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.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics, scheduled for July 24 to August 9 of this year, were postponed to next year. The question that will be answered in the coming weeks, if not coming days by the IOC, will be when the Games will be held in 2021.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will likely be held in late July to early August – more specifically: Friday, July 23 to August 8, 2021. Here’s why, as we break down the pros and cons of Spring, Fall and Summer.
Spring: Imagine the Tokyo Olympics in April, after the Masters in Augusta takes place in April 8-11, Tiger Woods winning a Green Jacket and then playing for gold at the Kasumigaseki Golf Country Club with cherry blossoms scattering in the gentle spring breeze. Also imagine a marathon in Tokyo as the runners run in a most temperate clime, not the hot-and-humid they would experience in July and August.
But then there’s the uncertainty: will the coronavirus be rearing its ugly head again in the winter of 2021, and will a treatment or cure be available to ease our anxiety about the sneezing and coughing of those around us in the late winter, early spring? Additionally, there is the logistics of re-starting the operations of the Olympic Games. According to this article, Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics organizing committee President Yoshiro Mori said that there would not be enough time to secure volunteers and ensure execution of qualifying events. “It’s better for preparation time to be kept as long as possible,” he said.
Additionally, in the US market, the Olympics would have significant competition with the NBA playoffs, which take place from the middle of April to the middle of June, as does the NHL playoffs. NBC is in the middle of a US$12 billion contract to cover all Olympic Games, summer and winter, from 2014 to 2032. The reason the American television network paid so much was because the Olympics help them dominate the ratings and sell profitable ad space. Suddenly competing for eyeballs against the NBA playoffs as well as the NHL playoffs, which is also broadcast on NBC, would not be what the network signed up for.
This is true for Europe and the football broadcasters, according to this article from The Sports Examiner. “…it’s worth noting that the European soccer league schedules run into the middle or end of May (as does the UEFA Champions League). That means that European broadcasters are not going to be interested in having an Olympic Games start any earlier than the middle of June and that might be pushing it.”
Fall: The 1964 Tokyo Olympics took place in October, in order to avoid the heat and typhoons of summer. It’s true, they did not get heat and typhoons; they got rainy and cold instead. While NBC was the American broadcaster then, the business of sports broadcasting was not so large that concern about competing against the World Series or the start of the professional and college football and basketball seasons was non-existent. That is not true today, as both the World Series and American football are highly popular sports, and would eat heavily into NBC’s ratings and ad revenue. Yes, this schedule conflict is a significant part of the decision making matrix for the IOC, according to veteran Mainichi Shinbun sports writer, Takashi Takiguchi.
As the provider of the highest payments for Olympic broadcast rights, the US media giant NBC is most averse to changes in its timing. The games are well known for scheduling events to meet NBC demands. Autumn is the peak season for baseball, basketball, and American football in the North American market, ensuring that NBC will not sign off on holding the Olympics then. And in Europe, where paid satellite broadcasting is common, soccer leagues are in full swing at that time.
Summer: Mori as well as John Coates, who is the main liaison between the IOC and the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Organizing Committee, have already stated that the likeliest schedule for 2021 will be in late July, early August, according to the New York Times. In fact, NHK has already reported that Friday, July 23, 2021 is the most likely date for the opening ceremony for Tokyo 2020.
NHK sources say the option of opening the Olympics in July of next year is gaining support at the committee, considering the time needed to contain the virus, make preparations, and select athletes.
One of the biggest challenges for figuring out when to schedule the Olympics in 2021 is the fact that there are already so many sports events scheduled, some of which have been re-scheduled from 2020. (You can see a schedule from AIPS Media here.) Takiguchi of Mainichi wrote, “the sporting calendar is so packed that any change in schedule for the Olympics will have knock-on effects. These inevitably deal heavy blows to the sports business, which is always bound by contracts.”
In the case that Tokyo2020 is moved to late July, early August, a couple of major world championships have to be re-scheduled if they do not want to be overshadowed by the Olympics:
- the FINA World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, from July 16 to August 1, and
- the World Athletics Championships in Oregon, American, from August 6 to 15.
In fact, the head of World Athletics, Sebastian Coe, already said in the NYT article that he is open to moving the dates of championship in Oregon, citing the benefits of moving the event to 2022. “You may have world championships in consecutive years where we wouldn’t normally have had that,” he said. “But for athletics, it’s not such a bad thing. To go from 2021 Olympic Games into two editions of the world championships, ’22 — possibly ’22 — ’23 we’re in Budapest, and then into the Olympic Games in Paris in ’24. It would offer athletics center stage at a very public point of the year.”
