This 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.
It was June 26, 2003 and Seiko Hashimoto, a junior member of Japan’s leading political party, was on a panel with then former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who said this, according to AP:
Welfare is supposed to take care of and reward those women who have lots of children. It is truly strange to say we have to use tax money to take care of women who don’t even give birth once, who grow old living their lives selfishly and singing the praises of freedom.
Eighteen years later, Mori made another derogatory statement about women, but this time it led to his reluctant resignation from the presidency of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee.
His successor is Seiko Hashimoto.
An independent succession committee made up primarily of former Japanese Olympians and Paralympians and led by the well-respected chairman and CEO of Canon, Fujio Mitarai honed very quickly on one candidate – the Olympic speedskater and cyclist from Hayakita, Hokkaido. It’s hard to argue that anyone else in Japan has had more Olympic experience or embodies the Olympic spirit than Hashimoto.
Born on October 5, 1964, 5 days before the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Hashimoto was given the name Seiko, a play on the Japanese characters for the word “seika,” or Olympic flame. Hashimoto started her Olympic career at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, and competed as a speed skater in the 1988, 1992 and 1994 Winter Games, winning a bronze medal in the 1500 meter speedskating finals in Albertville. More incredibly, Hashimoto competed as a cyclist at the 1988, 1992 and 1996 Summer Olympics.
That’s 7 Olympiads in 12 years! If there is one reason the Japanese press have started calling her the Iron Lady, it was her ability to persistently and intensely train at high performance levels. Her Olympic run is unprecedented and frankly, astounding.
Hashimoto would go on to become the head of the Japanese Olympic team delegation, or the chef de mission at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics, and then the first female to lead a Japan delegation at a Summer Olympics when she was appointed chef de mission at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
There is no rest in Hashimoto. Following her appearance in the 1994 Albertville Olympics, bronze medal in hand, she competed for a seat in the upper house of the Japanese Parliament in 1995, and won. While learning the ropes as a rookie politician, every day she trained for her final Olympics from 3am and worked at the Diet building from 8am. She was likely the only elected official competing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and certainly a first such double-hatter for Japan.
When Hashimoto gave birth to a daughter in 2000, she was first upper house legislator in Japan to give birth to a child while in office. As Hashimoto would have to rely on staff to watch over her daughter, she saw that others had a similar need, and would go on to establish a child care facility in the basement of a then newly built Second House of the House of Representatives. Not only lawmakers and staff could use the facilities, but also residents in the neighborhood of Nagatacho’s newest nursery.
Upon accepting the request of the selection committee to assume the role of President of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, Hashimoto resigned from her cabinet level position as Minister of State for Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. She had to resign from her government role for legal as well as ethical reasons. But there will likely be whispers of undue influence by the former president of the committee, Yoshiro Mori.
Mori, who was Japan’s prime minister from April 2000 to April 2001, has been for a long time a mentor and supporter of Hashimoto’s political career. Hashimoto has often publicly referred to Mori as “father,” and likewise, Mori has referred to Hashimoto as “daughter.”
Additionally, Hashimoto has been, ironically, accused of sexual harassment, primarily due to a public incident where Hashimoto may have had too much to drink at a celebration one evening at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and where, on camera, Hashimoto repeatedly kissed Japan figure skater Daisuke Takahashi.
But clearly, the biggest challenge is leading the organization that is expected to successfully run the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics, amidst the uncertainty of a global pandemic, with only 5 months to go. The day before Hashimoto assumed leadership, the governor of Shimane prefecture, explained with emotion in his voice about the frustration with the response to the COVID-19 crisis by the Japanese central government as well as the Tokyo2020 organizers. He even expressed the possibility of cancelling the Shimane portion of the Olympic torch relay, scheduled for mid May.
“It’s difficult to cooperate with the holding of the Tokyo Olympics and the torch relay,” said governor Tatsuya Maruyama. “I want to make the decision (to cancel the torch relay) based on whether or not the response of the central government and the Tokyo government to the coronavirus improves.”
So Hashimoto has a mountain to climb. But if anyone has the energy and determination needed, the Iron Lady from Hokkaido does.
On February 12, 2021, the president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, Yoshiro Mori, announced his resignation, after making sexist comments during a board meeting of the Japan Olympic Committee. Since that day, the press has been speculating about who the best successor would be. After Mori attempted to appoint Saburo Kawabuchi, a man similar in age and temperament to the post, the criticism was immediate. The CEO of Tokyo 2020 quickly announced that the president of the organizing committee had not been selected, and that a selection committee would be formed to pick the best person.
The television news shows have had a field day throwing out names, based on such criteria as gender, age, Olympic experience, sports administration experience, political savvy or even business savvy. Here is a list of candidates compiled from news programs from two Japanese television stations: TBS and TV Asahi.
Shizuka Arakawa: Thanks to Shizuka Arakawa, all of Japan knows what an “Ina Bauer” is, a signature form that Arakawa displayed in the free program that led to her winning the gold medal in the Ladies’ Singles figure skating competition at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics. The TV Asahi remarked that she has a sharp sports mind, has strong recognition overseas, and has no connections to Japanese politics. Young and female, Arakawa represents the opposite of Mori and Kawabuchi.
Seiko Hashimoto: An Olympian’s Olympian, Seiko Hashimoto appeared in 7 Olympiads, both Winter and Summer, as a speed skater and cyclist, from 1988 to 1996. That alone is a WOW! The native from Hokkaido, Hashimoto entered the world of politics when she was elected to the House of Councillors of Japan’s National Diet in 1995. She now serves in the cabinet of the current prime minister, Suga Yoshihide, as Minister of State for Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. Can she leverage her compelling credentials as an Olympian, a woman in her prime, and as a politician to succeed Mori?
Mikako Kotani: Mikako Kotani took home two bronze medals in synchronized swimming at the 1988 Summer Olympics. Since then she has served on the Japanese Olympic Committee, and the IOC Athletes’ Commission, as well as the Association of the National Olympic Committees, among several local and international committees related to the Olympics. Kotani was Japan’s first female flag bearer at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Can you she become the first female head of the Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee?
Koji Murofushi: His mother was a Romanian javelin champion. His father was an Olympic hammer thrower for Japan. His sister competed in the discus and hammer as well. Koji Murofushi is from a family of powerful athletes, and won gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics, as well as bronze at the 2012 London Olympics in the hammer throw. He currently has one of the most challenging roles in the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee: Sports Director. He is also the current commission of the Japan Sports Agency. He’s got the build of Thor and the experience of Oden. Is he ready to step up?
Daichi Suzuki : Coming from behind in the final strokes, Daichi Suzuki won the gold medal in the 100 meter backstroke and became a legend in Japan sports swimming. Suzuki would go on to become a sports administrator, leading the Japan Swimming Federation before becoming the first commissioner of a new national sports government organization, called Japan Sports Agency. Suzuki was famous for swimming 20 or 30 meters underwater before breaking the water’s surface with his powerful backstrokes. Will he emerge from this vast talent pool as the winner of the Mori Sweepstakes?
