Richard and David Attenborough, 2001; photo by N Cunard/REX (336048j)


His older brother, Sir Richard Attenborough was known for playing iconic roles in blockbuster films, like Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett in The Great Escape, or John Hammond in Jurassic Park. But Sir David Attenborough is known for the iconic voice of nature films, that lilting, authoritative tone which brings a cheeky gravitas to the serious drama and dramatic silliness of all creatures great and small.

As a teaser to promote the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Attenborough was brought on board by the BBC to provide a cultural anthropological assessment of the ice-bound homo sapien known as the “curler”.

Click on the video below to see nature and all its rituals, as if you are a fly on a barren tree in the frozen tundra.

Our planet, the earth, as we know it, is unique. It contains life even in its most barren stretches. In all my years of exploration, these are the creatures I find most curious. For the first time ever, filmed over the course of three afternoons in deepest Russia, using the world’s most state-of-the-art cameras, this…is…curling.

Here we have a pack of sliding curlers. Watch as the Alpha female displays her dominance over the herd by tapping the end of the frisking broom to check for rogue insects. This is a precise exercise. Off she goes, gently but flamboyantly launching the oversized walnut down the frozen river. The Alpha female’s job is now complete. It’s down to the herd to frantically follow the walnut down the river, gently frisking the foreground.

Past the red line the walnut goes. This is nature at its most vulnerable. You’ll notice a group of other walnuts are already near the flat, round nest. These are from other sliding curlers who thrust their nuts down earlier. This is to mark their territory. The aim of this ritual is to land your walnut in the center of the nest. The frisking is frantic and often futile, making no difference to the success of the net thrust. But it’s playful and all part of what makes this game the sliding curlers play so magical. Look how happy it makes them!

To see an authentic narration by Sir David Attenborough, watch this fascinating clip called “Flight of the Dung Beetle”.

Komazawa Olympic Park venues 2
Komazawa Olympic venues in 1964, from the book, The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964

Are the Olympics a worthy investment? Does the investment create legacies for the host country?

The answer to those questions are often “no”, unfortunately, at least in terms of the billions spent on structures like stadiums and other various sports venues.

Many of the structures built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics still exist, like the Nippon Budokan, the National Gymnasium and Annex, as well as the Komazawa Olympic Park venues. Not only that, they live and breathe. Click below on the video to see and hear what I did.

On Sunday, May 1, during the long break in Japan known as Golden Week, I took a short bicycle ride to Komazawa Olympic Park, and walk where 1964 Olympians walked. The Park is a collection of venues: Komazawa Gymnasium where Japan won 5 of 16 total gold medals just in wrestling, Komazawa Hockey Field where India beat Pakistan in a memorable finals between two field hockey blood rivals, Komazawa Stadium where soccer preliminary matches were played, and Komazawa Volleyball Courts where Japan’s famed women’s volleyball team mowed through the competition until they won gold at a different venue.

On that day, thousands of people were enjoying unseasonably warm weather under clear, blue skies. The tracks around the park were filled with runners. The gymnasium was hosting a local table tennis tournament, and the stadium was prepping for the third day of the four-day Tokyo U-14 International Youth Football Tournament.

Komazawa 3

In the plaza between the various Komazawa venues, hundreds were enjoying the weather with great food and drink. I was pleasantly surprised to find draft Seattle Pike IPA. While enjoying the cold beer on the hot day, surrounded by hundreds of people loving the day, I realized that Japan in the 1960s made great decisions in planning for the 1964 Olympics. I had a similar revelation earlier when I visited the National Gymnasium months earlier. So much of what was built for those Summer Games are a part of the everyday life of the Japanese.

Japan built a fantastic legacy for 1964. What legacy will Japan begin in 2020?

Komazawa 6

pigeons over national staidum
From the book, Tokyo Olympiad, Kyodo News Agency

One of the greatest memories for the 1964 Olympians from the Tokyo Games is the opening ceremonies – the parade of athletes, jets sketching the Olympic rings in the sky, the lighting of the Olympic cauldron. The only event to get lukewarm reviews? The release of the pigeons.

