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.

© Roy Tomizawa and The Olympians from 2015 onwards. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of material within this blog without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Roy Tomizawa and The Olympians with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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Zion Williamson and Rui Hachimura
Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura (right) defends against Duke’s Zion Williamson in the final of the Maui Invitational on Wednesday. | KYODO

It was November 22, 2018 and Gonzaga was challenging #1 Duke for the Maui Invitational Title Game early in the 2018-2019 NCAA men’s basketball season.

Arguably the best young talent in basketball were Duke Blue Devils, the perennial powerhouse in the NCAA. In fact, two of the top three lottery draft picks in the upcoming NBA draft will likely be from Duke – freshmen Zion Williamson and R J Barrett.

The Gonzaga Bulldogs, which was number 3 in the nation at the time, stormed out to a 14-point lead at halftime. But Duke fought back coming to within 1 with 3 and a half minutes left. That’s when Japanese forward, Rui Hachimura, made big plays on both the offensive and defensive ends to hold the fort – driving and dishing. When Duke tied the game, Hachimura barreled his way to the basket past Barrett for his 20th point to reclaim the lead 89-87 with only 1 minute and 13 seconds left in the game.

Duke desperately tried to tie the game, driving the lane. But the Bulldog defense was stalwart, with Hachimura adding a lunging block of a Barrett jumper with the game clock ticking away. Despite four missed free throws, Gonzaga’s defense held stiff. When Hachimura grabbed the final rebound later, Hachimura, Gonzaga had topped the mighty Duke.

In the sixth game of his junior year, Rui Hachimura, the native of Toyama, Japan, showed that he could put his team on his shoulders. Hachimura went on to average 20 points and 7 rebounds per game in leading Gonzaga to an undefeated conference season and to the Elite Eight in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, losing to a very strong Texas Tech.

A week after the tournament, Hachimura made a historic decision – to skip his senior year at Gonzaga and enter the NBA draft, with the very high possibility of a vaunted first round pick when the NBA holds the draft on June 20, 2019.

Prognosticators have the 2.05 meter tall forward going as high as number 4, behind Duke’s Williamson (#1) and Barrett (#3), to somewhere in the mid teens. Either way, Hachimura will be the first Japanese to be drafted in the first round. Hachimura is an athletic, physical player who scouts say will create challenging match ups for opponents as he can play either small or power forward, as explained on NBA.com.

Play him at small forward and he can take his man to the block and spin-off him with masterful footwork for a layup. Play him at power forward and let him work on slower players in space where he can either blow by with a lightning-quick first step or create room with a side step to showcase his silky mid-range jump shot. Utilize him off the ball and he can punish sleeping help defender with intelligent cuts resulting in uncontested dunks.

NCAA Ohio St Gonzaga Basketball
Gonzaga forward Rui Hachimura dunks during the second half of last weekend’s NCAA Tournament second-round game against Ohio State in Boise, Idaho. The Bulldogs are in the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive season – the only program in the nation that has done that. (AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger)

Hachimura has shown great growth, particularly in his outside shooting. While he consistently hit over 50% of his field goals, he more than doubled his accuracy in 3-point shooting, improving from 19.2% to 41.7% from his sophomore to his junior year. Still critics find the sample size small and wonder if he can continue to get open and convert in the pros where the 3-point shot is about half a meter further out, and the defense on the perimeter is more aggressive.

Hachimura has won fans with his transition games, his rugged protection of the rim and his bursts to the basket with authoritative dunks, as well as his bright smile and humble demeanor. On June 20, he will be crowned as Japan’s greatest basketball player with selection into the NBA as a first-round pick.

Final Book Cover-LOCK

They were called the Innocent Olympics, and the Happy Games.

But the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, a true turning point in Japan’s history, was not taking place in a vacuum. The world did not stop. In fact, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was held in the midst of global turmoil so significant you may not believe what was happening as summer turned to autumn that year, particularly during those Olympic Games.

Read about those amazing events in the introductory chapter of my book – 1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – which I am offering at this link.

After four-and-a-half years of research and writing, my book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics will finally be published. The target date is July 8, 2019.

