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.

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Yulimar Rojas celebrates a gold and world record_photo by Willie Banks

The lanky woman from Venezuela was psyching herself up for her fifth leap. She took a deep breath, clapped her hands and then let her breath out in a big shout. She blurted out some words of encouragement, and began that rhythmic clap over her head, prompting the crowd to clap.

And then she began her run.

“Oh it’s massive! It’s absolutely massive,” exclaimed the play-by-play announcer.  “But it’s a red flag unfortunately.” The replay showed her toe 7.5 cm over the limit.

Yulimar Rojas had clearly set a world record in her fifth jump at the finals of the Tokyo2020 women’s triple jump competition at the National Stadium on the evening of August 1, if not for the foot fault. In fact, she did the same thing two leaps earlier, a world record jump unrealized for a second time because she stepped significantly beyond the line.

Rojas right now is so dominant that her first attempt of 15.41 meters was an Olympic record, and as subsequent leaps from her competitors showed, was good enough for gold. If she could only start her leap before the plastic board, she’d  set the world record.

Two-time Olympian Willie Banks knows this. The first man to start the modern-day tradition of clapping hands over one’s head to get the crowd into the moment, Banks too set the world record for the men’s triple jump on June 16, 1985 in Indianapolis.

Willie Banks of the World Athletics Council, at the National Stadium during the Athletics competitions.

Banks is in Tokyo serving on the Jury of Appeals for the World Athletics Council. He was present during the women’s triple jump and told me he knew Rojas was going to break the record, that it was just a matter of time. In the case of Rojas, she was so talented that it didn’t matter too much whether she launched perfectly from the board or not.

Too many people focus on the board. A lot will jump really well and not touch the board. For her, what matters are where your hips are in relation to the board. She has long legs relative to her body, which is important. A light body on top of your legs, like she has, helps as her legs are going to do the work. On top of that, she has very good acceleration, and so she is able to get good lift off the board without having to extend too much.

And so when her competitors failed to come close, Rojas approached her final attempt as a chance to put her name in the history books.

Rojas’s coach whistled encouragement. Rojas let out a shout. She swung her arms, got the audience clapping, and started off on a momentous spring. Her first hop was long, her second was flat, but her third launched her into the air and beyond the line for a world record. A white flag went up – no foul!

She did it – the first woman from Venezuela to win a gold medal. Her hands went to the back of her head, her mouth agape. She turned suddenly and nearly ran over the cameraman and let out a mighty yelp. Rojas triple jumped to 15.67 meters, way past the world record of 15.5 meters, set by Inessa Kravets of the Ukraine almost 11 years ago.

Banks thinks that Rojas has a long career ahead and can smash the 16-meter barrier if she makes one improvement.

“That middle step is kind of short,” he explained. “She makes up for it on her jump phase at the end, but what could she accomplish if she got it right? I hope she doesn’t get too comfortable like I did, and work on improving, so she can blast past 16 meters.”

But for now, Banks believes she is great for the sport.

Photo from Willie Banks.

“She’s energetic,” said Banks. “She’s empathetic, and I like that she shows her emotion, that she is enjoying this all the time. When you’re enjoying the sport, you are demonstrating the purest form of the sport, something I have always strived for, but never quite got to. But when you’re as good as Rojas, you can really enjoy yourself.”

Wendell Mottley

Ever since he remembered, he loved track. Little Wendell Mottley would tag along with his dad, who was in a local athletic association in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. As he got older, he began to run in competitions sponsored by the oil companies that had refineries on that Caribbean island.

“These refineries would give off a certain smell,” Mottley told me. “And as I got closer, that smell would trigger adrenaline.”

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the adrenaline was pumping. Mottley was all grown up, former captain of the Yale track team, and representing the upstart track team of a country that established its independence only two years before. “We were ambitious and we thought we had a chance to bring down the big boys – the USA.”

Mottley at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

As Mottley waited for Edwin Skinner to hand him the baton for the anchor leg of the 4×400 relay race finals, he knew he had a chance to upset the Americans. By the time he got the baton, Trinidad and Tobago was already in second, but the Jamaican, George Kerr, was just inside of Mottley and created a bit of havoc for Mottley.

