one year to go pins

It’s One Year to Go!

On Friday, July 23, 2021 – 365 days from now –  the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will start!

I hope.

In this time of uncertainty, hope is all we have. No one can guarantee an Olympics in Tokyo. No one knows if the world will be healthy enough to come together in Tokyo a year from now.

With coronavirus infections on the rise in certain regions of the world, in particular the United States, doubt remains. Professional baseball has started in Korea and Japan. Football has commenced in Europe. Baseball, basketball and ice hockey are about to return to the United States. But no can say if they can finish what they start.

In Japan, as the number of infections climb, particularly in Tokyo, public sentiment towards the Olympics next year is running negative. Less than 40% of Japanese in a recent survey stated they would want to attend an Olympic or Paralympic event. This is only a year after over 7 million Japanese bought up nearly 8 million tickets in the opening stage of the ticket lottery, setting the tone for what was arguably to become the most popular Olympics ever.

Today, even if you have tickets, it’s unclear whether you’ll be allowed to go to the events. Right now, it doesn’t look good.

And yet, there’s still one year to go.

We face adversity all the time. Sometimes barriers or problems we face are out of our control, spiraling us into a vortex of hopelessness. But time and time again, we persevere, we see winds shift and fortunes change.

At times, film can powerfully convey our innate ability to overcome. I cite three scenes from movies you know.

First we do everything we can to put ourselves in a position to achieve our goal in the face of adversity. Al Pacino captured this mindset powerfully in his halftime speech to his football team, the film “Any Given Sunday.” He states the reality: “We are in hell right now, gentlemen.” But then tells them that “life is just a game of inches….” and that “the inches we need are everywhere around us,” and that “on this team, we fight for that inch.”

I believe there are many people around the world fighting for those inches, to cure the virus, as well as make sports in general, and Tokyo2020 in particular, safe.

In the final film of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo is ready to give up in his quest to save Middle Earth. But his friend, Sam, is not ready to give up on Frodo, literally lifting and carrying him forward.

I believe there are many people around the world willing to carry us when we are down, remind us of better times, and tell us those times will return.

And in the movie, Henry V, Kenneth Branagh brings incredible joy and energy to young King Harry as he wills his ragtag troops to take on the bigger, fresher French army at the Battle of Agincourt. Outnumbered, in the face of what they believe to be certain death, the men of England are inspired by King Henry to imagine a world when they have survived this battle and lived to a ripe age, telling their children of the scars they got and the feats they achieved that miraculous day in France.

I believe there are many people who see in their mind’s eye a packed stadium, a field filled with the best athletes in the world, and a brilliant blue sky, telling us all that anything is possible, including a Summer Games in 2021.

If there are people who fight for that inch,

If there are people who carry us when we need them,

If there are people who paint us a picture of a glorious future,

then there is hope.

See you in Tokyo, in a year.

Jimmy Carter White House_21March1980
President Jimmy Carter addresses Olympians and Olympic hopefuls at the White House on March 21, 1980. (AP)

Andras Toro was adamant. And he brought a badge to show – “We Will GO!”

Toro, a 4-time Olympian and member of the USOC’s Athletes Sub-Committee, was at the Antlers Hotel on April 12, 1980, the date that the United States Olympic Committee’s House of Delegates would vote on whether American athletes would accept the invitation to the 1980 Moscow Olympics or now.

The debate in the media over the previous three months had been intense, with much of the public in alignment with President Jimmy Carter and his intent to have America boycott the Olympics. To ensure that the USOC delegates heard Carter’s message, the White House insisted that Vice President Walter Mondale be allowed to address the USOC, to ensure the Carter administration had the final word before the vote.

1980 Team USA patch 2
Patch on display at 2019 USOPC Reunion.

Mondale’s Plea

Mondale explained what questions he believed were before the delegates and which ones were not.

The Vice President said that it was not a question of “denying our Olympic team the honor they deserve; for the American people, as you know, deeply respect the sacrifice we are asking our athletes to make.” He said that it was not “a question of whether participation in the Moscow Olympics confers legitimacy on Soviet aggression. When the Communist Party prints a million handbooks to tell its top activists that the Summer Games mean world respect for Soviet foreign policy, surely that issue is behind us.”

And he said it was not “a question of drawing a line between sports and politics,” and went on to explain the trade offs of the Soviet investment in their PR machine over domestic needs and the need to quiet the voices of dissidents.

Mondale then turned to history – to the United States decision to attend the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which he said was a mistake. He quoted an American member of the IOC, Ernest Jahncke, at the time who said, “If our committee permits the games to be held in Germany, there will be nothing left to distinguish [the Olympic idea] from the Nazi ideal. It will take years to reestablish the prestige of the games and the confidence of the peoples of the world.”

Equating Berlin

Mondale went on to explain that there was no boycott of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, stating that the “reasons for the rejection are bone chilling.”

Do not drag sports into the arena of politics, they were told. It will destroy the Olympic movement, they were told. It will only penalize our American athletes, they were told. Solutions to political problems are not the responsibility of sporting bodies, they were told. Let us take our Jews and blacks to Berlin and beat the Nazis, they were told. If America refuses to go, we will be the only ones left out in the cold, they were told.

In the end, the USOC voted on a ratio of 2 to 1 to support the boycott. Jan Palchikoff, a rower selected to participate on Team USA in Moscow, was at the Olympic Team selection camp when she heard the news. She was devastated, but she was not surprised.

The USOC House of Delegates were made up a very broad group of sports stakeholders that includes national governing boards of sports federations, multi-sport organizations, state Olympic organizations that raise funds, athletes, IOC members as well as members of the public. Athletes made up a number of the 3,300 plus members, but the House of Delegates were dominated by non-athletes.

