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Fidel Castro, southpaw, throwing a pitch in 1964

Fidel Castro has passed away. But his legacy for the love of sport continues.

Cuba has the 65th largest GDP in the world today. It has the 78th largest population in the world at 11.2 million people. And yet, in the Americas, only America and Canada have garnered more total Olympic medals than the small island nation of Cuba. Incredibly, in the period from the 1976 Olympics in Montreal to the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Cuba finished in the top 11 medal count. At the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, only the United Team (the former Soviet bloc), the United States, Germany and China got more than Cuba’s 31 total medals.

Clearly, this Caribbean nation has punched way above its weight class, and not just in boxing where Cuba is most famous. In 20 Olympic Games, Cuba has won 79 gold medals, 67 silver medals and 70 bronze medals in judo, athletics, wrestling and of course baseball. By comparison, India, which has a population over a hundred times larger, and the fifth largest GDP in the world, has competed in four more Olympics than Cuba, and yet has totaled only 28 medals.

And according to articles after President Castro passed away on November 25, 2016, Castro had a hand in turning Cuba into a sports power – and it doesn’t appear to be via state-sponsored doping systems. According to this article, sports became a social phenomenon due to state-sponsored institutions.

After Castro entered Havana on Jan. 1, 1959, the revolutionary government approved and implemented a nationwide plan to improve the nation’s sports practice, resulting in free and universal access to sports schools for every citizen.

In 1961, Cuba created the National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation which was placed in charge of promoting sports for children, adults and even the elderly on the island. The state-run program was also charged with improving the quality of service in its sports facilities, manufacturing its own equipment and conducting research in sports science.

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But Cuba’s biggest sports cheerleader was, according to the New York Times, was el presidente himself.

“I think Fidel Castro legitimately liked sports,” said David Wallechinsky, the president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. “One got the sense with East Germany, for example, that it really was a question of propaganda and that government officials didn’t have that obsession with sport itself that Fidel Castro did.” Whatever hardships they endured, Cubans could take pride in their sports stars.

But of course, during Cuba’s hey day in the 1970s and 1980s, in the heat of the cold war, Castro could not help but use Cuba’s great sporting achievements as a tool in the battle for geo-political mindshare. Of course, as the Times points out, propaganda is often just propaganda, a smokescreen behind which you hide the uglier shades of truth.

Yet it was primarily baseball, along with boxing and other Olympic sports, that came to symbolize both the strength and vulnerability of Cuban socialism. Successes in those sports allowed Mr. Castro to taunt and defy the United States on the diamond and in the ring and to infuse Cuban citizens with a sense of national pride. At the same time, international isolation and difficult financial realities led to the rampant defection of top baseball stars, the decrepit condition of stadiums and a shortage of equipment.

fidel-castro-and-teofilo-stevenson-in-1984
Fidel Castro boxing great, Teofilo Stevenson in 1984

So for every great sporting star who remained in Cuba, like three-time Olympic heavyweight champion,Teófilo Stevenson, or Javier Sotomayor, still the world record holder in the high jump, there have been many who defected, often to their neighbor to the north, the United States.

What does the future bring? Will the recent thawing of relations initiated by presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama continue to allow greater travel and expanded opportunities for cross-border business and cultural exchange? Or will President-elect Donald Trump reverse the thaw? Will that have any impact on sports in Cuba?

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Carmelo Anthony in Santa Marta, a favela in Rio de Janeiro.

Carmelo Anthony is a New Yorker, now playing for my hometown team, the New York Knicks. I’m proud that he is a Knick, but as I grew up a St Johns Redmen fan, and he led Big East rival Syracuse to an NCAA championship, I wasn’t an immediate fan.

When Anthony joined the Knicks after essentially demanding a trade from Denver, I looked on the deal with tremendous skepticism. The Knicks have floundered in the Carmelo years, although that floundering began way before he arrived. Skepticism has turned to apathy, and my expectations for my Knicks have dropped.

