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.
Up on the podium Claire grins from ear to ear. She throws her arms in the air and waves her stump with pride. With a gold medal around her neck, her dreams are bigger than ever. Because whatever she can’t do today…she knows she will conquer tomorrow. – from the book, Splash.
The little girl at the end of this children’s book is the alter ego of Claire Cashmore, the 5-time Paralympian. In real life, it took many more years for Cashmore to build a conqueror’s mindset. The native of Redditch, who has won 9 medals for Great Britain in swimming and paratriathlon, was born without a left forearm. This difference resulted in a childhood of self consciousness and self pity.
Like any kid, Cashmore wanted to fit in. But she felt her arm that ended in a stump set her apart. So she actively hid it.
“In the summer, when it was boiling hot outside, I’d always wear a jumper,” Cashmore told me. “Or I’d put a blazer over my arm. Or I’d position my bag on that side. I hid it well.”
The only place she felt comfortable in public was in the pool. “I loved the water. It felt like freedom, that feeling of being encapsulated by water, a blanket around your skin. I’d play for ages in the pool.” And as she built competence in a local swimming club, she began to win competitions.
In 2004, she made her Paralympics debut in Athens, where she had a mindset shift that changed her life. She found herself in the presence of people who were not stopping themselves.
“Athens was a real turning point,” she said. “Until then, I had no role models. I was 16 and so self conscious about how I was different. But in Athens, I was surrounded by so many people who were achieving so much despite their limitations, not feeling sorry for themselves. I made a decision then. I was not going to hide my arm.”
Cashmore won two bronze medals swimming in Athens, and medaled at subsequent Paralympics and would go on to become one of ParalympicsGB’s most recognized Paralympians. In the run up to the 2012 Paralympics, she was featured in Channel 4’s celebrated campaign marketing the London Paralympics, famously called “Meet the Superhumans.” This campaign and the success of the London Games marked a shift in public perception towards persons with disabilities.
“When I first started work on the campaign, I didn’t realize how major it was,” she told me. “At that time, nothing was major with the Paralympics. I walked to the pool and saw the cameras, the trucks…and then when the campaign started, the billboards. It was awesome! That campaign really opened eyes up. Finally we were seen as elite athletes as opposed to people with disabilities. We were seen as role models.”
Like many of her peers, Cashmore was hard at work in 2019 preparing for Tokyo2020. She was making the transition from swimming to the paratriathlon, and was doing so well, she was seen as a favorite for gold in Tokyo.
And then the COVID-19 pandemic cast a murky cloud on all life’s activities around the world. Athletes were unsure about the future. They had little or no opportunity to train. Like everyone else, they had a lot of time on their hands. Time to think.
It was 2020, and Cashmore was having a conversation with her sister. London was in lockdown, and the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining global traction. Cashmore felt the Black Lives Matter movement was about representation, or the lack of it for certain members of society. She told her sister that she could relate, that people with disabilities were also lacking representation in all aspects of life.
That’s when her sister, a teacher, said, “stop moaning about it and do something about it.” And over the course of this sibling dialogue emerged the idea for a children’s book, an opportunity to change perceptions of impressionable kids towards persons with disabilities. As Cashmore writes in the foreward of her 2021 book, “my intention in Splash is not to draw attention to my limb difference, but instead to normalise it.”
How many people do you know who trained for Tokyo2020 AND wrote a book during a pandemic lockdown? I know one.
Finally, Cashmore and her teammates got their wish – the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics were given the green light. She is grateful to the host town of Miyazaki in Western Japan, where she and her teammates were able to swim, run and cycle with relative ease for two weeks, allowing them to acclimate to Japan before heading to Tokyo for the Paralympics.
Her paratriathlon team did not stay at the Athletes Village, residing instead at a hotel near the paratriathlon course, and were grateful to the hotel and their employees who met all of their needs. “They really bent over backwards to make sure our stay was perfect,” she said.
And she was grateful for the Japanese people.
“I was expecting nobody to be around because spectators weren’t allowed,” she said. “But there were so many people cheering for us, no matter what country we were from. They really backed us. When you think about what was happening in the world, the fact that there was a bit of a crowd watching us was really special.”
Cashmore won the bronze medal in her Paratriathlon competition, which she said was bittersweet because she hoped to do better. She was frustrated by incurring a penalty during the cycling phase of the race, which meant her chance of catching the leaders was essentially impossible.
But Cashmore is a veteran who has grown, progressing from a self-conscious teenager to a world-class athlete who has encountered countless high-profile challenges and taken them on with determination and professionalism.
“I was really proud that I managed to keep my cool, keep my head in the moment of craziness and hold on for that bronze medal,” said Cashmore, who has re-set her sites on Paris.
And as her alter-ego Claire said at the end of Splash, “whatever she can’t do today, she knows she will conquer tomorrow.”
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.
It’s the 57th anniversary of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
That’s right, a Summer Games in Autumn. The XVIII Olympiad was held in October to avoid, presumably to avoid the heat or typhoons of August. October is certainly cooler in Tokyo. But it is also wetter. In fact, October is the month Tokyo has the most rainfall.
And it rained a lot during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And because it rained, the cooler temperatures seemed colder. In the case of road cyclists in Hachioji, it is said they could see their breath as they raced in the rain. The cinder tracks were a muddy mess. Umbrellas were de rigeur.
I recently purchased hard copy black and white photographs of those Games. Here are a few featuring people braving the rain, because a rainy day at the Olympics is better than a sunny day at the office.
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.