Palchikoff said that the USOC leadership itself was essentially a volunteer organization, that were not necessarily poised to take on the US Government and the President of the United States.  “The USOC was not particularly good at telling the athletes’ story. They weren’t equipped to play ball with the government.”

Inside Five Ring Circus CoverAmerican sprinter Ollan Cassell was a gold medalist at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and in 1980, was the executive director of The Athletic Congress (TAC), which was America’s track and field federation.  He wrote in his book, Inside the Five Ring Circus, that he disagreed with Mondale about the impact that America’s participation in the 1936 Berlin Olympics had.

The President and Vice President both compared the 1980 situation with 1936 Berlin. “We saw what happened in 1936 when the United States sent athletes to Berlin,” Mondale said. “Hitler said it to his advantage. We can’t let that happen.” Did our top political leaders get all their Berlin Olympic history from Leni Riefenstahl?

I can’t fathom Olympic history without Jesse Owens…or his fellow African American Olympic medalists: Cornelius Johnson, John Woodruff, Archie Williams, Ralph Metcalfe, Mack Robinson, Dave Albritton, James “Jimmy” LuValle and Fritz Pollard. It was a seminal event for African-American athletes, and an “in your face” to Hitler’s crazy and convoluted concept of “Aryan supremacy.”

In the end, the Americans didn’t go.  Andras Toro never got to see how effective an Olympic coach he could be. Jan Palchikoff never saw the payoff to years of hard training, essentially self financed. American track legends Edwin Moses and Renaldo Nehemiah never got their “in your face” moment.

Mondale said, “we recognize the enormous price we are asking our athletes to pay, and, above all, to recognize the true heroism of our athletes who do not go to Moscow.”

So many of Americans selected for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, forced to stay home, likely did not see this boycott as the better part of valor.

Punch_tickets_17Feb80
Cartoon from Punch, February 17, 1980.

 

1980 Mockba Olympics t shirt
I was the only kid on my block in Queens to have a 1980 Olympics t-shirt.

It was May 21, 1980, and I was at Astor Plaza Theater in New York at the premier of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. I was an ordinary carefree high school student with extraordinary interest in comic books and science fiction. I was 17 years old.

At the same time, Luci Collins, was in California, an extraordinary kid with an extraordinary talent for gymnastics, who made Team USA and was scheduled to be in Moscow for the 1980 Summer Olympics two months later, until President Jimmy Carter (in the role of Darth Vader), announced at the White House to Americans selected for the 1980 Olympic Team that “Our team will not go.” She was 16 years old.

Collins, who wanted to grow up to be just like Soviet superstar Olga Korbut, was on the precipice of making history – becoming the first ever Black gymnast to make an Olympic team. But after the Soviet Union invaded neighboring Afghanistan in late December, 1979, President Carter gave the USSR an ultimatum: get out of Afghanistan by February 20, or else. The USSR did not reverse course, and President Carter stuck to his guns and forced the United States Olympic Committee to comply with a boycott as retribution.

Luci Collins
Luci Collins ranked fifth in this Essence list of Top 13 Black Women Who Changed The Face Of Gymnastics

So instead of becoming the trailblazing Jesse Owens or Jackie Robinson of gymnastics, Collins had to wait another 4 years for her chance in her home state of California. Unfortunately, Collins didn’t make the team for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

“I couldn’t even watch the 1984 Olympic Games on TV because I was so disappointed to not be there,” she said in the book, Boycott: Stolen Dreams of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. “It was heartbreaking for me. There were people on that team that I had placed ahead of just four years prior….”

1980 – A Miserable Year

For the peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, President Carter was desperate to make the USSR feel painful consequences for their invasion of a neighboring country. He was also desperate to change the mood of the country.

In January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a group of nuclear physicists who created the “Doomsday Clock,” moved the time to from 9 to 7 Minutes to Midnight, a metaphor for how close the world was to nuclear Armageddon.

Seven months earlier, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to curtail the production and number of strategic nuclear weapons in a treaty called SALT II, but the US Senate never ratified it. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December of that year, US President Jimmy Carter withdrew from the treaty.

In 1980, the Cold War was at near freezing temperatures, and the American mood was dark. In addition to the increasing belligerency between the US and USSR, Carter was dealing with double-digit inflation, oil shortages and an American hostage crisis in Iran that began in November, 1979.

Chronicles Olympic Defector_coverLittle Sympathy

In contrast to the Olympian’s perception, the American public’s view was that USSR general secretary Leonid Brezhnev represented the Empire. In late February, 1980, 73% of people who knew about the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan supported a boycott of the Olympics, a monthly jump of 24 points.

As four-time Olympian and coach of the 1980 US Canoeing Team, Andras Toro, wrote, “the national polls were running very high in favor of the boycott, and the athletes were portrayed as selfish, unpatriotic, un-American spoiled brats.” He told me that there was a public perception that Olympians were professional athletes and were making a lot of money, but that was an unfair comparison.

“Basketball, yes. Track, maybe swimming a bit. But there were 27 or so sports that were part of the Olympic program. The public was not tuned into the sacrifice being made by athletes in sports like kayak, team handball and archery.”

Jan Palchikoff, a member of the 1976 US Olympic Team was also gearing up for the 1980 Moscow Olympics as a rower in  the women’s quadruple sculls. And she was furious that she and her teammates were denied an opportunity to compete in the Summer Games.