So the smart money for the commencement of the 32nd Olympiad is on Friday, July 23, 2021 – maybe a couple of seats for the Opening Ceremony will open up by then.
It’s official. Tokyo 2020 is happening in 2021.
What does that mean? What impact does the change have on anything?
Firstly, I hope it gives swimmer Rikako Ikee a chance to compete. One of Japan’s rising stars, the then 18-year-old Ikee became the first swimmer to win six gold medals in the Asian Games back in August, 2018. Six months later, Ikee was diagnosed with leukemia, and had to cease all competitive training in order to defeat the cancer. She promised her fans to be back in racing form for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
On the road to recovery, Ikee posted the above Instagram picture on March 17, happy to finally get permission from the doctor to swim again. She said in the Instagram post that there were no words to describe how happy she was, and what a great feeling it was to be back in the pool.
I hope that somehow, Ikee is able to fully recover, get herself back in shape within a year, and swim in Tokyo, for her legion of fans.
Here are a few more random thoughts:
Four-Day Weekend: A couple of public holidays were moved around to give the country days off on Thursday, July 23, and Friday, July 24, in order to create a less congested Tokyo at the start of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Do we still get to keep that long weekend?
Russian Roulette: In December of 2019, Russia was banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) from competing at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, as well as the 2022 Beijing Olympics. While Russian athletes could compete as “neutrals” if they can prove they have not doped, the case is still being appealed by Russia in front of the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Maybe the extra year helps them figure out how to sway the courts to allow Russia representation in Tokyo.
Olympic Village: Before the virus hit the fan, the rooms in the Olympic Village that would be converted into condos after the Games were seeing strong demand last year, with applicants outstripping number of rooms at a rate of 2.5 to 1. Will those who bought into the Harumi waterfront property have to wait a little longer to enter their Olympian abodes?
Summer Days: The 2020 Games were scheduled for July 24 to August 9. The equivalent time period would be July 23 to August 8, missing by a day that opportunity to end the Tokyo Games on the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki, as would have been the case in 2020.
A Marathon Battle: The IOC unilaterally moved the men’s and women’s marathons from the streets of Tokyo to Sapporo on November 1, last year. Will Tokyo governor, Yuriko Koike, make another push to restore the marathon to Tokyo?
Coronavirus Redux: If viruses like Coronavirus thrive in cold weather, will we see a recurrence in the next winter? Will we experience the anxiety of rising fevers and uncovered sneezes as the temperatures dip, making everyone wonder if an outbreak were imminent?
Kansai Masters: The “Olympics” for 35 years and older, The 10th World Masters, is coming to Japan from May 14 – 30. Thousands of athletes from 35 to 105 will be coming from all over the world to compete To be held in the Western part of Japan, the Masters will be the canary in the coal mine, as it were. If a virus is lurking in the Spring of 2021, the organizers of the Kansai Masters will be tasked with tough decisions.
Odd Year: Tokyo2020 will still be called Tokyo2020, despite the Games taking place in 2021, the first time for an Olympiad to be held in an odd year.
2021 will be an odd year. But I give it an even chance to be great.
Tokyo 2020 + 1.
Nearly 70% of people do not expect the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games to be held as scheduled, according to a Kyodo News survey in early March.
The reason is the global impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
From Shanghai to Rome, from London to New York, we’re seeing the most populous cities in the world turn into ghost towns overnight.
So while the Japanese feel that holding the Olympics and Paralympics may be impossible this year, they are doing so in a country that is surprisingly sociable. While the same Kyodo News survey showed that 44.3% of the Japanese survey disapproved of the government measures, people are out and about in ways that would be shocking to people elsewhere in the world.
Yes, Japan had the scare of the Diamond Princess, a story brought live by Twitter and TV into the phones and homes of every citizen here. And when the passengers were released in a seemingly slipshod and insecure manner, there were fears of a potential outbreak in Japan.
Surprisingly, the outbreak never happened in Japan. Other countries raced ahead of Japan in terms of number of infections or coronavirus-related deaths. While other Asian nations got praise for their swift response regarding policies and testing, Japan has been criticized for its relatively limited testing and perceived lack of transparency. Still Japan is quietly sharing numbers that reflect a relatively low number of infections, and perhaps more significantly, a much lower number of reported hospitalizations and deaths due to coronavirus.