My publisher, Lioncrest Publishing, has designed a wonderful cover, which I have debuted here. I hope it conveys to you the excitement of those times, a moment when all of Japan hit the pause button for two weeks on their relentless drive to improve their nation and their lives, so they could reflect how far they had come, and still how far they hoped to go.

1964 was in fact only 19 years after Japan lay devastated and demoralized after losing the Pacific War. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics symbolized redemption, confidence regained, and a profound gratefulness that the world would come to them with open arms. And the world were pleasantly surprised to be welcomed too with a hearty embrace.

If you want to know what some 1964 Olympians, academics and writers thought of my book, here are some advanced referrals.

Thank you for joining me on this journey.

Construction of Olympic Village July 2018
Construction on the Olympic Village, seen on Tuesday, continues in Chuo Ward ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Games – July 2018 | YOSHIAKI MIURA

In 2008, the novel, “Olympic Ransom, (Orinpikku no Minoshirokin), the author, Hideo Okuda, reimagined the history of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, telling the story of a radicalized Tokyo University student who seeks to set off a bomb in the National Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremonies of those Games.

Ever since learning that his brother had died in an accident at a construction site related to the Tokyo Olympics, Kunio Shimazaki led the police on a wild goose chase, setting off low-level explosions across Tokyo in a run-up to the Games. When the novel’s hero, Inspector Masao Ochiai, confronts Shimazaki at a hiding place in Tokyo University, Shimazaki delivers his monologue:

Ochiai-san, do you know there is an underground passageway into the National Stadium? An underpass to all for the movement of players from underground into the world’s best stadium? The country has spared no expense in the making of it. Due to various pretexts though, the use of it was stopped. My older brother for the sake of constructing that unused underpass was forced into working shifts of sixteen continuous hours. In order to get through those shifts he turned to taking bad Philopon….and died. For the national honor, the country wasted huge amounts of money all while treating migrant workers like trash until they die, paying them only tens of thousands of yen. If we don’t change something here, the unfair gap between rich and poor will go on widening forever. And endlessly the same tragedy will repeat.

Those were lines from Asahi Television’s dramatized version of Okuda’s novel, about an event that never happened. And yet, this dialogue is being echoed today, about the working conditions of the construction sites for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

On May 15, 2019, the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) along with the Japanese Federation of Construction Workers’ Union, Zenken Soren, released a highly publicized report entitled, “The Dark Side of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics.” The report cites great concern regarding overworked and underpaid workers on the Olympic construction sites. In this Kyodo News report,  BWI General Secretary Ambet Yuson summarized his concern:

The Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics was Japan’s opportunity to address some of the long-running gaps within the construction industry in Japan, however, these problems have just got worse.  Wages remain low, dangerous overwork is common, and workers have limited access to recourse to address their issues.

Mary Harvey, the CEO of the Geneva-based Centre for Sport and Human Rights, and goalkeeper on the 1996 US women’s Olympic soccer squad, told AP that we needed to pay attention to these labor issues.

To think this is going away is burying your head in the sand, and I’m concerned it’s going to get worse. The heat of the summer months is upon us while construction deadlines are trying to be met. Someone dying or committing suicide shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone. Everyone should be taking a serious look at the risks identified in BWI’s report and, by everyone, I mean everyone who is a stakeholder, including the IOC, the Japanese government and construction companies.

The report offers facts and assumptions, which I have organized in the following categories:

Labor Shortage and Overwork

  • “Japan is currently suffering from an acute labour shortage and this is particularly apparent in the construction sector, where, today there are 4.3 jobs available for every construction worker.”
  • “Workers on the New National Stadium reported working 26 days in a single month, and workers on the Olympic Village reported working 28 days in a single month.”
  • “Today one in four Japanese construction workers – approximately 800,000 – are over the age of 60, and the Infrastructure Ministry predicts that by 2025 the industry will face a shortage of 470,000 to 930,000 workers.”

 

Consequences

  • “According to Labour Ministry figures there were 21 deaths from karoshi in 2017 in the construction sector, the second highest of all sectors.”
  • “…overwork itself creates severe safety risks, as fatigued workers are more likely to cut corners or make mistakes, putting themselves and their fellow workers in danger. One worker commented that he felt he is ‘always being pushed to meet the deadline,” while another said, “It’s not worth your life for this’.”
  • “Delays (In a variety of construction projects)… in a tight labour market will all translate into additional pressure on workers to meet deadlines, and a higher likelihood of unsafe working practices.”