But my respect for Anthony has continued to climb. He has been a proud Olympian, representing the US men’s basketball team a record four times, helping the US to three gold medal championships in the past three Olympics. More importantly, Melo has been willing to speak out on social matters important to him, an uncommon trait for well-paid athletes.

During the Rio Olympics, a day after Ryan Lochte told the world that he and fellow swimming teammates were held up at gunpoint at a Rio gas station, Carmelo Anthony was visiting one of the more notorious favela in Rio, Santa Marta. Favela are where the poorest of the inner city in Brazil live, their lives influenced by the vice of the drug trafficking economy.

Anthony, with a few friends, went with cameras, and without security to hang out with citizens of Santa Marta. It was a couple of days after the USA defeated France by a unexpectedly slim margin, and a day before their opening match in the knockout round with Argentina. The US team’s mission was far from complete, but my guess is that Anthony worked this out with the coach so that he could fulfill a dream to visit a favela. He admitted that he had seen the film, City of God, dozens of times, and as a child of the inner city growing up in Baltimore, he wanted to see what life was like in Santa Marta.

“This was on my bucket list, to be honest with you; specifically to go to the favelas — forever,” said Anthony, staying on a nearby cruise ship with his teammates. “I just always wanted to see and experience that. Growing up in Baltimore, and knowing what that was like, in my own favela, you know what I mean? So I wanted to go and experience that for myself. I wanted to touch that.”

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One of the more powerful images in social media during the Rio Olympics was Carmelo Anthony sitting in a plastic chair in the middle of the favela, his blaring red clothes and cap in contrast to the multi-colored canvas of the favela apartments behind him. What he wrote below his Instagram picture was a statement of empathy and ease, one that I’m sure enamored him with many in Brazil.

“I discovered that what most people call creepy, scary, and spooky, I call comfy, cozy, and home.”

This image and statement was in direct contrast to the image painted by Lochte, who reinforced the perception that Rio was a scary, violent place. You can see how people quickly picked up on the contrast between Lochte and Anthony here.

Anthony walked around, played basketball with the neighborhood kids, and brought smiles to people in the favela. I think that when stars combine acts of unexpected kindness with a consistent articulation of their values, you get a more authentic view of them as people. So now I’m glad and proud that Melo is a member of the New York Knicks. There’s more to life than winning championships. (But I wouldn’t mind if he does.)

Celebs Ringside at Floyd Mayweather vs Arturo Gatti - WBC Lightweight Title Fight - June 25, 2005
Friends Tom Brady and Donald Trump
  • 70% of NFL players are black.
  • 74% of NBA players are black.
  • 88% of blacks voted for Clinton.
  • 8% of blacks voted for Trump.

With the ouster of the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling, two years ago, and the more visible acts of support for causes like Black Lives Matter, the NBA appears to have more of an activist bent than most North American sports leagues. Thus, the reaction by NBA players and coaches to the election of Donald Trump for the presidency of the United States has been more predictable.

Gregg Popovich, one of the most successful coaches in NBA history, had this to say: “Right now I’m just trying to formulate thoughts. It’s too early. I’m just sick to my stomach. Not basically because the Republicans won or anything, but the disgusting tenure and tone and all of the comments that have been xenophobic, homophobic, racist, misogynistic.”

Then there was 5-time NBA champion and coach of the champion Golden State Warriors in 2015, Steve Kerr, who spoke out in frustration recently.

… all of a sudden you’re faced with the reality that the man who’s gonna lead you has routinely used racist, misogynist, insulting words. That’s a tough one. That’s a tough one. I wish him well. I hope he’s a good president. I have no idea what kind of president he’ll be because he hasn’t said anything about what he’s going to do. We don’t know. But it’s tough when you want there to be some respect and dignity, and there hasn’t been any. And then you walk into a room with your daughter and your wife who have basically been insulted by his comments and they’re distraught. Then you walk in and see the faces of your players, most of them who have been insulted directly as minorities, it’s very shocking. It really is.

Coach Kerr openly stated the million dollar question in team sports – how does a coach coach a team of whites, blacks and hispanics who are united by team purpose, but possibly divided by national purpose?

