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.

Running a stade in Greece
A picture of a stade in Greece, on my tour of Europe in August, 1985

It was the first week of August, 1985. I was in Greece. And it was hot.

On a tour of Europe with some 50 American students ranging in age from 15 to 50, I was tired after half a day in a boat and buses. We had left Corfu, where we got about the beautiful resort island on Vespas, caressed by cool breezes and enchanting vistas. When we arrived in Delphi, close to midnight, the camping grounds were not ready to receive us, so we slept on a gravel lot.

Delphi was home to the Oracle, a priestess of Pythia who consulted to the rich and famous from the 7th century BC to the 4th century BC. But we didn’t visit the Oracle. Perhaps, hot and tired, I didn’t care. We did visit an ancient sports stadium, where the professor leading this band of students arranged foot races for us.

In ancient Greece, the most common foot race was a stade, which is about 200 yards (180 meters), and which was the length of a stadium. Our professor had us race the length of the stadium…and back…essentially the length of four soccer pitches…in the hot August mid-day sun. Two of our number passed out. I don’t recall my race. Maybe I passed out too.

Our mighty tour leader, Prof. Emmanuel Fenz, cheering us on.

But if I had known then what I knew now, I would have been ecstatic to be there! This was Greece – the birthplace of the Olympics. And Delphi was home to one of four athletic competitions, collectively regarded as the Panhellenic Games:

  • The Pythian Games: based in Delphi, the Pythian Games were held in honor of Apollo every four years – this was the location where Apollo was said to slay a monstrous python.
  • The Nemean Games: based in the northeastern part of the Peloponnese, Nemea is where the Nemean Lion lurked, slayed by Heracles; the Nemean Games were held biannually in honor of Zeus.
  • The Isthmian Games: named after the Isthmus of Corinth, a narrow strip of land which connects Peloponnese with the rest of Greece, the Isthmian Games were like the Nemean Games, were held the same two years as the Pythian Games; these games were held in honor of Poseidon.
  • The Olympian Games: located in an area called Olympia, near the town of Elis on the Peloponnese peninsula, this was the first of the four quadrennial Games, starting in the 8th century BC. Of the four Games, this was the biggest and most prestigious. While the Olympian Games are dedicated to Zeus, it is at the Temple of Hera where the custom of igniting the Olympic flame takes place.

The order of these Games were as follows:

  1. Olympian Games
  2. Isthmian Games
  3. Nemean Games
  4. Isthmian Games

Over time, the word “olympiad” became a unit of time, a four-year period, a historical point of reference no doubt noted by the founder of the modern Olympic Games, Baron de Coubertin.

For a wonderful modern-day journey of these four locales, read this New York Times article, An Olympic Odyssey: Where the Games Began, by Bill Hayes.

 

Anthony Nesty
Anthony Nesty in 1992

Suriname – a country so small, you may not have realized it was a country (to paraphrase John Oliver).

With a population of about 570,000 people, Suriname is the smallest country in South American, just north of South America’s largest country, Brazil. Since forming a national olympic committee, Suriname has sent small teams to the Olympics since 1960, although never forming a team larger than 7.

In 1988, Anthony Nesty was a 20-year-old swimmer, was one of six to represent Suriname at the Seoul Olympics. And represent he did!

Not only was Nesty the first ever Surinamese to place in the finals of an Olympic competition – the 100-meter butterfly – he took gold in a surprising finish. Watching this video clip from an American broadcast, the announcer mentions the American Matt Biondi who led the entire race, as well as Michael Gross of Germany and Jon Sieben of Australia – all proven champions. The only time Nesty’s name is mentioned is after the finish.

ANNOUNCER: They now have 10 meters to swim, Matt Biondi going for the gold. Jon Siebens coming hard on the outside. But Biondi looks like he’s going to take it to the wall. And they get….NESTY! Nesty finally takes in lane 3 at the very last moment!

Nesty is 5ft 11 in (1.8 meters) tall, and is significantly shorter than the 6ft 7 (2 meters) Biondi. In very real terms, Biondi has a 8 inch lead on Nesty at the start of every race. But at the finish of this finals, Biondi lost by the barest of margins because he glided in, instead of stroking in. “I was halfway between a stroke and trying to kick in and I decided to kick in,” said Biondi. “If I had to stroke, I might have touched with my nose.”

Nesty was born in Trinidad in 1967. His family moved to Suriname, about a thousand miles southeast, to Paramaribo, Suriname. While Nesty enjoyed soccer, his father encouraged his son to swim. Clearly his father saw something in his son’s stroke, but Suriname, a country about the size of Georgia, USA primarily covered in rain forests, was not rich in swimming pools. In fact there was only one 50-meter pool in the country.

