut of very talented table tennis athletes in China, there has been a definite flow of table tennis talent from China (where the supply is) to other countries (where the demand is).

The Times also stated that of the 172 ping pong players at the Rio Olympics this past August, at least 44 were born in China. Of that 44, only 6 of them represented China. At the Rio Olympics, Chinese-born players represented such countries as Australia, the Congo, France, Qatar, Slovakia, Sweden and Turkey.

Liu Guoliang, the head coach of the Chinese national table tennis team, said that this is normal. “There are a lot of Chinese talents and the competition is intense. Some have difficulties in putting on the national uniform. So in order for them to realize their dreams, they would want to represent other countries.”


According to the Times article, this trend became visible in Europe in the 1980s, when Ding Yi moved to Europe to represent Austria. As Massimo Constantini of the Italian team said after he lost to Ding in a match prior to the 1988 Olympics, “We were shocked, actually, to be playing against someone Chinese.”

Renowned political scientist, Joseph Nye, calls it soft power, the means of a nation to influence and attract by means other than coercion. And while China increased its global appeal thanks to the 2008 Summer Olympics, and is investing heavily in the infrastructure of other countries, for example, it’s still a challenge, as Nye states below:

China has been investing billions of dollars to improve its soft power. (But) soft power is not something that can solely be produced by governments, it comes through civil society. China is not going to have the soft power that the U.S. has. Its generating of propaganda does not bring strong credibility.

So maybe it’s through sports, again, where China makes inroads in its attempts to make friends. Is it 1972 again? Is ping pong China’s path to our hearts?

In 2001, former vice-premier Li Lanqing and former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger played ping-pong to mark the 30th anniversary of “Sino-US ping-pong diplomacy.” Xu Jingxing
Dylan Alcott playing in the finals of wheelchair tennis at the Rio Paralympics.

Wheelchair tennis is so much about anticipation and commitment. A wheelchair can’t move as abruptly or quickly as the human body, so wheelchair athletes have to make earlier decisions to move to a space as they require more time to go from A to B, even with the rule that allows a ball to bounce twice before returning it.

Other than that, wheelchair tennis is the same as the tennis we see from the likes of the Williams’ sisters, Federer, Nadal and Murray. Playing angles. Serving wide and volleying into open court. Lobbing and dropping shots. Fighting over line calls.

Brit Andy Lapthorne and Aussie Dylan Alcott represent the best of competitive wheelchair tennis, and they played each other in the Quad singles wheelchair tennis finals at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. Alcott defeated Lapthorne 6-3, 6-4 to bring home the gold for Australia.


Alcott is an athlete. He not only won gold in men’s quad singles and quad doubles in Rio, he also won gold in Beijing and silver in London on Australia’s men’s wheelchair basketball team.

But when the 25-year-old thinks back to his 12-year-old self, the confident Alcott remembers a totally different person. “I was an insecure kid about my disability,” he said post-match. “A few kids used to call me a cripple, and I hate that word. I used to believe them. If you told me back then when I was 12 and not wanting to go to school that I’d be a triple Paralympic gold medalist across two sports, I would have said ‘get stuffed’.”

Sports has become the open door for so many people who have been considered “disabled”. And with the growing importance of achievement in international competitions like the Paralympics, more funds are being invested in the training and support of disabled athletes. The governing body of tennis in Alcott’s country, Tennis Australia, has supported the growth and popularity of tennis in Australia, including those wheelchair bound. Alcott credits Tennis Australia in this Sydney Morning Herald article.this link

Tennis Australia sat me down and said if you want to do this properly, we’ll support you. And I said ‘I don’t want to be supported like a wheelchair tennis player, I want to be supported as a tennis player, like Nick Kyrgios is, or Sam Stosur is. I don’t care that I’m in a wheelchair. If you treat me equally to them, I’ll do it. And they did, and they gave me everything that I wanted. They treat me as if I’m Roger Federer.

Alcott is likely unknown to most of us, but for those kids in wheelchairs, with boundless energy trapped inside, he is a role model and a hero.

“I’ve got an income, I travel the world. I love my life,” Alcott said as he basked in the elation of his gold medal achievement.

And like all champions, the road has been long and hard. You know it has. You can see it in the warm embrace Alcott and Lapthorne share at the end of the match, which you can watch at this link.