Entrance to Yoyogi National Gymnasium_photo by Jon Omori

Was it a sign of things to come?

 

After overcoming the fright of a false positive corona virus test, Kohei Uchimura re-tested negative enough times he could compete at the first major international gymnastics competition since the pandemic began wreaking world havoc. When two-time Olympic champion Uchimura landed the dismount after a very strong horizontal bar routine, the announcer was vocal:

The gymnastics world dares to dream! King Kohei – massive work from one of the finest of all time. Oh we’ve waited for that one!

At the age of 31, Uchimura has suffered shoulder injuries and has given up the pursuit of a third all around Olympic championship, but is gunning for gold in the horizontal bar at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. His performance was hopefully a sign of things to come.

 

The International Gymnastic Federation (FIG) certainly hopes so. They brought 30 men and women gymnasts from China, Japan, Russia and the USA together on Sunday, November 8, 2020 to participate in Tokyo at the Friendship and Solidarity Competition.

Photo by Jon Omori

One of the first major international sporting events, this competition held at the Yoyogi National Gymnasium is a test of  readiness – a chance to understand what it takes to hold a sporting event with spectators and participants from multiple  countries, data that will be used to develop operational plans for Tokyo 2020, which was postponed to the summer of 2021.

 

“One goal is to prove that staging a high-profile event in Tokyo is possible in the current context of the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to FIG, which organized this event.

Another goal is to send a message to athletes around the world who are hoping to make their Olympic teams, and make it to Tokyo for the Summer Olympics.

 

“I’m so happy we can hold this competition with spectators,” said Uchimura, who opened up the competition with a nifty opening vault. “I know this has been tough. But even with the restrictions due to COVID, we can still hold these events, and as athletes we can follow our dreams even with these hardships. For next year’s Olympics, it’s important that we, as athletes, are still able to pursue our dreams.”

 

Jon Omori, special liaison and advisor for the United States Olympic Committee, was present at the competition and noted that the crowd was sparse and social distancing was thus an easy objective. Yoyogi National Gymnasium, which was host to the swimming and diving events at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, can accommodate upwards of 13,000 spectators – and yet only 2,000 tickets were sold.

From youtube streaming feed

He said all people entering the arena were given a registration form that reminded them that

  • They had to wear their masks at all times.
  • If they were not feeling well they should contact the nearest staff person.
  • They can find the disinfectants at the entrances, and apply to their hands.
  • And as you move in and out of the arena, ensure you maintain social distance with others.

The form has a QR code which takes them to a LINE survey, in which they are asked such questions as

  • “Is your body temperature above 37.5 degrees?”
  • “Are you showing any cold symptoms, like coughing or scratchy throat?”
  • “Have you had any close contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19?”
  • “Are you aware of any cases of family members or close friends who have been suspected of infection?”
Athletes for China’s national gymnastics team in protective gear arrive at Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture on Nov. 5 to attend an international competition. (Ryo Kato)

While not all gymnastic teams are taking the precautions that the Chinese gymnastics team have (as you can see in the picture), athletes at the Friendship and Solidarity Competition, in general, seem to be taking fundamental measures of care.

 

Kyodo News says that gymnasts entering Japan had to take PCR tests 72 hours prior to departing their countries, and flew to Japan in chartered planes. They have also been taking daily tests while in Japan. The gymnasts are staying on a floor dedicated to their own team, watched over by security guards. Omori said that the hotels have also dedicated specific entrances and exits for the athletes, to ensure minimal contact with other people.

 

Omori also noted that there were no fixed exits and entrances, or pathways delineated to control traffic flows in Yoyogi National Gymnasium, but that everyone was wearing masks. “Coaches are all wearing masks,” said Omori, “and athletes are too, but take them off before they compete.”

 

In the end, Team Solidarity defeated Team Friendship. 423.6 to 421.3.

 

The real winners?  The gymnasts and athletes around the world who get a strong whiff of hope that Tokyo 2020 will be a reality in 2021.

Friends in the end, from youtube streaming feed
Kiyoko Ono and Takashi Ono in a dining hall at the Olympic Village_PhotoKishimoto

In commemoration of the 56th anniversary of the XVIII Olympiad, here is an excerpt from my book “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes.”

