The women of Team Japan’s basketball team were on a run. They upset Belgium, and then France. The shorter but swifter Japanese moved the ball around, played hounding defense, and shot threes with ease. They were the darling of this year’s Games for Japan, heading into a unexpected gold-medal match with Team USA.
The Americans had not lost an Olympic match since 1992, and they did not lose on Sunday, this final day of the XXXII Olympiad. But Team Japan won silver, and the hearts of millions of young women who saw that hard work and teamwork can take you places you never dreamed.
Tokyo2020 has been a watershed Games for Japanese female athletes. Not since the 2000 Olympics had Japanese women won more medals than the men, and in those Sydney Games, Japan garnered only 18.
In these Tokyo Games, Japan won a record 58 medals, and the women won a majority of them – 30!
Japanese female judoka and wrestlers won a combined 8 gold medals. Risako Kawai won gold in freestyle wrestling, joining her sister Yukako as the second set of Japanese siblings to win gold. (Hifumi and Uta Abe both won gold in judo.) Risako won gold at the 2016 Rio Games at the 63kg and below weight class, but she dropped a level with the hope that the sisters would both triumph in Tokyo. They did.
Judoka Akira Sone won Japan’s 16th gold medal in the +78kg weight class. She was also on the mixed team that lost to France, the only one on her team to win in the Mixed competition. She won handily in fact, a rock among the judo greats on Team Japan.
And Japanese women won their first gold and bronze medals in boxing. Was there anyone more joyful than Sena Irie? When she entered the stadium for the gold medal match, she was smiling like she walked into a surprise birthday party. And after peppering her opponent with swift jabs and a flurry of combinations, she won, jumping high in the air with glee.
Japanese women are bad-ass strong!
The male swimmers have been the more likely medalists for Japan, but this time Yui Ohashi won gold in the grueling 400 and 200-meter individual medley competitions, the only Japanese to win swimming gold.
Hideki Matsuyama was the Masters Champion heading into the Olympics, but it was Mone Inami who medaled with a second place finish.
And girl power was on display in skateboarding. A few days after 13-year-old Momiji Nishiya won gold in women’s street skateboarding, 19-year-old Sakura Yosozumi and 12-year-old Kokona Hiraki took gold and silver in the women’s park skateboarding.
Japanese women had a chance at a sweep in park skateboarding when 15-year old Misugu Okamoto, the number one seed, set up for her final run. If she could only execute her final big trick, she could have climbed above Great Britain’s Sky Brown who was in third, but she couldn’t execute.
In one of the most heartfelt images of the Games, her teammates and competitors rallied around Okamoto as the cameras captured them group hugging and lifting the tearful teen into the air.
There’s a good chance that sales of skateboards by teenage girls in Japan are up.
There’s a good chance too a lot more girls in Japan are thinking, “I can do that!”
It was June 26, 2003 and Seiko Hashimoto, a junior member of Japan’s leading political party, was on a panel with then former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who said this, according to AP:
Welfare is supposed to take care of and reward those women who have lots of children. It is truly strange to say we have to use tax money to take care of women who don’t even give birth once, who grow old living their lives selfishly and singing the praises of freedom.
Eighteen years later, Mori made another derogatory statement about women, but this time it led to his reluctant resignation from the presidency of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee.
His successor is Seiko Hashimoto.
An independent succession committee made up primarily of former Japanese Olympians and Paralympians and led by the well-respected chairman and CEO of Canon, Fujio Mitarai honed very quickly on one candidate – the Olympic speedskater and cyclist from Hayakita, Hokkaido. It’s hard to argue that anyone else in Japan has had more Olympic experience or embodies the Olympic spirit than Hashimoto.
Born on October 5, 1964, 5 days before the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Hashimoto was given the name Seiko, a play on the Japanese characters for the word “seika,” or Olympic flame. Hashimoto started her Olympic career at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, and competed as a speed skater in the 1988, 1992 and 1994 Winter Games, winning a bronze medal in the 1500 meter speedskating finals in Albertville. More incredibly, Hashimoto competed as a cyclist at the 1988, 1992 and 1996 Summer Olympics.
That’s 7 Olympiads in 12 years! If there is one reason the Japanese press have started calling her the Iron Lady, it was her ability to persistently and intensely train at high performance levels. Her Olympic run is unprecedented and frankly, astounding.
Hashimoto would go on to become the head of the Japanese Olympic team delegation, or the chef de mission at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics, and then the first female to lead a Japan delegation at a Summer Olympics when she was appointed chef de mission at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
There is no rest in Hashimoto. Following her appearance in the 1994 Albertville Olympics, bronze medal in hand, she competed for a seat in the upper house of the Japanese Parliament in 1995, and won. While learning the ropes as a rookie politician, every day she trained for her final Olympics from 3am and worked at the Diet building from 8am. She was likely the only elected official competing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and certainly a first such double-hatter for Japan.
When Hashimoto gave birth to a daughter in 2000, she was first upper house legislator in Japan to give birth to a child while in office. As Hashimoto would have to rely on staff to watch over her daughter, she saw that others had a similar need, and would go on to establish a child care facility in the basement of a then newly built Second House of the House of Representatives. Not only lawmakers and staff could use the facilities, but also residents in the neighborhood of Nagatacho’s newest nursery.