  • “The pigeons are the most prolific dropping birds. We all kind of ducked for cover. The droppings from the sky were plentiful.” (British rower, Bill Barry)
  • “We all had cowboy hats. When they released the peace pigeons we were protected. Many of our compatriots were not. Our clothes were messed up but our hair wasn’t.” (American Judoka, Jim Bregman)
  • “The pigeons were dumping on the Olympians.” (American water polo player, Dan Drown)

Or were they doves?

To be honest, I was confused myself as Olympians, books and articles alike used the words “dove” and “pigeon” interchangeably. But aren’t they completely different birds? Doves are white. They symbolize peace. Pigeons are multi-colored gray. They symbolize disease in the urban environment.

Pigeon vs Dove

My confusion finally ended when I listened to this episode from one of my favorite podcasts, 99 Percent Invisible, in which producer Roman Mars interviews the author of the book, Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness, Nathanael Johnson. Here is how Johnson described pigeons:

Pigeons are legitimately revolting. All the things we find loathsome are really caused by us, humans. We bred them to be massively productive and then we put them in a situation where we fed them all kinds of food and we created this food waste that they could eat. They reproduce like crazy and so they overpopulate and they’re all squished together and they get all these parasites and diseases. A lot of the things we find disgusting about them is a result of that.

But as Mars explains in his 99 percent invisible site, pigeons have a proud and regal history.

Historically, these were birds of the aristocracy. Researchers believe they were domesticated in the Middle East and then spread around Europe by the Romans. Their habitats were even built into the architecture of Roman houses: one common element of a traditional Tuscan Villa was an integrated lookout tower and pigeon house. In the 1600s, pigeons were brought to Canada from Europe; from there, they spread across the United States. Governors and dignitaries would exchange them as gifts and house them in domestic pigeon roosts. As they became more common and wild, pigeons began to lose their exotic appeal and fell out of favor with the upper class.

Unfortunately, thanks to urbanization and the overpopulated and diseased state of the pigeon, our perception of this bird type has diverged. Mars again explains this quite eloquently:

This change in status is reflected in the evolution of common language as well: for a long time, “pigeon” and “dove” (of the same bird family) were essentially synonyms. Over time, the two diverged: “dove” was increasingly associated with positive things and “pigeon” became associated with the negative. Imagine, for instance, Pigeon Soap beauty bars, silky smooth Pigeon Chocolate, or the Holy Spirit descending from Heaven in the form of a pigeon.

So now I know – a pigeon is a dove, a dove is a pigeon. One, an alter ego to the other, akin to the devil pigeon on one shoulder, and the angel dove on the other.

I’m reminded of Milton and

feral cat in rio
A napping stray cat on the Escadaria Selarón staircase

On September 12, 1964, a month prior to the opening of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Mainichi Daily News published the last of a 15-part UPI series entitled, “Great Cities of the World”. The article was entitled “Rio: The City of Marching For Tomorrow”, a meaningless title really. The theme was a familiar one for emerging markets at the time: a fascinating city in a far-off land that was growing rapidly into prominence.

Below are a few of the highlights from that article about the city of Rio de Janeiro that provide us with hints to what has changed, and what has not over the past 52 years.

The Same

  • Corruption: “Rio is still Brazil’s center of political intrigue and corruption.” The article goes on to state that the laws are made in the recently established government seat, Brasilia, but that “the deals are made in elegant Copacabana Beach apartments owned by leading politicians, or by their mistresses, distant relatives or front men.” For sure, this is still true.
  • Industry: “Rio, outside the big coffee-and-automobile complex of Sao Paulo, has managed to win a positions in the textile, food processing and electronics industries.” Coffee and cars are still big exports for Brazil, as are textiles, electronics, aircraft, iron ore and orange juice.
  • Umbanda: “Umbanda claims 30,000 followers in Rio, but the signs would indicate more.” This uniquely Brazilian religion, a fusion of Roman Catholicism, African traditions, and indigenous American beliefs, is still a viable religion, with estimates of 400,000 followers in Brazil, with many of them likely in Rio.
  • Feral Cats: “No reformer has yet suggested doing away with Rio’s half-wild stray cats, numbering countless thousands, which dominate every park, alley and quiet street and no one is likely to attack them. A lot of Cariocas believe cats have ‘the souls of people.'” Rio, apparently, is still a cat haven.