“I tried to run around him, but he flailed the baton so much that I had to run very wide of him, and those extra steps in a race of that quality cost us,” Mottley said. “When I came around in the final lap, I was tiring, and that allowed Robbie Brightwell of Great Britain to run past me, and we ended with a bronze medal.”

Team USA took gold.

Mottley won a silver medal in the 400-meter sprint as well at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, but he lost his heart to Japan.

Chrysanthemum

The first time he came to Japan was for the Olympics. He knew very little about the country, except WWII and kamikaze pilots. And ikebana. Mottley is a lover of flowers, and he enjoyed the flower arrangements he saw wherever he went.

“Tokyo blew my mind,” he said. “To see the chrysanthemum all laid out in their glory – what a people to be able to do this, I thought. I was also struck by Japanese landscaping, particularly Japanese gardens, the brushing of the sand and stone, and the spare architecture. I had read about these things as a hobbyist, but I was amazed when I saw these things in person.”

Observing the care that went into the gardens and the flower arrangement, as well as how organized the Games were, nothing like he had seen at track meets in the US or Europe, he came to this realization: “It must take a very disciplined people to do these things.”

In the final leg of the 1964 Olympic finals of the men’s 4×400 relay

Discipline

As a teenager, Mottley had a life-changing turn of luck.

Running at yet another high school meet, a track coach from Loughborough University in the UK said he knew another track coach at Yale University in the US, and would young Mottley be interested in running track there. Mottley applied and was accepted into Yale, and the head of track for the Elis was legendary coach, Bob Giegengack, who ended up being the US track coach for Team USA in 1964.

“For this coach from the UK, who knew another coach in the US who might be interested, to see me run in Trinidad and Tobago, the stars had to align for this to have happened,” Mottley remarked.

But after getting to Yale, luck would not be enough. Mottley would learn a life-long lesson in the value and impact of discipline.

Mottley was a sprinter, but Giegengack also had him run cross country, which he hated. In the winter, too cold for the boy from the tropics, he competed at indoor meets, when arenas were filled with cigarette smoke. “After running 600 meters, it felt like someone took a pitchfork to your lungs.” Then it was back to outdoor running in the Spring.

Every day was full.

“You get up in the morning, have breakfast, and take classes because at Yale there were no concessions for athletes,” he said. “Then we trained from 2  to 5:30 pm, had dinner at 6, and then studied. It was a disciplined process, a rhythm of life. All of those years of training, that was tough work for a kid coming out of the tropics. But it served me well for the rest of the life.”

 

Life Goes On

Mottley recalled the moments just prior to the start of the finals of the individual 400-meter sprint at the Tokyo Olympics. The athletes were inside the bowels of the stadium, the nerves of the competitors palpable. The officials were nervous, checking to make sure the right people were there at the right time. The runners were nervous as they began to hear and feel the buzz of the crowd.

“You emerge into the sunlight, the crowd is roaring, and the nervousness climbs, and all things race through your mind,” he explained. “Then you start hammering in your starting blocks, and suddenly everything gets shut out and the focus comes back. It’s silent. You’re absolutely focused, bam, and the race is on.”

After Mottley wins his silver medal at the end of the race, he sees Coach Giegengack, who gives him a salute. “That’s it. It’s relief that it’s all over.”

Mottley ended his track career a year later, going on to an amazing career in government, serving as Finance Minister for his country in the 1990s, and then in financial services as a senior advisor and investment banker at Credit Suisse.

But before he left his sporting life behind, he had one more score to settle. It was August, 1966, and Trinidad and Tobago was competing at the 8th British Empire and Commonwealth Games, which were being held in Kingston, Jamaica.

Mottley, with 1964 Tokyo teammates Kent Bernard and Edwin Roberts, joined by Lennox Yearwood faced off against Jamaica on their home turf in the 4X400-yard relay. Mottley had an agenda. He remembered how Kerr swung the baton and forced him wide in Tokyo.

