When coronavirus body slammed the world, the IOC and the government of Japan postponed the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics as the global economy stood punch drunk in the corner, tagged with constant jabs and body blows.
As we approach the end of the year, as infection rates continue to soar, a ray of hope has appeared in the form of newly developed vaccines. Will that ray of hope grow into that light at the end of the tunnel IOC president Thomas Bach desperately wants to see?
I hope so.
As a footnote, my own 2020 was not a total bust – the Japanese version of my book was published, and I appeared in A&E History Channel’s documentary, Tokyo Legacy, which is about the history of Tokyo from 1945 to 2020. While I was not so prolific this year in my blog, I did write a number of original articles I am proud of.
In 1964, Japan was preparing an extravaganza for the world, and they just had to get it right. Over 5,000 athletes from over ninety nations were coming to Tokyo. So were thousands of government and sports officials, members of the press, coaches, athlete-family members and sports fans from all parts of the world. If they could show the world that they were peace-loving, Western-like, modern and eager to contribute, then they could stand tall with the other great nations of the world.
Only two decades before, the Japanese were considered Asian upstarts, aggressors, and in some parts, cruel barbarians who would die for the Emperor without a thought. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics was the biggest coming-out party in Asian history, and Japan wanted to change perceptions, and look its absolute best.
Hundreds of known pickpockets were plucked off the streets by police months in advance. Gangs were prevailed upon to send their scarier-looking yakuza out of town. Signs were posted around the city declaring that urinating in the streets or littering would not be tolerated. Bars were closed by midnight. Taxi drivers were advised to drive with “proper traffic manners.” Local citizens brushed up their English and, overcoming their normal reticence, proactively sought out foreign visitors who looked as though they might need guidance. For a while, “May I help you?” was the most commonly heard phrase on the streets.
Stories abounded about the lengths to which the Japanese hosts went to look after visitors in need of help. To rescue an Australian couple who had lost bullet train tickets to Kyoto, their hotel voucher and a notice of remittance so they could pick up cash at a local bank branch, the manager of the Japan Travel Bureau at the pier where they docked raised money from his own staff to buy new train tickets, called the hotel and arranged for the couple to stay without the voucher, and made arrangements with the bank so the cash would be made available.
When a European prince reported his Dunhill tobacco pouch lost at the equestrian event at Karuizawa, an entire Self-Defense Force platoon combed the 33-kilometer course and found the pouch in less than an hour. A journalist who had dropped his signed traveler’s checks—in a nightclub as it turned out—got them back after the Mama-san spent two days tracing and deciphering his illegible scrawl, and then rang the hotels and the Press House before finally discovering to whom they belonged.
Billy Mills, hero of the 10,000-meter event, also came in for some of Japan’s famous omotenashi (hospitality). As a Native-American subjected to his own share of suffering back home, he empathized with his hosts:
In Japan, I saw people who were so courteous and polite. I knew underneath there had to be this anger. I could relate to the pain. Almost a sacredness of the way they contained the pain, and the respect they showed. They were like the elders I knew, who controlled their pain, and still showed respect to others.
Mills and his wife, Pat, had plans to return to the United States a day before the end of the games and so would not be joining the USOC-arranged transport to the airport. When the USOC refused to make any special arrangements for Billy—an amateur with little discretionary cash in his pocket—he turned to his Japanese hosts, who expressed surprise that the Americans would not take care of a gold medal winner and one of their biggest stars.
They picked up our bags, and put them in the largest, widest limousine I had ever seen, with Japanese and Olympic flags up front and an American flag on the back. We took off with two motorcycles escorting us to the airport. We left Japan in style.
The XVIII Olympiad was Japan’s big test. And if they passed, they thought, the world would welcome them back with open arms. And they did indeed pass that test, thanks to a stunning alignment of purpose across government, corporations, educational institutions, and local neighborhoods. As Azuma Ryūtarō, Tokyo governor and member of both the IOC and Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee, wrote in 1965:
One of the intangible legacies of the Tokyo Olympics is that it gave Japanese people the opportunity to be united for the first time since World War II. Additionally, the Tokyo Olympics succeeded in playing a vital role in connecting the East and West in terms of worldwide peace and sports. As a result, the world began to show greater respect for Japan and its people.