Is Japan exceptional? We’ll have to wait for the research after the pandemic has run its course, but this article cites several reasons why Japan may be ahead of the curve when it comes to fighting off coronavirus:
- the most vulnerable demographic – 65 and older – is a very healthy one in Japan
- Japan’s national health system is accessible to all and inexpensive
- Senior care services are abundant and inexpensive
- Japanese hospitals are experienced in detecting early and treating respiratory ailments in the elderly, and
- Japanese are very hygiene conscious, and do not have customs like hand shaking and kissing
Two months after the horror show that was the Diamond Princess, the Japanese health system is handling the comparatively small number of cases coming its way.
So while corporations across Japan have cancelled large events and large meetings, implemented policies that restrict movement and encourage work from home, there are still many people commuting to work in buses and trains.
While people in Japan are discouraged not to gather for cherry blossom viewing parties as the sakura begin to bloom this weekend, the restaurants and shopping areas are still filled with people.
Public schools all over Japan closed down a couple of weeks before the beginning of Spring Break. And yet, only several weeks later, the government is now recommending that schools re-open (assuming there are no new confirmed cases) as planned at the beginning of the new academic year in April.
To the outsider, Japan may be compared to Nero fiddling while his city burned. But so far, the numbers are not indicating a city on fire.
Yes, it is strange to live in Japan today. Surreal in fact.
I think I’ll go for a walk among the cherry trees.
In 1964, on Saturday, October 10, the Blue Impulse aerobatic jet team that painted the brilliantly blue sky with the Olympic rings on the opening day of the Tokyo Olympics, symbolizing then that the sky’s the limit for Japan.
In 2020, on Saturday, March 20, the Blue Impulse team reprised their role from nearly 56 years prior, sketching the five rings in the sky during the ceremony welcoming to Japan the sacred Olympic fire from Greece. Unfortunately, the rings were immediately washed away by the blustery winds over Matsushima Air base in Miyagi prefecture, symbolizing, perhaps, that our limits are not quite so high.
I watched the officials, athletes and celebrities line up ceremoniously, undoubtedly proud to represent Japan in this extraordinary event. The Olympic flame is scheduled to start a nation-wide relay from Futaba, Fukushima on March 26 and end in Tokyo at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on July 24, perhaps at that time, showing the world that the Tokyo2020 Games are truly the “Recovery Olympics,” as the organizers have billed them.
But I couldn’t help but imagine that each and every one of them harbored the question, “Will this flame actually ignite the Olympic Cauldron on July 24?”
President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach, Tokyo2020 chief, Yoshiro Mori and Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe among many other officials have said that the Tokyo Olympics are going to take place as scheduled. “The I.O.C. remains fully committed to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, and with more than four months to go before the Games there is no need for any drastic decisions at this stage,” said Bach.
The cool and patient approach of the IOC may be the right approach, but their words are beginning to seem surreal, and increasingly at odds with the heated and urgent voices of athletes and officials around the world.
“Of course the IOC and the whole world wants a successful Olympics. But for that to happen I strongly believe the event needs to be postponed – unless the authorities can guarantee it will be business as usual, which I don’t believe they can,” said Guy Learmonth on March 17, who is competing for a spot on the Great British track team.
“I’m not against the Olympics. But saying that the Olympics will still go on is a big mistake in communication,” said Giovanni Petrucci on March 19, who served as president of the Italian Olympic Committee for 14 years.
“Our athletes are under tremendous pressure, stress and anxiety, and their mental health and wellness should be among the highest priorities. It is with the burden of these serious concerns that we respectfully request that the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee advocate for the postponement of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 by one year,” wrote USA Swimming CEO, Tim Hinchey, to the head of the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee CEO, Sarah Hirshland, on March 20.
The pressure on the local officials in Japan is immense, and we are seeing fissures in this brave front that the Games must go on. Recently two prominent Japanese voices have spoken up:
- a member of the Tokyo Games organizing committee, Haruyuki Takahashi, suggested postponement of the Games on March 10, which was swiftly rebuked by the Tokyo organizing committee, and
- a member of the JOC, and bronze medal-winning judoka, Kaori Yamaguchi, said on March 19, that the games should be postponed.
Japan is hosting the biggest, most logistically complex big-tent event in the world this year, but decisions regarding cancellation or postponement are made by the IOC. And as long as the IOC takes a wait-and-see approach, waiting to the last possible moment before making such a decision, Japanese officials believe they must do the same.
The decision that has to be made is a thankless one – there will be an outcry whether the Games go on as scheduled, are postponed or cancelled. I have no doubt that the IOC and the Tokyo2020 Olympic and Paralympic Organizing Committee are doing the best they can to make a wise decision.