So when Mottley completed the anchor leg of the finals, Team Trinidad and Tobago not only beat Team Jamaica, they set a world record, a coda to a great career in track.

Simone Biles_AP Photo/Ashley Landis

In 1964, freestyle Shunichi Kawano was banned from the Olympic Village. The head of Japanese wrestling okayed that act as Kawano showed “a lack of fighting spirit” in a match the day before. It didn’t help that the crown prince and princess were in the audience. His coach said his presence in the village would “adversely affect the morale of other athletes,” according to The Japan Times. He returned to the Village after shaving his head, although he said he did not agree with the assessment of his spirit.

For a few days after the Kawano incident, the press was filled with accounts of the mystery female Olympian who reportedly shaved her head bald in tears. It was finally reported that Soviet javelin thrower, Elvira Ozolina, had cut her shoulder-length chestnut hair completely off. Ozolina, who ended the javelin competition in fifth, was a favorite to win gold.

Various headlines from AP news wire stories on Ozolina

And then there was the poignant tale of Kokichi Tsuburaya, who ran a long 42 kilometers in the Tokyo Olympic marathon, entered the National Stadium to the roar of the crowd expecting their Japanese hero to win a silver medal in track, only to see UK’s Basil Heatley storm from behind, leaving Tsuburaya in third place. A disappointed Tsuburaya took accountability and said he would do better at the 1968. But injuries and a failed wedding engagement, both caused by a superior where he worked in the Japan Defense Forces, may have led to Tsuburaya’s decision to end his life in early 1968.

At all levels of competition, sports show us how people respond to pressure. At the Olympics, the pressure can be extreme. We expect Olympians who do not “win” to be grateful and graceful losers, but we also know that the drive and determination that got them to that point can also manifest itself in anger, frustration, fears and questions of self worth.

In this first week of Olympic competition, mental health is an emerging theme at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, journalists and spectators alike were less concerned about the psychological well being of athletes. But at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, there appears to be a more sophisticated understanding of these issues.

Naomi Osaka may have laid the groundwork for that understanding. After the French Open had started, she  announced she would not engage in press conferences in order to diminish what she said was battles with anxiety and depression. After some online parrying with organizers, she pulled out of the French Open. Then last week, she lost in the second round of the singles tennis Olympic competition, sparking questions of whether the stress of the constant attention had affected her.

On July 16, WNBA Las Vegas Aces star, Liz Cambage, announced she was leaving Australian national basketball team. Suffering from panic attacks, and unable to sleep, she admitted that she would be unable to perform to the best of her abilities.

“It’s no secret that in the past I’ve struggled with my mental health and recently I’ve been really worried about heading into a ‘bubble’ Olympics,” according to the Sydney Morning Herald. “No family. No friends. No fans. No support system outside of my team. It’s honestly terrifying for me.

Then on July 27, just after the start of the women’s gymnastics team competition, American gymnast Simone Biles suddenly announced she was no longer going to compete. The world media had already declared her Olympic champion years before the start of Tokyo 2020. She has been repeatedly called the GOAT (greatest of all time). But after a poor vault at the start of the competition, she realized that she had to put her mental health first. Here’s how she explained it to NPR:

It’s been really stressful, this Olympic Games. I think just as a whole, not having an audience, there are a lot of different variables going into it. It’s been a long week, it’s been a long Olympic process, it’s been a long year. So just a lot of different variables, and I think we’re just a little bit too stressed out. But we should be out here having fun, and sometimes that’s not the case.

In the judo competition, Team Japan has had unprecedented success – out of 14 possible gold medals, they grabbed 9, as well as a silver and bronze.

Judoka Hisayoshi Harasawa lost to two-time Olympic champion Teddy Riner of France in the bronze medal round, one of the few not to medal for Japan. Amidst Japan’s amazing gold rush in judo, Harasawa was devastated, speechless and in tears, struggling to find any words in a painful post-match interview.

But in 2021, at least, we are finding the words to talk about mental health in sports.