スウェーデンチーム 人命救助へ

 

In pursuit of a greater good, there is often sacrifice, both big and small. In a Japanese culture that prioritizes the group over the individual, keeping personal preferences and needs submerged in order to cater to the perceived interests of the neighborhood, classmates, team members, or colleagues at work are calculations of emotional and social intelligence that Japanese make every day.

 

To the Japanese, the sacrifices the individual must make to the group are most often seen as praiseworthy, symbolic of a powerful value in Japanese society.

 

At the 1964 Olympics, there were two sailors who came in eighteenth overall in a sailing category called the Flying Dutchman (FD) competition. But they came in first in the hearts of the Japanese.

 

On October 14, Stig Lennart Käll and his younger brother, Lars Gunnar Käll, in their boat Hayama, were sailing in the third race of seven in the FD-class competition when they saw a capsized boat ahead of them, and the two crew members floating in the middle of Sagami Bay.

 

Making a quick decision, the Käll brothers steered their way toward Australian sailor Ian Charles Winter, and plucked him out of the water. They then proceeded to the capsized Australian boat, Diablo, to rescue the second member of that crew, John Gregory Dawe, and pulled him into their boat as well. In addition to the Australians, six other boats failed to complete the race, which likely meant rough conditions. And yet, the Swedes, with two extra passengers, still managed to finish the heat.

 

The exploits of the Swedish crew were publicized nationally in the Japanese press. Fans from all over the country sent a barrage of letters and gifts of appreciation to the two Swedish sailors who were singled out for their sacrifice to the greater good.

 

It was also well publicized that the captain of the Japanese women’s volleyball team was making a sacrifice for the good of her volleyball team, as well as for the country. At the age of thirty-one, the team captain, Masae Kasai, was older by about six or seven years than most of her teammates. She had intended to retire from volleyball and get married after leading her team to Japan’s first World Championship in a victory over the Soviet Union in 1962. In fact, some felt that Kasai’s duty to Japanese society, as a woman, was to get married and have children, not to play volleyball. Kasai herself made it clear she wanted to move on and start a family.

 

But in the end, the call for gold and glory for Japan at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was so strong that she decided to delay retirement, and thus surrender herself to two more years of long, punishing hours in the gym. Her sacrifice was eventually rewarded, however, as she did make it to the altar in a highly publicized wedding after the Games ended.

 

Another story was that of Takashi Ono, the legendary veteran gymnast from Akita, Japan, who had already garnered twelve medals (including four golds) from the 1952, 1956, and 1960 Olympiads. At thirty-three, Ono was the oldest member of the 1964 team.

 

Ono’s strongest discipline was the horizontal bar. It was vital he did his best to give his team a chance for gold. But Ono was in considerable pain due to a right shoulder injured in his preparations for the Olympics. To ease the discomfort, he was injected with an anesthetic, which resulted in the loss of feeling in his entire arm.

 

According to Rio Otomo, who wrote about the gymnast in her article, Narratives of the Body and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Ono’s injury was a major narrative of the Olympics, one also taken up by famed writer Yukio Mishima:

 

The horizontal bar had been cruelly attacking his shoulder for some time. His shoulder then became the enemy of the perfection that Ono was aiming to achieve. It was assaulting him from within, as if it had been a spy who sold his soul to the enemy camp.

 

Less known to the public were the apprehensions of Ono’s wife and teammate on the women’s gymnastics team. As Otomo wrote, Kiyoko Ono was concerned that attempting difficult maneuvers in the air with a damaged arm could result in a terrible fall, and so she whispered to her husband as he approached the bar, “Please do not die; we have children.”

 

Not only did Ono survive, the grit he showed that day helped lead his team to the gold medal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1980 – A Miserable Year

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

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

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

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

Chronicles Olympic Defector_coverLittle Sympathy

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rationale

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

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

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

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

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

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

Punch_hammer throw_10Feb80
Cartoon from Punch, February 10, 1980

 

On October 23, 1964, the day before the final day of the Tokyo Olympics, two Bulgarians tied the knot in a most unique venue – in the Olympic Village. Below is an excerpt from my book, 1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes, which tells the story of two Olympians, Diana Yorgova and Nikola Prodanov.