Where he could, Nesty trained and got stronger, strong enough to be named one of only two to represent Suriname at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Outclassed, the 16-year old finished in 21st place in the 100-meter butterfly, but as is explained in this article, he got a taste of the Olympics and wanted more, promising himself “to be more competitive next time around.” That commitment led to his acceptance at the Bolles Prep School in Florida, where world-class swimmers come to train and develop. Nesty developed so quickly he ended up breaking the prep school’s record for the 100-meter butterfly, set by Pablo Morales, who had a gold and two silvers, including one in the butterfly, at the 1984 Games.

He told the press in 1987 that he was not very well known in Suriname as he was now training in the United States.

“I’m proud, I guess,” says Nesty, who had the world’s 10th fastest time in the 100-meter freestyle, finishing 10th in the trials. He possibly has more fans in the United States than in Surname, a small nation in northern South America. “They respect me there, but I haven’t been there for over a year,” he said. “Suriname has a lot of military coups and political things. My dad told me if I stayed there much longer wouldn’t have much of a swimming career.”

Matt Biondi, Anthony Nesty, Andy Jameson
Matt Biondi, Anthony Nesty, Andy Jameson on the medals podium at the 1988 Seoul Olympics
But when Nesty returned from Seoul, Korea to Paramaribo, Suriname, he returned a conquering hero, greeted by 20,000 people at the airport and mobbed in the streets. His face was placed on commemorative stamps, coins and banknotes. And the indoor national stadium was named in his honor.

To this day, Nesty, with his gold in the 100-meter butterfly at the Seoul Olympics, as well as a bronze at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, remains the sole Olympic medalist from Suriname.

Konjiki Tsukasa and Masa Akimoto _The Yomiuri_October 5, 1964
From The Yomiuri_October 5, 1964

Konjiki Tsukasa was on October 10. So he thought it would be great to get married on October 10. And since the Olympics were in town, why not get married at the National Stadium on October 10, 1964, the opening day of the Tokyo Olympics.

His fiance, Masa Akimoto, agreed.

But first they had to get tickets. According to an article in The Yomiuri on October 11, 1964, the couple had 70 friends apply for opening day tickets, perhaps the hottest tickets ever to go on sale in Japan at the time. The system at the time was to apply and get your names thrown in a lottery. Fortunately, two of their friends landed them a ticket each.

But now, in addition to a ticket for the priest, they needed two witnesses. Instead of trying to find two more tickets, Konjiki called the Japan Travel Bureau (JTB) many times to try to convince them to find two people who already had tickets to the Opening Ceremonies to be their wedding witnesses. According to an October 5 Yomiuri article, JTB personnel did not initially take the requests seriously, suspecting a possible scam. But Konjiki persisted, and finally convinced JTB to find two people who happened to be seated near Konjiki and Akimoto. JTB then provided an extra ticket for the priest.

Wearing red blazers with the Olympic emblem, likely similar to what the members of the Japanese Olympic team wore, the party of five entered the stadium at 10 am, about 5 hours prior to the start of the Games, and got hitched. They then proceeded to wait patiently, got to their seats for the Opening Ceremonies, and had one of the memorable wedding days a Japanese couple could possibly have.

That was one way to get in to see the Opening Ceremonies. The Yomiuri explained on October 11 another way…which did not end well. I’ll just let you read the report about these two students:

Two youths without tickets so eager to see the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games that they hid themselves in National Stadium before the event, were arrested before the start of ceremonies by patrolling policemen.

A 19-year-old boy from Tsuabame, Niigata-ken, whose name was withheld, entered the stadium Thursday (two days before) wearing a fake press armband, after showing a business card of a Niigata Nippo newspaper reporter.

A second youth, Shuro Iino, 21, freshman a Waseda University, was discovered hiding in a toilet at 11:15 pm Friday, after climbing over a fence.

Samurai Surfing

My friends know this: I’m addicted to Nissin Cup Ramen.

There’s something about the aroma after I’ve waited that obligatory 3-minutes for the hot water to soften the noodles and bind the various spices and ingredients in a flavor that instantly gratifies me. This is not a universal addiction to Cup Noodle. It has to be made in Japan – the ones manufactured elsewhere are probably catering to local tastes, and to my palate, pale in comparison.

I don’t believe they manufacture the King Size version anymore, but if they did, I’d buy.