Yasuhiro Yamashita: After tearing his right calf muscle in a semifinal judo match at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Yasuhiro Yamashita went on to win the gold medal in dramatic fashion, after being denied the opportunity when Japan chose to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Yamashita was appointed chairman of the Japanese Olympic Committee, replacing Tsunekazu Takeda, who became ensnarled in an alleged bribery scandal related to Tokyo’s winning bid for 2020. Will history repeat and Yamashita replace another leader embroiled in controversy?
Shinzo Abe: He appeared at the 2016 Rio Olympics dressed as one of the Mario Brothers. The two-time prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, left the leadership of Japan in August 2020, citing the need to recover from a recurring illness. If the role is more figure head than operations head, is it reasonable for one prime minister to succeed Yoshiro Mori, another former prime minister?
Tamayo Marukawa: Tamayo Marukawa is a former announcer for TV Asahi who started her political life after being elected to the House of Councillors of the Japanese National Diet in 2007. She served at the cabinet level as Minister in charge of the Toyo Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2016.
Hisako, Princess Takamado: She is the widow of Prince Takamado of Mikasa, who is the son of Prince Mikasa, the youngest of Emperor Taisho’s four sons. As members of the Japanese Royal Family, Prince Mikasa and Princess Takamado travelled the world extensively. They represented the government of Japan at the opening ceremony and games of the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea-Japan, which was the first time members of the Japanese Imperial Family set foot in South Korea since the Second World War. Princess Takamado has been a tireless supporter of sports organizations. Will she become the ultimate supporter of the ultimate sports organization in Japan?
Akio Toyoda: Akio Toyoda is the president of Toyota, one of the world’s biggest car companies and most famous brands. The grandson of Kiichiro Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Motors, Toyoda is perceived as an excellent communicator and resilient leader. Toyota is also one of the IOC’s biggest global sponsors, so he certainly understands the internal workings and governance of the Olympic and Paralympic eco-system. Will Toyoda take the driver’s seat in this lumbering sports vehicle lurching to the finish line?
February 12 Update: Less than 24 hours after the news of Saburo Kawabuchi’s expected succession to president of the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee, it was announced that no successor had been identified. According to the Japan Times, “Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto said during a news conference Friday evening that a ‘gender project team’ as well as a selection committee to pick Mori’s successor will be formed, though it’s unclear when a selection will be made. ‘We need to select a replacement as quickly as possible,’ Muto said.”
On Thursday, February 11, 2021, sources stated that the president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, Yoshiro Mori will resign after a public backlash to comments he made about women a week earlier.
At an online meeting of the Japan Olympic Committee, Mori made a sexist comment in regards to the goal of increasing the JOC’s board directors to 40%. According to Asahi Shimbun, Mori said
A meeting of an executive board that includes many women would take time. Women are competitive. When someone raises his or her hand and speaks, they probably think they should speak, too. That is why they all end up making comments.
The protest was immediate and global. A former prime minister of Japan, Mori was criticized in the twitterverse for being out of step, too old, too domineering. A former member of the JOC called him the “don” of the Japan sports world because what he says, goes. So one might expect that Mori’s successor would appear markedly different.
In tandem with the news of Mori’s resignation, it was revealed that his successor would be Saburo Kawabuchi.
Kawabuchi is indeed a legend in the world of Japan sports. The Osaka native and Waseda University graduate, Kawabuchi, played football at Furukawa Electric from 1965 to 1970 in the early days of the Japan Soccer League. He was a member of the national soccer team representing Japan at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, where he scored the go-ahead goal that led to the defeat of Argentina at Komazawa Stadium, and advanced Team Japan to the quarter finals.
He went on to become the head coach of the Japan national football team in 1980. But more significantly, he established the Japan Soccer League, aka J-League, Japan’s first professional soccer league, and was the first chairman of the league, where he served until 2002.
And when FIBA, the international governing board of basketball, expressed great displeasure that the two basketball leagues in Japan, the National Basketball League and the BJ-League, were at each other’s throats and refused to come together, they called on Kawabuchi to head the taskforce that would lead to the creation of a single league – the B. League.
In other words, Kawabuchi was the leader at the birth of not one, but two professional sports leagues in Japan.
It’s hard to argue with his qualifications to run the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee. It’s the optics that may be a bit concerning.
Kawabuchi is 84, a year older than Mori. And Kawabuchi’s leadership style may appear to be similar to Mori’s – autocratic.
When FIBA barred Japan’s basketball governing association, the Japan Basketball Association, from allowing its team to participate in any international competition in November, 2014, there was great concern that Japan would not be able to get its act together so that a national team could compete at the Tokyo2020 Olympics, even with a free pass as the host country.
Kawabuchi entered the scene and essentially manhandled the relevant parties into an agreement to merge and create the B. League. As this 2015 Japan Times article explained, Kawabuchi doesn’t mind that telling people it’s my way or the highway.
Kawabuchi is often described as an autocrat for arbitrarily making decisions for the J. League and JFA, but he doesn’t care. He does what he believes is right.
“I’m fine being called that,” Kawabuchi said with a grin. “If I’m called an autocrat, I tell them I am. I’m like, ‘What’s wrong with that? Tell me if I’ve done anything wrong being an autocrat.’ ”
To Kawabuchi, an autocracy is equivalent to strong leadership, and Japanese sports needs more of that. He added that proposals supported by the majority tend to be accepted as the best ideas in Japan, but he strongly disagrees with this viewpoint.
“If you think you’ll have the best idea by gathering more opinions, that’s a big mistake. That’s not my way,” Kawabuchi said. “Regarding (Japan’s basketball reform), if they say that Kawabuchi set the vision by himself, let them say so.”
To be fair, it is unclear what Kawabuchi’s attitude is towards women. And as the head of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, he certainly has a challenge in front of him, with only a little over 5 months to go before the opening ceremonies on July 23.
But people will be watching him, perhaps unfairly, with a cynical eye.
Meet the new boss. Hopefully, not the same as the old boss.
The Games will (very likely) go on.
Organizers of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, scheduled to commence on July 23 and August 24, 2021 respectively, are working, not under the question of “whether,” but “how” the Olympics will take place.
There are four basic scenarios:
- The Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics are cancelled because the pandemic continues to create unsafe conditions for athletes and organizers alike.
- Tokyo2020 takes place without spectators so that the Games can be broadcasted globally.
- Tokyo2020 takes place with spectators in limited numbers.
- Tokyo2020 takes place to capacity crowds.
In a recent survey by Kyodo News, 80% of people in Japan believe the first scenario is the likeliest, responding that the Olympics and Paralympics should be postponed again or cancelled.
In contrast, 60% of Japanese firms in an NHK survey showed support for holding the Tokyo Olympics. They believe that the Games can help the Japanese economy recover from the devastating effects of COVID-19.