“Had we been receiving money from the US government, you could make the case,” she told me. “But we rowers were all on our own. I had a series of part time jobs, waitressing in two restaurants. I worked in a cookie bakery and sold imported baskets at a swap meet. I was training 30 to 40 hours a week and not getting paid. In fact, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to be paid. So I really felt the rug was pulled out from under us.”

Jan Palchikoff quad sculls_1980 4x
Bow or #1 seat: Nancy Vespoli, #2 seat: Anne Marden, #3 seat: Elizabeth (Hills) O’Leary, Stroke or #4 seat: Jan Palchikoff, Cox: Kelly (Rickon) Mitchell, training late Spring, 1980.

The Rationale

At the heart of the argument between athletes and the US government was whether a boycott would achieve any significant results. There was little doubt that the Olympics were viewed by the Soviets as a powerful public relations tool for the Soviet way of life. Olga Chepurnaya, wrote in her 2017 article, “The Moscow Olympics, 1980: Competing in the context of the Cold War and state dirigisme,” that promoting communist ideology was one of the biggest reasons they bid for the Games in 1971.

The Olympic Games were planned as an event that would establish a basis upon which to propagandize the Soviet way of life and belief system both in countries of the socialistic bloc and in capitalist countries. In addition, a purportedly non-political headline event in the country fully fitted in with the general pattern of Soviet achievements, including space exploration and providing assistance to developing countries. By hosting a mega-event such as the Olympic Games, the USSR could considerably improve its international image on the one hand, and enhance patriotic feelings inside the country on the other.

An analyst with the CIA at the time, David Kanin, concurred with that perception, and felt that a boycott represented an action that could be seen and felt, as he explained in a podcast about Carter and the boycott.

The boycott was part of the effort, at least to show we were doing something. After Iran, where it seemed nothing was happening, I don’t think anybody, especially in an election year, could afford to be perceived as doing nothing. The Olympics were coming. It was a highly publicized event the Soviets cared about. It gave us a target. It gave us an opportunity. But also in the view I think of some it was an appropriate public expression of government and public opposition to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. We were then looking for support from allies, neutrals and others around the world.

Palchikoff found no solace in the explanations. She was tired of being told that the boycott was a necessary move to ensure national security. Today, she strongly feels that more could have been done for international relations if they had competed in the Olympics, and that the boycott made no difference in America’s national security. In fact, the US Government’s only impact was to harm its own citizens. “No lives were saved. We were used as a political tool. If that’s the best the US has to negotiate with the Soviets, then we’re in trouble.”

Like Toro and Palchikoff, Collins of course went on to have fulfilling careers and lives. But she felt that Carter missed the point about the Olympics. “In my opinion,” Collins said, “the Olympics has always been known to be where all the countries of the world come to unite no matter what differences we have. President Carter used the Olympics to prove his point, and that was wrong.”

Punch_hammer throw_10Feb80
Cartoon from Punch, February 10, 1980

 

WMG promo page_Kyoto

Imagine over 40,000 people coming together in front of stunning Heian Jingu in Kyoto, people of all ages from all over the world, smiling and happy to be in Japan.

It’s hard to imagine that scene today, a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has left the biggest tourist destinations of the world, including the popular former capital of Japan, bereft of visitors. But that’s what Jens V. Holm sees in his head, in May of 2021. That’s when the World Masters Games 2021 Kansai takes place, the global sporting event that brings together two to three times the number of athletes than the Summer Olympics.

Holm is the CEO of IMGA, or the International Masters Games Association, and he expects to be in Japan from May 14 to 30 of next year, during the 17 days of the first ever World Masters Games (WMG) in Asia.

The WMG invites anyone 30 years of age or older to compete in 35 sporting disciplines ranging from track and field and swimming events to team events like baseball and rugby, to lesser known competitive sports like tug of war or orienteering. Held every four years, the year after an Olympic year, WMG is becoming one of the most popular Big Tent sporting events in the world.

A significant difference between WMG and the Olympics is that while the Olympics invite national teams, the WMG invites individuals, which means there is no mass directives from committees to dictate whether an athlete will attend or not attend. And while Holm, like the rest of us, does not know if there will be a vaccine by the end of the year, he does know we will be better prepared in 2021. “We will take precautions, do proper risk management,” he said. “We have spread the venues out over the entire region of Kansai so that we won’t have all the people in one area during the Games.”

The World Masters Games Kansai 2021 is Japan’s “canary in the coal mine” – the event that will determine the confidence the world has in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and whether the world will also come together for the opening ceremony on July 23. As we approach the Fall of 2020, we can look to the “health” of the canary, hoping to hear the chirpy notes indicating WMG is ready for flight in 2021.

And WMG can fly.

In the shadow of the Olympics, FIFA World Cup and other massive international sports events, the World Masters Games has quietly built up a tremendous fan base of participants. Additionally, Holm said that cities are eager to bring the Games to their areas, with four cities currently bidding for WMG 2025: Perth, Taipei, Paris and Singapore.

WMG map and sports

While the Olympics generally get a lot of bad press about budget overruns and white elephant “legacies,” the World Masters Games creates significant return on investment to the host city, without the development of any new infrastructure. In fact they insist that the host city employs only existing infrastructure. The World Masters Games focuses on attracting participants from around the world, like a major marathon or triathlon event, to generate revenue, not on television rights, spectator ticket sales or sponsorships like the IOC does. Holm explained that the IMGA is a non-profit, and that the purpose of the Masters Games is to serve as a tourism event.

Our focus is on the host cities making money, not the IMGA. We charge the host city rights fees, but always less than the city receives from the athletes in registration fees, so the organizers start in the black.  And we don’t allow the city to build anything. This way all their investment into operating the games will serve as an investment in tourism. The big revenue generation for the host city or region is athletes paying for their own travel and accommodation.   