Not the Same

  • Population: The population in 1964 was 3million. Today, Rio is creaking with a population over 11 million.
  • Maracana Stadium: Rio still goes crazy for soccer and plays big games in the Maracana Stadium. However, back in 1964, the stadium held an astounding 230,000 people. After the stadium was renovated and re-opened in 2013, it now seats 78,000.
  • Guanabara Bay: “The sparkling blue beauty of Guanabara Bay…”: That certainly isn’t a phrase bandied about these days.


guanabara bay pollution
Guanabara Bay


Fun in the Face of Solemnity and Challenge: As was true in 1964, it is still true today: the symbol of devout Catholic belief, Christ the Redeemer, is seen as a symbol of faith and peace, and at the same time, an expression of sweet cynicism. As the article stated, “‘He’s not giving His blessings,’ Cariocas like to wisecrack. ‘He is shrugging His shoulders.'”

christ the redeemer

There is something visceral about the javelin throw. After all, it was one of the few Olympic events that harken back to ancient military weaponry.

There is also something quirky about the javelin throw. In this wikiHow page on how to throw a javelin, you can see that a javelin thrower runs with his body facing sideways and the upper half of the body learning away from the direction the athlete wants to throw.

javelin form
Javelin throwing form

But for whatever reason, the best javelin throwers have hailed from the Scandinavian nations of Finland, Norway and Sweden. In fact, out of a total of 72 javelin Olympic medalists since 1908, 32 or 44% have gone to throwers from Scandinavia. The site Peak Performance makes an attempt to provide reasons for Finland’s dominance.

Theory #1 is that the javelin throw was Finland’s everyman’s sport, according to the same site.

Sociology emeritus professor Paavo Seppanen has been following sport closely for more than 60 years. In his view, the javelin throw is a model of an individual pursuit which doesn’t need much equipment or facilities. “In the countryside, any small boy could make a rudimentary birch or alder javelin and throw it in any open field. Throwing things – along with lifting stones, putting shots, wrestling arms, climbing trees, etc – has always been part of Finnish physical exercise tradition.”

Theory #2 is the cold dark climate of the area. In this case, the writer refers to Finland.

“The Finns have been moulded psychologically by the extremes of their climate,” says [Chris] Turner (British journalist). “Long dark winters and short glorious summers have produced the archetypal strong but silent national character. The javelin suits the Finns, providing an emotional release for all their pent-up feelings. It’s the dual release of spear and emotion which the Finns so much enjoy.”

Theory #3 is a corollary on Theory #2, in that the reserved nature of the Finns provides a firm launching pad for explosive throws.

The site quotes 1964 Olympic champion, Pauli Nevala.

According to 1964 Olympic Champion Pauli Nevala’s amusing definition, “what a great javelin thrower needs is a combination of egocentrism, guts bordering stupidity, plus lots of ambition and limitless greed to succeed – all of which happen to be scorned by our society!”

Whatever the reason, the Scandinavian hotbed is still hot! Of the nine javelin medalists in the past three Summer Games, four have been from Norway and Finland.

Finnish Javelin Legends
The photograph of Jonni Myyr… (the winner), flanked by his countrymen Urho Peltonen, Paavo Johansson-Jaale and Julius Saaristo, remains one of the defining moments of Finnish sport.
Houses are seen destroyed in Kumamoto_Telegraph
Houses are seen destroyed in Kumamoto. Credit: Taro Karibe/Getty

On April 14, 2016,  some five weeks ago, an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.2 hit Kumamoto City in the western part of Japan, followed two days later by a stronger earthquake of a magnitude of 7.0. Close to 50 people have been reported killed, while over a thousand people were injured.