The IOC and IPC are also betting on the Games. And their plans are taking into account the second and third scenarios.
If testing is considered reliable, then athletes who test negative will be allowed to come to Japan, and at a bare minimum, the Olympics and Paralympics can be broadcasted around the world. As a result, billions of dollars in global broadcasting rights will be paid to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which in turn will financially support the Olympic ecosystem of national Olympic committees and international sports federations.
Money makes the world go round. With so much investment already sunk, not just by the IOC, the Japanese government and businesses but also athletes, the political will to hold Tokyo2020 is immensely strong.
“We will do whatever is needed to organize a safe Olympic Games,” said Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee.
“We definitely should push forward as that is the only option for us,” said Yoshiro Mori, president of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee.
“We will organise an incredible Paralympic Games in Tokyo 2020,” said International Paralympic Committee President, Andrew Parsons. “But this will require the best of us. This will require a lot of hard work.”
Former IOC Vice President, Dick Pound, recently said “nobody can guarantee the Olympics will open on July 23. But I think there’s a very, very, good chance that they can, and that they will.” While Pound said that the Games will likely happen, having fans in the stands is a choice. “The question is — is this a `must-have’ or `nice-to-have.’ It’s nice to have spectators. But it’s not a must-have,” Pound said.
And yet, even if the conditions of the pandemic around the world remain the same, and especially if the vaccine has an impact on the spread of COVID-19, I believe the likelihood of spectators in the stands is high.
Orgy of Evidence
In what may have seemed surreal to many, we saw images of 4,000 people – without masks – packing a stadium in Adelaide, Australia on January 29 to watch exhibition tennis matches with Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal, a week prior to the start of the Australian Open.
But the truth of the matter is, sports is big business around the world, and we have seen seasons and championships take place across the biggest professional leagues last year.
In the midst of the pandemic in 2020, Europe crowned football champions in the Bundesliga, La Liga, Premier League, and Serie A. In tennis, Naomi Osaka won the US Open and Rafael Nadal won the French Open, while in golf, Dustin Johnson won the Masters. The Los Angeles Lakers were crowned NBA champions while the Tampa Bay Lightning won the NHL Stanley Cup.
And little by little, fans have been allowed to watch events in person in America, the country with the world’s highest coronavirus infection numbers.
Thousands of spectators watched the Los Angeles Dodgers win the 2020 World Series in Texas. American football fans were allowed into the stadiums of 19 NFL teams, including an average of around 15,000 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars, while the Dallas Cowboys hosted an average of 28,000 fans every home game. There will be over 20,000 fans attending the Super Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on February 7. And a limited number of fans have been able to attend the games of 8 NBA teams this season.
At the end of November, 2020 in Japan, nearly 70,000 fans watched in person the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks defeat the Yomiuri Giants to win the Japan Series over four games, averaging over 17,000 fans per game.
And on November 8, Japan held an international competition at Yoyogi National Stadium. Gymnasts from four nations competed, including Japan, the US, China and Russia. The 30 gymnasts were joined by 2000 spectators, and the day went without incident. This was the first experiment with a mini-bubble for an international competition in Japan, as athletes were isolated on different floors in hotels.
The above is some of the orgy of evidence regarding the ability of sports organizations to hold events safely despite the ravages of the coronavirus. These cases and many others are providing mountains of data of how and how not to organize a live sporting event, data that will be used to create the protocols and processes to ensure a safe environment for Tokyo2020.
And with the hope and promise of the vaccines, the path to a safe Olympics and Paralympics becomes clearer.
Learning to Live with Coronavirus in Japan
It was Saturday, January 30. It was a beautiful day in Tokyo – blue skies, crisp air and loads of people out and about. In my walk through Rinshi no Mori Park that day, hundreds of parents and kids, all wearing masks, were enjoying the day, kids running soccer or baseball drills, parents throwing or kicking balls with their children, and many others running and strolling.
And they were also going to the movie theaters. I was surprised to learn last year that an animated film called “Demon Slayer,” broke the box office record for films in Japan. I hadn’t realized that movie theaters were letting people in. In fact, theaters were filled to capacity to see this film. Even as the popularity of the film begins to fade, I went online to see if people were still buying tickets for this film. I looked at the ticket purchase page for the movie theater near me: 109 Cinemas in Futago Tamagawa.
And as you can see in the image of theater seating, where the gray indicates a seat sold, Demon Slayer was still filling seats. In fact, there were several films that were showing good ticket sales that Saturday morning. Attendees must wear masks, but they are allowed to sit elbow to elbow with others. And if you’re on a date, that’s ideal. As you can see, the January 30, 2:45 PM showing of the film “Hanabata Mitai na Koi o Shita,” a story of young romance featuring two popular actors, was nearly filled 3 hours before the start of the film.
Despite the constant talk of concern about the virus in Japan, the Japanese themselves are learning to live with it. Many may not think that the Olympics and Paralympics should be held now, but as we approach the summer, and the inevitability sinks in, and the stories of the Japanese athletes preparing for the Games become more frequent, a buzz of excitement will build.
That is what I believe.
She was five years old, and she watched in her living room the 1984 Los Olympics with amazement.
Jackie Joyner Kersee! Carl Lewis!
As it turned out, Harada (whose family name changed to Ikeda after marriage) simply didn’t have the athletic gifts to excel in track and field. And yet, the flame of high performance can be sparked in unexpected ways. Ikeda would go on to represent Japan at the 2004 Athens Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Olympics in individual épée fencing. Her life as an Olympian was 5 parts luck, and 5 parts determination.
Yamagata is as far from the world of fencing as you can get. But one day, a teacher in her high school came up to her and said, “You’re a tall one! You should try fencing!” Ikeda knew nothing about fencing. But she thought she’d give it a try, and so joined 19 other boys and girls on the school fencing team. And when one of the boys a couple of years ahead of her won a national high school tournament, she knew that her teacher could get results.
Ikeda, whom I interviewed on Zoom, is such a pleasant person, all smiles and joy. She put on her full fencing uniform to surprise me. She giggles as she explains the amount of gear a fencer has to wear. But the story she tells in such a lighthearted fashion is one of pure determination.
When Ikeda was in her final year of high school, she told her parents she wanted to move to Tokyo, continue to fence, and then compete in the Olympics. Her parents were bewildered. She had to go to university and get a real job, not waste money on fencing. Going to the Olympics is “impossible,” they told her.
Ikeda always had the support of her parents, but when she was told her dream was impossible, the high school girl stood her ground. She had developed such a powerful image of making the Olympics that giving up on the dream so quickly was hurtful. Giving up without trying was unthinkable.
She pushed back. She fought with her parents for two months until she decided to lay out her plan and her vision of the Olympics in a formal presentation to her parents: what goals she would have to achieve in her four years in university, including making the national team, and becoming national champion by her junior year.