 

Lack of Worker Rights

  • “Some workers were made to purchase their own personal protective equipment.”
  • “Workers also noted that they have become reluctant to raise their voice because managers do little to respond. ‘You point the issues out and request improvements, but this falls on deaf ears’. According to the workers, part of this problem is likely connected to the fact that the site foremen being dispatched neither have nor has sufficient training to do the work.”
  • “Two union leaders of Doken General Labour Union reported during the September 2018 International Forum that union organisers were harassed and intimidated by authorities when they attempted to reach out to workers in Tokyo National Stadium.”

 

Foreign Migrant Workers in Particular at a Disadvantage

  • “The number of migrant workers in the construction sector almost tripled between 2014-2017, with numbers now reaching around 55,000.”
  • “In the construction sector most of migrant workers are engaged through the Technical Intern Training Program (TITP). The TITP programme is supposed to provide training for migrant workers in key sectors with labour shortages; however, there has been widespread criticism of it as an exploitative scheme intended to render cheap labour.”
  • “TITP interns must be paid the legal minimum wage but it is rare that they are paid more, and this is currently set at less than half the average annual wage for construction (~US$40,000).”
  • “…it was reported that they (migrant workers) spoke no Japanese and communication was a challenge, particularly on OHS matters. Under Japanese law, employers must set up necessary procedures to ensure that health and safety procedures are established in a way that foreigners can understand.

In response to these reports, the Malaysian news portal, Malasiakini, called out to the Malaysian action to protect migrant workers in Japan.

We call for a guarantee from our Government that Malaysian workers’ rights and safety will be protected if they travel to Japan to work. This should include pre-departure orientation seminars on Japanese labour and safety law, and facilitating direct access to trade unions in Japan to ensure they can safeguard their rights on the job. The Malaysian Government must make sure that Malaysian workers are not trapped in a rights vacuum.

This report is likely a concern to the IOC and the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee. The IOC released a statement, saying “We take these issues very seriously and are committed to working with the relevant stakeholders to address them and find the appropriate solutions.”

But with the incredibly tight labor market in Japan, the IOC’s drive to decrease the Tokyo2020 budget, the increasingly tight deadlines for completion of Olympic venues, as well as competition for construction resources from all over the country, including reconstruction efforts in Tohoku in the aftermath of the 3.11 disaster, it is going to be hard to alleviate the pressure on the construction industry.

Musashino Forest Sports Plaza 5

It’s a bright airy arena – the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza in Chofu, Tokyo.  I attended the NHK Cup on Sunday, May 19, a national championships for artistic gymnastics in Japan, and it was exciting to watch the very best male gymnasts in Japan, and in the world.

Now, if only I could understand what Was going on.

I’m not a deep fan of gymnastics. I knew that Kohei Uchimura, the winner of the previous 9 NHK Cups, was unable to qualify this time around. I knew that one of the most promising young gymnasts, Kenzo Shirai, did poorly to qualify for the NHK Cup, so was not in good shape to win. But I had my guide book and was ready to watch a great competition.

The problem is, the arena – this new arena that opened up in November of 2017 – was so poorly outfitted electronically that it was impossible to know what was going on…unless you were really familiar with gymnastics and could recognize faces and names from a far.

As you can see in the photo at the top of this post, there was only a single large screen to my left. That screen basically provided an NHK feed of the tournament, except without any critical information, like the name of the gymnast being displayed.

In fact, spectators at this new 10,000-seat facility, which will house Olympic badminton, pentathlon fencing and Paralympic wheelchair basketball, were bereft of any basic information about what was happening before them, except for small digital signs at each event site on the floor.

It’s true, that artistic gymnastics, where six different  disciplines are happening at the same time, can be hard for the casual fan to follow. But if the idea is to attract as many fans as possible, particularly casual fans, then providing basic information to the spectator is critical. At the most average arena in the United States, one would expect to see a jumbotron hanging from the ceiling over center court, where the most basic information about scores, player information and video replays can be provided.