Upon accepting the request of the selection committee to assume the role of President of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, Hashimoto resigned from her cabinet level position as Minister of State for Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. She had to resign from her government role for legal as well as ethical reasons. But there will likely be whispers of undue influence by the former president of the committee, Yoshiro Mori.
Mori, who was Japan’s prime minister from April 2000 to April 2001, has been for a long time a mentor and supporter of Hashimoto’s political career. Hashimoto has often publicly referred to Mori as “father,” and likewise, Mori has referred to Hashimoto as “daughter.”
Additionally, Hashimoto has been, ironically, accused of sexual harassment, primarily due to a public incident where Hashimoto may have had too much to drink at a celebration one evening at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and where, on camera, Hashimoto repeatedly kissed Japan figure skater Daisuke Takahashi.
But clearly, the biggest challenge is leading the organization that is expected to successfully run the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics, amidst the uncertainty of a global pandemic, with only 5 months to go. The day before Hashimoto assumed leadership, the governor of Shimane prefecture, explained with emotion in his voice about the frustration with the response to the COVID-19 crisis by the Japanese central government as well as the Tokyo2020 organizers. He even expressed the possibility of cancelling the Shimane portion of the Olympic torch relay, scheduled for mid May.
“It’s difficult to cooperate with the holding of the Tokyo Olympics and the torch relay,” said governor Tatsuya Maruyama. “I want to make the decision (to cancel the torch relay) based on whether or not the response of the central government and the Tokyo government to the coronavirus improves.”
So Hashimoto has a mountain to climb. But if anyone has the energy and determination needed, the Iron Lady from Hokkaido does.
On February 12, 2021, the president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, Yoshiro Mori, announced his resignation, after making sexist comments during a board meeting of the Japan Olympic Committee. Since that day, the press has been speculating about who the best successor would be. After Mori attempted to appoint Saburo Kawabuchi, a man similar in age and temperament to the post, the criticism was immediate. The CEO of Tokyo 2020 quickly announced that the president of the organizing committee had not been selected, and that a selection committee would be formed to pick the best person.
The television news shows have had a field day throwing out names, based on such criteria as gender, age, Olympic experience, sports administration experience, political savvy or even business savvy. Here is a list of candidates compiled from news programs from two Japanese television stations: TBS and TV Asahi.
Shizuka Arakawa: Thanks to Shizuka Arakawa, all of Japan knows what an “Ina Bauer” is, a signature form that Arakawa displayed in the free program that led to her winning the gold medal in the Ladies’ Singles figure skating competition at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics. The TV Asahi remarked that she has a sharp sports mind, has strong recognition overseas, and has no connections to Japanese politics. Young and female, Arakawa represents the opposite of Mori and Kawabuchi.
Seiko Hashimoto: An Olympian’s Olympian, Seiko Hashimoto appeared in 7 Olympiads, both Winter and Summer, as a speed skater and cyclist, from 1988 to 1996. That alone is a WOW! The native from Hokkaido, Hashimoto entered the world of politics when she was elected to the House of Councillors of Japan’s National Diet in 1995. She now serves in the cabinet of the current prime minister, Suga Yoshihide, as Minister of State for Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. Can she leverage her compelling credentials as an Olympian, a woman in her prime, and as a politician to succeed Mori?
Mikako Kotani: Mikako Kotani took home two bronze medals in synchronized swimming at the 1988 Summer Olympics. Since then she has served on the Japanese Olympic Committee, and the IOC Athletes’ Commission, as well as the Association of the National Olympic Committees, among several local and international committees related to the Olympics. Kotani was Japan’s first female flag bearer at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Can you she become the first female head of the Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee?
Koji Murofushi: His mother was a Romanian javelin champion. His father was an Olympic hammer thrower for Japan. His sister competed in the discus and hammer as well. Koji Murofushi is from a family of powerful athletes, and won gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics, as well as bronze at the 2012 London Olympics in the hammer throw. He currently has one of the most challenging roles in the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee: Sports Director. He is also the current commission of the Japan Sports Agency. He’s got the build of Thor and the experience of Oden. Is he ready to step up?
Daichi Suzuki : Coming from behind in the final strokes, Daichi Suzuki won the gold medal in the 100 meter backstroke and became a legend in Japan sports swimming. Suzuki would go on to become a sports administrator, leading the Japan Swimming Federation before becoming the first commissioner of a new national sports government organization, called Japan Sports Agency. Suzuki was famous for swimming 20 or 30 meters underwater before breaking the water’s surface with his powerful backstrokes. Will he emerge from this vast talent pool as the winner of the Mori Sweepstakes?
Yasuhiro Yamashita: After tearing his right calf muscle in a semifinal judo match at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Yasuhiro Yamashita went on to win the gold medal in dramatic fashion, after being denied the opportunity when Japan chose to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Yamashita was appointed chairman of the Japanese Olympic Committee, replacing Tsunekazu Takeda, who became ensnarled in an alleged bribery scandal related to Tokyo’s winning bid for 2020. Will history repeat and Yamashita replace another leader embroiled in controversy?