The eighteen year old closed the presentation by saying that if she did not achieve those goals, she’d return home to Yamagata and pursue a normal life. But if she did make those goals, she would try to make the Olympics, and then go on to graduate school. Her parents finally gave in, and allowed their daughter to move to Tokyo to pursue her dream.
Ikeda moved to Tokyo and made the national team by her junior year. Unfortunately she suffered a knee injury, upending any chance of going to the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In 2002, she graduated from university, and then began a second push for the Olympics.
If you’re a world-class volleyball, basketball or baseball player in Japan, you are likely in a corporate or professional team. If you’re in a prominent sport like swimming, track and field, wrestling or judo in Japan, your sports association likely funds the training of the best athletes. But if you’re an adult in a lesser known sport, you are not going to get all that much financial support. According to Ikeda, the Japan Fencing Federation at the time was not financially strong, and provided no support.
In fact, Ikeda worked a variety of part-time jobs – at restaurants, bookstores, printing factories, delivery companies – so she could fund her dream. With no support from anyone, she planned to move to Europe where she could train at one of the meccas of fencing – Budapest, Hungary – so that she could travel easily to many of the épée world cups scheduled in Europe.
She knew the reigning Olympic champion in women’s individual épée, Timea Nagy, was based in Budapest.
Did Ikeda know her? No.
Did she know anyone in Hungary? No.
Ikeda took to the internet, identified a Japanese person living in Budapest, and convinced her to help. With the help of her new friend, a detailed plan emerged. On a budget of 2 million yen (or about USD18,700 in 2003), Ikeda was going to rent an apartment in Budapest, train at a nearby fencing club and compete at tournaments in Europe.
Thanks to her Japanese friend in Budapest, she was able to train at the club where Nagy trained. “To get really good, really quickly, it’s better to train with the champion, right,” she told me.
During the weekdays, she trained with the best fencers in Hungary. Then she took the night train to Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Russia, to compete in épée world cups on the weekend. Ikeda got better. She accumulated points. And at the 2004 World Cup in Thessaloniki, Greece she had enough points to qualify for the 2004 Athens Olympics and represent Japan.
Her parents, who objected so fiercely to her “impossible” dream, sat proudly in the stands when their daughter entered the stadium in Athens at the opening ceremony, as an Olympian.
Ikeda would lose in the second round to the Italian Cristiana Cascioli, who nearly toppled eventual champion, Nagy in the third round. And Ikeda represented Japan again in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, only to fall to silver medalist Ana Brânză of Romania in the second round.
Today, Ikeda supports the Olympic movement with her work in the Japan Anti-Doping Association (JADA) educating athletes and the parents of athletes on the issues of doping, how to prepare for drug testing, and what medication and supplements to avoid. She also believes it’s important to get these messages across to the top athletes, the “influencers” of the next generation of athletes.
In the end, it is always about influencing and inspiring the next generation.
In 1964, Ikeda’s father was a teenager when the torch relay passed through her hometown of Nanyo. He didn’t carry the torch, but he was part of a team of kids who would jog behind the torchbearer as they brought the sacred Olympic flame closer to Tokyo.
This year, the Olympian Ikeda was scheduled to run in the Tokyo2020 torch relay on March 24 this year, if not for the CoronaVirus pandemic. But she hopes that the torch relay is revived in 2021. And she hopes she can convince her father to run with her.
One can dream.
When coronavirus body slammed the world, the IOC and the government of Japan postponed the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics as the global economy stood punch drunk in the corner, tagged with constant jabs and body blows.
As we approach the end of the year, as infection rates continue to soar, a ray of hope has appeared in the form of newly developed vaccines. Will that ray of hope grow into that light at the end of the tunnel IOC president Thomas Bach desperately wants to see?
I hope so.
As a footnote, my own 2020 was not a total bust – the Japanese version of my book was published, and I appeared in A&E History Channel’s documentary, Tokyo Legacy, which is about the history of Tokyo from 1945 to 2020. While I was not so prolific this year in my blog, I did write a number of original articles I am proud of.
Reasons to Believe
- The 2020 Friendship & Solidarity Gymnastics Competition: An International Test Event that Shows a Working Scenario for the Olympics in 2021
- The World Masters Games Kansai 2021: The Canary in the Tokyo2020 Coal Mine
- Tokyo2020 Paralympics One Year to Go: IPC President Andrew Parsons Says “Full Speed Ahead”
Emotional Memories of Japan
- The Palchikoffs: How the Grandparents of an American Olympian Survived the Russian Revolution and the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima
- An Olympic Wedding at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics: The Fairy Tale of Diana Yorgova and Nikola Prodanov
The Paralympic Movement
- Rising Phoenix: The Stirring Netflix Documentary on the Paralympic Movement that Seeks to Change the World
- “My Spirit Lifted High”: The Stunning Impact of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics
Recalling 1980 and the Cold War
- The 1980 Moscow Olympics Part 1: The American Boycott
- Childhood Memories of the “miracle on ice” before the “Miracle on Ice”: The Euphoric Last-Minute Tie with Sweden Forty Years Ago
It is time to remember Olympians who participated at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and passed away in 2020. I’ve been able to identify 37 such Olympians, a few I knew personally. They were medalists and participants from all parts of the world, and a wide variety of sport. And in this annus horribilis, several were victims to coronavirus. They will be missed.
Here they are, in alphabetical order by last name.
Csaba Ali swam for team Hungary at the 1964 Toyo Olympics, in the men’s 4×200 meter freestyle relay as well as the 400 meter individual medley. He passed away on December 27, 2020 at the age of 74.
Fernando Atzori won the gold medal in flyweight boxing at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. From a small town called Ales in Sardinia, Italy. Atzori taught himself boxing, went on to be an Olympic champion as well as a European flyweight champion as a professional in 1967, defending his championship nine times before losing it in 1972. After a long illness, Atzori died on November 9, 2020 at the age of 78.
Kazim Ayvaz, three-time Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler from Turkey, died on January 18, 2020 in Heisingborg, Sweden. A native of Rize, Ayvaz won the gold medal in lightweight Greco-Roman wrestling for Turkey at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He also competed at the 1960 and 1968 Summer Olympics. Ayvaz continued to wrestle until 1969 and was inducted into the FILA International Wrestling Hall of Fame in September 2011. He was 81.
Cliff Bertrand was a sprinter from Trinidad and Tobago, and he was a fellow New Yorker, running track at New York University, where he got his master’s degree. He got his Doctor of Education degree from Columbia University, as well as a law degree at Queens College. Bertrand ran in the men’s 200 meters and 4×400 meters relay team for Trinidad and Tobago at both the 1960 and 1964 Summer Olympics. Bertrand died in Long Island City, NY on November 28, 2020.