The First Ever Olympic Wedding

For all of us who fly, it’s a sinking feeling when you arrive in a foreign land and your luggage hasn’t arrived with you. Imagine if you’re an Olympic athlete, and you land without your official uniform, training gear, and other personal belongings. “I was numb with distress,” said Diana Yorgova, a long jumper from Bulgaria. Fortunately, among the Japanese welcoming the Olympians at Haneda Airport were two legendary athletes, Mikio Oda, Japan’s first ever gold medalist, who won the triple jump competition at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, and Chuhei Nambu, who also took gold in the triple jump at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.

Nambu came up to Yorgova to comfort her, and told her that it would be OK, that in fact, he too had landed in Los Angeles without his luggage, and had make his first jump barefoot! She understood. But she was still unsettled. That feeling disappeared the next day.

After a sleepless night of worry and jet lag, the new day offered me a pleasant surprise: a huge parcel addressed to me containing a brand new outfit, absolutely my size from spikes and runners to training suit and, moreover, amazingly, a T-shirt with the national state emblem embroidered on it. I was stunned, deeply touched and full of admiration. I wanted to fly with joy because I knew now I was going to participate! In my thoughts I sent thousands of thanks to those Japanese who brought back my self-confidence and dignity and whom I not only didn’t even know but had unwittingly disturbed.

Yorgova would place a respectable sixth in the women’s long jump competition, her medal to come later with a second-placed finish at the 1972 Munich Games. To celebrate her strong performance in her first Olympics, Yorgova and her fiancé, Bulgarian gymnast Nikola Prodanov decided to do some very special shopping: wedding rings. They planned to hold their big day after their graduation from Sofia University on Prodanov’s birthday in May of 1965.

That same day, the couple went to visit the Bulgarian ambassador, Christo Zdravchev. When the ambassador saw the rings, he brought out a bottle of Bulgarian wine and toasted to the couple’s happy future. But then, despite the diplomatic nature of the ambassador’s job, he apparently let the cat out of the bag by informing members of the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee, who in turn implored the ambassador to request Prodanov and Yorgova to change their plans. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, they enthused, for the young Bulgarian couple to hold their wedding in Japan, in the Olympic Village, during the Olympic Games?

The next day, the ambassador sheepishly approached Prodanov and Yorgova with the surprising request.

“Thus our fairy tale began,” said Yorgova. “I can’t forget the attention and care with which the Japanese ladies of the beauty parlor in the Olympic Village were preparing me for the ceremony. There, for the first time in my life, I had my hair dressed and my nails polished by professionals, who also massaged my scalp and even my arms. When I saw and put on the most beautiful dress of white lace and Nikola put on the first tuxedo in his life we felt like the prince and princess of a fairy tale.”

It was October 23rd, 1964, the day before the closing ceremony. Prodanov and Yorgova were nervous and filled with mixed feelings as this impromptu wedding meant that instead of sharing the moment with families and friends in Bulgaria, they were sharing it with diplomats, administrators and athletes, as well as press from around the world.

With the civil ceremony completed at the Bulgarian Embassy, the couple then embarked on what can only be described as a most original wedding: Western Olympic Shinto.

Japanese who choose a traditional wedding take their vows before a Shinto priest. But this was something more than just a traditional wedding. Held at the Yoyogi Olympic Village International Club, Prodanov in a black morning coat and Yorgova dressed in a white lace gown and veil entered in the glare of television lights and hundreds of flashing cameras, as they came to take their places in front of the presiding priest.

Nikolai Prodanov and Diana Yorgova_Japan Times
Nikolai Prodanov and Diana Yorgova_ The Japan Times

 

 

 

The traditional Shinto arrangements of sake bottles and rice, along with photos of the Olympic cauldron and the ever-present Olympic rings forming their wedding backdrop, were reminders that they were a long way from home in Bulgaria. An interpreter stood by to explain some of the more confusing aspects of the ritual. In Yorgova’s words:

We made our oath of allegiance to the Olympic Flag and a huge poster of the Olympic Flame in the presence of outstanding athletes from all over the world, official guests and journalists. To a background of gentle Shinto music we exchanged our rings, drank three sips of sake, and cut the most magical cake of our lives. At the end, we all danced Bulgarian traditional dances “horo” and “ruchenitsa.”