The NFL has a similar ratio of black players to the NBA. But the press has reported more comments from coaches in support of President-Elect Trump, compared to the NFL. Certainly, the most famous case is the coach of the New England Patriots, Bill Belichick, who tends to be tightlipped about anything he believes not relevant to his football team, and play on the field. And yet, Trump quoted a letter from Belichick to Trump on the eve of the presidential election, clearly seeing an opportunity to get more votes in the New England states.

My guess is Belichick would have preferred to keep the contents of his letter quiet, but when confronted, he did explain his relationship with Trump at a news conference. “Our friendship goes back many years. Anybody who spends more than five minutes with me knows I’m not a political person. My comments are not politically motivated. I have a friendship with Donald.”

The New England Patriots’ organization is famous for the strict control it imposes on its players in regards to talking with the press, and very little has been heard from the players, except for their star quarterback, Tom Brady, who is also known as a long-time personal friend of Donald Trump.

In terms of football, the words of Belichick and Brady are the most important on the team. But when your coach, your star quarterback and even the owner of the team are friends of Trump, what impact will this have on the team fabric, likely made up of a number of players who view Trump as a racist?

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Rex Ryan and Donald Trump

The Buffalo Bills are not the New England Patriots. The Bill’s head coach, Rex Ryan, has openly supported Trump, even giving speeches for Trump at rallies in Buffalo.

“There’s so many things I admire about Mr. Trump, but one thing I really admire about him is—you know what—he’ll say what’s on his mind,” Ryan said in this Bleacher Report article. “And so many times, you’ll see people—a lot of people—want to say the same thing. But there’s a big difference: They don’t have the courage to say it. They all think it, but they don’t have the courage to say it. And Donald Trump certainly has the courage to say it.”

When Ryan was the coach of the New York Jets, my hometown team, it was clear that Ryan was seen as a player’s coach, the kind of guy you would run through the wall for. But supporting Trump may have an impact on team dynamics. In that same Bleacher Report article, a couple of Bills’ players were quoted anonymously that their coach’s comments did not sit well with them.

“Rex is such an open-minded guy, a really good person,” said the player, who asked not to be identified, fearing repercussions from the Bills. “But the fact he could back someone as closed-minded as Trump genuinely shocked me.” The player, who is black, emphasized that teammates’ frustration with their coach’s public endorsement was not universal. But in private discussions, he said, “Some of the African-American players on the team weren’t happy about Rex doing that.”

Indeed, said another black player on the Bills who requested anonymity to speak freely about tensions swirling with a combination of protests led by Colin Kaepernick and a combustible candidate: “I see Trump as someone who is hostile to people of color, and the fact that Rex supports him made me look at him completely differently, and not in a positive way.”

What’s interesting, although predictable perhaps, was the reaction of a particular player on the team, Richie Incognito. “I think that he can help this nation get back to a world superpower,” Incognito told B/R’s Tyler Dunne. “Where I think he could help is putting us first again and having that—it’s my mentality, too—having that tough attitude where you put America first and everyone’s thinking we’re the greatest nation in the world. Don’t mess with America. That toughness is where I identify with him.”

Incognito, a Caucasian, was suspended from his former team, the Miami Dolphins, after being identified as one of three harassers of a black teammate, Jonathan Martin, who asked to leave the team. It appears that Incognito’s bullying of Martin was incessant and racist, and included members of Martin’s family.

In the end, those who oppose Trump have had to come to grips with reality.

Doc Rivers, the head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, said in this article that we need to accept and then take action, not just complain.

Listen, Donald Trump is going to be fine, all right, as president. That’s something I never thought I’d have to say, honestly. But at the end of the day he will be because I just believe America overall works. There’s a Congress and a Senate and it’s gonna work out. But if you don’t like it, you have two years from now to change it. Not (to change the) president, but you can change the Congress and you can change the Senate. So if you don’t like it, change it. And you change it by either running for office or voting… Don’t get mad — go do something.

Twenty-six sports were recommended as new additions to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. As many of you now know, Tokyo2020 and the IOC selected five new competitions: baseball/softball, karate, skateboarding, sports climbing and surfing.

