Alex Ovechkin at the Sochi Olympics
Alex Ovechkin at the Sochi Olympics

For the hottest game on ice, the players and owners have entered into a cold war of sorts. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently told the press that no meetings have been arranged with the International Olympic Committee regarding the possibility of NHL players competing in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in early 2018.

The NHL schedule and the Winter Olympics schedule overlap every four years. In order to convince he NHL to release its players in the middle of the NHL hockey season, the IOC agreed to pay for the insurance, travel and accommodation of these professional hockey players. The insurance is a key component because it protects the NHL teams against an injury to a star player who could impact team success and/or team revenue for years to come. For the Sochi Olympics in 2014, the IOC sent some USD7 million to the NHL, something the IOC does not do for other sports leagues. The IOC has done so for the past five Winter Olympics since the 1998 Nagano Olympics, but this year the IOC announced they would not pay the NHL for players to come.

Bettman stated that without IOC financial support, it’s unlikely the owners would support. “We don’t make money going [to the Olympics]. I can’t imagine the NHL owners are going to pay for the privilege of shutting down for 17 days. I just don’t see that.”

However, the star players in the NHL view the Winter Olympics as a matter of prestige and pride. The very best players like Canadian Sydney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Russian Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals have said they intend to go, Ovechkin going as far to say he would go without the NHL’s permission. And as mentioned in this Ottawa Citizen article, the owners will listen to their stars.

When Alex Ovechkin said he was going to the Olympics, with or without the NHL’s blessing, it didn’t take long for Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis to stand behind his star. And why wouldn’t he? Ovechkin is the face of the team. He not only helps the team win games, he puts fans in seats.

Major League Baseball stands in contrast to the NHL. Currently, the World Baseball Classic, an international baseball championship series taking place in March, 2017, has the full commitment and support of MLB. And while the major league players from big-time baseball nations of Japan, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Korea are heavily involved in the World Baseball Classic, Team USA is bereft of its stars. In contrast to the NHL players, the Americans have little to no interest in participating.

Now, the World Baseball Classic is not the same at the Olympics. And when baseball returns to the Olympics in 2020 in Tokyo, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred will likely want to ensure his league’s best players are at the Summer Games. Growing the international market for baseball will be a big priority for Manfred. But he has yet to gain consensus with team owners on how to make it work for the MLB when the Olympics will take place in the middle of the 2020 MLB season. Injuries and lost revenue to lost games will certainly be in the minds of the owners.

Rob Manfred MLB Commissioner
Rob Manfred MLB Commissioner

According to this Sports Illustrated article, there are two possible options to make it work: allow the season to continue without interruption, and just free up the players selected to their respective national teams, or shut down the MLB season for, say two-and-a-half weeks, like the NHL has done in the past.

The NBA, on the other, other hand, has had the distinct advantage of holding a primarily Fall-Winter-Spring season, while the Olympics tend to fall in the summer, the basketball off season. Traditionally, the NBA has promoted its brand and players globally, and have been a model for building a global business. Their commitment to the Olympics is thus considerable. The issue has been ensuring that the richest and greatest athletes in the world stay motivated enough to train and risk injury during their time off.

The US men’s team took bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympics, and were dubbed “The Nightmare Team”. It didn’t bode well when the superstars of the league, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Garnett begged off of the team, and Ray Allen and Jason Kidd were out with injuries.

After the team’s embarrassing finish in Athens, Team USA appointed Jerry Colangelo to take charge of team selection. His job was to persuade the NBA’s best American players that it was their duty to restore pride and glory to men’s basketball in the international arena.

Colangelo convinced such stars as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwayne Wade not only to join Team USA for the 2008 Seoul Olympics, he got them to commit to playing together for three years leading up to the Olympics. Under Colangelo’s leadership and the coaching of Mike Krzyzewski, Team USA dominated at the 2008 Seoul Olympics to easily win gold. They’ve done so ever since.

Summary:

  • NHL: League and Owners not committed; Players committed
  • MLB: League committed; Owners not yet committed; American players not committed, but world players committed
  • NBA: League committed; Owners committed; Players committed

President Thomas Bach
IOC President Thomas Bach
In July, 2015, there were only two cities vying for the 2022 Winter Games: Almaty, Kazakhstan and Beijing, China. Just 10 months before, Oslo, Norway, the host of the 1952 Winter Olympics, pulled out of the running. Sochi a year before famously cost $50 billion, and the Norwegian government was expecting the cost for their city to be billions more than they had an appetite for.

That left Almaty, a city generally unknown, and Beijing, a well-known city that gets very little snow.

