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.
The opening ceremony was fantastic! Spectacular! The reception was extremely good and clear. The pictures are very sharp all the way through, unbelievable! – letter from Sayoko to Thomas Tomizawa on October 10, 1964
The above reviewer, my mother, was clearly biased. Sayoko was a Japanese native of Tochigi who met a 2nd generation Japanese-American named Thomas in Tokyo in 1958, got married, and moved to the United States. Thomas was in Tokyo during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, working for NBC News, which broadcasted the Summer Games to America.
In another letter a week later, my mother wrote to my father, “I have seen the Olympic show tonight 5~7 pm. I see your name every other day. Miura-san’s sister’s friends are watching the show every night. Yoko-san said ‘Tomizawa-san no go-shujin no namae ga deruwa yo!’ (Tomizawa-san’s name is coming up on the credits!)”
My mother, who passed away in May of this year, wrote several letters to her husband while he was working in Tokyo. She wrote about the errands she ran: buying replacement light bulbs for the refrigerator at Woolworths, setting a dentist’s appointment for her 5-year-old, Mike, picking up the daily newspaper for her husband, paying the phone bill.
She worried about an ongoing school bus strike that was inconveniencing all the parents. She complained that Mike’s teacher was giving too much candy to the kids. And she bemoaned the fact that her son, Roy, was crying so often she couldn’t take any decent pictures to send her husband.
I had turned one years old at the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And while I had no idea what the Olympics were then, I have a pretty good idea now. (See book.)
If 1964 were a French dessert, it was a splendid Millefeuille with airy, flaky layers sandwiching luscious cream and fresh strawberries. 2020 was a deflated Soufflé.
It was this time 7 years ago when I started researching the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
My vision was clear: write the definitive book in English on a defining moment in modern Japanese history, meet amazing people, be a talking head during Tokyo2020, and have total access to the Games.
My dream was vivid: sit in the stands with Olympians I interviewed, watching the 2020 Olympics and reminiscing about the 1964 Olympics.
Much of my vision was realized. My dream was not.
COVID-19 was simply a hurdle too high. With over 5 million deaths globally, and unfathomable heartbreak, the pandemic made a mockery of our pre-COVID priorities.
Had the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics been scheduled for Rio or Paris or LA, I believe the Games would have been cancelled: local political will would have wilted in the tired face of surging infection and death rates.
The Games Must Go On
Japan was different.
There were no lock downs in Japan. In fact, in the months from May to June of this year, infection rates in Tokyo were decreasing as athlete training was accelerating. There were great expectations that Japan would live up to its reputation as a “safe pair of hands,” hands that would ensure the health, safety and fair competition for athletes from around the world.
And under those tremulous conditions, the Government of Japan and the organizers summoned up enough political will to continue to say, “the show must go on.”
The Olympics and Paralympics, after a year’s postponement, did take place. The greatest compromise the organizers made with the circumstances was to ban spectators from sporting events and greatly restrict the movement of foreign athletes, coaches, officials, support staff and press – a move that furthered dampened the spirits of those anticipating the Games.
In the days just prior to the start of the Olympic Games, there were protests calling for the cancelation of the Games. Only one day before the Olympics opening ceremony, Ariake, the man-made islands where much of the Tokyo2020 competition would take place, was like a ghost town.
But on the afternoon of Friday, July 23, 2021, hours before the start of the Olympics, the aerial acrobatic jet team called The Blue Impulse flew over the center of Tokyo painting the Olympic rings in the sky to the delight of growing crowds, just as they did on October 10, 1964.
People began buzzing about the stadium, fighting for photo ops in front of the Olympic rings, and setting up camp for the evening. They wouldn’t be allowed in the stadium. But they knew they could watch the ceremony fireworks and drone show from anywhere around the stadium. And despite the occasional shout of protest, no one was going to stop them from joining the fun.
Over the course of the Olympics and Paralympics, the news cycle in Japan featured more stories about Team Japan and its historic Olympic medal rush (58 total, 27 gold) than the number of infections in Tokyo (which happened to peak at the exact same time as the Olympics and Paralympics). Japanese women, in fact, shined more brightly than the men.