In fact, if you watch the promotional video for WMG 2021 Kansai, it is essentially a tourism video enticing athletes to experience the beauty and cuisine of the nine prefectures hosting sporting events during the games.

Holm said that prior to the pandemic outbreak, expectations were that WMG Kansai was going to be their most popular event ever. While the last WMG saw over 28,000 athletes gather in Auckland, New Zealand in 2017, Holm was expecting a record-breaking 50,000 athletes, half from Japan, and half from overseas. And these athletes are above average spenders.

“The average age for both men and women is 51,” said Holm. “The athletes who come from overseas end up taking two weeks off to participate, indicating they tend to be from higher income groups. And 77% of them have a university degree. With high income and high education, you have more time and resources to focus on your health. That fits in very well with the Japan market, which is focused on building their tourism industry, as well as working to ensure their aging population has an active lifestyle.”

So without the financial burden of building costly infrastructure like sports venues or athlete accommodations, among other things, and the focus primarily on attracting motivated athletes (not spectators), the World Masters Games model has proven to have a positive impact on the host economy. An independently researched report on WMG2017 in Auckland, New Zealand stated that the “return on Auckland’s investment in WMG2017 was 151%, calculated as $34.2 million (WMG’s contribution to regional GDP) divided by $22.6 million (Auckland’s investment in WMG2017).”

Jens Holm_1
Jens V. Holm, CEO of the International Masters Games Association (IMGA)

A good part of that return on investment came from the over 27,000 visitors to Auckland who spent a total of 241,480 nights in hotels and Airbnb venues, staying on average 8.9 nights. The 17,000 overseas visitor spent over USD56 million in New Zealand, a fifth of that from visitors who flew in via the national carrier, Air New Zealand.

This is what the leaders of the nine prefectures in the Kansai region are hoping for, a jolt to re-energize their tourism ecosystem.

“That’s why we had it on the drawing board to spread venues across the region,” said Holm. “There is so much to see in Kansai from a tourism point of view. And the infrastructure is very good. This will be an excellent way for the country to promote itself.”

IMG_4115
Japanese television speculating all weekend on when Tokyo2020 will be scheduled in 2021.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics, scheduled for July 24 to August 9 of this year, were postponed to next year. The question that will be answered in the coming weeks, if not coming days by the IOC, will be when the Games will be held in 2021.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will likely be held in late July to early August – more specifically: Friday, July 23 to August 8, 2021. Here’s why, as we break down the pros and cons of Spring, Fall and Summer.

Spring: Imagine the Tokyo Olympics in April, after the Masters in Augusta takes place in April 8-11, Tiger Woods winning a Green Jacket and then playing for gold at the Kasumigaseki Golf Country Club with cherry blossoms scattering in the gentle spring breeze. Also imagine a marathon in Tokyo as the runners run in a most temperate clime, not the hot-and-humid they would experience in July and August.

But then there’s the uncertainty: will the coronavirus be rearing its ugly head again in the winter of 2021, and will a treatment or cure be available to ease our anxiety about the sneezing and coughing of those around us in the late winter, early spring? Additionally, there is the logistics of re-starting the operations of the Olympic Games. According to this article, Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics organizing committee President Yoshiro Mori said that there would not be enough time to secure volunteers and ensure execution of qualifying events.  “It’s better for preparation time to be kept as long as possible,” he said.

Additionally, in the US market, the Olympics would have significant competition with the NBA playoffs, which take place from the middle of April to the middle of June, as does the NHL playoffs. NBC is in the middle of a US$12 billion contract to cover all Olympic Games, summer and winter, from 2014 to 2032. The reason the American television network paid so much was because the Olympics help them dominate the ratings and sell profitable ad space. Suddenly competing for eyeballs against the NBA playoffs as well as the NHL playoffs, which is also broadcast on NBC, would not be what the network signed up for.

This is true for Europe and the football broadcasters, according to this article from The Sports Examiner. “…it’s worth noting that the European soccer league schedules run into the middle or end of May (as does the UEFA Champions League). That means that European broadcasters are not going to be interested in having an Olympic Games start any earlier than the middle of June and that might be pushing it.”

 

Fall: The 1964 Tokyo Olympics took place in October, in order to avoid the heat and typhoons of summer. It’s true, they did not get heat and typhoons; they got rainy and cold instead. While NBC was the American broadcaster then, the business of sports broadcasting was not so large that concern about competing against the World Series  or the start of the professional and college football and basketball seasons was non-existent. That is not true today, as both the World Series and American football are highly popular sports, and would eat heavily into NBC’s ratings and ad revenue. Yes, this schedule conflict is a significant part of the decision making matrix for the IOC, according to veteran Mainichi Shinbun sports writer, Takashi Takiguchi.

As the provider of the highest payments for Olympic broadcast rights, the US media giant NBC is most averse to changes in its timing. The games are well known for scheduling events to meet NBC demands. Autumn is the peak season for baseball, basketball, and American football in the North American market, ensuring that NBC will not sign off on holding the Olympics then. And in Europe, where paid satellite broadcasting is common, soccer leagues are in full swing at that time.

 

Summer: Mori as well as John Coates, who is the main liaison between the IOC and the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Organizing Committee, have already stated that the likeliest schedule for 2021 will be in late July, early August, according to the New York Times. In fact, NHK has already reported that Friday, July 23, 2021 is the most likely date for the opening ceremony for Tokyo 2020.