Japan’s Mima Ito and Jun Mizutani won Japan’s first-ever gold medal in table tennis, in the debut of the mixed doubles tournament at the Olympics on July 26.

It was an upset and a fantastic comeback as well. Liu Shiwen and Xu Xin of China had swept through their three matches to get to the finals, dropping only 1 set, their first one against their first foe, Canada. In the finals against Japan, Liu and Xu continued with their streak, winning the first two sets, before Japan came storming back for their historic victory.

If not for their dramatic victory over Germany in the quarter-finals, holding off match point after match point, there would be no smiles and tears of joy for Ito and Mizutani.

 

Anatomy of a Comeback Against Team Germany

On Sunday, July 25, Japan was up against Germany’s Petrissa Solja and Patrick Franziska. 2nd-seed Japan was favored over 7th-seed Germany, but they battled evenly back and forth. When Japan won the sixth set, the seventh one would determine who moves on to the semi-finals.

Germany started off strong – very strong –  going up 5-0. They extended their lead to 9-2, going up by 7 points. It was the highest point differential in the entire match, and a seemingly insurmountable mountain to climb for Japan.   And when Germany flicked a winner wide to get to 10-6, they had 4 match points, and were on the verge of advancing.

Then something clicked inside Mizutani. The 32-year old 4-time Olympian shot a winner and then fired tight top spin forehands that the Germans sent into the net or wide. Somehow, Japan had staved off 4 match points.

Germany served and Japan sent it wide, leading to Germany’s 5th match point at 11-10. But Ito’s serve was quickly returned into the net, and the score was deadlocked at 11-11. Germany served, and Japan sent it out, so Germany again were at match point, now for the sixth time!

Even if you are casual watcher of table tennis, you could not help but feel all tense inside. The small racquet and tiny ball on a small table with two people requires constant and intense concentration, instantaneous reflexes and explosive power. It’s exhausting to watch, particularly in a tight match.

Japan tied it at 12-12 with Germany returning into the net. Japan won the next point, and suddenly they had their first match point, but on the next point, Mizutani was caught off balance and mis-shot, sending it to 13-13. Back and forth it went as the teams knotted it again at 14-14.Franziska serves, Ito returns, Solja returns and Mizutani sends a heavy top-spin cross court which Franziska sends out. Japan has its second match point.

Ito, at her first Olympics, a childhood friend of Mizutani’s, had her moment of moments. Her spin serves usually end up in the mid court of her opponent’s side, but this one went deep to the forehand of Solja who simply could not catch up to it. Her return was fired wide and the Ito Mizutani team won. While Mizutani was all smiles, Ito collapsed in tears of exhaustion.

11-8, 5-11, 3-11, 11-3, 9-11, 11-8, 16-14.

For Solja and Franziska, nothing but the thousand-mile stares of disbelief.

For Ito and Mizutani, the right to fight another day.

Sport is universal. But since many sports either originated in the United States or are big enough businesses to ensure lucrative tournament income, many go to the United States to train.

In these early days of the Olympics, I’ve noticed several stars who were born in Japan, but made in America.

Jay Litherland: Kevin, Mick and Jay were born triplets in Osaka, Japan. Born of a father, Andrew, from New Zealand and a mother, Chizuko, from Japan, Jay came in third on their birthday. But at the 2020 Olympics, Jay came in 2nd to win gold in the grueling 400-meter individual medley swimming finals.

The brothers have done everything together. They all graduated from Chattahoochee High School in Georgia, trained at the Dynamo Swim Club in Atlanta, and swam competitively for the University of Georgia. They all raced with Chase Kalisz, who beat out Jay to win gold in the 400-meter IM.

But Jay, a citizen of both Japan and America, was the only one to make it to Japan. Fluent in Japanese and eager to enjoy his favorite foods around town, he will have to wait till conditions improve in Japan to really celebrate. For now, he has a silver medal and a chance for more.

 

Yuto Horigome: The son of a taxi driver in Tokyo, who used to skateboard, Yuto Horigomo would go the park and skateboard with his dad. Somehow the son became a phenom, who was shuttled to California in 2016 to learn from the best.