In the meanwhile, the pressure continues to build, and reality continues to distort.
Standing in the middle of the office, I let out an audible “woah.”
It was around noon on Thursday, March 12 (Japan time) and I saw on my phone that the NBA had just suspended the season after learning that a player for the Utah Jazz (later revealed as center Rudy Gobert) had tested positive for coronavirus. Seemingly minutes later, I saw that Tom Hanks and his wife Rita announced that they too have tested positive while on a movie shoot in Australia.
The NBA is an organization that generates over $8 billion a year and the average franchise is valued at over $2 billion, and it suspended all games in the midst of a playoff drive, probably ending the opportunity for their greatest revenue generating opportunity – the NBA playoffs in May and June.
Tom Hanks is a two-time Oscar award winner for best actor and one of the most beloved actors in the world, and he put a human face on the virus for billions of us.
In the next 36 hours, those major quakes were followed by a quick succession of aftershocks in the sports world: cancellation or postponement of the Major League Soccer season, the NHL during their run to the playoffs, the popular NCAA men’s and women’s basketball championship tournaments, the MLB pre-season and opening day, The Masters golf championship, the Boston Marathon…and that was just the United States.
People like myself, who have not been personally impacted by the growing pandemic in any serious way, were given a reality check. We watched the news with growing alarm, followed the news in hot spots like China, Korea and Italy with concern, obeyed the instructions of health experts, but pretty much went about our lives because we are fortunate enough to do so.
But then came the rash of major cancellations and postponements, the news of global travel restrictions, plummeting stock markets and invocation of national emergencies….many of us are now experiencing, on a much smaller scale, what people who are directly impacted by the virus have already gone through: Shock.
Shock is the first phase of The Change Curve, the emotional reaction people have to sudden change, or very bad news. Based on a model that explains how people deal with terminal illness developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the Change Curve shows how people go through stages that include denial, anger, depression and acceptance. In my world of leadership development, we use a framework that provides shorthand for that curve: SARA, which stands for Shock, Anger, Resistance, and Acceptance.
The early images of Wuhan, China, where the outbreak originated, were of shock and anger, particularly regarding lack of transparency about how bad the situation was, the silencing and martyrdom of the doctor who first tried to spread the news of the virus in Wuhan, and the fact that the Chinese government waited till mid January to inform residents that the virus could spread via contact with other people. By the end of January, over 50 million people in China saw their cities and towns placed in lockdown, anger boiling over with attacks on doctors or spitting on elevator buttons.
There is no doubt still a great deal of anxiety in China, but recent reports out of major cities in China report an acceptance of sorts, a new normal of everyday life, where almost all moments of the day are spent inside one’s home, where streets are empty except for delivery bikes. Oscar Fuchs, a Brit living in Shanghai, wrote in the middle of February, that he has gotten used to living behind locked gates in a country where swift and strong action was taken to clamp down on social interaction.
I don’t feel under siege. And as inconvenient as these restrictions are, I don’t find them stressful. I find them comforting. There’s a stoicism in my community of Chinese neighbors that is very calming. And everyday changes to regulations are being superbly well-organised and communicated. It makes me feel that China and the Chinese people are on top of this. And it makes me feel that mindset is everything.
In fact, the levels of safety and security compared to the rising concern in the rest of the world has created the perception that China is safer than other countries just starting to deal with the growing shock, anger and resistance to coronavirus. At least that is how Tony Perman, an associate professor at Grinnell College, views China after recently returning to the US from Shanghai.
When my family returned to the United States after six weeks of quarantine in Shanghai, our friends and relatives responded with congratulations and relief that we were finally safe. Less than a week since arriving back home, however, we don’t quite share our loved ones’ sentiments. We felt safer in Shanghai as conditions improved than we do in the U.S.
I’ve now lived through a coronavirus quarantine in the two countries, and the differences are stark well beyond their airports. In China, the obligation to isolate felt shared and the public changed their habits almost immediately. Sterilization, cleanliness and social distancing were prioritized by everyone at all times. Rightly or wrongly, the Chinese state’s heavy-handed approach seemed to work.
We do not know how long the COVID-19 pandemic will last. Many of us are still in the early stages of the change curve. For me personally, it’s been a succession of shock-anger-resistance cycles. During the Diamond Princess scare in February, I shared the armchair frustration and anger, but continued to attend networking events where large groups of people attended.