NHK sources say the option of opening the Olympics in July of next year is gaining support at the committee, considering the time needed to contain the virus, make preparations, and select athletes.

One of the biggest challenges for figuring out when to schedule the Olympics in 2021 is the fact that there are already so many sports events scheduled, some of which have been re-scheduled from 2020. (You can see a schedule from AIPS Media here.) Takiguchi of Mainichi wrote, “the sporting calendar is so packed that any change in schedule for the Olympics will have knock-on effects. These inevitably deal heavy blows to the sports business, which is always bound by contracts.”

In the case that Tokyo2020 is moved to late July, early August, a couple of major world championships have to be re-scheduled if they do not want to be overshadowed by the Olympics:

  • the FINA World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, from July 16 to August 1, and
  • the World Athletics Championships in Oregon, American, from August 6 to 15.

In fact, the head of World Athletics, Sebastian Coe, already said in the NYT article that he is open to moving the dates of championship in Oregon, citing the benefits of moving the event to 2022. “You may have world championships in consecutive years where we wouldn’t normally have had that,” he said. “But for athletics, it’s not such a bad thing. To go from 2021 Olympic Games into two editions of the world championships, ’22 — possibly ’22 — ’23 we’re in Budapest, and then into the Olympic Games in Paris in ’24. It would offer athletics center stage at a very public point of the year.”

So the smart money for the commencement of the 32nd Olympiad is on Friday, July 23, 2021 – maybe a couple of seats for the Opening Ceremony will open up by then.

Rikako Ikee in the pool
言葉に表せないくらい嬉しくて、気持ちが良くて、幸せです。 “Words can’d describe how happy I am! It feels so good to be back in the pool. I’m so happy!” – Rikako Ikee, 406 days after being told that she can’t swim and compete in Tokyo2020.

 

It’s official. Tokyo 2020 is happening in 2021.

What does that mean? What impact does the change have on anything?

Firstly, I hope it gives  swimmer Rikako Ikee a chance to compete. One of Japan’s rising stars, the then 18-year-old Ikee became the first swimmer to win six gold medals in the Asian Games back in August, 2018. Six months later, Ikee was diagnosed with leukemia, and had to cease all competitive training in order to defeat the cancer. She promised her fans to be back in racing form for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

On the road to recovery, Ikee posted the above Instagram picture on March 17, happy to finally get permission from the doctor to swim again. She said in the Instagram post that there were no words to describe how happy she was, and what a great feeling it was to be back in the pool.

I hope that somehow, Ikee is able to fully recover, get herself back in shape within a year, and swim in Tokyo, for her legion of fans.

Here are a few more random thoughts:

Four-Day Weekend: A couple of public holidays were moved around to give the country days off on Thursday, July 23, and Friday, July 24, in order to create a less congested Tokyo at the start of the 2020 Tokyo  Olympics. Do we still get to keep that long weekend?

Russian Roulette: In December of 2019, Russia was banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) from competing at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, as well as the 2022 Beijing Olympics. While Russian athletes could compete as “neutrals” if they can prove they have not doped, the case is still being appealed by Russia in front of the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Maybe the extra year helps them figure out how to sway the courts to allow Russia representation in Tokyo.

Olympic Village: Before the virus hit the fan, the rooms in the Olympic Village that would be converted into condos after the Games were seeing strong demand last year, with applicants outstripping number of rooms at a rate of 2.5 to 1. Will those who bought into the Harumi waterfront property have to wait a little longer to enter their Olympian abodes?

Summer Days: The 2020 Games were scheduled for July 24 to August 9. The equivalent time period would be July 23 to August 8, missing by a day that opportunity to end the Tokyo Games on the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki, as would have been the case in 2020.

A Marathon Battle: The IOC unilaterally moved the men’s and women’s marathons from the streets of Tokyo to Sapporo on November 1, last year. Will Tokyo governor, Yuriko Koike, make another push to restore the marathon to Tokyo?

Coronavirus Redux: If viruses like Coronavirus thrive in cold weather, will we see a recurrence in the next winter? Will we experience the anxiety of rising fevers and uncovered sneezes as the temperatures dip, making everyone wonder if an outbreak were imminent?

Kansai Masters: The “Olympics” for 35 years and older, The 10th World Masters, is coming to Japan from May 14 – 30. Thousands of athletes from 35 to 105 will be coming from all over the world to compete To be held in the Western part of Japan, the Masters will be the canary in the coal mine, as it were. If a virus is lurking in the Spring of 2021, the organizers of the Kansai Masters will be tasked with tough decisions.

Odd Year: Tokyo2020 will still be called Tokyo2020, despite the Games taking place in 2021, the first time for an Olympiad to be held in an odd year.

2021 will be an odd year. But I give it an even chance to be great.

Tokyo 2020 + 1.

Can’t wait.

Nearly 70% of people do not expect the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games to be held as scheduled, according to a Kyodo News survey in early March.

The reason is the global impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

From Shanghai to Rome, from London to New York, we’re seeing the most populous cities in the world turn into ghost towns overnight.

So while the Japanese feel that holding the Olympics and Paralympics may be impossible this year, they are doing so in a country that is surprisingly sociable. While the same Kyodo News survey showed that 44.3% of the Japanese survey disapproved of the government measures, people are out and about in ways that would be shocking to people elsewhere in the world.

Gakugeidaigaku 15March and Shibuya 21March
People out and about on March 15 in my neighborhood in Meguro (left), and on March 21 in Shibuya (right).

Yes, Japan had the scare of the Diamond Princess, a story brought live by Twitter and TV into the phones and homes of every citizen here. And when the passengers were released in a seemingly slipshod and insecure manner, there were fears of a potential outbreak in Japan.