Shinzo Abe: He appeared at the 2016 Rio Olympics dressed as one of the Mario Brothers. The two-time prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, left the leadership of Japan in August 2020, citing the need to recover from a recurring illness. If the role is more figure head than operations head, is it reasonable for one prime minister to succeed Yoshiro Mori, another former prime minister?
Tamayo Marukawa: Tamayo Marukawa is a former announcer for TV Asahi who started her political life after being elected to the House of Councillors of the Japanese National Diet in 2007. She served at the cabinet level as Minister in charge of the Toyo Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2016.
Hisako, Princess Takamado: She is the widow of Prince Takamado of Mikasa, who is the son of Prince Mikasa, the youngest of Emperor Taisho’s four sons. As members of the Japanese Royal Family, Prince Mikasa and Princess Takamado travelled the world extensively. They represented the government of Japan at the opening ceremony and games of the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea-Japan, which was the first time members of the Japanese Imperial Family set foot in South Korea since the Second World War. Princess Takamado has been a tireless supporter of sports organizations. Will she become the ultimate supporter of the ultimate sports organization in Japan?
Akio Toyoda: Akio Toyoda is the president of Toyota, one of the world’s biggest car companies and most famous brands. The grandson of Kiichiro Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Motors, Toyoda is perceived as an excellent communicator and resilient leader. Toyota is also one of the IOC’s biggest global sponsors, so he certainly understands the internal workings and governance of the Olympic and Paralympic eco-system. Will Toyoda take the driver’s seat in this lumbering sports vehicle lurching to the finish line?
February 12 Update: Less than 24 hours after the news of Saburo Kawabuchi’s expected succession to president of the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee, it was announced that no successor had been identified. According to the Japan Times, “Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto said during a news conference Friday evening that a ‘gender project team’ as well as a selection committee to pick Mori’s successor will be formed, though it’s unclear when a selection will be made. ‘We need to select a replacement as quickly as possible,’ Muto said.”
At an online meeting of the Japan Olympic Committee, Mori made a sexist comment in regards to the goal of increasing the JOC’s board directors to 40%. According to Asahi Shimbun, Mori said
A meeting of an executive board that includes many women would take time. Women are competitive. When someone raises his or her hand and speaks, they probably think they should speak, too. That is why they all end up making comments.
The protest was immediate and global. A former prime minister of Japan, Mori was criticized in the twitterverse for being out of step, too old, too domineering. A former member of the JOC called him the “don” of the Japan sports world because what he says, goes. So one might expect that Mori’s successor would appear markedly different.
In tandem with the news of Mori’s resignation, it was revealed that his successor would be Saburo Kawabuchi.
Kawabuchi is indeed a legend in the world of Japan sports. The Osaka native and Waseda University graduate, Kawabuchi, played football at Furukawa Electric from 1965 to 1970 in the early days of the Japan Soccer League. He was a member of the national soccer team representing Japan at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, where he scored the go-ahead goal that led to the defeat of Argentina at Komazawa Stadium, and advanced Team Japan to the quarter finals.
He went on to become the head coach of the Japan national football team in 1980. But more significantly, he established the Japan Soccer League, aka J-League, Japan’s first professional soccer league, and was the first chairman of the league, where he served until 2002.
And when FIBA, the international governing board of basketball, expressed great displeasure that the two basketball leagues in Japan, the National Basketball League and the BJ-League, were at each other’s throats and refused to come together, they called on Kawabuchi to head the taskforce that would lead to the creation of a single league – the B. League.
In other words, Kawabuchi was the leader at the birth of not one, but two professional sports leagues in Japan.
It’s hard to argue with his qualifications to run the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee. It’s the optics that may be a bit concerning.
Kawabuchi is 84, a year older than Mori. And Kawabuchi’s leadership style may appear to be similar to Mori’s – autocratic.
When FIBA barred Japan’s basketball governing association, the Japan Basketball Association, from allowing its team to participate in any international competition in November, 2014, there was great concern that Japan would not be able to get its act together so that a national team could compete at the Tokyo2020 Olympics, even with a free pass as the host country.
Kawabuchi entered the scene and essentially manhandled the relevant parties into an agreement to merge and create the B. League. As this 2015 Japan Times article explained, Kawabuchi doesn’t mind that telling people it’s my way or the highway.
Kawabuchi is often described as an autocrat for arbitrarily making decisions for the J. League and JFA, but he doesn’t care. He does what he believes is right.
“I’m fine being called that,” Kawabuchi said with a grin. “If I’m called an autocrat, I tell them I am. I’m like, ‘What’s wrong with that? Tell me if I’ve done anything wrong being an autocrat.’ ”
To Kawabuchi, an autocracy is equivalent to strong leadership, and Japanese sports needs more of that. He added that proposals supported by the majority tend to be accepted as the best ideas in Japan, but he strongly disagrees with this viewpoint.
“If you think you’ll have the best idea by gathering more opinions, that’s a big mistake. That’s not my way,” Kawabuchi said. “Regarding (Japan’s basketball reform), if they say that Kawabuchi set the vision by himself, let them say so.”
To be fair, it is unclear what Kawabuchi’s attitude is towards women. And as the head of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, he certainly has a challenge in front of him, with only a little over 5 months to go before the opening ceremonies on July 23.
But people will be watching him, perhaps unfairly, with a cynical eye.