Ann Packer was a 400-meter sprinter who was narrowly beaten by Australian Betty Cuthbert in the 400-meter finals. She was happy with her silver medal and ready to enjoy carefree moments shopping in the Ginza. As far as she was concerned, her Olympiad was over. Her fiancé and captain of the British athletics team, Robbie Brightwell, was astounded about how casual Ann was, and explained in his autobiography that she had a chance at history if she could hold off the urge to shop.
“Do you think I should run in the 800-meter heats tomorrow?” she asked. “Maybe I should call it a day and go shopping.” I gaped in astonishment. “Shopping? You must be mad! Shopping? This is the Olympic games, not the Moulsford Village sports!”
“I know, but I’m hardly likely to better a silver medal, am I? And I need to buy some presents for the folks back home.”
“Come off it!” I exploded. “Think about the British girls back home who would have given their eyeteeth to be here in your place!”
She smiled sheepishly. “OK I’ll run. Not that it’ll make much difference. I’m bound to get eliminated in the heats, and then I can go shopping.”
As it turns out, Packer and perhaps even her fiancé Brightwell were missing the telltale signs of potential success. While Packer hoped just to remain respectable, others saw a form and ease that would translate easily to victory. As Packer prepared for the finals, after essentially just making the cuts in the heats, two people of considerable experience and respect came up to Packer with powerfully motivating words. Again, here is how Brightwell explains it in his autobiography:
Milkha Singh jogged past with his 1,600-meter relay squad. Espying her, he dashed over, taking both hands and staring stern-faced into her eyes. “Ann Packer, listen to me. You will win!” She giggled self-conscientiously, flashing me an amused smile. Shaking her hands emphatically, he repeated his message.
You’re not listening, Ann Packer! Yesterday, I watched your semi-final. You were coasting! After the race, you come and show me your gold medal.
She nodded respectfully. No sooner he departed than Percy Cerutty, Betty Cuthbert’s coach, rushed up. Even though they had never been introduced, Percy wasn’t a man for social ceremonies. “This,” he said, wagging a finger in front of her face, “is the finger of experience. And it’s standing to attention. Listen! Betty and I’ve been talking. Stay with them until the end, and you will hammer them. Understand?”
Astonished, Ann nodded dumbly. Mission completed, Percy disappeared as quickly as he’d appeared.
When Packer won her race, right away she steered to the stands and into the arms of Brightwell. Milkha Singh was there as well, smiling with the satisfaction of clairvoyance proved correct. “Did I not say your woman would win? You didn’t believe me! I was right! Hee, hee, hee! Brightwell, you never listen to me!”
Packer had little experience in the 800 meters. But that was true for all the other competitors. For the first half of the twentieth century, the IOC believed they were protecting women from competing in what they believed to be overly strenuous competitions for the fair sex. Thus, after 1928, women didn’t run as far as 800 meters in the Olympics until 1960.
As a result, very few women were experienced at this distance. Packer had no preconceptions about how to run the race. But being naïve, and being a sprinter, was Packer’s advantage. Packer was at the back of the pack for most of the race. But in the final 200 meters, she climbed to third, and in a burst sprinted out a dominating finish. A world record finish, in fact. As she later said, “Ignorance proved to be bliss.”
Japan, as an emerging economy in 1964, was similar to Packer in the 800. Any new goal was a new challenge without any preconceptions about how to get things done. If they had a problem to solve, they tried anything and everything, leveraging what resources were available and learning from the world.
Toyota’s famed just-in-time (JIT) lean manufacturing methodology has been recognized the world over as a superior process to maximize both quality and efficiency, leading to the transformation of the auto industry by the Japanese. Instead of stocking large inventories of doors that sat in a warehouse unused for weeks and exposed to potential damage, as was the case with large American manufacturers in Detroit, the Japanese engineers improvised.