Then there were the series of corporate or chamber of commerce events that I was personally involved with that had to be postponed, with the hope that they would be re-scheduled for early Spring or Summer.
And while various officials would speak out on the possible cancellation or postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, I joined Tokyo2020 officials in the belief that the Show would go on as scheduled, wishfully believing that something so big, with so many stakeholders, with so much invested, could not be cancelled or postponed.
But the rapid-fire shocks of recent events have had a desensitizing effect on me. The reality is, the health and welfare of people around the world, whether they be members of our own family, friends, athletes, or world leaders for that matter, is far more important than a sporting event, even a mega, big-tent event like the Summer Olympics.
To be honest, I am still in that resistance stage, hoping that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics will take place as scheduled. But as expressions of shock, anger and resistance continue to grow well beyond Asia, and uncertainty persists as to when a reliable treatment or cure will emerge, it is hard to imagine a world that is secure and confident enough to congregate in July by the tens of thousands in one city – Tokyo.
I’m not quite at the second “A” in SARA, but I’m getting there.
And once there, I hope to add the letter “H,” which represents healing and hope.
Normalcy will return. But not until the change curve has run its course.
In 1964, the streets of Tokyo were filled with banners proudly proclaiming that the biggest international party was coming to Japan.
In 2020, the streets of Tokyo are again filled with banners for the coming 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.
The street banners, as is also the case with the ticket designs, are based on a singular “Look of the Games,” the visual identity formalized by the organizing committee. The foundation of this visual identity is the rectangular shapes that make up the Olympic and Paralympic logos.
One of the street banners in particular had an emotional impact on me the moment I saw it – the dark red on white, with the words Tokyo 2020 in gold. I’m sure this 2020 banner is a direct reference to the first poster released by the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee in 1961, a design by Yusaku Kanemura which was used heavily in artwork for all sorts of collaterals – programs, shirts, banners, for example.
Students in Japan had mixed emotions as classes in public schools across Japan were suddenly canceled in late February, a couple of weeks before the beginning of Spring Break, in order to diminish the spread of the suddenly feared CoronaVirus.
A few days later, students and fans of baseball were given something to cheer about, informed that the hugely popular National High School Baseball Invitational would likely commence on March 19. Thirty-two schools will come together in the annual two-week tournament in Osaka, at Hanshin Koshien Stadium.
There is a catch. If the tournament is not ultimately cancelled, the stadium seats will be empty. (Note: On March 11, it was announced that the tournament was cancelled.)
While fans can watch the games on television, they will not hear the constant hum of high school students cheering, singing, nor see the waving banners in the stands, or the crying students in the aftermath of a victory or a loss. There will be no eruptions of joy from fans in the stands as a team emerges victorious in walk-off fashion. The players will have nothing but each other’s energy to feed off of, doing their best to ignore the deafening roar of silence.
Such is the state of sports events in the era of COVID-19.
Such is the possible future of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
For the Summer Games, scheduled to run from July 24 to August 9, 2020, I can forsee five scenarios depending on the global level of anxiety regarding the spread of CoronaVirus in the coming months. Here they are, in order of likelihood. This is hardly a scientific finding – this order is educated guesswork, so please take this ranking in that spirit.
- Move the Games
- Postpone the Games
- Cancel the Games
- Hold the Games as Scheduled without Restrictions, or with Restrictions
Move the Games (the least likely scenario): When Shaun Bailey, a candidate running for election in London’s mayoral race stated on February 25 that the Olympics should be moved from Tokyo to London because of the “ongoing disruption” of the virus, the governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, instantly pushed back, saying Bailey’s comments were “inappropriate.”
It’s true that a women soccer qualifier involving Australia, Thailand and Taiwan were moved from Wuhan, China to Sydney, Australia, and an Olympic boxing qualifier, also scheduled to be held in Wuhan, was moved to Amman, Jordan. But moving an entire Olympic Games may be very costly, and logistically impossible. Just moving the marathon from Tokyo to Sapporo may cost at least USD100 million.
Veteran IOC member, Dick Pound said in an AP interview that moving an Olympic Games is very hard on short notice as “there are few places in the world that could think of gearing up facilities in that short time to put something on.” In other words, think of all of the events in London that would have to be pushed and cancelled, how many people would have to moved out of London hotel rooms, how nearly impossible it would be to get the resources ready for such a massive operation, etc. It takes a city seven years to prepare for an Olympics. A few months would be impossible.