It’s the Journey
I did not attend any Tokyo2020 sporting events, despite holding a great number of tickets. But I met friends and acquaintances from overseas here and there. And thanks to my book, I appeared on CBS and NBC in the US, CBC in Canada, NHK in Japan, countless times on BBC radio in the UK, as well as Danish and Brazilian television.
The highlight of these Olympics for me was when I organized and hosted, on behalf of the World Olympians Association, a panel of athletes who competed at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games, walking with them down memory lane, recalling the historic enormity of that Olympiad, the magical moments of competition, and the graciousness of their Japanese hosts. (See video below.)
When I started this journey nearly 7 years ago, I did not achieve everything I had hoped for at Tokyo2020. Nobody could under the circumstances.
But I remind myself of this age-old adage: it is not the destination. It is the journey.
Along this journey, I have met hundreds of athletes, coaches, Olympic and Paralympic committee administrators, sports marketers, journalists and academics – people who have enriched my understanding of the world, and of humanity.
The debut of Karate in the Budokan! The 4X100 men’s relay finals at the new National Stadium! Men’s and Women’s gold medal round at Saitama Super Arena! I bought those tickets!
Alas and alack, my tickets to those events and many more, disappeared like sand castles in the rain.
On March 9, the Japanese government decided to exclude overseas spectators from attending the Games, but still holding out hope that the infection rates would drop low enough to allow for spectators already in Japan.
With the number of daily infections trending upwards, Suga said that “we must take stronger steps to prevent another nationwide outbreak.”
There will continue to be debate over the COVID impact of tens of thousands of athletes, support staff and administrators visiting from overseas for the Olympics, to be held from July 23 to August 8. But the Games will go on in empty stadiums and arenas.
Not what we imagined during the euphoria of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Twelve stadiums across Japan, from Sapporo to Shizuoka, from Osaka to Oita, were packed with enthusiastic fans from Japan and over 240,000 overseas visitors, who spent multiple days and weeks enjoying the 6-week party. Television ratings for the Japan-Scotland match that sent the Brave Blossoms into the Top 8 was an incredible 53.7%. And the news showed video of hundreds of screaming fans in public viewing sites across the country every day.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will not be the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
But there is a new hope.
The State of Emergency ends on Sunday, August 22. The opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics is Tuesday, August 24.
As of today, about 29% of people in Japan have had at least one vaccination dose. That’s 57 million shots. If Japan continues an average of a million per day for another month, the numbers of fully vaccinated will shoot up from its current 19% of the population now.
The growing ratio of the vaccinated, combined with the state of emergency discouraging opportunities for super-spreader events, it’s possible the infection rates drop enough to ease the collective anxiety of Japanese society. it’s possible the mood in August will be different from July. It’s possible, that at the end of the current state of emergency, citizens, corporations and government alike will look for opportunities to take steps toward normalcy.
Who knows? The 2020 Tokyo Paralympics may be kicking off at just the right time. The Paralympics may be the opportunity that fans, both domestic and international, are allowed into the stadiums and arenas. Full capacity at venues may be a stretch, but seeing fans in the new National Stadium will be a welcome sight.
And I have tickets to the opening and closing ceremonies of the Tokyo Paralympics.
Tomonari Kuroda stripped the ball at mid-field, dribbled deftly between his left and right feet, shifting sharply to his left to elude two defenders and sending a sharp drive off of his left insole, the ball shooting by the French goalkeeper.
Kuroda did that with a black mask covering his eyes. He couldn’t see the ball go in, as he is visually impaired, but he could hear the reaction of his teammates. Team Japan, in its first ever match in blind soccer in the Paralympics, scored its first goal a little over three minutes into the game in amazing fashion.
Japan went on to win its first match over France 4-0 in a display of skill and teamwork. There are 22 sports categories in the 2020 Paralympics, an opportunity for athletes with disabilities to show off their athleticism, and for the very best, to win medals.
But like the world of work, where people with disabilities are employed in departments and teams, they work best when performing in synch with their colleagues. And in fact, people with disabilities can do their very best when their colleagues and technology can provide accomodations or remove barriers to performance, and create an environment where disabilities fade into the background.