Meet the new boss. Hopefully, not the same as the old boss.
“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” Oliver Wendell Holmes
The nineteen-year-old landed in Tokyo, Japan wide-eyed.
A rising star in the best women’s athletic program in the United States, Wyomia Tyus had incredible opportunities for a young woman traveling the world, including Poland, Germany, England and the Soviet Union. But nothing prepared her for the crowds of Tokyo, she told me.
I grew up in Griffin, Georgia, where maybe there was 40,000 people, with half of that in the countryside. When we flew in to Tokyo, I will never forget seeing the lights from the plane, so beautiful. And the big buildings, which reminded me of New York. But there were so many people! That was a little scary.
Tyus told me that her coach, the legendary Ed Temple, made sure that his athletes’ lives were more than just running and jumping. He would tell his athletes to experience things, to go on sightseeing tours and see as much as possible. And being in the Olympic Village was eye opening, as she described in her autobiography, Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story, co-authored by Elizabeth Terzakis.
Coming from Georgia and Tennessee, not knowing anything but “you’re black” and “You’re white,” and then seeing all these different hues and colors, all these different ethnicities, there was nothing I could do but grow. It made me have a better understanding of people in general – and of myself. Everybody always talks about the differences between blacks and whites, but the truth is, certain aspects of the black and white cultures in the South were pretty much the same: people who came from the farms ate mostly the same, dressed mostly the same, depending on their class. But in the Olympic Village, here were all these people who ate different foods and spoke different languages and word different clothes – they lived differently, and they had a different understanding of the how we lived.
Tyus told me how she could go so long without knowing that the world was so diverse. “It was such a growth period for me,” she said. “I didn’t know these things. How come nobody talked about these things in high school, I wondered.” Having a wide number of experiences and interacting with a diverse group of people became a basic tenet for success in Tyus’ life, and thought she needed her children to understand that. She made sure that she sent her kids to her home, and to her first husband’s home in Canada to experience different ways and thinking. She said her son and daughter were sometimes put off by the way their aunts and uncles talked, and smelled and acted. But their mother had this belief:
Knowing that someone who is so different from you is also a part of you makes you a stronger person. It helps you to be able to appreciate life, to really laugh at life, to see the things that people do as part of a culture. I wanted my kids to know that my dad’s side of the family is different from my mom’s side, and both are different from Duane’s family in Ohio and his grandmother who grew up in Tennessee. This is your family. This is part of you, so you should appreciate difference and not put other people down.
Of course, this tolerance is tested at times, and like mothers around the world, Tyus needs to balance principles with common sense. While race relations in America have improved significantly in some ways, they have stayed the same in others. Like many other black parents, she has had to provide uncomfortable advice to her children about how to behave in the presence of police, as she explains in Tigerbelle:
If the police pull you over, you need to keep your hands on the wheel, you need to say ‘Yes sir’ and ‘No sir,’ and you need to say everything you’re going to do before you do it.
You need to say: ‘Can I roll my window down?’ You need to say, ‘I am reaching for my wallet now.’
You need to tell them which hand you are going to use to do it.
Her son is incredulous, but Tyus feels that in the 21st century it is still necessary for a person of color to be extra careful. She’s known this ever since she first moved to California, a place she knew would be very different from Griffin when she moved West as a 23-year-old – temperate weather, more glamorous, and more tolerant of difference. While that was generally true, Tyus still experienced the discomfort of being perceived as a maid in the elevator of her apartment complex, or stared at for swimming in the pool, as she noted in Tigerbelle.
Before I came out west, I thought it would be different—lots of people in the South thought that. To this day, people in Griffin will say to me, “California? Oh, you could have it so free there!” And before I moved, I agreed. California’s so open, I thought. But no. It’s not. Things are just more subtle than they are in the South. Because a lot of the people in California came from the South. And moving to California didn’t necessarily change their ideas. It just meant that they were surrounded by change and maybe they had to bend a little bit.
Unpleasant as that revelation is, Tyus gained this insight because she changed her environment, interacted with different people, reflected on what she understood, and revised her worldview.
Tyus is not an activist. She’s an introvert. She’s inquisitive. And thanks to a world of experience, encouraged by her parents and her mentors, like Ed Temple, she is very self aware and insightful about the world around her. Tyus is not just the first person ever to win back-to-back gold medals in the Olympic 100-meter sprint. She is a learner and a teacher – and we need more people like Wyomia Tyus than ever before.
“Every new experience brings its own maturity and a greater clarity of vision.” Indira Ghandi
The classic question for children is supposed to evoke the innocent dreams of roles that represent the exemplary memes of the day: president, astronaut, engineer, baseball player, movie star. For Wyomia Tyus, her answer was admirable, but arguably limited:
“I wanted to be a nurse, or a teacher,” she told me. “I really didn’t know what I wanted to be, but I thought I had to say something.”
Thanks to a chance siting at a junior track meet in Fort Valley, Georgia, by the coach of the women’s track and field team of Tennessee State University, Ed Temple, Tyus could begin to dream bigger. Temple made another trip to Georgia to visit Tyus’ mother to convince her to allow her 15-year-old daughter to come to his summer training camps at TSU in Nashville, Tennessee, and train with the women’s team, the Tigerbelles. She was greeted by Temple and the world-famous Wilma Rudolph, the darling of the 1960 Rome Olympics, who sprinted to three gold medals.