Heinfried Birlenbach was a shot putter from West Germany, a three-time Olympian who competed at the Tokyo, Mexico City and Munich Summer Olympics. According to his profile, Birlenbach was “an educated draftsman, then gas station attendant, petrol station owner, owner of a sauna company, and eventually became an insurance businessman,” in addition to being an “avid discus thrower and weightlifter.” The man who was born in the city of Birlenbach, died there on November 11, 2020, a few weeks from turning 80.
Tony Blue was a member of the Australian track and field team, competing in the 800 meters at the 1960 and 1964 Summer Olympics. He also competed in the 4×400 meters relay in Tokyo. He would go on to get his medical degree and practice medicine in Brisbane. The doctor from Dubbo died on October 1, 2020. He was 84 years old.
Miguelina Cobián of Cuba passed away on December 1, 2019 in Havana. She was 77 years old. At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, she was the first Cuban ever to reach an Olympic sprint final, finishing fifth in the 100 meters. She was also on the Cuban 4×100 meter relay team that took silver behind the United States at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. It is said that the great Czech runner, Emil Zátopek discovered her, and actually trained her early in her career.
Ernesto Contreras was a cyclist representing Argentina, who raced in three Olympics, from 1960 to 1968. Competing in the 4000 meter Team Pursuit in all three Olympiads, as well as the 100 kilometer Team Time Trial in 1968. Contreras was one of Argentina’s best known cyclists. He was born in Medrano, and died in Mendoza on October 25, 2020. He was 83.
Manuel da Costa was a competitor in the 50-meter rifle, prone, representing Portugal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He was a 44-year-old Olympian, who didn’t start shooting until he was 41 years old. He died on April 20, 2020, 93 years young.
Osvaldo Cochrane Filho was a member of the Brazilian water polo team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Born in Vitoria, Brazil, Filho passed away at the age of 87 on December 9, 2020 from the effects of COVID-19.
Armando “Chaparro” Herrera was the captain of the Mexican national basketball team who led his team at the 1960 and 1964 Olympics. The man from Juarez passed away on October 14, 2020, at the age of 89.
William Hill was one of 39 members of the Hong Kong team that went to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Hill ran in the men’s 200 and 400 meter sprints, and also had the honor of carrying the Olympic torch as it made its way through Asia into Hong Kong. He was 75 years old when he passed away on July 27, 2020 in Wong Chuk Hang, Hong Kong.
Wolfgang Hoffmann won the silver medal in the middleweight division of judo for Germany, when that sport debuted at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Hoffmann studied in Japan and taught judo for many years, publishing a book, Judo – Basics of TachiWaza and Ne-Waza, which he co-wrote with judoka Mahito Ohgo. Hoffmann died on March 12, 2020 in his hometown of Cologne, Germany, a couple of weeks shy of his 79th birthday.
The greatest athlete in the world in 1964 was Willi Holdorf, who won the gold medal in the decathlon at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The native of Schleswig-Holstein in Germany, Holdorf was a humble man who led a powerful German team that took 3 of the top 6 spots in the decathlon, overcoming the favorite from Taiwan, C. K. Yang, as explained in my blog post here. Holdorf passed away on July 5, 2020, at the age of 80.
Mariya Itkina competed on the Soviet Union women’s track and field team in three Olympics from 1956 to 1964. As stated in her profile, she “has the unfortunate distinction of having placed fourth at the Olympics the most times of any athlete, four, without ever winning a medal.” She did so in the 4×100 meter relay at the Melbourne Games, in the 100-meter, 200-meter races as well as the 4×100 meter relay at the Rome Olympics. Itkina died on December 1, 2020 in Minsk, Belarus at the age of 88.
Alexander Ivanitsky won the gold medal in the heavyweight freestyle wrestling competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. After retiring from wrestling, Ivanitsky was a sports journalist until 1991, ending his career as chief sports editor for the USSR State Committee on Television and Radio. He oversaw the broadcast of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. It is said he died on July 22, 2020 after he went into a forest to forage for mushrooms. He was 82.
György Kárpáti of Budapest, Hungary was a four-time Olympian, winning three gold medals as a member of the powerhouse Hungarian men’s water polo team, including the infamous “Blood-in-the-Water” finals when Hungary defeated the USSR in the finals at the 1956 Melbourne Games. Kárpáti won his third gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, after which he also got his coaching degree. As coach, he helped lead Hungary to a gold medal the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Kárpáti died on June 23, 2020, a week before turning 85.
Dr. István Kausz, a two-time Olympian who won the gold medal in men’s team épée for Hungary at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. After obtaining his medial degree, he went on to become the team doctor for the Hungarian swim team and assisting as a member of the medical team for the Hungarian aquatic team from the 1972 to the 2012 Olympiads. Kausz passed away on June 3, 2020 in Budapest at the age of 87.
Alfred Kucharczyk was a Polish gymnast who competed at the 1960 and 1964 Summer Olympics. Representing the Radlin Gymnastic Club, Kucharczyk was an active coach and tutor to other gymnasts, including 2008 Olympic vault champion Leszek Blanik. The native of Radlin died on December 2, 2020, at the age of 87.
Gergely Kulcsár was Hungary’s greatest javelin thrower, winning a silver and 2 bronze medals over four Olympiads from 1960 to 1972. Kulcsár was Hungary’s flagbearer in the opening ceremonies in Tokyo, Mexico City and Munich. He continued to coach until 1980, seeing one of his athletes, Miklós Németh win gold in the javelin throw at the 1976 Montreal Games. Kulcsár died on August 12, 2020 at the age of 84.
Matti Laakso was a three-time Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler from Iimajoki, Finland. A welterweight, Laakso competed at the 1960, 1964 and 1972 Olympiads. His brother, Martti Laakso, was a two-time Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler, and they competed together at the 1972 Munich Olympics. A police officer throughout his career, Laakso was one of the most dominant wrestlers in Finland, winning 24 Finnish titles. He died on November 3, 2020. He was 81 years old.
Jānis Lūsis of Jelgava, Latvia passed away on April 29, 2020 in Riga. He was 80. The top men’s javelin thrower in the world in the 60’s and 70’s, Lūsis was a four-time Olympian from 1964 to 1976, winning bronze, gold and silver at the 1964, 1968 and 1972 Olympics respectively for the USSR. A world record holder in the javelin toss, Lūsis was married to Elivira Ozolina, who competed in the women’s javelin at the 1960 (gold) and 1964 Olympics. Their son, Voldemārs Lūsis, was an Olympic javelin thrower as well, competing at the2000 and 2004 Olympics for Latvia.
Dick Lyon was a member of the Lake Washington Rowing Club and a two-time Olympian. He was in the boat for the US men’s coxless fours that competed at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and won the bronze medal despite overcoming near disaster In the heats. The native Californian, Lyon passed away on July 8, 2020, a month before he would have turned 80. I had the great honor of interviewing Dick for my book on the Tokyo Olympics, and I wrote about his passing here. I am so sorry he is no longer with us.