But the experience at Musashino Forest Sports Plaza was frustrating at best for the casual observer. You give up to the fact that you have no idea which person is doing what, where and when.

From the sponsors’ perspective, one would hope that their company name and logo is highly visible. But the main arena in Musashino Forest Sports Plaza has no such electronic signage. Instead, small placards hung awkwardly off the edge of the first and second level stands.

If you believe that stadium and arenas should be designed for the spectator (as well as sponsors), then you will have issues with many sports venues in Japan.  Most of the stadium and arena in Japan are owned by government authorities, and that they view these venues as cost centers, not profit centers. In other words, if there is a soccer stadium in some town somewhere in Japan, it will be very hard for a person with an idea to do anything other than soccer in that stadium, this despite the fact that concerts, obstacle sports racing, eSports and other such activities could attract many more and different people.

To change the conservative nature of stadium and arena administrators in Japan, the Japanese government through the Sports Agency have been pushing a plan to triple sports business revenue in Japan from JPY5.5 trillion yen in 2015 to JPY15 trillion yen in 2025. The Sports Agency want stadium and arenas to transform so that they can help contribute to those greater revenues.

In recognition of this need, the Sports Agency published in June, 2017 a report in Japanese called Stadium and Arena Revolution Guidebook. In this report, they highlighted 14 recommendations to drive this revolution.

You can find a fuller translation of that part of the report in this pdf.

Fourteen Requirements for sustainable management that attracts spectators and supports community development:

  • Requirement 1. Improvement to Customer Experience
  • Requirement 2. Realization of various usage scenarios
  • Requirement 3. Establishment of profit model and transformation to profit center
  • Requirement 4. Stadium/arena as the core of community development
  • Requirement 5. Identification of stakeholders and improvement in consensus building
  • Requirement 6. Attracting new customers and providing information
  • Requirement 7. Designing for profitability
  • Requirement 8. Management (operation, maintenance, repair, etc.) critical to sustainability
  • Requirement 9. Compliance and risk management for stadium and arena maintenance
  • Requirement 10. Leveraging the vitality of the private sector
  • Requirement 11. Various financing schemes
  • Requirement 12. Goal setting, evaluation, feedback
  • Requirement 13. IT and data utilization in stadium and arena management
  • Requirement 14: Stadium and Arena management personnel
Marathon turning point
A turn at the halfway point int he marathon shows Ethiopia’s Demissie Wolde leading Japan’s Kokichi Tsuburaya, the eventual third-place finisher. Wolde would fade to 10th. From the book, The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad, p48

It’s nestled in a nook in the sidewalk in Tobitakyu, Chofu, a town in Western Tokyo – a dove with massive wings perched on a pillar.

The dove generally signifies the peaceful intentions of the Olympic Games, but this dove in particular signifies the turning point of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Marathon competition. Today, the statue is hidden and nondescript, a footnote for a busy suburban area where there’s  a busy road, a major stadium (Ajinomoto Stadium, home of J League’s FC Tokyo soccer team) as well as a major arena (Musashino Forest Sports Plaza where Olympic and Paralympic events will be held) nearby.

Marathon turning point 4

But on October 21, 1964, it was a quiet residential area that drew the attention of the world. Nearly 55 years before, Abebe Bikila, the barefoot champion from Ethiopia arrived at the point near that dove statue, made the turn around a very large cone that read “ori-kaeshi-ten,” (or turning point) and headed back into central Tokyo continuing to build a lead so insurmountable that he ended up breaking the world record and winning gold handily for the second Olympics in a row.

Unlike the legendary marathon of the ancient Olympic Games, as well as at the 2004 Athens Games, when the marathon was a point-to-point race from a town called Marathon to Athens, most other Summer Olympics have designed marathon routes where the start and finish are the same point – at the main stadium. This was the case in 1964, and the organizers chose a route of straightforward simplicity – out of the National Stadium in Yoyogi  and then due West, through Shinjuku 3-chome and onto the Koshu-kaido (Koshu Highway).

1964 marathon route_google maps
The route from the National Olympic Stadium to Tobitakyu in Chofu.