With little capital available during those lean postwar years, they could not “waste” money on one or two months of stock. So parts were built only when they were going to be used—just in time. Capital was used efficiently, parts were not damaged while sitting for weeks, and everyone on an assembly line was charged with the mandate to innovate in any way that eliminated waste and improved quality.
And so, even in 1964, to the surprise of visiting Olympians, Japanese products were not cheap and low quality. They were cutting edge.
Packer and Brightwell flew to Tokyo with their fellow Olympians on British Overseas Airways Comet, the world’s first commercial jet airliner. They had the opportunity to visit the cockpit and talk with the pilot. They asked about Japan, and Brightwell asked the well-travelled pilot whether he had any recommendations for things to buy there.
He said, “Yeah, Seiko watches. They make fantastic watches. Get a movie camera. Get a tape recorder. You got to get one of those transistor radios. And a camera. Oh, I see you’re wearing glasses. Go and get contact lenses.” So I did see the optician one day in Tokyo. And got them the next day! The Japanese were already making gas-permeable contact lenses. They were brilliant. For my first race, I could actually see the track.
We were very impressed. We knew about Japanese engineering in heavy industry, but we didn’t know anything about their use of American transistors and computers in Japan. We could see they were moving to higher-value, technologically intense products.
Brightwell was friendly with members of the British press, including BBC sports star commentator and presenter, David Coleman. Brightwell said that his conversations with Coleman in Tokyo were often about how many things he had learned about the innovative way Japan was televising the Games—that these Games would be the first to be globally broadcast by satellite; that there were dozens of movie cameras in the National Stadium, when the BBC might employ two; that the media in the Press section had events results provided to them by computers; that the Games were going to be seen in color in many homes in Japan, while most in England had to settle for black and white.
“Relatively speaking,” said Brightwell, “we were still on steam locomotives.”
Superheroes often emerge from intense pain and suffering, according to their origin stories.
Jean-Baptiste Alaize was three years old when he witnessed the slaughter of his Tutsi mother at the hands of Hutus during the Burundi Civil War, and he himself fell to four machete blows that resulted in the loss of a leg.
Bebe Vio was eleven years old when she fell in a coma induced by a battle with meningitis, a condition akin to “imploding inside.” A budding fencing star and a ball of energy, the Italian pre-teen had to make the horrible decision to amputate both arms and legs to thwart the advance of the disease.
Tatyana McFadden was born in the Soviet Union with a congenital disorder which paralyzed her from the waist down at birth, in a country that did not officially recognize the existence of disabled people.
However, these three and many others profiled in a recently released Netflix documentary found redemption and achievement in sport. The film, Rising Phoenix, is an impassioned introduction to the Paralympic movement. Layering on top of the powerful theme of Channel 4’s marketing of the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Paralympics – We’re the Superhumans! – Rising Phoenix gives Para athletes the Hollywood superhero treatment.
The production values of Rising Phoenix can be described as lavish. Aussie swimmer Ellie Cole is shot dancing under water, rays of light piercing the dark waters. Alaize sits open and relaxed on a spacious couch in an ornate French Baroque setting. South African sprinter Ntandu Mahlangu is interviewed with an actual cheetah in repose at his own cheetah blades. And Vio is filmed lovingly in slow motion, strapped to a wheelchair, lunging and gyrating to angelic music.
And yet when it comes to recognizing the disabled, Rising Phoenix is the exception. Every superhero has a weakness. For Superman, it is kryptonite. For Para athletes, and people with disabilities, it is apathy.
Rising Phoenix is a tale of Two Paralympics, nearly the best of times and the worst of times for the paramount global event for athletes with disabilities. The 2012 London Paralympics were a triumph of the organizers, an event that packed the stadiums and arenas, energized a city, and inspired the world. The 2016 Rio Olympics, as we learn in the film, nearly ended the Paralympic movement.
Seven weeks before the start of the 2016 Rio Paralympics, then president of the Brazilian Paralympic Committee. Andrew Parsons was given terrible news by the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games – they did not have enough money to run the Paralympic Games.