Nissin Cup Ramen also tends to have the coolest commercials. One released in November, 2016 is not only super fun, it is appealing to the same demographic the Tokyo 2020 Olympics are trying to appeal to. In a somewhat tenuous take on The Seven Samurai, Nissin created a commercial that features athletes decked out in traditional armour that the West now associate with the warrior class known as the samurai.

And the seven featured in this commercial are magnificent! They surf, they skateboard, they pogo-stick over street vendors, they spin on their bikes, do acrobatic twists on skis to the amazement of the bewildered crows around them.

Over the decades, the IOC has worked with host countries to appeal to the youth, and ensure a market for their product for years to come. The X-Games, an ESPN-sponsored event featuring extreme sports, drove up the popularity of skateboarding and freestyle motocross. Thanks to growing popularity of these youth-driven activities, snowboarding became an Olympic sport in 1998, while BMX cycling debuted at the 2008 Olympics.

Tokyo 2020 will feature a bevy of new competitions that the organizers hope will build a new generation of Olympic fans, including surfing, skateboarding, and sports climbing.

Samura bike tricks

Keiko Fukuda_9th dan
Keiko Fukuda, Kodokan 9th dan, New York Times

She was tiny – 150 cm in height and 45 kg in weight – but Keiko Fukuda stood tall amidst the Pantheon of Judo greats. When she passed away in San Francisco at the age of 99, she was the last remaining connection to the roots of Judo, the founder, Jigoro Kano.

Fukuda was born of samurai stock in 1913, her father being Hachinosuke Fukuda, who was a master of jujutsu and Kano’s sensei. When Kano branched off and developed a new set of techniques and rules, he founded the discipline of Judo.

Judo in Japan has been a very male bastion since its inception. Judo associations in Japan have consistently been male dominated despite the rise of Japanese women judoka. But interestingly, Kano was a pioneer in gender equality, creating a women’s section of the Kodokan, the dojo Kano created in Tokyo. It was in 1926 when Kano started teaching judo to women, and in 1935, Fukuda was one of 24 women who trained at the Kodokan.

Fukuda was not only pioneering judo in Japan, she was doing so in America. She first traveled to America at the invitation of a judo club in Oakland, California in 1953, after she had achieved the highest rank a women could get – 5th dan. She taught judo for two years, and then came back to California 11 years later, eventually becoming the full-time judo instructor at Mills College, where she taught until 1978.

Keiko Fukuda_white striped black belt
Keiko Fukuda, wearing the black belt with the white stripe

In the 1960s, the glass ceiling for female judo was the 5th dan. But Fukuda’s friend and former student, Dr. Shelley Fernandez, was the president of the National Organization for Women in San Francisco, she petitioned the Kodokan to promote Fukuda to 6th dan. It worked, and Fukuda, as well as another woman named Masako Noritomi, were the first women ever granted a 6th dan.

So advances in women judo was taking place. And yet, one lingering symbol of stubborn male dominance persisted – the white stripe that ran the length of the “obi” for women black belts. You can see that belt around the waist of Fukuda in this picture below. While the International Judo Federation abandoned the black belt with white stripe to differentiate women from men, the All Japan Judo Federation has stuck to its traditional guns.

That is, until March 13. Finally, in 2017, 91 years after the pioneering founder of judo, Jigoro Kano, opened the doors to women, the All Japan Judo Federation decided to abolish the use of white stripes in women’s black belts.

Her amazing story has been told in a documentary released in 2012, called “Mrs. Judo – Be Strong Be Gentle Be Beautiful”.

Alex Ovechkin at the Sochi Olympics
Alex Ovechkin at the Sochi Olympics

For the hottest game on ice, the players and owners have entered into a cold war of sorts. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently told the press that no meetings have been arranged with the International Olympic Committee regarding the possibility of NHL players competing in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in early 2018.

The NHL schedule and the Winter Olympics schedule overlap every four years. In order to convince he NHL to release its players in the middle of the NHL hockey season, the IOC agreed to pay for the insurance, travel and accommodation of these professional hockey players. The insurance is a key component because it protects the NHL teams against an injury to a star player who could impact team success and/or team revenue for years to come. For the Sochi Olympics in 2014, the IOC sent some USD7 million to the NHL, something the IOC does not do for other sports leagues. The IOC has done so for the past five Winter Olympics since the 1998 Nagano Olympics, but this year the IOC announced they would not pay the NHL for players to come.

Bettman stated that without IOC financial support, it’s unlikely the owners would support. “We don’t make money going [to the Olympics]. I can’t imagine the NHL owners are going to pay for the privilege of shutting down for 17 days. I just don’t see that.”