While this pales in relation to the triple disaster of March 11, 2011 when an earthquake in the northern part of Japan resulted in devastating tidal waves and radiation leaks from a devastated nuclear power plant, there are still thousands of people living in shelters in Kumamoto, down from a peak of over 180,000 a few days after the earthquakes.

In modern day Japan, large earthquakes often result in significant hardship for large numbers of people. And just as it was a concern in 2016, it was equally a concern in 1964. On September 3, 1964, The Mainichi Daily News published an article noting the 41st anniversary since the Great Kanto Earthquake. On that day, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake struck Tokyo, impacting areas as far and wide as Yokohama and surrounding prefectures of Chiba, Kanagawa and Shizuoka.

For those who have seen the very large and very heavy Great Buddha statue in Kamakura, this 84,000 kg statue moved nearly a meter due to the earthquake. Death estimates from this earthquake range from 100,000 to 180,000. Over half a million homes were destroyed and nearly 2 million were left homeless. These casualties were the result not only of the initial earthquake, but also due to subsequent fires and tsunami.

Because the Great Kanto Earthquake occurred so long ago, there have long been underlying fears of another one hitting Tokyo any day. This is true today as much as it was in 1964. In fact, the headline for the Mainichi Daily News article was “If Kanto Quake Hits Now, More than 23,000 May Die.”

Earthquake Casualty Estimates_Mainichi Daily News_Sept 1964
The Mainichi Daily News, September 3, 1964

According to the article, police and fire department officials released a report estimating possible damage due to a similarly sized earthquake occurring in 1964. These authorities stated that some 43,000 wooden houses in Tokyo would collapse. The article states, quite clinically, that “over 23,000 people would be killed or would become missing by the initial collapse of residences. Also 40,000 people would be injured, seriously or slightly.”

But the article goes on to say, casualties “would quickly increase if subsequent disasters, such as tidal waves, fires and traffic mishaps take place.” And in a major earthquake in a major metropolis like Tokyo at the time, that was likely. The article continues by stating that fires in over 300 parts of Tokyo would break out, the ability to deal with all those fires being inadequate. If a tsunami hit Tokyo’s water front, some 1.3 million people would be in the way. Half the major roadways and highways, more than half of telephone communication capability, a few major bridges and about 100 railway bridges, as well as hundreds of places storing combustible materials would all be damaged.

And in fact, an earthquake did hit Tokyo on October 1, 1964, only 9 days prior to the commencement of the Tokyo Olympics.

When will the next big one hit Tokyo? It’s probably best not to dwell on that…..

open water swimming fort copacabana

In the first four Olympiads, from 1896 to 1904, swimming events were held in open water areas like The Mediterranean, The Seine River or artificial lakes. As mentioned in a previous post, the 1908 Olympics in London were held at the massive White City Stadium that had a pool and diving area built into the infield. For the most part in recent history, swimming events have been held in pools, and recently indoor pools.

At the 2000 Olympics, the triathlon was introduced, which includes a 1,500 meter swim in open water. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, athletes could compete for the first time in a 10,000 kilometer swim. In Beijing, this 10,000 meter swim took place in a rowing-canoeing park, while the same race took place in The Serpentine, which is a recreational lake in Hyde Park, London.

For the 2016 Rio Olympics, both the triathlon and the 10,000 meter swim competition will commence at Fort Copacabana, which is at the southern edge of Rio de Janeiro. This is truly open water as Fort Copacabana opens up into the South Atlantic Ocean.

There has been a lot of news about the filthy and possibly dangerous conditions in the Guanabara Bay waters, where the sailing events will take place, but Fort Copacabana is about 30 kilometers away from the polluted waters of Guanabara Bay, and there is less anxiety about sickness and safety for he triathlon and 10,000 meter race. This is how the site openwatersswimming.com puts it.