Today, Horigomo is considered a favorite to win gold. In fact, he recently defeated another favorite, American Nyjah Huston, at the 2021 Street Skateboarding World Championship held in Rome in June.

As Dew Tour, a sponsor of American tournaments, put it, “Yuto’s skating is a shocking combination of massive rails and gaps and hyper-balanced flip-in, flip-out ledge wizardry. If that weren’t enough, he’s got vert skills, as well—including padless McTwists. Yuto is the definition of an all-terrain vehicle.”

 

Rui Hachimura: Hachimura went to NCAA basketball powerhouse, Gonzaga University from 2016 to 2019, and then was selected 9th in the NBA draft by the Washington Wizards. Gonzaga was famed for its international recruiting, but the coaches were surprised at how little English Hachimura spoke.

Well, that’s par for the course for Japanese. Hachimura is born and raised in Toyama, an out-of-the-way sea-side prefecture, and one of the least populated in Japan. He played basketball through high school in Japan.

His biracial features, a product of a Japanese mother and a father from Benin, make him stick out of the everyday Japanese crowd. But from his respectful nods and his soft-spoken nature, his mannerisms are Japanese.

In Japan’s own nod to the growing importance of being seen as diverse, Hachimura was given the honor of Japan’s flag bearer in the parade of athletes, a very tall, biracial representative of Japan.

 

Naomi Osaka: Born in the city of her last name, Osaka is ranked #2 in the world in women’s tennis. Due to a high level of self awareness and ability to align her values to the times, and communicate them in an authentic and humble manner, Osaka has become one of the most marketable brands today.

The child of a Japanese mother, Tamaki Osaka, and a Haitian father, Leonard Francois, Osaka and her older sister were taken to New York to live with her father’s parents. Francois was impressed by the rise of the Williams sisters in tennis, and sought to emulate Venus and Serena’s father, Richard Williams, and train his own daughters to become a powerful tennis tandem.

Osaka trained primarily in America, but her parents thought it best for Naomi to represent Japan. But in many ways, Osaka’s aura crosses boundaries, and is a global fan favorite. As if to bookend Hachimura’s symbolic role in representing Japan at the opening ceremony, Osaka represented the world by lighting the cauldron with the Olympic flame.

 

Kanoa Igarashi: Kanoa Igarashi, a handsome flashy surfer for Japan, technically, was conceived in Japan. He was actually born in Huntington Beach, California. When Igarashi’s mother, Misa learned she was with child, she and her husband, Tsutomu, decided to move the family to the United States with dreams of creating a star in Surf City.

Like the father of Tiger Woods, who choreographed the golfing great’s career from Tiger’s childhood, Tsutomu envisioned a future champion in his baby’s face. From the age of 3, Tsutomu would take Kanoa to the beaches of California in the early mornings, shaping the habits that would earn Kanoa his first championship at the age of 7.

In 2018, anticipating the benefits of competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Igarashi changed his nationality from USA to Japan, to become the face of Japanese surfing.

As surfing writer, Daniel Duane wrote, Igarashi is “a smooth-muscled, 22-year-old pro surfer with peroxide-blond hair and the youthful beauty of a boy-band teen idol in a comic book about young rock stars who become space warriors to save the galaxy.”

Photograph by Roy Tomizawa

The protests were never huge, but they seemed to be omnipresent. Groups of placard holders could be seen in front of train stations, at torch relay events, wherever there were crowds.

 

Their protests are symbolic of the seriousness with which people in Japan are taking the COVID-19 virus and its variants.

 

The climbing infection rates in Tokyo on the eve of the Games are like darkening clouds over the city. After a visit on Thursday, July 22, to the Tokyo Bay Ariake area where so many of the Olympic arenas are located, you might think the Games had already ended, there were so few people, and so little energy.

Photograph by Roy Tomizawa

 

However, if on the afternoon of Friday, July 23 you visited Harajuku, minutes away from the National Stadium, you would have heard the constant buzz of a beehive in anticipation. Around 12:45 pm, thousands of people congested the intersection in front of Meiji Shrine, waiting in the hot sun for the roar of jet engines.