In the workplace, accomodations could include the provision of doors that open automatically for people in wheelchairs, or sign language interpreters in meetings for the hearing impaired, or screen reader software for the visually impaired. These are examples of basic accomodations that can be made to create a more equitable environment for the disabled.
In the case of blind soccer, there are the accommodations of having a ball that makes a tinkling sound when rolling, allows a guide behind the opponent’s net as well as the sighted team coach to guide their players verbally, as well as a goalkeeper who is sighted and able bodied, and can also shout out guidance to his teammates.
The rules for blind soccer, or Football 5-a-side as it is called by the International Paralympic Committee, is an exercise in enhancing equity. The accomodations created by the rules allow people who are visually impaired to play a game of soccer that allows for demonstrations of extraordinary skill, teamwork and performance. In essence, the rules create the perception that the athletes are performing on an equal playing field.
To drive home the importance of the teamwork between people with disabilities and those without, the goalkeepers of the top three teams in the Paralympics take home a medal too. In fact, that is the case with able-bodied people who assist players in Boccia BC3 class, visually impaired triathletes (where the “guide” runs, cycles and helps change the uniforms of the para-athlete), as well as B Class cyclsts (where the “pilot” sits up front in a tandem bike). Here is a great Nippon Foundation article that provides the details.
The concept of equity is getting a lot of attention in the Diversity and Inclusion world, as practitioners realize that driving equity in the workplace is a more accurate approach than trying to drive equality. This difference is explained very well in this article from the Milken Institute School of Public Health:
Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities. Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.
The Paralympics and parasports in general are not striving, at this stage, to achieve “equality” for persons with disabilities in sport. While Kuroda’s first goal was stunning, and might make people think that he can actually see, no one is saying he should start playing on Team Japan’s Olympic squad, or any soccer squad made up of sighted players.
But given the accomodations provided by they International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA), soccer players who are visually impaired can experience the thrills and spills, aches and pains, and self-affirming achievements and victories of the team sport often called “the beautiful game.”
And when conviction and message come together, you get goosebumps.
The opening ceremony of the Tokyo2020 Paralympics was electrifying, its Olympic counterpart paling in comparison.
The Tokyo2020 Olympics lacked conviction and a clear message, not because the officials, like IOC president Thomas Bach, lacked confidence, or the right words to say about the importance of the Games. It’s because the Japanese public lacked confidence in the organizers’ motivations – many were not prepared to listen as infection rates in Japan continued to climb.
But that may not have been the case with the Paralympics, at least with the public’s perception of the opening ceremonies. Japan’s Twitterverse reaction was positive, if not enthusiastic.
In contrast to the subtlety and vagueness of the Olympics opening ceremony, there was a consistent story told throughout the Paralympics opening ceremony, showcased by the theater of the one-winged airplane, with the theme “We Have Wings.” This show had energy!
The shifting expressions of the 13-year-old junior high school student, Yui Wagou were captivating. The wheelchair-bound first-time actress portrayed a small plane with only one wing, and her face portrayed beautifully the transformation from a sheltered, timid girl to a little plane that could.
Part of the trigger for the one-winged plane’s transformation was a legion of role models, led by Japanese rock legend, Tomoyasu Hotei, who brought explosive energy to the Stadium with his electric guitar. There was the ballet dancer with one leg, Kouichi Ohmae and the one-armed violinist, Manami Itou, who also explained through their performances that one wing is enough.
The story of the one-winged plane was in two parts, with speeches in the middle. Andrew Parsons, the president of the International Paralympic Committee had the unenviable position of speaking right after, Seiko Hashimoto, head of the Tokyo2020 organizing committee, who’s appearance created moans of disappointment across Japan. Many departed for the kitchen and restroom, hoping to be spared the words of a person who, in their minds, does not listen.
Andrew Parsons is a relative unknown to the Japanese public. He hasn’t been vilified by the press for shopping in the Ginza, as his counterpart in the IOC has. And Parsons did not shy away from his opportunity. Instead, he leaned in. He shouted with passion. He gestured powerfully. And he sent a message, above and beyond the requisite thank yous to the organizers for making Tokyo2020 happen.