Fort Copacabana to Guanabara Bay

As can be expected in a beach bordering a major metropolitan area, Copacabana Beach is not pristine and there is plenty of urban runoff in the water, especially after a rain. But it still remains one of the world’s most iconic beaches and presents one of the world’s greatest natural amphitheaters for open water swimming competitions. With a twice daily inflow and outflow of water from the Atlantic Ocean, major events like the Rei e Rainha do Mar and Travessia dos Fortes are hugely successful.

To me, what is more amazing about the 10,000 meter open water swim is how close the finishes are. Unlike a 10k run, which is completed in 26 to 28 minutes at high performance levels, a 10k open water swim will take about 1 hour and 50 minutes to 2 hours, which is a little less time than a fast-paced foot marathon of 42 kilometers. While 10,000 meter race finishes are determined by seconds, marathon top finishers are often ten to thirty seconds apart.

Maarten van der Weijden
Maarten van der Weijden, winner of the first Olympic 10,000 meter open water swim competition in 2008.

In the short history of Olympic open water racing, after nearly two hours of grueling swimming, the differences between the top finishing times have been seconds, even fractions of seconds. At the first 10,000 race in Beijing, only two seconds separated the medalists, 1.5 seconds being the difference between gold and silver. At the London Games four years later, only 3.4 seconds separated first from second.

All this after nearly two hours in the water!

Torben Grael
Torben Grael (right), Brazil’s most decorated Olympian, is frustrated over the lost opportunity to clean up Guanabara Bay.

The Rio Olympics are under attack.

Not only is the world concerned about the removal of Brazil’s sitting President, the Petrobras scandal, the state of its weakened economy, and the threat of the deadly zika virus, prominent Brazilian athletes are also expressing increasingly powerful criticism and concern.

In this past week, Brazil’s most decorated Olympian, Torben Grael, as well as popular and former professional footballer, Rivaldo, spoke out very critically regarding the environment and security respectively.

In regards to the terribly polluted state of Guanabara Bay, Grael said in a recent interview that the organizers missed a huge chance to clean up the waters where sailing events will be held. Said the five-time medalist over five Olympiads:

We always hoped that having a big event like the Games would help. We ourselves put a lot of pressure to make it happen, but unfortunately it didn’t happen when they had money. And now they don’t have money, and so it’s even worse.

After the death of a 17-year old girl in Rio de Janeiro, Rivaldo wrote in frustration at the state of safety, health and politics in Rio, stating the following below a picture of the woman who was killed:

“Things are getting uglier here every day,” Rivaldo wrote. “I advise everyone with plans to visit Brazil for the Olympics in Rio — to stay home. You’ll be putting your life at risk here. This is without even speaking about the state of public hospitals and all the Brazilian political mess. Only God can change the situation in our Brazil.”

Rivaldo Instagram image
Rivaldo’s Instagram message from May 14.

On top of that, Dr Amir Attaran, a University of Ottawa professor recently wrote in the Harvard Public Health Review that the Rio Olympics should be postponed for health safety reasons.

Simply put, Zika infection is more dangerous, and Brazil’s outbreak more extensive, than scientists reckoned a short time ago.  Which leads to a bitter truth: the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games must be postponed, moved, or both, as a precautionary concession.

Where is that light at the end of this tunnel?

South Korea uniform
New South Korean Team Uniform

The threat of zika-virus bearing mosquitos are such a fear that the South Korean Olympic team has taken unusual measures. Authorities have worked to ensure that the uniforms of South Korean athletes helped to decrease the chances of being bit by a mosquito.

Their uniforms will make sure that legs are covered to the ankles and the arms are covered to the wrists. As you can see in the video and pictures, no shorts or shorts sleeves. Additionally, official wear of the South Korean Olympic squad will be infused by mosquito repellent.

As you can see in this link, other nations are fashioning wear that expose arms and legs. Since bartering among athletes is a huge sub-economy during the Olympics, as athletes trade a national pin, shirt, hat or jacket for those of another nation’s, it wouldn’t surprise me if the South Korean jackets become a hot item if the zika scare climbs another notch.

Australia team uniform
Australia Team Uniform for Rio