 

Blue Impulse over Tokyo_Photograph by Roy Tomizawa

And suddenly, they were rewarded as the Air Self Defense Force air acrobat team called the Blue Impulse roared overhead. Cameras and phone pointed skyward as the jets formed the Olympic rings in the sky, an act harking back to the Opening Ceremonies of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

 

Photograph by Roy Tomizawa

 

A 15-minute walk takes you to the National Olympic Stadium, where crowds line the street. It’s only 1pm and it may be too early for the arrival of the athletes, but Japanese were happy to see the National Stadium in full regalia, albeit behind fences to keep us out.

Photograph by Roy Tomizawa

And when you get to the Olympic rings in front of the Olympic Museum and across the street from the National Stadium, the need to socially distance was totally forgotten. Anything to get a picture in front of the rings.

 

Yesterday, in my walk through Ariake, I was worried for the patient. But today, as I walked through the heart of the Tokyo Olympics, I felt a pulse.

 

Doctor, the patient is alive.

Photograph by Roy Tomizawa

The crowds were out on Omotesando to see a repeat of history. Photo by Roy Tomizawa

When Japan Air Self-Defence Force’s acrobat jet team, The Blue Impulse, flew across that beautiful blue sky on October 10, 1964, Japan ooh-ed and ah-ed.

It was a spectacular moment on a spectacular day as Japan welcomed the world to a country, not bowed and backward, but proud and modern.

Victor Warren, a member of the Canadian field hockey team, was on the filed during the 1964 Opening Ceremonies. “I’ll never forget,” he said. “It stuck in my mind –  five jets in the air which drew the Olympic rings. It was magic. It was terrific. It was a beautiful start to a beautiful day.”

On July 23rd, a little bit before 1 pm, the organizers hoped to capture that magic again. I made my way to Harajuku, near the entrance to Meiji Shrine. As I got close to the intersection in front of the main train station, the sidewalk got more congested.

Blue Impulse about to ring the sky. Photo by Roy Tomizawa

The place was packed. People filled the overpasses and the sidewalks, looking upwards, hoping to pick up telltale sounds of approaching jet engines. And then suddenly, there they appeared from the north, five jets in formation. Way up high amidst puffy white clouds and a light blue sky, the jets made a couple of passes. Their third time through, they flew in individually, spewing colored smoke.

In 1964, you could see the rings and their colors clearly. But the clouds seemed to get in the way in the 2021 version. People ooh-ed and ah-ed, but in an uncertain way. I could see the rings formed partially, but I never saw five fully formed rings in the sky.

The crowd applauded, politely.

More importantly, there was a crowd. And they were excited to connect to the spirit and energy of 1964.

Just watch this clip from the movie, “Always – Sunset on Third Street ’64.” This scene captures that moment in Japan perfectly.

As the protagonist in the film clip says, “and now, finally, it’s the Olympics!”

(For better pictures of the 2020 sky writing, go here.)

From the monorail entering into Ariake

It was Thursday, July 22. I was walking around Ariake in Koto ward, the land-filled man-made part of Tokyo Bay right off of Shinagawa.

 

I had an appointment at the Villa Fontaine Grande Tokyo Ariake Hotel, so afterwards, I took a walk.

Ariake Urban Sports Park – If you stand inside the Ariake Tennis no Mori Station, you can probably watch BMX racing for free!

Around me were the Ariake Arena where volleyball will be featured, the Ariake Gymnastics Center, the Ariake Urban Sports Park for BMX and skateboarding competitions, and the Ariake Tennis Park.

 

I was right in the middle of a huge concentration of Olympic arenas. It was the day before the Opening Ceremonies of the XXXII Olympiad. And it felt like I was walking around a ghost town.

Ariake Gymnastics Center

Oh, you could see people walking here and there. But under normal circumstances, I imagine I should have been surrounded by thousands on this day, a public holiday to boot.

 

Tourists, volunteers, staffers, officials, journalists and athletes from Olympics past should have been wandering around sipping cold Coca Colas, trading pins, and taking selfies.