The marathon was very popular. NHK rolled out the latest technology with a mobile relay van complete with vibration-proof cameras, helicopters with cameras, as well as UHF antennas sprinkled throughout the course which enabled for the first time in history the live broadcast of the entire marathon race, in color, to millions, according to the final report issued by the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee. For approximately 1,200,000 people who lined the route, twice the size of any previous marathon in Japan, watching the athletes run by you trumped the latest in broadcast technology.

Marathon turning point 3
The road sign indicating that this point on the Koshu Highway is where the marathoners turned around and headed back into town.

The marathon was an event for the people, who did not need a ticket to line the road from early in the morning to settle in to catch a glimpse of their heroes, Kokichi Tsuburaya, Kenji Kimihara and Toru Terasawa, as well as one of the most famous athletes of that time – Abebe Bikila. The turning point at Tobitakyu is celebrated as the turning point of the marathon, in an Olympics that was a turning point for Japan.

Marathon turning point_Abebe
Abebe Bekila at the halfway point of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic marathon.
Japan Taxi_author
Another shiny black Japan Taxi.

Designed by committee, Toyota’s Japan Taxi becomes an expensive Olympic symbol.

That’s a damning headline, one that Olympic-haters love to see. News editors like it because they know readership will want to read and moan about the waste that the Olympics and other big-tent events incur. That’s why so many news channels picked up this May 22 Reuters story.

Toyota built a taxi that sticks out on the Tokyo roads – a black high-roofed automobile that boasts the Olympic and Paralympic logos – and they’re called “Japan Taxi”.

The Reuters article leads with the premise that the Japan Taxi has become a “high-priced icon of Tokyo’s budget-busting 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.” It goes on to state that the taxi was designed to answer too many stakeholder needs, including an air purifying conditioner, wheelchair ramp, liquefied petroleum and gas-hybrid engine – in other words, a Frankenstein-sort of taxi had been created. As a result, the car ended up retailing for over USD30,000, some USD7 to 8,000 more than the Toyota Crown that are gradually being replaced as taxis in Tokyo.

That is indeed a high price and Toyota admits to finding few interested buyers outside  Tokyo and Japan. Toyota admits they are losing money on this, manufacturing only 1,000 of these cars a month.

According to the article, taxi drivers have expressed discontent, although reasons beyond an unwieldy rarely-deployed wheelchair ramp are not provided. Additionally, taxi operators are concerned subsidies from the city and federal governments will disappear after the Olympics, although it is unclear in the article how big that overall cost is.

But what does the number one stakeholder think – the ones who are transported in Japan Taxi?

I’ll start with a highly unscientific study of one – myself. I LOVE these taxis! And I suspect I’m not alone. They’re easy to enter and they’re spacious – a business-class taxi with economy fares. You can cart your luggage in with ease. They’re classic looking, harking back to the design of the big old London taxis. And those who are wheelchair bound appear to have found an easier option.

The video report on this Reuters story (below) quotes Josh Grisdale, a wheelchair resident of Japan, who commented on the fact that before Japan Taxi you had to rely on specialized vans. Now he says you see Japan Taxi on the street all the time. “The most important thing is to have something available when you need it,” said Grisdale, the Head of Accessible Japan. “Up till now, you’ve had to book way in advance to book a taxi, and that’s very difficult for people who are not from Japan.

All the way at the end of the article, Reuters admits that taxi distributors actually like their Japan Taxis because “they consume half the fuel of older vehicles and their anti-collision sensors have reduced accidents by 10%,” and that “Toyota made other tweaks when it addressed the wheelchair ramp problem. It also made the automatic sliding passenger door close 1.5 seconds faster, reduced rear windscreen wiper noise with an intermittent setting and lowered the money tray on the driver’s seat to reduce shoulder strain.”

If a news agency comes out with a story on Japan Taxi about significant taxpayer money being wasted on something that  taxpayers don’t like, then fine. But my guess is that if you had a line of people waiting for taxis and the next two cars on the queue were a Japan Taxi and an older Toyota Crown (a perfectly fine car), the person first on line will likely be happy he’s not second.

Tokyo2020 tickets lottery application completed

The lottery has begun.

On May 9, 2019, Tokyo2020 began a registration process that allows people living in Japan to select tickets to events with an intent to purchase. This registration ends on May 28.