Surprisingly, the outbreak never happened in Japan. Other countries raced ahead of Japan in terms of number of infections or coronavirus-related deaths. While other Asian nations got praise for their swift response regarding policies and testing, Japan has been criticized for its relatively limited testing and perceived lack of transparency. Still Japan is quietly sharing numbers that reflect a relatively low number of infections, and perhaps more significantly, a much lower number of reported hospitalizations and deaths due to coronavirus.

movie theater_8March
At least Japanese are refraining from movie theaters_Futagotamagawa on Sunday afternoon, March 8.

Is Japan exceptional? We’ll have to wait for the research after the pandemic has run its course, but this article cites several reasons why Japan may be ahead of the curve when it comes to fighting off coronavirus:

  • the most vulnerable demographic – 65 and older – is a very healthy one in Japan
  • Japan’s national health system is accessible to all and inexpensive
  • Senior care services are abundant and inexpensive
  • Japanese hospitals are experienced in detecting early and treating respiratory ailments in the elderly, and
  • Japanese  are very hygiene conscious, and do not have customs like hand shaking and kissing

Two months after the horror show that was the Diamond Princess, the Japanese health system is handling the comparatively small number of cases coming its way.

Farmers Market 5
The Farmers Market in front of the United Nations University Building in Shibuya open for business on Saturday, March 21. No ghosts here.

So while corporations across Japan have cancelled large events and large meetings, implemented policies that restrict movement and encourage work from home, there are still many people commuting to work in buses and trains.

While people in Japan are discouraged not to gather for cherry blossom viewing parties as the sakura begin to bloom this weekend, the restaurants and shopping areas are still filled with people.

Public schools all over Japan closed down a couple of weeks before the beginning of Spring Break. And yet, only several weeks later, the government is now recommending that  schools re-open (assuming there are no new confirmed cases) as planned at the beginning of the new academic year in April.

To the outsider, Japan may be compared to Nero fiddling while his city burned. But so far, the numbers are not indicating a city on fire.

Yes, it is strange to live in Japan today. Surreal in fact.

I think I’ll go for a walk among the cherry trees.

lining up for masks and restaurant in Shibuya
In Shibuya, on March 21, people were lining up for masks (left), as well as for their favorite restaurants (right).

The Surreality of Tokyo2020 in the Era of Coronovirus Part 1: Are We Witnessing Effective Decision Making or the Rearranging of Deck Chairs on the Titanic?

Torch Arrival 5_Rings blown to the wind
The Olympic rings in the sky, blowin’ in the wind.

In 1964, on Saturday, October 10, the Blue Impulse aerobatic jet team that painted the brilliantly blue sky with the Olympic rings on the opening day of the Tokyo Olympics, symbolizing then that the sky’s the limit for Japan.

In 2020, on Saturday, March 20, the Blue Impulse team reprised their role from nearly 56 years prior, sketching the five rings in the sky during the ceremony welcoming to Japan the sacred Olympic fire from Greece.

 

Unfortunately, the rings were immediately washed away by the blustery winds over Matsushima Air base in Miyagi prefecture, symbolizing, perhaps, that our limits are not quite so high.

 

I watched the officials, athletes and celebrities line up ceremoniously, undoubtedly proud to represent Japan in this extraordinary event. The Olympic flame is scheduled to start a nation-wide relay from Futaba, Fukushima on March 26 and end in Tokyo at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on July 24, perhaps at that time, showing the world that the Tokyo2020 Games are truly the “Recovery Olympics,” as the organizers have billed them.

 

But I couldn’t help but imagine that each and every one of them harbored the question, “Will this flame actually ignite the Olympic Cauldron on July 24?”

Torch Arrival 1

 

President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach, Tokyo2020 chief, Yoshiro Mori and Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe among many other officials have said that the Tokyo Olympics are going to take place as scheduled. “The I.O.C. remains fully committed to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, and with more than four months to go before the Games there is no need for any drastic decisions at this stage,” said Bach.

 

The cool and patient approach of the IOC may be the right approach, but their words are beginning to seem surreal, and increasingly at odds with the heated and urgent voices of athletes and officials around the world.

 

“Of course the IOC and the whole world wants a successful Olympics. But for that to happen I strongly believe the event needs to be postponed – unless the authorities can guarantee it will be business as usual, which I don’t believe they can,” said Guy Learmonth on March 17, who is competing for a spot on the Great British track team.

 

“I’m not against the Olympics. But saying that the Olympics will still go on is a big mistake in communication,” said Giovanni Petrucci on March 19, who served as president of the Italian Olympic Committee for 14 years.

 

“Our athletes are under tremendous pressure, stress and anxiety, and their mental health and wellness should be among the highest priorities. It is with the burden of these serious concerns that we respectfully request that the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee advocate for the postponement of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 by one year,” wrote USA Swimming CEO, Tim Hinchey, to the head of the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee CEO, Sarah Hirshland, on March 20.

 

The pressure on the local officials in Japan is immense, and we are seeing fissures in this brave front that the Games must go on. Recently two prominent Japanese voices have spoken up:

 

 

Japan is hosting the biggest, most logistically complex big-tent event in the world this year, but decisions regarding cancellation or postponement are made by the IOC. And as long as the IOC takes a wait-and-see approach, waiting to the last possible moment before making such a decision, Japanese officials believe they must do the same.

 

The decision that has to be made is a thankless one – there will be an outcry whether the Games go on as scheduled, are postponed or cancelled. I have no doubt that the IOC and the Tokyo2020 Olympic and Paralympic Organizing Committee are doing the best they can to make a wise decision.