Postpone the Games: Rugby matches in the Six Nations Championship between England and Italy, and between Ireland and Italy in March were postponed because of the coronavirus breakout in Italy. The same for J League professional soccer matches at the start of the season in Japan, as well as the 2020 Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai, a major F1 racing event scheduled for April 19.
Japan’s Olympic Minister, Seiko Hashimoto, stated on March 3 that technically, the organizing committee could postpone the Olympics to a date if still within 2020. However, Pound doesn’t think postponement is a likely scenario either as North American broadcasters (essentially NBC) would not agree to a Fall timeframe as the competition for ratings against a bevy of other sports could be crippling to Olympic coverage.
Delaying by a year, would be a challenge as well. “You have to ask if you can hold the bubble together for an extra year,” Pound said. “Then, of course, you have to fit all of this into the entire international sports schedule.”
Cancel the Games: Already, quite a few significant events have been cancelled, particularly in Asia: The Hong Kong marathon on February 9, the Paris half-marathon on March 1, the Honda LPGA Tournament in Pattaya Thailand from February 20-23. Two Olympic test events were cancelled: the 2020 Paralympics Wheelchair Rugby event from March 12-15, and the Asia Sevens Invitations 2020 rugby test event on April 25-26 in Tokyo.
This is not a fantasy scenario for the Olympics. If moving or postponing the Games is considered highly challenging, and the CoronaVirus situation does not improve, then cancelation in July becomes a very real possibility. A Japanese virologist, Dr. Hitoshi Oshitani, went on the record at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan saying, that “right now we don’t have an effective strategy, and I think it may be difficult to have the Olympics (now).”
Hold the Games: It is a wish of many people, particularly me, that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the 2020 Tokyo Parlaympics are held as planned. But with continued uncertainty about the longevity of COVOD-19, and the fact that it continues to spread globally, there is a good chance that a Games without restrictions will be unlikely.
In the case there are still global fears of person-to-person contagion this summer, even if the fear factor has diminished at that time, it is possible that restrictions on attendance may be put into effect. Serie A league matches in Italy and pre-season Japan league baseball are now being played behind closed doors. Like the Koshien tournament, we may be witness to a spectacular opening ceremony on TV, while seats in the new Olympic Stadium remain empty. That may be the price we pay to ensure the athletes get to compete, and demonstrate why they are the best in the world.
So, I believe…I hope…I pray…that holding the games unencumbered of concern, or just on TV, are the two likeliest scenarios for Tokyo2020.
We followed the story of the Diamond Princess as if we were binge watching a Stephen King adaptation on Netflix – with fascination and fear.
The two-week quarantine of the 3,711 passengers and crew on the British grand-class cruise ship docked at Yokohama harbor was a constant reminder to the Japanese of how close the coronavirus outbreak has come to Japanese shores. The death of two elderly passengers on board the Diamond Princess on February 20 at the end of the quarantine intensified the concern over the Japanese government’s decision to release hundreds of passengers who tested negative for the virus.
In fact, as the number of reported infections on the ship climbed, so too did the number of reported infections across Japan: Kanagawa, Wakayama, Hokkaido, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Okinawa, Kyushu, Aichi, Chiba….
Masks are the coinage of the land. Tokyo and Kyoto are no longer swarming with tourists as inbound cancellations climb. Announcements of meeting and conference cancellations in companies across the country are coming hard and fast. Organizers for the March 1 Tokyo Marathon and the March 8 Nagoya Women’s Marathon are dropping tens of thousands or participants from the race, and allowing only the elite runners to compete.
And then there’s the elephant in the room.
Will the Tokyo2020 Olympics be cancelled?
Yashiro Mori, former Japan prime minister and current president of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games pointed at the elephant in the room and said:
I would like to make it clear again that we are not considering a cancellation or postponement of the games. Let me make that clear.
That was February 13, just before the cases of coronavirus began to crisscross the country.
Dr. Hitoshi Oshitani, a Japanese virologist, said on February 19 that the Olympics could not take place today.
“I’m not sure [of] the situation in Japan at the end of July,” he said at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan on Wednesday, as per The Associated Press. “We need to find the best way to have a safe Olympics. Right now we don’t have an effective strategy, and I think it may be difficult to have the Olympics [now]. But by the end of July we may be in a different situation.”
Or we may not be.
We have no cure for coronavirus right now. We understand so little about the latest virus outbreak. And in the absence of clear facts, what often fills the void is doubt, speculation and fear.
Am I safe? Will a cure be found in time? Will the virus burn out as the temperature climbs?
Will the Olympics be cancelled, its sunk cost like an albatross around the necks of the country, the IOC and the massive number of organizations and businesses that have invested in these Games?