But there were others recommended that I was either surprised about or unfamiliar with. I’ve created a list below of all the “sports” that were considered officially by Tokyo2020 for the next Summer Games. I took the liberty to make sense of them by organizing them into four categories, which you could most certainly dispute.

sports-nominated-for-tokyo2020

The Olympics are, in a way, an endorsement of the international relevance of an organized sport or gaming activity. This year, there was a conscious emphasis to increase the youth following, so skateboarding (roller sports), sports climbing and surfing were added.

Baseball and softball were actually Olympic competitions from 1992 to 2008, so it probably was not a difficult decision with the Olympics returning to Asia, where baseball is very popular. However, tug of war, which was an Olympic competition from 1900 to 1920, did not make the cut.

I was faintly familiar with Netball, which is popular in Singapore where I lived a couple of years. It is a derivative of basketball, played mainly by women. But I was not familiar with Korfball, which originated in the Netherlands and is similar to basketball, but certainly not the same. First, the teams are composed of both 4 men and 4 women. Second, you can score from all angles around the basket. Third, there is no dribbling, and fourth, you can’t shoot the ball if someone is defending you. Watch this primer for details.

Orienteering is new to me, but then again, I was never in the Boy Scouts. Orienteering is a category of events that require the use of navigational skills, primarily with the use of a map and compass. Most are on foot, but some are under water, or in cars or boats. Think The Amazing Race, without all the cameras. The video gives you an idea of what this activity is like.

DanceSport is essentially competitive ballroom dancing, which is popular in Japan. The 2004 movie “Shall We Dance” with Richard Gere and Jeffifer Lopex is a re-make of the 1996 Japanese film of the same name. A film that you may know that focuses on the competitive side of dance (with a smattering of American football) is “Silver Linings Playbook” with Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro.

And then there’s Bridge and Chess, what most people refer to as games as opposed to sports. I used to play chess a lot, since I grew up in the days of Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. And while I won second place in a chess tournament when I was 13, I would never experience the mentally and physically draining levels of tension that world-class chess masters go through. Still, is it a sport?

Does it matter?

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The second-place chess trophy I won at a competition at the Manhattan Chess Club when I was 13 years old. (If you must know, there were only three competitors.)
Athletes
15 Sep 2000: The athletes gather during the athletes parade at the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Homebush Bay, Sydney, Australia. Mandatory Credit: Adam Pretty /Allsport

Yao Ming was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame on September 9, 2016. Only 8 years in the league, the 7 foot 6 inch center from the People’s Republic of China was one of the most influential players in international basketball, cementing China’s popular hold on basketball. When the 8-time NBA All Star played in his third Olympics at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he was one of the tallest athletes in the Olympic Village, and most certainly one of the most popular people in the world.

In a recent article penned by Yao Ming in The Players’ Tribune, he wrote about how the Olympics is so much bigger than one person, even bigger than the biggest person in the Olympics. He wrote about his first Olympics at the 2000 Sydney Games, and how he saw a wide-shot picture of the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremonies, when all of the nations’ athletes were standing in their national colors. He said he stared at the picture in frustration.

I was somewhere in that photo, way down there, but as hard as I looked I couldn’t find myself. I tried to locate our team. I knew we were somewhere on the track, walking around the stadium. But I couldn’t figure out where we were. I stared and stared at the picture. The more I looked, the more blurry the photo became. I was the tallest person in the stadium but it was like I was lost.

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Yao Ming and LeBron James

But what he later realized about the Olympics is that no one person, not even the great Yao Ming, is what makes the Olympics great. What makes the Olympics great is an entire country coming together to show the world how welcome, appreciated and respected they are. After his team played hard and well against the vaunted US team in basketball, Yao Ming remembers one of the US players coming up to him to thank him for making them all feel so welcome.

In the moment, I remember feeling that when he said “you” he meant more than just me as an individual. I felt like he was talking — through me — to the entire nation. We’d lost the game, but I felt that we’d earned the respect of our opponent.