With the ugly photos coming out of Rio de Janeiro of the crumbling Olympic infrastructure after only some 7 months, more and more city denizens and governments are convinced they don’t want an Olympics in their metropolis. In fact, Budapest, Hungary, which submitted a strong bid for the 2024 Summer Games, withdrew its bid a week ago on March 1.

So like the 2022 bid, now there are only two for the 2024 Games.

This must be causing considerable heartburn for leaders of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The bidding process has resulted not in a celebration of city pride with the hopes of bringing the biggest sports tent their way, but in opportunities for large numbers of people to publicly and loudly proclaim their disenchantment, if not diffidence with having the Olympics in their back yard.

Rio Swimming Venue Before and After
Rio Swimming Venue Before and After
Fortunately, the 2024 has two solid prospects: Los Angeles and Paris. As Tim Crow writes in this great article, “And Then There Were Two“,

LA is the most compelling, with its vision of Californian sunshine, West Coast tech innovation and Hollywood storytelling power combining to ‘regenerate the Games’ and ‘refresh the Olympic brand around the world’.

Paris is more traditional, a classic piece of Olympic realpolitik, invoking de Coubertin in a ‘new vision of Olympism in action’ in the grand old city, linked to those time-honoured Olympic bid promises of urban regeneration and increased national sports participation.

So, as Crow extrapolates, if the president of the IOC wants to avoid further embarrassment of the citizens of the Great Cities open scorn, at least for a while, he may encourage his fellow leaders to decide the next two Olympic hosts when the IOC meet in Lima, Peru in September, 2017. As has been gossiped about for the past several months, Crow believes the IOC will select either Paris or LA for 2024, and the other one for 2028. By so doing, that would guarantee great Summer Olympic hosts throughout the 2020s, as well as avoid unwanted anti-Olympic discussion that would most certainly lead up to the 2028 process, that is currently scheduled for 2021.

Crow also speculates that the IOC may award the 2024 Summer Games to Paris, and the 2028 Summer Games to Los Angeles. Here are the three reasons why:

  • One, because an LA 2028 Games will give President Bach the ideal timing to play the American market for the IOC’s next US broadcast deal beyond NBC’s current contract.
  • Two, because it will also give Bach significant leverage in his attempts to persuade his six US-based TOP sponsors to extend their current deals, all of which end into 2020, for eight years.
  • But most of all, because it will buy Bach and the IOC both time and two key partners in its battle to find a new relevance and credibility for a new era and a new generation.

That last one is the tricky one. Can the Olympics be saved for the next generation?

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Bob Costas

Bob Costas, the voice of NBC Sports for decades, has announced he is stepping away from his desk as Prime-Time host of the Olympic broadcasts. After this announcement, Costas made the media rounds, including this interview, where he remarked on his favorite Olympic moment – the lighting of the Olympic cauldron by Muhammad Ali at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

As Costas recalled on the radio sports program, Mike & Mike, “It was both dramatic and completely stunning!” After all, the producers kept it a secret as to who the final torch bearer would be until the very last moment.

EVANS ALI
Muhammad Ali takes the torch from Janet Evans

No more than 10 or 12 people on the whole planet even knew that he would be the last torch bearer.

Dick Ebersol who ran NBC Sports and was such an important part of the history of the Olympics, it was his idea to have Muhammad (Ali) do it. The night before the Olympics at the production meeting, Dick said to me and Dick Enberg, who was co-hosting the opening ceremony with me, “I’m not even going to give you a hint as to who the final torch bearer is, except that you will definitely recognize him or her. And I want your expression to be as spontaneous as that of the crowd.”

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Ali lights the cauldron

And when Janet Evans, that great Olympic swimmer climbed up the steps carrying the torch, got to the top, Muhammad literally stepped out of the shadows. So no one saw him until the very moment that he got the torch. And Janet handed him torch and you heard in that stadium something you almost never hear in an arena or stadium. You hear lots of sounds in a sports event, but you almost never hear an audible gasp. And that’s what you heard that night, because people were so stunned to see Muhammad Ali.

And here was this man, who once was one of the most physically beautiful and nimble of athletes, reduced to a man trembling, trying to hold onto that torch and light the cauldron, and yet somehow, even in that condition, there was something so dynamic and magnetic about it. And he was once one of the most vocal of athletes and by that time he had been reduced to virtual silence. And yet in that moment, he was just about as profound as he had But there was something truly unique about that moment. And every time I think about it, even now, and I’ve recounted it a couple of times in the last 24 hours when people have asked me the question you’ve just asked me, every time I think about it, I still get goosebumps.