 

In the meanwhile, the pressure continues to build, and reality continues to distort.

Torch Arrival 2
Wrestler and three-time gold medalist, Saori Yoshida, and judoka and three-time gold medalist Tadahiro Nomura, welcome the sacred flame to Japan.

The Surreality of Tokyo2020 in the Era of Coronovirus Part 2: Shopping, Dining and Sipping Sake Under the Cherry Trees

TBS Sunday Japan_15March2020
Open discussion on the possibility of postponing the Tokyo2020 Olympics during a popular Japanese news program, Sunday Japon, this morning on TBS_March 15,2020

Standing in the middle of the office, I let out an audible “woah.”

It was around noon on Thursday, March 12 (Japan time) and I saw on my phone that the NBA had just suspended the season after learning that a player for the Utah Jazz (later revealed as center Rudy Gobert) had tested positive for coronavirus. Seemingly minutes later, I saw that Tom Hanks and his wife Rita announced that they too have tested positive while on a movie shoot in Australia.

The NBA is an organization that generates over $8 billion a year and the average franchise is valued at over $2 billion, and it suspended all games in the midst of a playoff drive, probably ending the opportunity for their greatest revenue generating opportunity – the NBA playoffs in May and June.

Tom Hanks is a two-time Oscar award winner for best actor and one of the most beloved actors in the world, and he put a human face on the virus for billions of us.

In the next 36 hours, those major quakes were followed by a quick succession of aftershocks in the sports world: cancellation or postponement of the Major League Soccer season, the NHL during their run to the playoffs, the popular NCAA men’s and women’s basketball championship tournaments, the MLB pre-season and opening day, The Masters golf championship, the Boston Marathon…and that was just the United States.

People like myself, who have not been personally impacted by the growing pandemic in any serious way, were given a reality check. We watched the news with growing alarm, followed the news in hot spots like China, Korea and Italy with concern, obeyed the instructions of health experts, but pretty much went about our lives because we are fortunate enough to do so.

But then came the rash of major cancellations and postponements, the news of global travel restrictions, plummeting stock markets and invocation of national emergencies….many of us are now experiencing, on a much smaller scale, what people who are directly impacted by the virus have already gone through: Shock.

Shock is the first phase of The Change Curve, the emotional reaction people have to sudden change, or very bad news. Based on a model that explains how people deal with terminal illness developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the Change Curve shows how people go through stages that include denial, anger, depression and acceptance.  In my world of leadership development, we use a framework that provides shorthand for that curve: SARA, which stands for Shock, Anger, Resistance, and Acceptance.

The early images of Wuhan, China, where the outbreak originated, were of shock and anger, particularly regarding lack of transparency about how bad the situation was, the silencing and martyrdom of the doctor who first tried to spread the news of the virus in Wuhan, and the fact that the Chinese government waited till mid January to inform residents that the virus could spread via contact with other people. By the end of January, over 50 million people in China saw their cities and towns placed in lockdown, anger boiling over with attacks on doctors or spitting on elevator buttons.

There is no doubt still a great deal of anxiety in China, but recent reports out of major cities in China report an acceptance of sorts, a new normal of everyday life, where almost all moments of the day are spent inside one’s home, where streets are empty except for delivery bikes. Oscar Fuchs, a Brit living in Shanghai, wrote in the middle of February, that he has gotten used to living behind locked gates in a country where swift and strong action was taken to clamp down on social interaction.

I don’t feel under siege. And as inconvenient as these restrictions are, I don’t find them stressful. I find them comforting. There’s a stoicism in my community of Chinese neighbors that is very calming. And everyday changes to regulations are being superbly well-organised and communicated. It makes me feel that China and the Chinese people are on top of this. And it makes me feel that mindset is everything.

In fact, the levels of safety and security compared to the rising concern in the rest of the world has created the perception that China is safer than other countries just starting to deal with the growing shock, anger and resistance to coronavirus. At least that is how Tony Perman, an associate professor at Grinnell College, views China after recently returning to the US from Shanghai.

When my family returned to the United States after six weeks of quarantine in Shanghai, our friends and relatives responded with congratulations and relief that we were finally safe. Less than a week since arriving back home, however, we don’t quite share our loved ones’ sentiments. We felt safer in Shanghai as conditions improved than we do in the U.S.

I’ve now lived through a coronavirus quarantine in the two countries, and the differences are stark well beyond their airports. In China, the obligation to isolate felt shared and the public changed their habits almost immediately. Sterilization, cleanliness and social distancing were prioritized by everyone at all times. Rightly or wrongly, the Chinese state’s heavy-handed approach seemed to work.

We do not know how long the COVID-19 pandemic will last. Many of us are still in the early stages of the change curve. For me personally, it’s been a succession of shock-anger-resistance cycles. During the Diamond Princess scare in February, I shared the armchair frustration and anger, but continued to attend networking events where large groups of people attended.

Then there were the series of corporate or chamber of commerce events that I was personally involved with that had to be postponed, with the hope that they would be re-scheduled for early Spring or Summer.

And while various officials would speak out on the possible cancellation or postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, I joined Tokyo2020 officials in the belief that the Show would go on as scheduled, wishfully believing that something so big, with so many stakeholders, with so much invested, could not be cancelled or postponed.

But the rapid-fire shocks of recent events have had a desensitizing effect on me. The reality is, the health and welfare of people around the world, whether they be members of our own family, friends, athletes, or world leaders for that matter, is far more important than a sporting event, even a mega, big-tent event like the Summer Olympics.