A legend of long-distance walking, Paul Nihil, passed away on December 15, 2020 in Gillingham, England. The native of Colchester became Great Britain’s first male track and field athlete to compete in four Olympiads when he raced in the 20-km walk at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. Twelve years earlier at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Nihil took the silver medal in the 50-kilometer walk. A man who race walked into his seventies, Nihil died at the age of 81 after contracting COVID-19.
Leonid Osipov was a three-time Olympic water polo athlete who won bronze, silver and gold respectively at the 1964, 1968 and 1972 Olympiads on the team from the Soviet Union. He was 77 when he died on November 5, 2020.
Maria Ilwicka-Chojnacka-Piątkowska was a three-time Olympian who represented Poland in Athletics at the 1952, 1960 and 1964 Summer Olympics. Multi-talented, Piatkowska competed in the 4×100 meters relay at all three Olymmpiads, as well as the long jump in Helsinki and Rome and the 80-meter hurdles at the Tokyo Games. Piatkowski fell victim to COVID-19 and passed away on December 19, 2020 at the age of 88.
Gunter Pfaff was a four-time Olympic canoeist, who won a bronze medal for Austria in the kayak doubles with Gerhard Seibold. He rowed kayaks in singles, doubles and fours from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics to the 1976 Montreal Olympics, and served as the flagbearer for Team Austria during the opening ceremonies of the Montreal Games. Pfaff died on November 10 in Garsten, Austria on November 10. He was 81 years old.
Doug Rogers won the silver medal in judo’s heavyweight class in the Olympic debut of that sport at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. A Canadian from Truro, Nova Scotia, he moved to Japan when he was 19 to learn the martial arts among the best, studying under legendary judoka, Masahiko Kimura. His life in Japan is portrayed in a short film called “Judoka.” Rogers competed again at the 1972 Munich Games when judo resumed as an Olympic sport. I never interviewed Rogers, although I enjoyed exchanging emails with him. I really wished I had met him. Rogers passed away on July 20, 2020 at the age of 79.
Huba Rozsnyai was a sprinter on the Hungarian men’s track team, and ran in the 100 meter individual as well as the 4×100 meters relay competitions. On December 4, 2020, Rozsnvai passed away from the effects of COVID-19. He was 77.
Haydar Shonjani represented Iran as a swimmer in the men’s 100 meter freestyle at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the first ever Iranian to compete as a swimmer in the Olympics. He returned to the Games in 1976 on the Iranian water polo team. Shonjani passed away on November 8, 2020 at the age of 74.
Balbir Singh was on the field hockey team that restored golden glory back to India at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Singh also competed on the 1968 team that took bronze. The man from Sansarpur, Punjab was a member of the Punjab Police, rising to Deputy Superintendent of Police, and retiring as Deputy Inspector General in 2001. Singh died on February 28, 2020 in his hometown at the age of 77.
I interviewed Janell Smith Carson for my book. She was 17 when she ran in the women’s 400-meter competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Although she ran an American record of 53.7 seconds in the Olympics, she could not get to the finals. Born in Texas, she grew up in Kansas where she set the world record for the indoor 400 meters and got on the cover of Sports Illustrated. She told me that she was recruited by famed track coach Ed Temple to run for Tennessee State, but Smith did not want to leave home. Smith passed away on July 25, 2020 after a long battle with cancer. She was 73.
Three-time Olympian, Per Svensson won the silver medal in light-heavyweight Greco-Roman wrestling at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The native of Sollefteå, Svensson would go on to represent Sweden at the 1968 and 1972 Summer Olympics. He passed away in Sundsvall on December 17, 2020 at the age of 77.
Kinuko Tanida Idogawa was a member of Japan’s historic gold-medal winning women’s volleyball team that defeated the Soviet team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the first time volleyball was an Olympic sport. That match was one of the most watched sporting events in Japanese history. One of the famed “Witches of the Orient,” Tanida was known for her strong spikes, and contributed greatly to the team’s gold-medal victory. A native of Osaka, Tanida passed away on December 4, 2020 at the age of 81. I was proud to share the screen with her in the History Channel documentary, Tokyo Legacy, which covers the history of Tokyo since the end of the war to 2020.
Juan Torruella sailed in four straight Olympiads, from 1964 to 1976, representing Puerto Rico. A graduate of the Boston University law school, Torruella served associate judge of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico before serving as US federal judge for over forty years since President Gerald Ford appointed him as a federal judge to the district court in Puerto Rico. As stated in his profile, “his most publicized case came when Torruella ruled on the appeal of 2013 Boston Marathon bomber and murderer Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, which overturned his death sentence.” Torruella died on October 26, 2020 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, at the age of 87.
Wojciech Zablocki completed in four Olympiads as a fencer for Poland. After capturing silver medals on the Men’s sabre team at the 1956 and 1960 Summer Games, he ended his Olympic career at Tokyo with a bronze medal on the Polish sabre team. Zablocki was an architect who designed sports facilities as well as a watercolor artist, and married a well-known actress and activist, Alina Janowska, who passed away in 2017. Zablocki died on December 5, 2020 a day before his 90th birthday.
Slaven Zambata was the captain of the Yugoslavia football team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Although his team finished sixth in the tournament, the man from Sinj starred with Dinamo Zagreb, leading them to four Yugslav Cups. One of the most prolific scorers in his country’s football history, Zambata died on October 29, 2020 in Zagreb, at the age of 80.
In commemoration of the 56th anniversary of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, here is an excerpt from my book “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes.”
An Olympic legacy is commonly thought of as the tangible benefits of having hosted an Olympiad—the new sporting venues or transportation systems, the organizing know-how and the practical technology. But it is also the intangible benefits—the inspiration of an entire generation who see the very best athletes in the world strive to their utmost. And on occasion, citizens of the host nation get to see their own athletes and teams take their country on a thrilling ride to victory. These moments can jolt children and young adults, sparking them to dream, to believe that “anything is possible, even for me!”
This aspect of that first Tokyo Olympics carries great significance today as Japan gears up for its second hosting of the Games in 2020. Once again, the country is seeking to create a symbol of resilience, hope, and forward-looking energy as it faces a future encumbered by events of the recent past.
After the collapse of the financial bubble in the early nineties, the Japanese economy fell into protracted doldrums, a period which came to be known as the “Lost Decades.” Markets and corporate profits (with some notable exceptions) languished. Japan was superseded by China as the world’s second largest GDP. Overall, Japan’s presence on the world stage seemed to have dimmed.
In addition to economic and demographic issues (declining birthrate, rapid aging, the emptying out of rural areas), Japan has been beset by a series of natural disasters: torrential rains, floods, and mudslides that have claimed hundreds of lives and demolished whole communities in the western part of the country; the major earthquake in Kumamoto, Kyushu, in 2016; and most devastating of all, the earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan and triggered a nuclear disaster, on March 11, 2011. Recovery from that disaster, complicated by radioactive debris and contamination, is still far from complete.