Tyus didn’t know who Rudolph was, let alone what the Olympics were, so she was in for an education, not just about track, but about how to think about the rest of her life. “When I went to Tennessee State and saw these Tigerbelles, there was a woman majoring in math,” she told me. “I had never seen a woman teach math. ‘Women make money teaching math,’ I thought. ‘I want to be a doctor,’ another told me. ‘You should think about that.'”
This was the early 1960s, when women were not encouraged to dream about being anything other than the perfect wife for a good man. In an interview with Morning News Anchor Atlanta radio stations, V-103 and WAOK, Maria Boynton, Tyus explained the state of women athletes in America.
In the time I was in school from 1963 to 1968, there were only 8% of women going to college. I’m not talking about black women – 8% of women in the whole US of A that were in college. I feel very honored, very lucky and blessed that I had that opportunity. Today, your opportunities are a lot better, a lot greater. When I was competing, Mr. Temple would always say, “Now you have Title IX. And Title IX gave he opportunity for women to go to college, to get a scholarship at all major universities. You have the same rights that men have, that they have always had. When we were competing, we were Title IX.
Title IX is a federal civil rights law in the United States that was passed in June, 1972, which made discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions that received federal funding, illegal. It laid the groundwork for equal access to entry, financial assistance and opportunities for men and women in schools and universities across the country. And as schools began to invest more equitably in athletic opportunities for women, a whole generation of women in America were given the choice to participate and excel in sports. The copious number of gold medals for America in women’s soccer, softball, ice hockey, and track and field among many sports is thanks to Title IX.
But before Title IX, there were very few places that provided scholarships for women athletes. Tyus said that in the early sixties, Tuskegee University and the University of Hawaii had small women’s track programs. But only Tennessee State University was offering scholarships for women in any significant numbers. On top of that, parents were unwilling to send their daughters to universities to play sports. That idea was simply unfamiliar to most. But Coach Temple had the ways and the means to make it work, according to Tyus in her wonderful autobiography, Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story, co-authored by Elizabeth Terzakis.
Mr. Temple was one of the few coaches who had the charisma and ability to convince parents to let their daughters run track. And once they did, he had the ability and fortitude to say to the girls, “you could be more than just a track star. This could propel you into your future. Track opened the doors for you, but education will keep them open.” He gave us a dream – something to look forward to. Most of us were coming from poor families, big families. Most of them came from families of nine, ten 0even thirteen or fourteen. Girls wanted to get out of that and make a better life for themselves, and their parents wanted the same. Mr. Temple gave them the opportunity. He saw possibilities for women way before Title IX – in fact, Mr. Temple used to say that his program was Title IX before Title IX. He had a vision, and he let us see it too.
As Temple explains in this video interview, he set very high expectations for the women on his team, in a most public way.
One of the things I stressed was education. After every quarter, I would get the grades of every girl from the registrar’s office. I’d get them in a room and call their name and go over every grade that they had. If you made a D, or a C, I’m going to talk about you in front of everybody. If you made the honor roll, I’m gonna give you credit. And after year two, that word would pass down to the new ones coming in. “Look now, you better get your schoolwork done, because he’s gonna talk about you.”
In addition to ensuring that his student athletes got a university education, he also made sure that they were supporting each other. He understood that there were so few in the country who could relate to the life of a female athlete at the time, particularly black female athletes, so he made sure they believed in the idea that united they stood, divided they fell. When a shoe company said they were sending Wilma Rudolph free running shoes, Temple made sure they sent many pairs of different sizes so others on the team could benefit. When Edith McGuire was taken around Tokyo by the press, expectant that she would be the next Wilma Rudolph in Tokyo, Temple made sure that Wyomia Tyus tagged along and saw the sights.
And he made sure that the senior students took care of the junior students, as she explained in Tigerbelle.
Mr. Temple arranged it so that there were always older girls there to support the younger girls and so that the younger girls got to be in contact with all the older girls instead of just a few. He knew that not everyone would connect in the same way, and he wanted each of us to be able to find someone we liked and could look up to who would help us.
These interactions between teammates, relationships forged in the fires of competition, led to life-long friendships, a sisterhood of Tigerbelles that continues to today.
Perhaps more than anything else, Coach Temple was a great teacher, someone who understood that the only person who could really effect significant change and growth was that person herself, as she explained powerfully in her book.
I think that Mr. Temple felt that he had done his best to prepare us for the world. He always wanted us to be our own people even if it meant bumping heads with him. If he didn’t agree, he wasn’t going to say anything, and if he did agree, he might say one thing, but not much more. Because his main question was always, “Is this what you want? Is this what you believe in?” As long as you weighed it out and thought about the consequences—what else could he ask for?
Some people felt he could have said more, tried to have more influence, but that was not the man he was. If he ever had said more, I would have listened to him, but nothing would have changed. I was still going to be saying what I said. I would say, “That’s me, Mr. Temple. You taught us to speak our minds.” Which to me meant he had been successful at doing the only thing that really mattered to him: making us feel comfortable being ourselves.
Being a black athlete in America in the 1960s was a challenge. Being a black woman athlete was often an insurmountable barrier.