If you are a resident of Japan – meaning you have an address and telephone number in Japan – you can participate in a lottery for tickets to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. However, it is likely  you will have to wait. Last night on the first day of registration, wait times were an hour or so. More frustratingly for some was navigating the closing process.

I waited for about 60 minutes, started the process, and somehow lost the connection. When I tried to re-establish the process, I ended up re-starting the count. Another 60 minutes to kill. According to this article, “180,000 applicants were simultaneously in a waiting line.”

Waiting for Registration_Tokyo2020 tickets

The second time around, I selected tickets for opening and closing ceremonies, men’s basketball finals and a day of a bunch of track finals, which took me about 30 minutes to do. After pushing the complete button, I had to give final verification by calling a number, and I had about 2 minutes to do so, according to the site. Unfortunately, I got about 3 minutes worth of busy tone after dialing the number over ten times.

Somehow, I was able to figure out how to re-start the phone verification process, and in the end, persistence prevailed. At 11pm that night, I secured my place in the lottery. And so too, can you, if you live in Japan. According to the above-cited article, residents in Japan not only get first dibs, they get tickets that will be less expensive than those sold outside Japan, as ticket re-sellers tack on a handling charge of 20%. For a JPY300,000 ticket to the Opening Ceremony, that’s a hefty charge increase.

You have until May 28. Officials have emphasized and re-emphasized that the time you register and select events for the lottery is irrelevant. You have an equal chance of tickets whether you were the first or last person to register. First, get your ID, and then find a quiet time of the day (pre-dawn) to go to the site, and start picking events!

Ticket Price List

Josh Larsen's hands

I was with the USA Climbing team in Tokyo a couple of weeks ago and talking with team coach, Josh Larson, and I couldn’t help but notice his hands.

They were ugly.

Fat. Dry. In desperate need of a manicure.

For climbers, the fingers carry a significant chunk of the freight, and as a result, get really fat. After years of sustaining one’s body weight on one’s fingertips, sliding them into the slimmest of crevices, and slipping off the tiniest of edges, fingers get swollen and calloused over time. The result – really ugly fingers.

But in the world of sports, sometimes ugliness is the price of admission.

Take basketball for example. LeBron James. Shaquille O’Neal. James Harden. These athletes are famous for their incredible athletic ability, but not for their feet….more specifically, some of the ugliest toes you can imagine. So what to do you get an NBA superstar who has everything? According to The Washington Post…a pedicure.

For MMA fighters, boxers and wrestlers, it gets even uglier with cauliflower ears and broken noses. I won’t show those images here. But if you have a strong stomach, or are an ENT specialist, enjoy!

Ears

Noses

IMG_1645
Lead Climbing Wall in MoriPark Outdoor Village in Akishima, Tokyo, Japan

The climbing wall looms high over the green at MoriPark Outdoor Village in Akishima, Japan, a yoga class finding serenity in the quiet strength of the monolith.

It’s a sunny Sunday morning on April 21, 2019, and the USA Climbing Team has just arrived and huddled on the grass to confirm their routine for the day. After training intensively most of the week indoors, it was time to get some work done outdoors.

MoriPark Outdoor Village, which is on the western edge of Tokyo, is a compact shopping center, with tenants which sell only outdoor gear and wear, or provide health and sporting services. For Team USA, the village’s climbing walls served as the venue for their day’s training.

Drew Ruana and Nathaniel Coleman 2
Drew Ruana and Nathaniel Coleman on the speed climbing wall.

Across the street from the rope-climbing wall was the speed climbing wall, used for one of the three climbing disciplines that will determine a medal for climbers at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. At the base of the 15-meter wall, the young men and women of Team USA (the oldest member was 22) began their stretching and prepping routine.

Five days later, the team would be competing for glory at the International Federation of Sports Climbing (IFSC) Worldcup in Chongqing, China. For now, it was a day for low intensity training.

DSC_0491
Ashima Shiraishia and coach Josh Larson

Members of the team, including USA Climbing coach, Josh Larson, first got their senses sharpened with a round of hacky sack. Others stretched in their own AirPod-induced sensory isolation. And a couple pulled out their favorite distraction – the kendama.