Understanding the power of context, the Tokyo 2020 Bid Committee was wise to select a relatively unknown Paralympian named Mami Sato from the March 11 disaster area to kick off their presentation to the International Olympic Committee in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2013. Sato, a two-time Paralympian long jumper, thirty-one at the time, spent long hours of preparation on the speech she had to make in English, a task for which she had almost no background. But her honest and unaffected delivery of a very moving story created an emotional swell of support that helped propel Japan to the winning bid.
I was nineteen when my life changed. I was a runner. I was a swimmer. I was even a cheerleader. Then, just weeks after I first felt pains in my ankle, I lost my leg to cancer. Of course, it was hard. I was in despair. Until I returned to university and took up athletics.
For Sato, the simple idea in sports of having a goal and working to reach and surpass it became a passion, the loss of her leg serving as a catalyst to a sporting life as a long jumper. Sato competed at the Paralympics in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008. “I felt privileged to have been touched by the power of sport,” she said. “And I was looking forward to London 2012.”
Then disaster struck.
The tsunami hit my hometown. For six days I did not know if my family were still alive. And, when I did find them, my personal happiness was nothing compared to the sadness of the nation.
Like so many other survivors of the earthquake and tsunami in Northern Japan, Mami Sato helped others—forwarding messages, talking to victims, delivering food, and even organizing sporting events to take children’s minds off the daily worries of the aftermath.
Only then did I see the true power of sport…to create new dreams and smiles. To give hope. To bring people together.
(Go to the 5 minute 25 second mark of the video below to see Mami Sato’s moving speech.)
Mami Sato has spent her recent years passing on that power to others—among them a young woman named Saki Takakuwa from Saitama. When Saki was in sixth grade, she loved playing tennis and running in track. One day she felt pain in her left leg after practicing hurdles, a pain that would not go away. It turned out to be a tumor below her knee, and at first the doctor couldn’t tell if it was malignant or benign. But after enduring four surgeries, including amputation, chemotherapy, hair loss, and the constant reliance on others for assistance, Takakuwa was despondent, wondering if she would ever walk again.
Her mother, Yoko, was determined to help her daughter turn her mindset around. She received a book from a friend called Lucky Girl, by Mami Sato. The mother scanned the book, looking for similarities in experience and stories that might make her daughter feel hopeful for the future. Those stories worked.
It was inspiring to read such a positive story by someone who’d gone through something similar to me. Her book made me realize there were opportunities out there and that I didn’t necessarily have to give up on sport. At a real dark time in my life, it gave me encouragement, but that doesn’t mean I suddenly decided to become a Paralympian. At that point I wasn’t really thinking about my future at all. It was just about getting through each day.
Even better, a doctor gave mother and daughter a sense of hope they simply had not imagined.
Once [Saki] becomes accustomed to the prosthetic, she will be able to go to school again. She will be able to go to senior high school and university. She will also be able to find a job and get married.
Buoyed by Sato’s example and the doctor’s new prognosis, Saki discovered that with practice, she could get around on her prosthetic leg. She could indeed walk again. And then she learned something even more powerful. By focusing on her thigh muscles and using them to maintain balance, Saki found she could run again, run straight, run hard.
At that time, I did not know what my own limitations were. But I was just happy to be able to do the same thing as everyone else, so I tried various challenges. I gave it my all in everything I did. I want to continue running while never forgetting that feeling.
Inspired, Takakuwa went on to compete in both the 2012 London Paralympics and the 2016 Rio Paralympics. At the age of twenty-eight, 2020 in Tokyo should be in her sights, with hopes of inspiring others.
Speaking of her own devastated hometown area, Mami Sato told the IOC delegates in Buenos Aires that athletes and their expression of Olympic values, can inspire:
More than 200 athletes, Japanese and international, making almost 1,000 visits to the affected area are inspiring more than 50,000 children. What we have seen is the impact of the Olympic values as never before in Japan. And what the country has witnessed is that those precious values, excellence, friendship, and respect, can be so much more than just words.
The legacy of the Olympics is the children and young men and women bearing witness to feats of peak performance, honest humility, exhaustive effort, and a perseverance beyond belief. It is also the respect the athletes have for one another, an appreciation on the part of all concerned of cultural differences and strengths, and a chance for the host country to display resilience, competence, goodwill, and hospitality to the rest of the world. Tokyo took full advantage of this opportunity in 1964. By all indications, it appears determined to surpass that performance in 2020.
In commemoration of the 56th anniversary of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, here is an excerpt from my book “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes.”
Only two weeks after the exhilarating Tokyo Olympiad, the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, which ran from November 8 to 12, created an entirely new set of images and impressions on the Japanese psyche regarding notions of what disabled people could do.
Hundreds of foreign Paralympians were in Japan, serving as role models in terms of performance and attitude. According to Kazuo Ogoura, in his paper, The Legacy of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, their presence and their bearing were a jolt to Japanese society, which had until then tended to shun people with disabilities. As an administrator of the Paralympic Village put it, according to Ogoura, he remembers his surprise at seeing foreigners with disabilities so happy and full of life.
We were stunned to see overseas athletes in wheelchairs, hanging onto the back of a slow-operating Athlete Village loop bus to hitch a ride. It was sheer astonishment to witness their energy, enjoying themselves at a dance party at the International Club, or catching a taxi at night and loading their wheelchairs as well to go to Shibuya’s entertainment precinct.
The Japanese athletes who were asked to participate in the 1964 Paralympics likely had very little time to prepare, as the institutionalization of sports for disabled people had only just begun in Japan in the early 1960s. But when placed in a situation that tested their skills on an international platform, Japanese participants felt a rush of elation at being asked to stretch and compete.
A Japanese fencer, Shigeo Aono, felt empowered by the Paralympics in Japan, in a life-changing way.
Some said we were out of our minds for trying to compete in fencing, a traditional western sport, after just eight months of practice. Yet, we rejected the naysayers, followed through with our intentions and managed to win the silver medal—which gave us a powerful realization that we could do anything if we tried. That sense of confidence gave me strong insight and courage, which has been a guiding force of my life ever since.
Japanese discus thrower, Masayoshi Koike, said it more succinctly, “I had so much fun, with my spirit lifted high into the sky.”
With confidence came the realization for Japanese athletes that they were not disabled, but enabled. They took heart in seeing how independent the foreign athletes in Tokyo were, refusing assistance from officials and getting around on their own far more than the average disabled Japanese. They also learned that part of being more independent was being more accountable to one’s own health and condition.
Another demonstration of overseas athletes’ independent mindset was the day-to-day effort that went into boosting their physical strength and athletic abilities. Japanese athletes were reminded of the importance of maintaining and increasing physical strength in daily life, when they witnessed the large number of injuries sustained by their teammates during the Paralympics. Two Japanese athletes suffered Achilles tendon injuries and fourteen others sustained a range of other injuries during their respective events.