“Black women were less than second-class citizens, and they had to work – they had to work hard,” she wrote in her excellent autobiography, Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story, co-authored by Elizabeth Terzakis.
There were not a lot of options for women in sports at that time, and the options we did have were especially restricted because they were for girls. When I started playing basketball, girls couldn’t run up and down the court – you had to play half-court: three guards on one side, three forwards on the others, and you could only dribble three times before you had to pass or you’d be called for traveling.
But if anybody made do with limited opportunity, it was Wyomia Tyus. She grew up in Griffin, Georgia, in a house with no plumbing and unsteady access to electricity, that, on her tenth birthday, burned to the ground, leaving the family of six with nothing but memories. And yet her family persevered, and Tyus continued to grow up in a supportive household, as she told me.
By growing up in a small town, my parents worked very hard, they always said that it is not always going to be this way, you will have opportunities, that you don’t see this when you are young. I didn’t mind being poor. I didn’t think about it. I thought I had as much as everyone else. Thanks to my parents, I felt free. I felt I could do whatever I wanted to do. They taught us that we could that we just had to work hard. You can’t quit. You just have to work it.
Tyus learned from her brothers how to compete, and never to give in, as she wrote in Tigerbelle.
They could knock me down twenty times, and I’d be back up fighting. ‘Could you just stay down?’ they would always say. But I never would. My attitude was: You’re going to know you’ve been in this war. I might get the worst of it, but you’re going to know that you’ve been in a way. They taught me all of that.
Being brought up in a nurturing home was important. Natural athletic ability was critical. But Tyus was lucky that one of the few people in the country who could help grow her career was in town one day – legendary track coach, Ed Temple of Tennessee State University.
“I was lucky,” she told me. “I don’t take that lightly. I always think about how Mr. Temple saw me run and thought that I had the potential to come to Tennessee State and run and maybe go to the Olympics. He was going to other meets in Mississippi and Alabama. That’s how he would choose the girls. And I wasn’t winning when he saw me. I was doing ok, but he saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.”
Tyus would go on to star in one of the few institutions in America that developed women track and field athletes in the 1960s. Generally speaking, however, women, and especially black women, were constantly ignored and belittled.
At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the coach of the US men’s track team decided that the women were not really part of the US Olympic squad as he refused to allow the entire shipment of sprinter’s starting blocks to be used by the women sprinters, as explained in Tigerbelle. “What are you talking about?” Mr. Temple said to him. “I thought we were the American team – that we were all the American team.”
The women’s track team were just about resigned to using the starting blocks available to the Japan team when American sprinter, Bob Hayes, spoke up. “What kind of craziness is this? You can use my blocks any time you want.” The male athletes then began sharing the equipment, trumping the sexist attitude of the coach.
Tyus and teammate, Edith McGuire, went on to finish gold and silver in Tokyo. And Tyus came home to a parade in her hometown. But, while everyone in the universe knew that Bob Hayes was the star of stars at the Tokyo Olympiad, little did the rest of the United States know or care about the fastest woman in the world.
As the Americans began their preparations for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, the track and field women were again dismissed as an afterthought. As she wrote in Tigerbelle, it was necessary to train in a high altitude venue to match conditions in Mexico City. Lake Tahoe, California was perfect and scenic. But only the men were invited to train there. The women of the track and field team were shipped to Los Alamos, New Mexico.
When we got off the bus, we all looked around and said, “Wow, there’s nothing here.” Because there was nothing in that town—nothing but all the nuclear weapons development facilities. As time went on, we began to understand why it was so isolated. There was a long-distance runner who would just go off and run, and one day she headed into an area that she shouldn’t have been in. That’s when the coaches called us together and told us, “You should not be running anywhere but where you’re told.”
Instead of focusing on peak performance, the women were wondering “what am I breathing in?”
Tyus went on to win the gold medal in the women’s individual 100-meter sprint as well as the women’s 100-meter relay. But her accomplishments were drowned out by the feats of a very strong American men’s squad in Mexico City, and also more generally by an American press that could not see the value in, or perhaps, could not overcome the fear of promoting the accomplishments of black women.
At the time, they were not about to bathe a Black woman in glory. It would give us too much power, wouldn’t it? Because it would have been a moment, if you think about it: “She won back-to-back gold medals; nobody in the world has ever done that. Let’s paint the US all over her—let’s drape her in a flag!” You would think. But no. I would never see them hanging a flag on me. Because one thing the Olympics is not about is giving power to the powerless.
Her coach Temple wrote tellingly in his book, Only The Pure in Heart Survive, that Tyus’ incredible feat of back to backs would likely be forgotten. He wrote the following in 1980, eight years before Carl Lewis became the first man to be crowned fastest in the world two Olympiads in a row.
If a man ever achieves this, everyone will probably say he’s the first – until they look back over the records and discover that Wyomia Tyus did it long before any of them. Maybe by then she’ll get the recognition she really deserves.
And yet, Tyus understands that the unsupported minority need to leverage what they get. And she understands that history is on her side.
If you make history, there’s no way they cannot put you in it. It may not be the way I want, but every time they talk about the 100 meters, they have to mention my name. Maybe softly. Maybe just once. But they have to.
