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 Japan was superseded by China as the world’s second largest GDP.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.