“They are not telling you, we can do that, or we can do that,” said Xavier Gonzalez, CEO of the IPC at that time. “They are telling you we cannot organize the games. I couldn’t at that moment see how we could fix it. And that was scary.”
And as potential Rio Paralympians began to understand that the rumors were true, they had that sinking, familiar feeling from childhood, their teenage years, and still today: unfairness, humiliation, helplessness. Said two-time T-44 men’s 100-meter sprint champion, Jonnie Peacock of Team GB, “you just feel like these people don’t view the Paralympics as anything.”
Parsons explained in exasperation how he could not give clear answers to the national Paralympic committees who worried whether the Games would happen or not. But he and the filmmakers were explicit in explaining who was to blame. Speaking over images of the Rio Olympic Organizing Committee, including chairman Carlos Nuzman, who was subsequently arrested for corruption and bribery, Parsons said, “forget about these guys, the leadership, because they won’t help.”
Rising Phoenix goes on to tell the nail-biting story of how IPC leadership, Parsons, Craven and Gonzalez, convinced the Brazilian government and skeptical authorities to keep this dream alive not only for over 4,300 Para athletes, but also for 24 million persons of disability in Brazil.
The 2012 London Paralympics is held up as the gold standard for awakening the world to the incredible athletic abilities of Para athletes. But it is the 2016 Rio Paralympics that may have saved the movement. Said Craven, “We’d have really broken the cycle. Confidence wouldn’t have been there in the future. It would (have been) the extinguishing of that Paralympic flame.”
Changing the World
Instead, the flame burns brightly today. Rising Phoenix brings alive the power of the movement, and the dreams of these superheroes.
The reunification of mother and child as summer Paralympian, Tatyana McFadden wins cross-country silver in the Winter Paralympics in her country of birth, Russia.
The dramatic and stirring gold medal victory of ebullient Bebe Vio in wheelchair fencing, who carries you on her shoulders in waves of joy.
“No one stays the same after watching the movie,” said Parsons in a recent interview with 20 foreign chambers of commerce in Japan. “If ten people watch the movie, ten people will be changed. If ten million people watch the movie, ten million people will be changed. I want the entire world to watch this movie.”
So do I.
Note: All film poster images shared with permission of the IPC.
“I was supposed to be in Tokyo today, rehearsing my opening speech,” said Andrew Parsons wistfully.
It was a little after 8pm on Monday, August 24, 2020 Japan time. Parsons, the President of the International Paralympics Committee (IPC), was addressing members of 20 foreign chambers of commerce in Japan in a Zoom meeting. The event marked one year to go for the Tokyo2020 Paralympics.
The Paralympics would have kicked off in Japan on Tuesday, August 25, 2020 if not for the devastating and global impact of COVID-19 virus. It was March 24, 2020 when the fateful decision was made to postpone both the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics for a year. “That decision was not taken lightly, but it was the right one,” said Parsons. “Had the games been tomorrow, there’s no chance they would have happened.”
Putting the Puzzle Back Together
March 24 brought devastating news to the organizers in Japan. Yasushi Yamawaki, IPC Governing Board Member at Large and Tokyo 2020 Vice President said they were more than surprised.
“When the decision was made to postpone the games, most of the staff and partners, were very much shocked. They had spent seven years putting together the biggest and most complicated jigsaw puzzle. And with a few pieces to go, they were told to start over again.”
There are dozens of major sponsors, over 180 National Paralympic Committees, dozens of international sports federations, and thousands of athletes who had questions. But for the IPC, a huge question that had to be answered was how to ensure funding for Tokyo2020 in 2021. As Craig Spence, IPC Chief Brand & Communications Officer, explained, it was critical to re-do the contracts with the broadcasters first.
“From an IPC point of view, we had to review 300 contracts in the space of two weeks. We have TV contracts with 165 broadcasters. Each contract needed to be reviewed. And each contract impacted the cash flow of the IPC for 2020 because we were due money this year, but the TV contract was then moved to next year.”