In 1999, over 30 years after her historic back-to-back 100-meter Olympic gold medal, the name of Wyomia Tyus was shouted out loudly and proudly, with the opening of the Wyomia Tyus Olympic Park, a 164-acre swath of greenery with picnic areas, ball parks and soccer fields, not far from where Tyus grew up in Griffin, Georgia.
Surrounded by friends and family, Tyus was overwhelmed by the recognition. “I was speechless, to tell you the truth. I was shocked and pleased and didn’t know that people cared so much. It was great.”
“I want foxes, not oxes,” is how Ed Temple would tell his athletes to watch their weight.
Temple was the coach of the Tennessee State University women’s track and field team – aka The Tigerbelles, and he was upset that 19-year-old Wyomia Tyus, who traveled to Tokyo in October 1964 on the US Olympic team, spent too much time at the dining halls of the Olympic Village. Tyus gained 5 pounds right away.
“That’s just too big,” complained Temple to Tyus. “You’ve never been this big, and here it is, the most important race of your life…you need to push away those potatoes, you need to push away the rice, and you need to push away from that bread.”
That’s how Tyus explained her predicament in her autobiography, Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story, co-authored by Elizabeth Terzakis. She was not as concerned as her coach. Temple had wanted her to add pounds to be stronger anyway, she thought. After all, he had done all he could to keep Tyus’ expectations realistic.
When Tyus made the US squad as the third fastest American woman in the 100-meters at the US Olympic Trials, Temple told her, “Tyus, we really don’t expect much from you. Your year is ’68.” Tyus explained that Temple wanted his inexperienced athletes to gradually get used to high-pressure competition, like handling the press and the moment of the big race.
So Tyus wasn’t expecting to win the 100-meters – that honor was supposed to go to Edith McGuire, the fastest Tigerbelle at the time and heir apparent to fellow Tigerbelle, Wilma Rudolph, who famously blazed to three sprinting gold medals at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
And yet, Tyus, the quiet woman from Griffin, Georgia, was sensing an opportunity. Temple ran his Tigerbelles through rigorous practices, and because Tyus was running in both the individual 100-meter and 100-meter relay competitions, she took on an extra practice load. In trying to suss out the right combinations for the relay, Temple would work on a variety of combinations, with Tyus often on the receiving end of the baton.
He tried several people, and they were always passing to me, so I was always running. I guess that was his way of getting me to run off the weight. Instead, it just made me really strong—good and strong. When it came down to qualifying for the final in the 100, I was running well in every heat; in fact, I was winning each heat, and easily—easily meaning that I wasn’t struggling or really trying hard to win. Even Mr. Temple had to say, “Tyus, you look so good.”
Temple was beginning to wonder if Tyus could medal. Tyus’s confidence was growing in leaps and bounds in these practices, and she began to believe she could take gold. In fact, she won her three heats prior to the final handily. When she lined up in lane 6 against the 7 other fastest women in the world, looking at the immaculately managed cinder track, wary of her teammates McGuire and Marilyn White to her right, and the two speedy Poles, Halina Górecka and Ewa Klobukowska on her far left, she was ready. She just needed to hold off her best friend, McGuire.
When the gun went off, I just remember running, not thinking, until I was at the 80-meter mark, and then asking myself: Where’s Edith? Because Edith was always catching me at 80 meters. Where is she? I wondered. I can’t hear her. I can’t see her. But it don’t mean anything because she’ll be here.
McGuire was there. But with a perfectly timed upper-body lean, Tyus hit the tape 0.2 seconds ahead of her teammate. At 11.4 seconds, Wyomia Tyus was the fastest woman in the world, and the world record holder in the 100-meter sprint.
Free and easy won the race. Tyus told me she was in great shape and had little to lose, as opposed to the weight of the world on her teammate McGuire.
They expected her to win three gold medals like Wilma. She had the pressure on her. I had none. After all, I had never beaten her. I got third in the Olympic trials. Edith and Marilyn White, they were running so well. But I think I won because I was running so relaxed and care free.
Standing on the medal stand, Tyus felt a burst of euphoria, the protective bands of caution and reserve loosened, at least on the inside. Here’s how she described in her book:
I was excited. And for me to say I was excited means I was excited. Once I was on that victory stand, I started thinking, I’ve got to do this four years from now. Instead of standing there feeling everything and enjoying my win, I was thinking: I’ve got to try to be here in four years – I’ve got to come back here and do this again. That’s what went through my mind. Not, Yay! I won it! I did it! I won a gold medal! That was not even going through my head. It was: four years? Oh my.
UCLA’s Katelyn Ohashi performs at the Collegiate Challenge in Anaheim on Saturday. Ohashi earned a perfect score during a now-famous floor routine that went viral on social media. (Richard Quinton / UCLA)
She shimmied and swayed to Proud Mary. She flipped and pranced to Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson. She egged the crowd on with a tongue-wagging swagger. When she did her final run of flips, ending in a dramatic split landing, she rose with a hair-waving flourish that brought the gymnasium down.
The only thing that could break Americans out of their annual NFL playoff craze was Katelyn Ohashi of UCLA, who scored a perfect ten in the floor routine at the Under Armour Collegiate Challenge on January 12, 2019. Her 90-second performance hit the internet like a hurricane, prompting tweets from celebrities and appearances on national television.