To be honest, I am still in that resistance stage, hoping that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics will take place as scheduled. But as expressions of shock, anger and resistance continue to grow well beyond Asia, and uncertainty persists as to when a reliable treatment or cure will emerge, it is hard to imagine a world that is secure and confident enough to congregate in July by the tens of thousands in one city – Tokyo.

I’m not quite at the second “A” in SARA, but I’m getting there.

And once there, I hope to add the letter “H,” which represents healing and hope.

Normalcy will return. But not until the change curve has run its course.

Olympic Rings outside National Olympic Stadium
Will Olympic Stadium be packed on July 24?

Students in Japan had mixed emotions as classes in public schools across Japan were suddenly canceled in late February, a couple of weeks before the beginning of Spring Break, in order to diminish the spread of the suddenly feared CoronaVirus.

A few days later, students and fans of baseball were given something to cheer about, informed that the hugely popular National High School Baseball Invitational would likely commence on March 19. Thirty-two schools will come together in the annual two-week tournament in Osaka, at Hanshin Koshien Stadium.

There is a catch. If the tournament is not ultimately cancelled, the stadium seats will be empty. (Note: On March 11, it was announced that the tournament was cancelled.)

While fans can watch the games on television, they will not hear the constant hum of high school students cheering,  singing, nor see the waving banners in the stands, or the crying students in the aftermath of a victory or a loss. There will be no eruptions of joy from fans in the stands as a team emerges victorious in walk-off fashion. The players will have nothing but each other’s energy to feed off of, doing their best to ignore the deafening roar of silence.

Such is the state of sports events in the era of COVID-19.

Such is the possible future of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

For the Summer Games, scheduled to run from July 24 to August 9, 2020, I can forsee five scenarios depending on the global level of anxiety regarding the spread of CoronaVirus in the coming months. Here they are, in order of likelihood. This is hardly a scientific finding – this order is educated guesswork, so please take this ranking in that spirit.

  • Move the Games
  • Postpone the Games
  • Cancel the Games
  • Hold the Games as Scheduled without Restrictions, or with Restrictions

Move the Games (the least likely scenario): When Shaun Bailey, a candidate running for election in London’s mayoral race stated on February 25 that the Olympics should be moved from Tokyo to London because of the “ongoing disruption” of the virus, the governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, instantly pushed back, saying Bailey’s comments were “inappropriate.”

It’s true that a women soccer qualifier involving Australia, Thailand and Taiwan were moved from Wuhan, China to Sydney, Australia, and an Olympic boxing qualifier, also scheduled to be held in Wuhan, was moved to Amman, Jordan. But moving an entire Olympic Games may be very costly, and logistically impossible. Just moving the marathon from Tokyo to Sapporo may cost at least USD100 million.

Veteran IOC member, Dick Pound said in an AP interview that moving an Olympic Games is very hard on short notice as “there are few places in the world that could think of gearing up facilities in that short time to put something on.” In other words, think of all of the events in London that would have to be pushed and cancelled, how many people would have to moved out of London hotel rooms, how nearly impossible it would be to get the resources ready for such a massive operation, etc. It takes a city seven years to prepare for an Olympics. A few months would be impossible.

Postpone the Games: Rugby matches in the Six Nations Championship between England and Italy, and between Ireland and Italy in March were postponed because of the coronavirus breakout in Italy. The same for J League professional soccer matches at the start of the season in Japan, as well as the 2020 Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai, a major F1 racing event scheduled for April 19.

Japan’s Olympic Minister, Seiko Hashimoto, stated on March 3 that technically, the organizing committee could postpone the Olympics to a date if still within 2020. However, Pound doesn’t think postponement is a likely scenario either as North American broadcasters (essentially NBC) would not agree to a Fall timeframe as the competition for ratings against a bevy of other sports could be crippling to Olympic coverage.

Delaying by a year, would be a challenge as well. “You have to ask if you can hold the bubble together for an extra year,” Pound said. “Then, of course, you have to fit all of this into the entire international sports schedule.”

Cancel the Games: Already, quite a few significant events have been cancelled, particularly in Asia: The Hong Kong marathon on February 9,  the Paris half-marathon on March 1, the Honda LPGA Tournament in Pattaya Thailand from February 20-23. Two Olympic test events were cancelled: the 2020 Paralympics Wheelchair Rugby event from March 12-15, and the Asia Sevens Invitations 2020 rugby test event on April 25-26 in Tokyo.

This is not a fantasy scenario for the Olympics. If moving or postponing the  Games is considered highly challenging, and the CoronaVirus situation does not improve, then cancelation in July becomes a very real possibility. A Japanese virologist, Dr. Hitoshi Oshitani, went on the record at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan saying, that “right now we don’t have an effective strategy, and I think it may be difficult to have the Olympics (now).”

Hold the Games: It is a wish of many people, particularly me, that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the 2020 Tokyo Parlaympics are held as planned. But with continued uncertainty about the longevity of COVOD-19, and the fact that it continues to spread globally, there is a good chance that a Games without restrictions will be unlikely.

In the case there are still global fears of person-to-person contagion this summer, even if the fear factor has diminished at that time, it is possible that restrictions on attendance may be put into effect. Serie A league matches in Italy and pre-season Japan league baseball are now being played behind closed doors. Like the Koshien tournament, we may be witness to a spectacular opening ceremony on TV, while seats in the new Olympic Stadium remain empty. That may be the price we pay to ensure the athletes get to compete, and demonstrate why they are the best in the world.

So, I believe…I hope…I pray…that holding the games unencumbered of concern, or just on TV, are the two likeliest scenarios for Tokyo2020.