Parsons launched a movement – WeThe15. He emphasized that the IPC and its partners were here “to change the entire world” by bringing attention not just to the para-athletes in front of him, but to the 1.2 billion people around the world who have disabilities, or 15% of the world population. He said that the IPC and the International Disability Alliance, along with a broad-based network of civil society, business and media organizations, will work every year to make a difference.
Over the next 10 years, WeThe15 will challenge how the world’s 15% with disabilities are perceived and treated at a global level. With the support of 20 international organizations, civil society, the business sector, and the media, we will put the world’s 1.2 billion persons with disabilities firmly at the heart of the inclusion agenda.
Parsons noted that the pandemic has been a struggle for everybody, and is particularly a time when people have to come together, indirectly referencing the flaming of fear of the other, which leads to hate and discrimination.
When humanity should be united in its fight against COVID 19, there is a destructive desire by some to break this harmony. Overlooking what brings us together, to focus on the factors that differentiate us, fuels discrimination. It weakens what we can achieve together as a human race. Difference is a strength, not a weakness and as we build back better, the post-pandemic world must feature societies where opportunities exist for all.
Parsons then brought us down from the helicopter view of WeThe15 and the need for global diversity, and honed in on the reason they are all in Tokyo – the athletes.
Paralympians, you gave your all to be here. Blood, sweat, and tears. Now is your moment to show to the world your skill, your strength, your determination. If the world has ever labelled you, now is your time to be re-labelled: champion, hero, friend, colleague, role model, or just human. You are the best of humanity and the only ones who can decide who and what you are.
The Paralympics are about celebrating diversity, and creating role models for a generation of persons with disabilities, showing them they too can fly.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We all thought – what a party Tokyo2020 is going to be!
When a rugby team can carry the nation on its broad shoulders, what would it be like in Japan during the Olympics, when Japanese stars go for gold in track, tennis, gymnastics, badminton, wrestling, baseball, swimming and many other sports?
In 2019, we were months away from witnessing the greatest Olympics in history.
Tokyo2020 tickets were the hottest in the world. The ticket lottery in Japan was way oversubscribed. As I wrote in December, 2019, “in the latest round of the lottery for Tokyo 2020 Olympic tickets for residents in Japan, there were 23 million requests for tickets….chasing 1 million tickets.”
Volunteer registrations too were oversubscribed. More than 200,000 people applied to be volunteers for Tokyo2020, well over the target of 80,000.
In January of 2020, the Japan Tourism Agency announced that Japan had 31.9 million visitors from overseas in 2019, establishing new record for the 7th year in a row. The government was seeing such explosive growth in foreign tourists that they doubled their 2020 target from 20 million to 40 million in 2016.
The 2019 Rugby World Cup showed the world how impactful sports tourism can be in Japan. This EY Report on the economic impact of RWC2019 explained that 242,000 inbound tourists purchased 28% (approx 490,000) of all tickets in a tournament of 48 matches, all of which were essentially sold out. And they loved their experience in Japan – 75% of visiting foreigners who came to watch rugby replied they “absolutely want to come again.”
In 2019, we were anticipating that Tokyo2020 was going to be the cherry on top, the opportunity for Japan to subtly and outlandishly boast how wonderful a destination Japan is. The organizers were going to have an opportunity to hold up Tokyo2020 as an example of a Games in the mould of 1964 Tokyo or 1992 Barcelona – an Olympics that served the economy, not an economy that served the Olympics.
But then, the Diamond Princess entered the port of Yokohama on February 3, 2020, a daily reality program that introduced Japan to the fear of the unknown virus. On March 11, the NBA season ended suddenly, and Tom Hanks announced he and his wife had COVID-19. And finally, a day after Team Canada and Team Australia announced on March 23 they would not go to Tokyo that July, the Games were postponed for a year.
COVID-19 has upended the lives of billions of people around the world. The angst of whether to hold, postpone or cancel the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics should never be put on level of the horrible loss so many have experienced during the pandemic.
And yet, I do at moments, quietly lament the current state of the Games.