Or will the Olympics rise like a Phoenix, overcoming crisis, sending our spirits aloft?
Note: This article was written on February 22, in the midst of daily changes and updates regarding the coronavirus in Japan.
There was the “Miracle” on Ice, 40 years ago. On February 22, 1980, a squad of underdog American university students defeated what is commonly cited as the greatest hockey team of all time – the 1980 Soviet Union Team. When ABC broadcaster, Al Michaels, shouted “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” and the American team won 4-3, my household erupted with tens of millions of Americans across the country.
But it was the “miracle” on ice on February 12, 1980, a day before the start of the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics, that stands in my mind as one of my biggest Olympic memories, and made Bill Baker a household name, at least in my household.
I was 17. At that time, my father and two younger brothers were huge New York Islanders fans and I was a New York Rangers fan. My Rangers had lost in the Stanley Cup Finals to the Montreal Canadians in 1979, and the Islanders would go on to end the Canadians 4-year championship reign to win four consecutive cups of their own from 1980. So it was natural for all of us to watch the live broadcast of Team USA’s first match against Sweden.
Team USA was ranked #7 of the twelve teams in the Olympic tournament, and they had Sweden (#3) and Czechoslovakia (#2) as the first two matches in their preliminary round bracket. All of America’s and Canada’s greatest hockey stars were playing games for the NHL during the Olympics, while every other national team had most or all of their country’s best players on the ice in Lake Placid. Team USA coach Herb Brooks reportedly told his team that any chances of a medal were lost if they did not win or tie against the Swedes and Czechs.
We watched the ABC broadcast in our living room, although the rest of the country weren’t. The arena at Lake Placid was half filled, and the Olympics hadn’t even officially started – the opening ceremonies wouldn’t happen till the next day. But we didn’t care. We were watching, and we wanted Team USA to win.
What would become a trend at the 1980 Olympics, Sweden scored first when Sture Andersson scored midway through the first period. But first evidence of Team USA’s resilience emerged when Dave Silk (eventual New York Ranger) knotted the game with a nifty shot over the shoulder of Swedish goalie Per Lundqvist with only 28 seconds left in the second period….a harbinger of sorts.
In the third period, Team Sweden pushed ahead 2-1 when Thomas Eriksson scored early in the third period with a tap in, unchallenged in front of the American goal. Goalie, Jim Craig kept USA close with great saves as Sweden outshot USA in the third period, but despite a number of chances, the Americans remained behind 2-1 as the minutes melted away. And in the final minutes, the Swedes dominated play in the American zone.
Finally, Team USA cleared the zone allowing Brooks to pull the goalie, Craig, to give them a one-player advantage, but leaving their own goal empty and vulnerable. The Americans got the puck into the Swedish zone, and after the puck flew into the stands stopping play, the Americans set up for a face off to the right of the Swedish goalie with only 41 seconds left. If they lose the face off, the Swedes could end up clearing the zone and flipping the puck into an empty net. But the Tomizawas in their living room had hope. Nothing but hope.
Mark Johnson won the face off, with the puck kicking back to Mike Ramsey, whose slap shot was blocked by a diving defender. Ramsey retrieved the puck and slid the puck to defenseman, Bill Baker, who pushed the puck into the corner. With Americans and Swedes vying for the puck behind the net, Buzz Schneider emerged with the puck and slid a gentle centering pass that Baker stepped into. With a mighty swing, Baker shot the puck between the legs of Lundqvist, with only 27 seconds left in the game.
For us in the living room, it was a miracle.
“It may be the most important point of the tournament because that one point will make a difference in their medal aspirations,” said the color commentator for Canadian broadcaster CTV at the end of the game.
Of course, the rest is history.
Team USA would go on to destroy Czechoslovakia two days later, and unpredictably win every game in the tournament to break USSR dominance and win their first ice hockey gold since 1960.
But of all those incredible games, it was the first one – the small-caps miracle on ice – that gives me goose bumps to this day.
On October 23, 1964, the day before the final day of the Tokyo Olympics, two Bulgarians tied the knot in a most unique venue – in the Olympic Village. Below 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, which tells the story of two Olympians, Diana Yorgova and Nikola Prodanov.