Here is a short clip from an ESPN piece about that moment.

synghman-rhee-line
Syngman Rhee Line: a boundary established by South Korean President Syngman Rhee to demarcate the South Korean maritime border, a line disputed by the Japanese government and one that Japanese fishing boats would persistently cross.

Korea and Japan has history. Over 1500 years of cultural exchange, trade and military conflict has shaped an affinity and a rivalry that goes from love to hate and back.

In the days before the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, before they would face off in men’s and women’s volleyball, the two nations were facing off in the high seas. On Monday, October 7, 1964, according to The Japan Times, a Japanese fishing boat was stopped by a South Korean patrol ship. The Korean authorities were attempting to stop the Japanese boat from fishing in what South Korea claimed were their territorial waters.

The seven Japanese fishermen were escorted onto (taken prisoner by?) the South Korean patrol boat. Apparently the seas were rough, and the two boats collided, creating damage to the fishing boat. Eventually, the 77.5 ton fishing boat, named No. 58 Hoyo Maru, sank.

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Japan Times, October 6, 1964

The Korean boat also suffered some damage and apparently a Korean coast guard was sent to do repair work, according to The Yomiuri. The man fell into the water, but was fortunately picked up by another Japanese fishing boat close by. A second Korean coast guard was in a boat looking for the first one and found him being cared for (captured?) on the Japanese boat, and boarded (was taken prisoner by?) the Japanese boat.

Which set up the “prisoner exchange”.

When the Japanese realized that the Koreans were holding 7 Japanese fishermen at the same time the Koreans realized that the Japanese were holding 2 Korean coast guard personnel, they probably thought they had spent enough time in the tense choppy waters of the Pacific Ocean. A trade was made and all parties went to their respective homes.

But this maritime battle would continue for another year, until the approval of the Japan-Korea Fishery Agreement in 1965. Until that time, nearly 4,000 Japanese had been arrested and over 300 Japanese boats by South Korean authorities. Additionally 44 people had died in these fishing conflicts.

The Japanese men’s and women’s volleyball teams handily defeated their South Korean opponents, but you can bet the fans and the teams in those matches were a tad more pumped up to sink the players on the other side of the net.

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Representatives of various National Olympic Committees are given tours of 26 Olympic venues, including Ajinomoto Stadium in Tokyo on Monday. | PHOTO COURTESY OF TOKYO 2020 / UTA MUKUO / VIA KYODO
When you think about the number of events in an Olympic Games, and the varied types and sizes of venues required for a mega-sports event like the Olympics, one wonders why we would saddle an emerging economy with such a beast of a logistics and budget burden. Sochi, Rio and Athens are recent examples of this challenge.

While Japan was an emerging economy in 1964, its economy was booming and could absorb the massive change and cost with ease. And when we look at the Paris and Los Angeles bids for 2024, one gets the sense that they are at an advantage due to their already massive and modern infrastructure along with its varied and numerous sports facilities packed into their metropolitan areas.

Tokyo has that advantage as well and was able to propose in its bid that 90 percent of the sports venues would be within 8 kilometers of the Olympic Village. Tokyo2020 has framed the physical footprint in an infinity loop which encloses two areas: the Heritage Zone and the Tokyo Bay Zone. The Heritage Zone represents facilities that are in and around the area of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Shinjuku – Yoyogi area. That would include the location of the National Stadium, both then and in 2020. The Tokyo Bay Zone is primarily reclaimed land about 3.2 km southeast of central Tokyo. This will include the site of the Olympic Village in Harumi.

On February 10, the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee hosted visitors from the National Olympic Committees from Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and New Zealand. For three days they got a guided tour of 26 of the approximately 40 venues planned for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. And the reviews, apparently, are good.

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Heritage and Tokyo Bay Zones
Here are a few comments from Luke Pelligrini, the acting general manager of games support and operations for the Australian Olympic Committee:

  • Across all the NOCs in the bus yesterday, everyone was saying this is going to be a good games. Everyone is confident that it’s on track, ahead of the game at the moment and will continue to be.
  • (Some of the venues) looked like they could run sporting events next week. The taekwondo and fencing venue (Makuhari Messe in Chiba Prefecture) literally looked like it could stage sporting events next week if it needed to. The 1964 stadiums for table tennis, the water polo, they look ready to go now. In that respect, we are thrilled. We don’t see anything, 3½ years out, that is a concern to us. We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the experience
  • The most impressive thing is how central 70 percent of the venues are. We were amazed at the location of the Olympic village literally being downtown. That is a fantastic opportunity for our athletes to experience the games and also Tokyo. It is a very central location to get to the venues for all our athletes.