Yao Ming finally understood that athletic competition in its greatest form, particularly at the level of the Olympic Games, is about respect, about respecting your opponent enough to do your very best against them and emerge victorious, or to push the other to their limits.

I believe an athlete’s value comes from his opponent. What I mean is, our value will only be its highest when our opponents play their best. That is where respect comes in. It comes not when you fear or dislike your opponent, but when you find the best in yourself.

There is a commercial from that wonderful series called “Celebrate Humanity”, created when the IOC realized it needed to take control of the Olympic brand after the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and re-frame the Five Rings in terms of the Olympic values. This film is a reflection of Yao Ming’s values. It is called “Adversary”.

Adversary

You are my adversary, but you are not my enemy.

For your resistance gives me strength,

Your will gives me courage,

Your spirit ennobles me.

And though I aim to defeat you, should I succeed, I will not humiliate you.

Instead, I will honor you.

For without you, I am a lesser man.

Rick Barry
Rick Barry and his underhanded free throw technique
In Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History, he tells the story of Wilt Chamberlain and one of the most incredible basketball games ever played. His Philadelphia Warriors beat the New York Knicks on March 2, 1962 by the score of 169 to 147, and Chamberlain, incredibly, scored 100 points in that game.

As Gladwell points out, a good reason he got to 100 was because he knocked down 28 free throws, missing only 4. That’s an accuracy rate of 87.5%. And he did it shooting underhanded, as I explained in the previous post.

This is a technique that Rick Barry, considered one of the 50 Greatest Players in history, employed. Barry held until recently the record for career free throw percentage at over 90%, where the overall NBA free throw average over the decades is around 75%. For every 100 free throws, Barry accumulated 15 more points than the average NBA player. Imagine if Chamberlain hit free throws on the par of Barry. As Chamberlain’s coach once said, according to Gladwell, “if you shot 90% we might never lose.”

But the next year, Chamberlain gave up on the technique. Barry and Chamberlain knew each other as their careers overlapped. And Barry would kid Chamberlain for conceding a huge number of points by not using the underhanded throw. Why did he give it up?

Well we call this technique the “granny throw” because it looks like you’re shooting “like a girl”, or “like a sissy”. Before Barry was coached by his father to shoot underhanded, Barry himself was worried about shooting underhanded. And he also hated being called a sissy. But he got results. And that’s all that mattered to Barry. But Chamberlain, despite seeing the results himself, could not stick to the plan. And according to Gladwell, Chamberlain wrote in his autobiography the following:

I felt silly, like a sissy, shooting underhanded. I know I was wrong. I know some of the best foul shooters in history shot that way. Even now, the best one in the NBA, Rick Barry, shoots underhanded. I just couldn’t do it.

In other words, as Gladwell explained, “Chamberlain had every incentive in the world to keep shooting free throws underhanded, and he didn’t. I think we understand cases where people don’t do what they ought to do because of ignorance. This is not that. This is doing something dumb even though you are fully aware that you are doing something dumb.”

The underhanded free throw – clearly an easy way for almost any coach to add more points per game – remains a technique banished to the dustbin of history because people were afraid of how they looked.

And yet, I believe there is a coach out there, perhaps of a division three college in the US, or a poorly performing team in the Spanish professional league, or of a national team of a small country, that’s thinking….”I will do anything to squeeze more points out of my boys.” Maybe it’s someone new to coaching basketball and indifferent to how the players or the fans feel as long as they get results.

My guess is there will come a time when we see an entire team shooting free throws granny style, hitting 82%, then 85%, then maybe even 90% of their foul shots. And when it becomes clear that their 1-point, 2-point victories are because they hit 18 of their 20 free throws underhanded, who knows how long it will take before another coach feels he or she has nothing to lose except a few laughs from the stands in the early going.

That coach may one day say, “I may be stupid, but I’m not dumb.”

Wilt Chamberlain 100
On March 2, 1962, Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game.
Australia has yet to medal in men’s basketball in the Olympics. And they fell so agonizingly close in their one-point loss to Spain in the bronze-medal match at the 2016 Rio Olympics. You can’t blame their free-throw shooting, as they went 13 of 15 for the game. That’s an excellent 86.7%. Spain on the other hand could have had a far easier victory if they had shot better from the free-throw line, as they hit only 15 of 22 free throws.