The First Ever Olympic Wedding
For all of us who fly, it’s a sinking feeling when you arrive in a foreign land and your luggage hasn’t arrived with you. Imagine if you’re an Olympic athlete, and you land without your official uniform, training gear, and other personal belongings. “I was numb with distress,” said Diana Yorgova, a long jumper from Bulgaria. Fortunately, among the Japanese welcoming the Olympians at Haneda Airport were two legendary athletes, Mikio Oda, Japan’s first ever gold medalist, who won the triple jump competition at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, and Chuhei Nambu, who also took gold in the triple jump at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.
Nambu came up to Yorgova to comfort her, and told her that it would be OK, that in fact, he too had landed in Los Angeles without his luggage, and had make his first jump barefoot! She understood. But she was still unsettled. That feeling disappeared the next day.
After a sleepless night of worry and jet lag, the new day offered me a pleasant surprise: a huge parcel addressed to me containing a brand new outfit, absolutely my size from spikes and runners to training suit and, moreover, amazingly, a T-shirt with the national state emblem embroidered on it. I was stunned, deeply touched and full of admiration. I wanted to fly with joy because I knew now I was going to participate! In my thoughts I sent thousands of thanks to those Japanese who brought back my self-confidence and dignity and whom I not only didn’t even know but had unwittingly disturbed.
Yorgova would place a respectable sixth in the women’s long jump competition, her medal to come later with a second-placed finish at the 1972 Munich Games. To celebrate her strong performance in her first Olympics, Yorgova and her fiancé, Bulgarian gymnast Nikola Prodanov decided to do some very special shopping: wedding rings. They planned to hold their big day after their graduation from Sofia University on Prodanov’s birthday in May of 1965.
That same day, the couple went to visit the Bulgarian ambassador, Christo Zdravchev. When the ambassador saw the rings, he brought out a bottle of Bulgarian wine and toasted to the couple’s happy future. But then, despite the diplomatic nature of the ambassador’s job, he apparently let the cat out of the bag by informing members of the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee, who in turn implored the ambassador to request Prodanov and Yorgova to change their plans. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, they enthused, for the young Bulgarian couple to hold their wedding in Japan, in the Olympic Village, during the Olympic Games?
The next day, the ambassador sheepishly approached Prodanov and Yorgova with the surprising request.
“Thus our fairy tale began,” said Yorgova. “I can’t forget the attention and care with which the Japanese ladies of the beauty parlor in the Olympic Village were preparing me for the ceremony. There, for the first time in my life, I had my hair dressed and my nails polished by professionals, who also massaged my scalp and even my arms. When I saw and put on the most beautiful dress of white lace and Nikola put on the first tuxedo in his life we felt like the prince and princess of a fairy tale.”
It was October 23rd, 1964, the day before the closing ceremony. Prodanov and Yorgova were nervous and filled with mixed feelings as this impromptu wedding meant that instead of sharing the moment with families and friends in Bulgaria, they were sharing it with diplomats, administrators and athletes, as well as press from around the world.
With the civil ceremony completed at the Bulgarian Embassy, the couple then embarked on what can only be described as a most original wedding: Western Olympic Shinto.
Japanese who choose a traditional wedding take their vows before a Shinto priest. But this was something more than just a traditional wedding. Held at the Yoyogi Olympic Village International Club, Prodanov in a black morning coat and Yorgova dressed in a white lace gown and veil entered in the glare of television lights and hundreds of flashing cameras, as they came to take their places in front of the presiding priest.
The traditional Shinto arrangements of sake bottles and rice, along with photos of the Olympic cauldron and the ever-present Olympic rings forming their wedding backdrop, were reminders that they were a long way from home in Bulgaria. An interpreter stood by to explain some of the more confusing aspects of the ritual. In Yorgova’s words:
We made our oath of allegiance to the Olympic Flag and a huge poster of the Olympic Flame in the presence of outstanding athletes from all over the world, official guests and journalists. To a background of gentle Shinto music we exchanged our rings, drank three sips of sake, and cut the most magical cake of our lives. At the end, we all danced Bulgarian traditional dances “horo” and “ruchenitsa.”
If one event symbolized the Olympics’ singularly international character, this may have been it.
After the ceremony, the couple were whisked away to the brand-new bullet train to enjoy a honeymoon evening in Kyoto and return to Tokyo the next morning to participate in the closing ceremonies in the afternoon.
Fifty-three years later, Yorgova recalled that magical moment with gratefulness. “As parents and grandparents of four grandchildren, we value the great efforts of the organizers more than ever before, and we apologize most heartedly for the extra anxiety, inconvenience and problems we caused to organize our wedding on such short notice,” she said. “We lived a moment we will never forget, thanks to the kind and gentle people of Japan, so full of goodwill.”