However, the star players in the NHL view the Winter Olympics as a matter of prestige and pride. The very best players like Canadian Sydney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Russian Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals have said they intend to go, Ovechkin going as far to say he would go without the NHL’s permission. And as mentioned in this Ottawa Citizen article, the owners will listen to their stars.

When Alex Ovechkin said he was going to the Olympics, with or without the NHL’s blessing, it didn’t take long for Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis to stand behind his star. And why wouldn’t he? Ovechkin is the face of the team. He not only helps the team win games, he puts fans in seats.

Major League Baseball stands in contrast to the NHL. Currently, the World Baseball Classic, an international baseball championship series taking place in March, 2017, has the full commitment and support of MLB. And while the major league players from big-time baseball nations of Japan, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Korea are heavily involved in the World Baseball Classic, Team USA is bereft of its stars. In contrast to the NHL players, the Americans have little to no interest in participating.

Now, the World Baseball Classic is not the same at the Olympics. And when baseball returns to the Olympics in 2020 in Tokyo, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred will likely want to ensure his league’s best players are at the Summer Games. Growing the international market for baseball will be a big priority for Manfred. But he has yet to gain consensus with team owners on how to make it work for the MLB when the Olympics will take place in the middle of the 2020 MLB season. Injuries and lost revenue to lost games will certainly be in the minds of the owners.

Rob Manfred MLB Commissioner
Rob Manfred MLB Commissioner

According to this Sports Illustrated article, there are two possible options to make it work: allow the season to continue without interruption, and just free up the players selected to their respective national teams, or shut down the MLB season for, say two-and-a-half weeks, like the NHL has done in the past.

The NBA, on the other, other hand, has had the distinct advantage of holding a primarily Fall-Winter-Spring season, while the Olympics tend to fall in the summer, the basketball off season. Traditionally, the NBA has promoted its brand and players globally, and have been a model for building a global business. Their commitment to the Olympics is thus considerable. The issue has been ensuring that the richest and greatest athletes in the world stay motivated enough to train and risk injury during their time off.

The US men’s team took bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympics, and were dubbed “The Nightmare Team”. It didn’t bode well when the superstars of the league, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Garnett begged off of the team, and Ray Allen and Jason Kidd were out with injuries.

After the team’s embarrassing finish in Athens, Team USA appointed Jerry Colangelo to take charge of team selection. His job was to persuade the NBA’s best American players that it was their duty to restore pride and glory to men’s basketball in the international arena.

Colangelo convinced such stars as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwayne Wade not only to join Team USA for the 2008 Seoul Olympics, he got them to commit to playing together for three years leading up to the Olympics. Under Colangelo’s leadership and the coaching of Mike Krzyzewski, Team USA dominated at the 2008 Seoul Olympics to easily win gold. They’ve done so ever since.

Summary:

  • NHL: League and Owners not committed; Players committed
  • MLB: League committed; Owners not yet committed; American players not committed, but world players committed
  • NBA: League committed; Owners committed; Players committed

 

Muirfield Golf Club
Muirfield Golf Club

 

The oldest golf club in the world, Muirfield Golf Club, located in Scotland, the birthplace of golf, recently decided to provide women the opportunity to have equal membership with male members. It took 273 years, but as Virginia Slims once proclaimed, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

This change in policy came after the famed golf club was denied the chance to host the British Open golf championship because of its membership rules. Other clubs like R&A, The Royal St George’s and Royal Troon in Scotland, Augusta National in the USA, and most recently the Royal Adelaide Golf Club in Australia have changed their membership policies to allow for full membership to women.

But the Kasumigaseki Country Club in Saitama, not far from Tokyo, has stuck to its guns despite significant pressure to offer equal membership rights to women. Currently, female members of the Kasumigaseki C. C. are not considered full members, and are not allowed to play on Sundays. Ordinarily, this particular policy would go unnoticed if not for the fact that Kasumigaseki C. C. was selected to be the Olympic venue for golf during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike fired the first salvo in January when she said she felt “very uncomfortable that women cannot become full members in the 21st century.”

More recently, International Olympic Committee Vice President, John Coates, said that “Image-wise, our position is clear. We will only go to a club that has non-discrimination.”

Coates went on to reveal that discussions with the Kasumigaseki Country Club have been positive, and that “It’s heading in the right direction for them to have a nondiscriminatory membership procedure. It would appear that we should be able to have this result by the end of June.”

So will Kasumigaseki Country Club end up par for the course, or will they shank their last drive and lose out on this golden opportunity at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?

 

UPDATE: On March 20, 2017, the 15 board members of the Kasumigaseki Golf Club, all men, voted unanimously to overturn restrictions on full membership for women.