 

Sponsors should have had booths or centers to educate, entertain and give out prizes to giggling kids and adults alike. But not during these Olympics. Most sponsors have toned down their affiliation to the Games. Toyota announced only a few days ago that they would not run Tokyo2020-related TV commercials.

No one looking at this great signage….

I passed by the Panasonic Center, a place for tourists to learn about future Panasonic products and ideas. It’s in a prime spot, right on the corner of a park near so much of the action, selected probably just for these Olympic Games.

 

Except for a picture of Naomi Osaka, you wouldn’t have known that Panasonic was a Global TOP Sponsor of the Olympics and Paralympics.

Panasonic Center – great location, timing however….

Next to the Panasonic Center, floral versions of Miraitowa and Someity, the mascots of the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics, stood behind fences, looking a little worse for wear these days.

 

Aren’t we all.

 

Miraitowa and Someity behind bars.

 

 

When he arrived in Tokyo on May 1, 2021, he felt fine – ready to compete in the race of his life, to determine whether he was coming back to Tokyo for the Olympics in July. And since his times in the single sculls were good to enough qualify, he felt he had a shot to do well at this Asia and Oceania rowing qualifier, to become the first rower from Saudi Arabia to compete in the Olympics.

But on May 2, he felt a slight pain. “It’s a sore ab,” thought Husein Alireza, so not a worry. But then it was May 5, time to race, and Alireza was in significant pain. The doctor there told him he had a stress fracture of the rib, and he probably shouldn’t race. To Alireza, there was no question – he raced.

And then Husein went back to the UK, and was told that he had to have surgery, in fact, invasive lung surgery in early June, with painful post-op recovery. Then began the negotiation with the doctor, who told him he had to rest for two months. Not being able to train for two months would mean no trip to Tokyo, so doctor and patient got it down to 2 weeks.

Husein’s dream to compete in Tokyo was still alive.

As for the question of qualification, he had to wait. Olympic clarification in rowing is complex, partially dependent on the boat selection of other nations, and took about three weeks. Three nail-biting weeks.

That’s where Alireza’s coach got into action. Bill Barry is a veteran rowing coach, a member of the Great Britain coxless four rowing team that took silver at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Alireza’s times were good enough to qualify when he arrived in Japan, and if not for the poor timing of the stress fracture, he would have qualified on the spot for Tokyo2020.

This is important, Barry told those who have the power to evaluate qualifications. Alireza would be the first in his nation, a critical step to increasing the popularity of rowing in a region where rowing is an unknown sport. After all, the Arabian Desert, 2.3 million square miles of sand, covers almost the entirety of Saudi Arabia. There is plenty of space to play football, but not to row.

Making Husein Alireza the first Olympic rower for Saudi Arabia could spark interest in the sport not only in Saudi Arabia, but across the Middle East.

So, when the phone call came in late May, that Alireza had qualified and was going to the Olympics, he realized he was no longer in injury recovery mode, but in training mode.

Bill Barry and Husein Alireza

Every effort had to be made so that he could perform his best at the Olympics. But with the injury, the surgery and the reduced lung capacity, Husein realizes that he won’t be able to do his best.  He can, however, overcome the challenges and represent, not just to bring meaning to his seemingly endless and exhaustive training, but also to his family and his country.

“Making the Olympics is making history for my country while also giving back to my family who’ve done so much for me,” Alireza told me. “It means the world. There is no greater honor than to represent your country on the biggest spectacle of all. It’s a moment I wish I could’ve shared with my late mother, Salma.”

“And It’s an honor to lead a sport in Saudi Arabia, almost single handedly,” he said. “When I went back home last year, we organized an indoor rowing championship. People looked up to me. It was inspiring to have these youngsters ask me so many questions.”

As if to emphasize the impact Husein is having, he recently learned he would be the flag bearer for Team Saudi Arabia during the opening ceremonies of the Tokyo2020 Olympics.