A simply constructed wooden plaything out of Japan’s traditional past, the kendama is a wooden ball connected by string to a hammer-like handle that allows the player to catch the ball on a spike or on one of two cups. According to climber, Nathaniel Coleman of Salt Lake City, kendama became an addiction among slacklining athletes, which spread to the climbing world.

Eventually, the climbers had their opportunities scrambling up the wall like frantic Spider-men, hitting the metal plate at the top of the wall stopping the clock in 7 to 8 seconds. A medal for sport climbing will be up for grabs for those athletes who can compile the best combined scores for three types of climbing: lead climbing, bouldering, and speed climbing.

Claire Buhrfeind and Kyra Condie 2
Claire Buhrfeind and Kyra Condie

Lead climbing is about creativity and endurance. Bouldering is about puzzle solving, getting introduced to a new pattern of hand and footholds, and figuring out the best path. Speed climbing is about practicing the same exact pattern of hand and footholds on a wall that has existed for 10 years, a pattern which is solidly entrenched in the muscle memory of the fastest climbers.

Many climbers love the chess match of the other disciplines – lead and bouldering – but broadcasters love the clear-cut simplicity of speed climbing. In fact, the fastest event in the Olympics will be speed climbing, where the world record is an incredible 5.48 seconds.

Zach Galla 3
Zach Galla

And like any young sport, there are those who wonder if sports climbing is being sold out to the broadcasters who cater to the lowest common denominator. Kyra Condie of Minnesota is ranked 8th in the world in bouldering, and she learned her skills in the climbing gyms that nurtured climbers, and encouraged support and fun. “I worry,” she said “that climbing will become too competitive,” and lose the fun part of the climbing culture.

But the competitive nature of  climbers are also stoked by sport climbing’s debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games. John Brosler of Dallas, Texas started climbing when he was 10, when his parents sent him to summer camp where he got hooked on the wall. John loves the competition of climbing and is “really psyched” to see the best.

John Brosler 1

“I got to see this sport grow from a niche when climbing gyms were few and far between,” said the 22-year old. “It’s really cool to see it gain traction and become an Olympic sport.”

But sports climbing is a global sport, and Team USA has some catching up to do.

In the three climbing disciplines of lead, bouldering and speed, Team USA is ranked 8th, 8th and 12th respectively. European nations like Slovenia, France, the Czech Republic and Russia, as well as Japan are proven teams that look to medal in 2020.

Ce Ce Kopf 1

While climbing teams in Europe and other parts of the world have been better funded, and training together more formally for a longer time, Team USA has just been unifying its resources in the past year, according to Larson. The Boston native was hired as the team’s first coach in 2018. He was hired by the new CEO of USA Climbing, Marc Norman, who asked his team’s officials to move to Salt Lake City in order to make it easier to coordinate Team USA’s activities.

USA Climbing Team

“It was only a few years ago when I’d go to a tournament in Europe, on my own, without a coach, and find out who else was on the team when I’d see them arrive,” Larson said.

In Tokyo, Team USA is together, benefiting from the camaraderie that comes from  training together, and the aggregate knowledge that comes from their shared experience. Team USA’s time together has been short, but sport climbing rise to Olympic levels has also been quick. Not everything about the strategy and tactics of how to win a combined climbing event is known.

In other words,  gold, silver and bronze in climbing is for the taking.

Barcelona road to Segrada Familia
The wide-open road to Segrada Familia in Barcelona.

In my view, the streets in Barcelona are not suffocating with traffic. I was only in Barcelona for a few days in April, but the roads in the business districts are amazingly wide, and we were never slowed in our travels. When I walked the narrow paths of Gracia, a cozy neighborhood in the middle of Barcelona, I never felt squeezed by cars. I lived in Bangkok for 11 years. I know what bad traffic looks like.

But of course it is all relative. While Barcelona is no where near as hot, congested or polluted as Bangkok, for citizens of Barcelona, conditions are not as good as they should be. According to this VOX article by David Roberts of the University of Pennsylvania, Barcelona is the fourth-most population-dense city in Europe, is well under the World Health Organization’s recommendation for 9 square meters of green space per resident at 2.7 square meters, suffers from urban heat island effect at 3 to 8 degrees Celsius warmer than the region around it, and is considered one of the noisiest in the world.