The common attitude was to treat anyone with a disability with kid gloves, as people who needed constant care and careful handling. But at the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, spectators and television viewers saw that the participants were athletes, not victims. Ogoura highlights this example of one of the swimmers:
One female athlete from overseas had to be carried by her husband to get into the swimming pool. When the race started, she was left behind the rest straight away. By the time the first swimmer finished the race, she had only just swum about five meters. She would start sinking, but get back afloat. Rescue staff was swimming about two meters behind her just in case. When she began sinking after so many times, the rescue staff proceeded to help, but her husband on the poolside used a hand gesture to tell them to stop. Two more meters to go…one more meter…the progress was slow. Applause broke out in the spectators’ stand. After more than three minutes, she finally completed the 25-meter feat. Episodes like this prompted eminent persons and sporting officials to express the opinion that “Disabled sports must be fostered as regular athletic events.”
Thanks to these examples, the government also awakened to the possibilities. Seiichiro Ide of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, acknowledging that “Japan had the culture of shunning people with disabilities,” asserted that from then on, “making the disabled more visible in society” was a new goal for the new Japan.
Another significant effect of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics was the shift in the medical world, where doctors and institutions began to realize the need to focus more on rehabilitation, not just cure or prevention of disease; that to ignore the state of the disabled, who may have the potential of athletes seen at the 1964 Paralympics, is to ignore the opportunity to bring confidence and joy to a significant part of the population. Ogoura quotes a healthcare worker:
Modern medicine focused too much on diseases and ignored people who suffer from them. It was the case of hunters being too busy looking for deer to look at the mountain itself, as they say in Japanese. Take spinal cord injuries for example. If medicine had focused more on achieving patients’ recovery than merely treating the condition, I have no doubt that those with spinal cord injuries today would have enjoyed a higher level of physical recovery, even joining in on the funfair of the Paralympics.
The exposure to foreign equipment used by the disabled was also hugely impactful. When the hundreds of foreign Paralympians, coaches, and administrators came to Tokyo in 1964, they brought things that Japanese people had never seen, and immediately set the standard for Japan. Ogoura cited wheelchairs:
The greatest technological impact the Paralympics had was on the development and proliferation of equipment and tools for the care of those with disabilities, which were still underdeveloped in Japan at the time. There was a clear performance gap between foreign-made and Japanese wheelchairs and urine collectors, etc. Commenting on this matter, Yutaka Nakamura said, “The difference of wheelchairs was as clear as day.” British sport-use wheelchairs weighed 13 kilograms, whereas Japanese wheelchairs were as heavy as 23 kilograms. Overseas players had wheelchairs made to suit their physique, while Japanese sport wheelchairs were the case of one-size-fits-all.
The Japanese could see the difference in performance based on the foreign athletes’ use of the wheelchairs compared to themselves. Said one athlete, “Overseas players are bigger, but very skilled at handling their wheelchairs. We looked more like the wheelchairs were handling us. Then again, the experience gave us confidence that practice would improve our skills.”
The 1964 Tokyo Paralympics caused a monumental mind shift in Japanese society. Dr. Yutaka Nakamura, one of the key players in making the Tokyo Paralympics happen, wrote in 1964 something that is the essential message of inclusion today:
Our society in general tends to underestimate the capability of people with disabilities. An event like this is significant in that it is a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate their capability to the rest of the society.
Was it a sign of things to come?
After overcoming the fright of a false positive corona virus test, Kohei Uchimura re-tested negative enough times he could compete at the first major international gymnastics competition since the pandemic began wreaking world havoc. When two-time Olympic champion Uchimura landed the dismount after a very strong horizontal bar routine, the announcer was vocal:
The gymnastics world dares to dream! King Kohei – massive work from one of the finest of all time. Oh we’ve waited for that one!
At the age of 31, Uchimura has suffered shoulder injuries and has given up the pursuit of a third all around Olympic championship, but is gunning for gold in the horizontal bar at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. His performance was hopefully a sign of things to come.
The International Gymnastic Federation (FIG) certainly hopes so. They brought 30 men and women gymnasts from China, Japan, Russia and the USA together on Sunday, November 8, 2020 to participate in Tokyo at the Friendship and Solidarity Competition.
One of the first major international sporting events, this competition held at the Yoyogi National Gymnasium is a test of readiness – a chance to understand what it takes to hold a sporting event with spectators and participants from multiple countries, data that will be used to develop operational plans for Tokyo 2020, which was postponed to the summer of 2021.
“One goal is to prove that staging a high-profile event in Tokyo is possible in the current context of the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to FIG, which organized this event.
— 寺本明日香TeramotoAsuka,OLY (@asuka_teramoto) November 6, 2020
Another goal is to send a message to athletes around the world who are hoping to make their Olympic teams, and make it to Tokyo for the Summer Olympics.
“I’m so happy we can hold this competition with spectators,” said Uchimura, who opened up the competition with a nifty opening vault. “I know this has been tough. But even with the restrictions due to COVID, we can still hold these events, and as athletes we can follow our dreams even with these hardships. For next year’s Olympics, it’s important that we, as athletes, are still able to pursue our dreams.”
Jon Omori, special liaison and advisor for the United States Olympic Committee, was present at the competition and noted that the crowd was sparse and social distancing was thus an easy objective. Yoyogi National Gymnasium, which was host to the swimming and diving events at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, can accommodate upwards of 13,000 spectators – and yet only 2,000 tickets were sold.
He said all people entering the arena were given a registration form that reminded them that
- They had to wear their masks at all times.
- If they were not feeling well they should contact the nearest staff person.
- They can find the disinfectants at the entrances, and apply to their hands.
- And as you move in and out of the arena, ensure you maintain social distance with others.
The form has a QR code which takes them to a LINE survey, in which they are asked such questions as
- “Is your body temperature above 37.5 degrees?”
- “Are you showing any cold symptoms, like coughing or scratchy throat?”
- “Have you had any close contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19?”
- “Are you aware of any cases of family members or close friends who have been suspected of infection?”
While not all gymnastic teams are taking the precautions that the Chinese gymnastics team have (as you can see in the picture), athletes at the Friendship and Solidarity Competition, in general, seem to be taking fundamental measures of care.
Kyodo News says that gymnasts entering Japan had to take PCR tests 72 hours prior to departing their countries, and flew to Japan in chartered planes. They have also been taking daily tests while in Japan. The gymnasts are staying on a floor dedicated to their own team, watched over by security guards. Omori said that the hotels have also dedicated specific entrances and exits for the athletes, to ensure minimal contact with other people.
Omori also noted that there were no fixed exits and entrances, or pathways delineated to control traffic flows in Yoyogi National Gymnasium, but that everyone was wearing masks. “Coaches are all wearing masks,” said Omori, “and athletes are too, but take them off before they compete.”
In the end, Team Solidarity defeated Team Friendship. 423.6 to 421.3.
The real winners? The gymnasts and athletes around the world who get a strong whiff of hope that Tokyo 2020 will be a reality in 2021.