Perhaps more critically, Croatia loss to Serbia by three points, while shooting a decent 78.9%. This was out of 38 attempts to Serbia, which only had 25 attempts, which meant that as a team, Croatia was effective at getting fouled and getting to the free throw line. If only they had hit three more free throws, Croatia could have had a shot at gold against the Americans instead of Serbia.

Coaches are always scheming to figure out how to gain more points than the other team, either via offensive or defensive schemes. But when it comes to the free-throw, the coach can only hope and pray that the shooter has practiced enough to hit the free throw with regularity. After all, no is guarding you. It’s just you against the basket.

The question is, would an improvement in free throw shooting impact a team’s win-loss percentage?

Let’s look at the 2015 Detroit Pistons, which shot 66.8% collectively for the season. They hit 1,399 free throws over 2,095 attempts. Now if they hit 80% of their free throws, like the New York Knicks did that season, the Pistons would have had a total of 1,676 successful free throws, or 277 more points, or 3.4 more points per game over an 82-game season. Would that have taken considerably higher than their 44-38 win-loss for 2015? Possibly, perhaps enough to help them finish ahead of the Indiana Pacers for second place and avoid a first-round meeting with the Lebron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers.

In other words, if you had an idea how to instantly improve free-throw shooting percentage by 10 to 20% points, you would think any NBA or national team coach would be hiring you for tons of money to teach them your secret. You would think so, wouldn’t you?

Wilt Chamberlain shooting the granny shot
This is how Chamberlain shot free throws in the 1961-62 season.
And yet, as Malcolm Gladwell recently explained in his fascinating podcast, Revisionist History, basketball coaches and players at all levels of basketball have resisted one of the proven, most effective ways to make free throws. In this podcast, Gladwell told the well-known story of Wilt Chamberlain of the Philadelphia Warriors, and the game on March 2, 1962 when he scored 100 points against the New York Knicks. What is less well-known is that Chamberlain hit 28 free throws, still an NBA record.

Chamberlain had improved his free-throw shooting from 50% to a career-best 61% that season. In that 100-point game, he hit 28 of 32 for an amazing 87.5%. What is even more amazing, he did it using the “granny throw”. That is the technique basketball great Rick Barry made famous.

It’s a throw that starts with both arms hanging naturally in front of the body. Then with an easy upward swing of the arms, and simultaneous flick of both wrists, the ball is lofted lightly toward the hoop. Barry hit 90% of his free throws over his career with that technique, the best in NBA history at the time of his retirement. And Chamberlain hit the century mark that wonderful night in Philly over 54 years ago because of that technique.

But after that season, Chamberlain gave it up, and reverted back to being a very poor free-throw shooter, a rate which waffled between 38 to 50%. Why would he abandon a huge part of his offensive weaponry? Why would one of the most fouled players in NBA history give up easy points by shooting his free throws holding the ball as everyone else does, starting from around his forehead?

Ah…the answer is both complex and simple, and I defer to the great Gladwell to tell this stunning story about why people and pride get in the way of results. See my next post.

Coca Cola Booth Roppongi Hills 1
Coca Cola booth at Roppongi Hills

 

It was August 6 and I had just watched the opening ceremonies of the Rio Olympics, which was being broadcast live in Japan that lazy Saturday morning. Quite coincidentally, my wife and I reserved a Brazilian barbecue place in Roppongi for dinner that evening.

Roppongi is a hive of activity, a center of commerce, entertainment and shopping that bustles 7 days a week. In our stroll through Roppongi that day, I came upon two examples of how official Olympic sponsors have begun marketing the Olympics, not only as a lead in to the Rio Olympics, but also as a proud reminder that Tokyo will be the host of the XXXIII Olympiad in 2020.