Alireza realizes he has an opportunity to grow a sport not just in Saudi but in the Middle East Region. He knows he must raise funds, which means he has to educate people in the Saudi Olympic Committee and other relevant agencies. The funds are needed firstly to create a place where people can train in Saudi Arabia.

Fortunately, he found a narrow strip of water located in a housing development in the northern part of the city Jeddah and is getting approval for its use as a rowing facility. “It’s close to the city, it is a perfect 2k rowing course, and that’s where the center of Saudi rowing will be.”

But first things first. Alireza has to get ready for the Olympics.

Barry said, “you need to understand that rowing is the toughest of all sports. It requires the most training to get aerobic conditioning and strength. People on the rowing team train 11 months of the year, 3 times a day, at least 4 days a week. A typical day might be sculling 16k in a boat, 16k on the rowing machine, one and half hours on weights. That’s a typical day. Scientifically, rowers breathe more oxygen in one minute than in any other sport.”

Alireza broke down how much effort went into that one race – a 2-kilometer sprint which takes a little over 7 minutes. “I rowed 30,000 kilometers,” said Alireza. “Eight hours of training went into every one second of my qualification race, which equals 15 kilometers for every 1 meter. In other words, the race was rehearsed 15,000 times.”

And when you row in a single scull for a country that has no rowing tradition, it is not just painful, it’s lonely, and Alireza wants to make sure that future generations of Saudi rowers feel strength in numbers.

“When I go to a race, it’s just me doing my own warmups,” he told me. “In front of me, I can see the Thai team, or the Japan team. I see them laughing and joking, while I sit alone in silence. To go to a competition with a team would be such a pleasure, especially leading it. I’d like nothing more.”

Barry, who is making history himself by being one of the very few to be credentialed for the two Olympics in the same host city (1964 and 2020), understands the importance of Husein Alireza.

“Husein is putting rowing on the map in Saudi Arabia.”

 

The XXXII Olympiad’s opening ceremony is the evening of Friday, July 23 in Tokyo.

 

But the Tokyo Olympics actually begin on the morning of Wednesday, July 21, in Fukushima. It’s the women who kick off the Games, when Japan takes on Australia in softball from 9 am (JST)  at Azuma Baseball Stadium. In fact, there will be three opening round softball matches in Fukushima on July 21, as well as three more on July 22.

 

Women’s soccer will also debut on the two days prior to the Opening Ceremonies, with  Great Britain taking on Chile in Sapporo, Hokkaido, China battling Brazil in Miyagi,  Sweden against the US in Tokyo, and a second match in Hokkaido in the evening, pitting Team Japan against Team Canada.

 

As Tokyo and neighboring prefectures Chiba, Saitama, Kanagawa, as well as Osaka and Okinawa are under varying forms of a State of Emergency, spectators have been banned from Olympic events in those areas.

 

Fukushima and Hokkaido prefectures are not in a State of Emergency, but officials there chose to also ban spectators from the softball matches at Azuma Stadium, as well as soccer matches at Sapporo Dome.

 

As of this writing, however, a limited number of fans will be allowed to attend the football matches in Miyagi Stadium, which is in Rifu, Miyagi. The governor of Miyagi, Yoshihiro Murai, has held steadfast in his desire to have fans in the stands.

 

The governor cites the fact that on July 24, the women from China and Zambia compete in a soccer match at Miyagi Stadium, while on the same day there will be a warm up match for Team Japan’s men’s baseball team at Rakuten Seimei Park in nearby Sendai, Miyagi, which is scheduled to have about 13,000 fans. (Professional baseball in Japan has allowed limited number of spectators throughout the year.)

Spectators, as of this writing, appear also to be allowed for soccer matches in Ibaragi and cycling events at Izu Velodrome in Shizuoka.

So, if you want to attend a live Olympic event, try to get a ticket to soccer matches at Miyagi Stadium on July 21, 24, 27, 28, 30, or 31, or at Ibaragi Kashima Stadium on July 22, 25, 27, 30, 31, August 2, 3 or 5. Cycling at Izu Velodrome will be from August 2-8.

Here’s the full schedule for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.