The most casual fan of gymnastics in America were re-tweeting the video of her routine and wondering who Ohashi was, and why she didn’t have the gold-medal cache of a Simone Biles or an Aly Raisman. But as experts have cited, her viral routine, which garnered a perfect 10.0 score, was perfect only at the collegiate level. Slate writer and former gymnast, Rebecca Schuman explained the difference in levels in this podcast.
Flip, flip, flip, split jump, and then she lands in the splits. First time she did that, everybody thought it was a mistake. That’s one of these things that’s only in the NCAA because it looks completely amazing, but it’s really easy. It’s really easy. Everybody in gymnastics can do the splits. You learn the splits when you’re five years old. And the floor on a gymnastics mat actually has 16 inches of mats and springs, so it’s almost like a trampoline.
One of the major differences between the elite levels and the collegiate levels of gymnastics is the level of difficulty. In the case of the floor exercise, women at both levels have the same 90 seconds to work their magic. But while the NCAA has a ceiling of the Perfect 10, the elite level has no such ceiling. The more you can work in a higher level of difficulty, the higher your potential score.
If you take a look at Simon Biles’ or Aly Raisman’s floor routines in the All Around finals at the Rio Olympics, there is definitely a lot more high-speed flipping and tumbling at the Olympic levels. Even to my amateur eyes, I can see the elites challenging themselves to four major tumbling runs, while Ohashi does only three. Ohashi spends a lot more time dancing and engaging the crowd between runs two and three than an elite would ever do.
Thus the reason for Ohashi’s seeming overnight fame is rooted not in the revelation that Ohashi should be challenging Biles for a spot on the 2020 Tokyo Olympic squad. It is rooted more in her back story, one that reflects the make-or-break nature of the highest levels of athletic competition, particularly in gymnastics.
Ohashi, the Seattle native, was indeed on track for Olympic greatness. By the time she turned 16, she was a junior national champion and an American Cup champion, where she beat Biles in competition, the last person to actually do so. Unfortunately, she peaked at the wrong time, as Schuman explained.
She was in the tragic of all positions. She was the best elite in the world in the year after an Olympics (2012 London Games). The way the elite world works is gymnasts age out of their peak performance so quickly you generally have your peak years for one or two years at most, unless you’re Simone Biles. Normal human gymnasts peak for one or two years, and then they either injure out, or they just grow, and their center of gravity changes, and they can’t do what they use to be able to do. So Katelyn Ohashi was at the absolute peak of her genius as an elite in 2013. If the Olympics had been held in 2013, she would have won.
And while Biles would go on to win gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, adding fuel to the argument that the USA women’s gymnastics teams of 2012 and 2016 were the best ever, Ohashi fell off the gymnastics map. Her back was fractured. Her shoulders were torn. She competed in physical pain, and through constant hunger pangs. But even greater than the physical pain was the emotional pain. As she explained in a video for The Players Tribune, in the third person, she “was broken.”
Fans would tell her that she wasn’t good enough, that she didn’t look a certain way. She wanted to eat junk food and feel okay the next day, and not have to worry about getting kicked out because she couldn’t make a skill. I was constantly exercising after a meal just to feel good enough to go to bed. She was on this path of invincibility. And then her back just gave out. She wanted to experience what life was like to be a kid again. I was broken.
Fortunately, Ohashi decided that enough was enough. She dropped out of the elite levels of gymnastics into collegiate competition, attending UCLA with the hopes of finding joy in gymnastics again. She was welcomed by UCLA women’s gymnastics coach Miss Val, and the two formed a bond that emphasized joy and teamwork. As the coach said on Good Morning America, Ohashi said to Miss Val, “I don’t want to be great again. When I was great, there was nothing joyful about it.”
The viral video of her January 12 floor routine was an expression of joy. But the reason why the public, particularly on social media, went wild over Ohashi was the realization that we were seeing her emerge from a long and dark journey. Schuman’s insightful take is that we are relieved, because in a way, we are complicit in the dark journey Ohashi took for our ridiculously high demands for outrageous performance levels, in addition to unrealistic and unfair standards of body shape.
One of the reasons why Katelyn Ohashi’s performance is so magnetic…it’s not just her joy. You can see that her joy is a triumph over something. We also have to think – what do we get out of that? How important to us as viewers, casual or expert, is it, that she has been through the darkness before she gets to the light. How complicit is even the casual viewer who thinks this is the greatest thing they’ve ever seen, because what in her triumph has appealed to them.
So Katelyn Ohashi suffered, trying so hard to be something she was not.
For some, particularly at the highest levels of athletic performance, when the margin for error is so slim, the hard part is coming to grips with the fact that balancing super human performance levels and normal human feelings and urges is beyond the ability of almost everyone who breathes.
No one can be anyone else. You can only be yourself. Understanding that you can only be yourself, if you wish to be happy, is a first big step.
Katelyn Ohashi took that step when she joined the collegiate ranks and found an ally in Miss Val. That is why we see today the beautiful beaming and ultimately fulfilled young woman we admire today.
573 days to Opening Day of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. On July 24, 2020, all the questions, all the angst, all the planning will end, and all that will matter are the athletes. For now, we can only speculate about what will be, and recall what has been.