Coca Cola is one of 12 worldwide Olympic sponsors, part of the so-called TOP program – TOP standing for “The Olympic Partner”. Like other TOP sponsors, Coca Cola has exclusive rights in the food and beverages industry to use the word Olympics and the five-ring symbol of the Games in its global marketing and advertisements, among other exclusive rights.

And in the popular Roppongi Hills square was a Coca Cola booth, with kids and adults lining up to get in. Inside the booth was a large screen displaying a swimming competition computer game. A pair of contestants would line up in front of the screen, get a motion-sensing band attached to their wrist, and then furiously roll their arms as their watched their avatar on the screen race to the finish. At the end, they were awarded a medal with a bottle of Coca Cola attached.

After dinner, we walked to my old work haunt – Midtown Tower. This popular office complex was built by Mitsui Fudosan, a major real estate developer in Japan. Mitsui Fudosan is not a TOP partner, but is instead a Tokyo 2020 Gold Partner. In the Olympic hierarchy of sponsors, the IOC allows the local national Olympic committee to select local sponsors that have exclusive rights in Japan to market and advertise using the word “Olympics” and related logos.

Sumitomo Fudosan Midtown Tower Olympics Exhibition 1

Mitsui Fudosan used the open area in front of Midtown Tower artfully. Dotted throughout the square were sculptures of figures in athletic pose, gleaming white and geometrically fashioned. A female basketball player and a wheelchair tennis player greet us at the entrance. A sprinter climbs the glass cover of the escalator leading down to the underground shopping areas. Synchronized swimmers rise from a shallow pool of water, a paralympic runner strides, and a pair of judoka negotiate a fall.

Mitsui Fudosan wants you to “Be the Change”. In a missive at the display area, the JOC Olympic sponsor states that like athletes, whose daily efforts and countless beads of sweat and tears, have shaped them into Olympians with unique and wonderful stories, Tokyo is also being shaped on a daily basis, building by building, each with their own stories. The last line of the missive states, “Next, it’s Tokyo’s turn. The Olympics will be on our stage. What fantastic stories will be told?”

Sumitomo Fudosan Midtown Tower Olympics Exhibition 2

US Women's soccer team 2016

292 women will represent the United States at the Rio Olympics. That is more than the 263 men on the US team, and more than the total team rosters of 196 of the 206 other nations competing in Rio.

Ever since the United States passed a law (Title IX)  in 1972 barring sex discrimination in education programs receiving funds from the federal government, girls have been able to develop their athletic skills to the point where US women have become dominant in team sports.

Before women’s softball was removed from the list of Olympic sports, US women had won three of the four gold medals from 1996 to 2008. The US Women’s basketball team has won 7 of the past 8 Olympic championships, including the past 5. The US Women’s soccer team has won 4 of the 5 Olympic competitions ever held, including the last 3.

The US women’s basketball team over the past five Olympics are 41-0. With WNBA stars Brittney Griner, Tamika Catchings, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi on the team, it is likely, as NPR put it, that the toughest challenge they will face is in their intersquad scrimmages.

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(L-R) Elena Delle Donne, Tamika Catchings, Candace Parker, and Sue Bird

The women’s teams from Australia and Spain will be the toughest competition for the US as those teams have players with considerable international experience. But no one is expecting anything less than gold for the female cagers from America.

The US women’s soccer team is also a near lock on gold in Rio. Not only are they Olympic champions, they are also world champions after their 5-2 destruction of rivals Japan in the 2015 FIFA World Cup. On top of that, the Olympics feature only 12 teams, half of those which compete in a World Cup. Thus, powers like Japan and Norway did not make the cut. However, Germany will be on the Brazilian pitches, and will post the biggest threat to the US. Rivals France and Brazil will also be looking to depose the US.

With stars Hope Solo, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan and Crystal Dunn, the US Women’s soccer team is expected to romp to its fourth straight gold medal.

Opening Ceremony Maracana Stadium 2016August 5_New York Times
New York Times

The Debutante Ball is over. And Brazil is looking very good.