Here is a great video explaining the venue locations planned for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

phones
There be gold in them thar phones!

If you’re living in Japan, and you buy smartphones like you buy a fashionable spring jacket, then you’ve got a bunch of phones in your cabinet that are just gathering dust.

Tokyo2020 wants your phone! Starting April, Japan telecommunications conglomerate, NTT Docomo, will set up collection boxes in over 2,400 NTT Docomo stores across Japan. Additionally, the Japan Environmental Sanitation Center, will also set up collection centers to collect old PCs, tablets, wearables, monitors, and other electronic devices that can be mined for metals.

The goal is to collect 8 tons of metal, which will yield 2 tons of gold, silver and bronze, and eventually result in the production of 5,000 medals for winners in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Said Japanese gymnast Kohei Uchimura of this initiative, “computers and smart phones have become useful tools. However, I think it is wasteful to discard devices every time there is a technological advance and new models appear. Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic medals will be made out of people’s thoughts and appreciation for avoiding waste. I think there is an important message in this for future generations.”

Sustainability will be a key theme of Tokyo2020. And my hope and expectation is that Tokyo2020 will be a shining model of how to present the Olympics, as it was in 1964. Tokyo2020 will stand in stark contrast to past Olympics.

For example, there are already signs of decay in Rio de Janeiro as venues used for the 2016 Rio Olympics have been abandoned. This is an oft-told tale, with plenty of photographic evidence of waste from past Olympics. Only six months later, the main venue for the Rio Olympics is an empty, pilfered and unused shell of a stadium.

The IOC knows its reputation and perhaps its long-term survival are dependent upon making the Olympics more in line with the host country’s economic plans and means, and more conscious of its obligations to be more socially tolerant and more purposeful in driving sustainability.

kohei-uchimura_gold-medal_rio_ap
Kohei Uchimura’s next gold medal might be made from recycled smartphones

Since its inception in 2014, IOC President, Thomas Bach, has driven home the 40 tenets of his vision – The Olympic 2020 Agenda – a list of priorities, principles and actions that will guide the IOC in the coming years. Some of the hopes is to help ensure that host cities do not end up with an overly burdensome budget to hold the Games, to make the bidding process less complicated and less expensive, to ensure non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and to drive greater sustainability.

The IOC has been working closely with Tokyo2020 to bring its operational budget down from USD30 billion, which is four times the budget put forth in the 2013 bid for 2020. The current goal is to get the budget down to under USD20 billion, which is far under Sochi’s USD50 billion spend, Beijing’s USD40 billion spend, and more in line with London’s USD20 billion spend. I believe that Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike is making an honest attempt to drive the budget down, as well as create a legacy of sustainability and inclusiveness in Japan.

If you’re in Japan, you too can help! Look for your old smartphones, and the signs at NTT Docomo. Donate a phone, and ensure that a piece of your property becomes a piece of the winning medal for Olympians in 2020.

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Tokyo 2020 Anime Ambassadors

A big part of the pitch for the 2020 Games by the Japan Olympic Committee to the IOC in 2013 was that the Tokyo Olympics would appeal to youth. Along those lines, new sports added to the Games in 2020 are skateboarding, surfing and rock climbing.

At the Tokyo 2020 preview at the end of the Rio Olympics closing ceremony, the world was pleasantly surprised by the emergence of Prime Minister Abe as the world-renown game character, Super Mario.

And last week, Tokyo2020 announced the lineup of its anime ambassadors for the Tokyo Olympics. They include such globally recognized characters as Sailor Moon, Goku from Dragon Ball, Crayon Shin-chan and a classic character that was a huge hit in Japan in the 1950s and was broadcast in the US in the 1960s, Astro Boy.

Anime, the catch-all phrase for Japanese produced comics or animated television or film, has enjoyed a boom internationally. It is a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States alone. Japanese manga in English can be found liberally in bookstores or online. Japanese anime film directors like Hayao Miyazaki and Osamu Tezuka are global icons. And of course, illustrated characters from Japanese games, television programs and films are re-drawn in daydream doodles, their costumes adorned, and their merchandise snapped up the world over.

So yes, who will begrudge the TOCOG (Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee) the opportunity to make a few extra gazillion yen with Tokyo2020-Sailor Moon bags, and Tokyo2020-Dragon Ball hats.

You can buy your Tokyo2020 swag here.

astro-boy
I am a proud owner of a Osamu Tezuka Astro Boy original, drawn for my father in the early 1970s.