And Parsons reminded everybody that this incredibly complex and urgent work had to be done in the challenging environment of a pandemic. “We had to manage our cash flow,” said Parsons. “But we also needed to work with our staff all over the world, many of whom were living away from their families during the most demanding period ever for the IPC.”
Parsons is hopeful, but he is realistic. He said that everything that can be done, that can be controlled, will be. Planning will continue through the end of September. The IPC will focus on countermeasures to COVID-19 in the last quarter of 2020, and then will enter operational readiness in the first quarter of 2021. After that, important decisions will have to be made.
“We still have one year to go. We will follow the development of the pandemic. Unfortunately, none of us have a crystal ball. We have to work as if the Games are going ahead. This is the tricky part – how to work towards something you don’t know 100% is going ahead or not. But at the moment we are working full speed ahead preparing for the Games as if they are happening.”
The postponement resulted in a re-planning process that prioritized two things: the safety and health of the athletes and an approach to budgeting only what is necessary, a sustainability mindset that can be applied to future Paralympics, something that Parsons calls the Principles. “In these principles, the safety of athletes Is the number 1 priority for us,” said Parsons. “Everything that is not fundamental for the Games will be downscaled or cut.”
No Question of the Tokyo2020 Legacy
The Paralympics were postponed for a year. But Tokyo2020 is already establishing a legacy in Japan. Yamawaki explained that Tokyo is one of the most accessible cities in the world for the disabled, and that the media showcases the capabilities and personalities of the Para athletes almost on a daily basis.
Spence shared comparative data showing the impact of the run-up to the Games.
“In the build up to London 2012 with 18 months to go, less than 1% of the British population could name a Paralympian, and everyone sees London as the benchmark. In Tokyo last year, 45% of the Japanese population could recognize Shingo Kunieda, the wheelchair tennis player. So that shows the real difference in interest. In terms of accessible transport, I think when Tokyo won the right to stage the Games, around 75% of the city’s metro stations were accessible. By the time the Games happen next year, that’s going to be at 99%. That would never have happened had it not been for the Paralympics coming to Tokyo. The legacies are going to be tremendous.”
Yamawaki oversees the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center, which is driving a groundbreaking education program in Japan’s school system. The IPC’s “I’mPossible” program – a toolkit of resources designed to engage 6-12 year old students about the Paralympic movement – is being pioneered in Japan with great success. Yamawaki said that this program has been delivered to 36,000 primary and secondary schools across Japan.
Children can learn from this unique learning opportunity,” said Yamawaki. “They will become future leaders in creating an inclusive society in this country after the Paralympics are over. It’s going to be one of the biggest legacies. Usually the parents teach the children, but in the I’mPossible program, kids teach the parents. This will increase parents’ awareness of the Paralympic Games and Paralympic sports. That’s the biggest impact we’re seeing.”
What You Can Do
Here are a few suggestions from IPC leaders on what we all can do to support the Paralympics broadly, and people with disabilities specifically.
Employ Persons with Disabilities:If your company does not employ persons with disabilities, it should. If your office is not set up to deal with people in wheelchairs, put in ramps. If you have a restaurant or a canteen, make your menus available in braille, or put your information on the internet so that people with disabilities can more easily access the information.
See the Opportunity: As Spence explained, before he joined the IPC, he didn’t realize people with disabilities are such great problem solvers.
“People with disabilities face challenges on a daily basis. They don’t tend to moan. They don’t just sit around thinking I can’t get around this. They always find innovative ways to get around and beat the challenge. They can bring a whole new creativity and new outlook to your business.”
Go See the Games:Seeing the Para athletes in action will change your attitude for life. Get as many people around you to see the Games.
“There’s very few people in the world who can run 100 meters in under 10.5 seconds,” said Spence. “Yet we have athletes with prosthetic legs and running blades who can do it in 10.4 seconds. It really does challenge perceptions towards disability.”
On Friday, July 23, 2021 – 365 days from now – the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will start!
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,
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.
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.”
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.”
American 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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).”
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.”
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.