One of the reasons for this poorer quality of life is due to decades of negligence by former totalitarian leader, Francisco Franco,  After the generalissimo passed away in 1975, development in Barcelona began again, peaking with financing sparked by the Olympics, which may be another reason for the state of Barcelona today.

According to Samuel Rosenthal and his article, Olympic Cities and the Legacy of Infrastructure: Barcelona 1992 and Athens 2004, the planners for Barcelona were essentially taking advantage of global trends, including the desire for large cities to invest in urban renewal, and to also brand Barcelona as an exciting destination for tourists and global financing. In fact, Rosenthal explained that planners shifted attention from “publicly planned, small-scale infrastructural improvements to larger schemes funded by private investors.”

This is not unique to Barcelona. The organizers leveraged the Olympics to realize long-held plans for the development of Barcelona as would any other city. But as I wrote previously, these Games were so successful economically that it is often held up as the gold standard for an organization of an Olympiad, cited as The Barcelona Model. But one can argue that the Olympics triggered inflows of private capital that brought both benefits and detriments to Barcelona, as Rosenthal explains.

…this largely positive appraisal of the Barcelona Olympics belies the negative consequences of its planning strategy that have become evident in succeeding years. The regeneration of the waterfront, while touted as a positive outcome of the Games, has increased housing prices across the city, forcing many longtime residents to leave. Additionally, following the Barcelona Games, inflation in the city increased and unemployment rose. And on a larger scale the city branding approaches used for the Barcelona Olympics have increasingly placed control of the city in the hands of private agents. Generally, post-Olympic city planning in Barcelona has become less focused on the improvement of the lives of the city’s residents, and more attuned to strategies that seek to maximize the attraction of capital.

Part of the woes of urbanization and increased emphasis on development is a diminished prioritization of the working class. Economist Andrew Zimbalist, author of the fascinating book, Circus Maximus – The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, quoted Josep Maria Montaner, an architectural critic, in explaining how old housing and factories, landmarks of a different age, were demolished, and new development lacked any environmental or sustainability standards. Zimbalist then went on to explain how inflows of private capital led to gentrification.

Barcelona’s new urban zones were redeveloped with improved public services and, in some cases, direct access to the sea. These parts of the city became gentrified, and hand in hand with gentrification came higher prices. Higher prices meant that lower-income people had to relocate, and, more generally, plans for public housing were underfulfilled. One study noted the following impacts:

  • Strong increases in the prices of housing for rent and for sale (from 1986 to 1993 the cumulative increase was 139% for home sale prices and nearly 145% in home rentals)
  • A drastic decrease in the availability of public housing (from 1986 to 1992 there was a cumulative decrease of 5.9%)
  • A gradual decrease in the availability of private houses for rent (from 1981 to 1991 the cumulative decrease was 23.7%)11 Thus, like the experience with mega-events elsewhere, hosting the games in Barcelona was accompanied by a redistribution of living standards to the detriment of lower-income groups.

One can argue that the decrease in supply is being driven by a Silicon Valley start up called Airbnb, which is highly popular in Spain. For those who don’t know, Airbnb is a service that connects you with people who are offering accommodations in their own properties. The original premise of Airbnb was that you could rent out a person’s room, and you could spend time with the owner. Today, people and companies run businesses renting out apartments and houses to people who are looking for alternatives to hotels.

Airbnb

I spent a week in Madrid and Barcelona in April. In Madrid, I stayed in a room the owner lived in. He was out of town, but a guest occupied another room. It was a great experience as we got along well with the other occupant. In contrast, our Airbnb accommodation in Barcelona was owned by a couple who managed three properties, none of which they lived in. Overall, both experiences were great for us. But while Airbnb is a boon for tourists, it is to the detriment of local residents, as explained in this New Yorker article.

Nearly half the Airbnb properties in Barcelona are entire houses or apartments. The conceit of friendly locals renting out spare rooms has been supplanted by a more mercenary model, in which centuries-old apartment buildings are hollowed out with ersatz hotel rooms. Many properties have been bought specifically as short-term-rental investments, managed by agencies that have dozens of such properties. Especially in coveted areas, Airbnb can drive up rents, as longtime residents sell their apartments to people eager to use them as profit engines.