Despite all the issues that have arisen in Brazil in the run-up to August 5 – the impeachment of its President on corruption charges, the collapse of its economy, the constant news of the polluted Guanabara Bay, the shocking news of the impact of the zika virus, rumbles of possible riots by the underclass – the opening ceremonies at Maracanã Stadium went off pretty much without a hitch.

And there were a few big moments. Let me focus on three:

Sex: Carlos Nuzman is the president of the Rio Organizing Committee, and former member of the International Olympic Committee. He and his teammates likely helped inspire generations of volleyball fans in 1964 when he was on the men’s Brazilian team in Tokyo, where the sport debuted as an Olympic event. There he was on his country’s biggest stage on Friday, bubbling with excitement, exorcising all of the repressed worries he told countless people in the press not to be concerned with.

We never give up, we never give up. Let’s stay together when differences challenge us.

But to add a bit of spice to the formality of the opening speeches, Nuzman made one of those slips of tongue that the head of the IOC will never forget. Nuzman was responsible for introducing Thomas Bach, and said it was his honor “to hand over to the president of the IOC, the Olympic champion Thomas Bach, who always believed in the sex…success of the Rio 2016 Games.”

OK, Bach will always cherish that moment I’m sure…and it’s what’s on the mind of half the athletes at the moment anyway. (It’s been heavily reported that 450,000 condoms have been made available in the Olympic and Paralympic villages.)

Beauty: I’m a Jets fan. I hate Tom Brady. That goes with the territory. While Brady is one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the NFL, an instant hall of famer, his wife is arguably even more famous globally. Super Model, Gisele Bündchen, who was born in in Southern Brazil, travelled to London at 17. She was plucked out of the crowd of wannabes to make it on the catwalk for designer Alexander McQueen. From that point, Bündchen was a star, becoming a mainstay on the cover of Vogue and the body of Victoria’s Secret.

And so, in a moment of exquisite simplicity, the organizers brought together Brazil’s most famous song and its most famous face. First the crowd heard the massively familiar bossa nova rhythm and melody of The Girl from Ipanema, performed by Daniel Jobin, the grandson of the music’s writer, Antonio Carlos Jobim. From the other end of the stadium emerged the super model, coming out of retirement to make her final catwalk. Probably her longest catwalk ever, Bündchen sashayed some 150 meters across the entire stadium floor to the roars (and photo flashes) of 78,000 ecstatic fans.

gisele bundchen rio olympics
Gisele Bündchen – click on this image to see a video of the moment.

Glory Restored: It was the marathon event at the 2004 Olympics, in the birthplace of the race, Greece. Brazilian, Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima, of Cruzeiro de Oeste, was leading the marathon race with 7 kilometers to go when a strangely dressed spectator burst onto the road and just as suddenly pushed de Lima off the course. As I have described in a previous post, de Lima looked disgusted as he made his way back onto the course and continue on with the race. At the end of the 42-kilometer footrace, de Lima finished in third. There were attempts to give him a gold medal, but it is likely that since de Lima was still in first with a decent lead, the IOC decided to keep the results as is.

No doubt, this incredibly quirky incident was hard to forget for Brazilians, and particularly de Lima, who could have been on the top step of the awards podium, with a gold medal around his neck, listening to his national anthem. Instead, he listened to the Italian anthem, consoled with a medal of bronze.

Fast forward to 2016. The most famous athlete in Brazil, the legendary Pelé is rumored to be too ill to participate in the opening ceremonies. Up steps de Lima, who took the sacred flame from Brazilian basketball star, Hortência de Fátima Marcari, and carefully climbed the 28 steps to the Olympic cauldron. He raised the flame high with two hands to immense cheers, turned to the cauldron and ignited it, and the hearts of 78,000 people in the Stadium.

As the cauldron climbed into the night, to become the centerpiece of an incredible metal sculpture that turned the sacred flame into a swirling solar spectacle, de Lima was probably feeling the pride and joy he could’ve, should’ve, would’ve felt, if not for that crazy man in Greece in 2004. As the fireworks exploded around and above Maracanã Stadium, de Lima’s heart, I’m sure, was full.

Vanderlei de Lima lighting the cauldron
Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima lighting the Olympic cauldron.