If one event symbolized the Olympics’ singularly international character, this may have been it.

After the ceremony, the couple were whisked away to the brand-new bullet train to enjoy a honeymoon evening in Kyoto and return to Tokyo the next morning to participate in the closing ceremonies in the afternoon.

Fifty-three years later, Yorgova recalled that magical moment with gratefulness. “As parents and grandparents of four grandchildren, we value the great efforts of the organizers more than ever before, and we apologize most heartedly for the extra anxiety, inconvenience and problems we caused to organize our wedding on such short notice,” she said. “We lived a moment we will never forget, thanks to the kind and gentle people of Japan, so full of goodwill.”

Team medals
The actual team medals awarded to the Japanese men’s and women’s gymnastics team for their first (left) and third (right) place finishes at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Only one medal was awarded to a gymnastics team that finished first to third.
日本語は英語の後に続きます。

Gymnast Shuji Tsurumi emerged as one of the most decorated Olympians of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, winning a gold medal for Japan in the team competition, and three silver medals in the individual all around, the pommel horse and the parallel bars.

And yet, the two-time Olympian has in his possession only the three silver medals from 1964.

Gymnast Toshiko Shirasu-Aihara held it in her hand – the bronze medal awarded to Japan for the Japanese women’s team’s third place finish at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

But she has no medal at home.

While individuals of winning volleyball, basketball, water polo teams for example took home their own medals, individuals of teams that finished first, second or third in the Team category for artistic gymnastics were awarded only a “diploma,” an official document recognizing the individual’s participation in the team’s medal award.

There is actually a single medal awarded to the gymnastics team in this case, awarded to the nation. At the 100th Birthday Anniversary of gymnast great, Masao Takemoto, on September 29, 2019, the medals of the gold-medal winning men’s gymnastics team, and the bronze-medal winning women’s gymnastics team were on display.

20190929_043700762_iOS
Gingko Abukawa Chiba and Toshiko Shirasu Aihara of the bronze-medal women’s gymnastics team of 1964, with Shuji Tsurumi of the gold-medal winning gymnastics teams of 1960 and 1964.

Shirasu-Aihara, who had won the inaugural NHK Cup Championship in women’s gymnastics in 1962, saw the team bronze medal for the Japan women’s Tokyo Olympic achievements for the first time at the Takemoto anniversary event, nearly 55 years after helping her team win it. She told me it would be wonderful if somehow the IOC could reconsider their decision and provide a medal to members of her team and the Japan men’s gymnastics team that won gold.

A few weeks later, I contacted David Wallechinsky, Olympic historian and president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. He graciously agreed to send a note to the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). A few weeks later, he got a clear and logical response from the IOC.

While we very much appreciate your thought for each team member of the 1964 Japanese gymnastics team events to be handed an Olympic medal retroactively and the symbolic gesture that such an initiative would send, we have to respect that the rules of the sport in force at the time for the team competition were: “To the team classed first: Olympic medal in silver-gilt for the nation: diploma for each team member and leader”. See Olympic Charter 1962, Rule 41 Prizes.

We also have to stay sensitive to the fact that similar rules of “one medal for the whole team and only diplomas for the team members” is not unique to the Tokyo 1964 Games, but also were applied to other sports and Games editions.

According to the Olympic Charter of 1962, in cases where individuals compete as a team with the purpose of winning a team competition, then the individuals whose teams place first, second or third receive their own medal. Thus individuals on teams that medaled in volleyball or basketball received medals.

But victory for the team category in artistic gymnastics was determined by the total scores of performances in the individual competitions, in which medals were also awarded.

Olympic Rings
The silver Olympic Rings awarded to Shuji Tsurumi in recognition of his team’s gold medal achievements at both the 1960 and 1964 Olympics, when medals were not distributed to individuals who earned medals in team gymnastics.

Here is how the Olympic Charter of 1962 described Rule 41, which dictated which individuals and teams are awarded medals:

In team events, except those of an ” artificial ” nature (one in which the score is computed from the position of the contestant in the individual competition) each member of the winning team participating in the final match shall be given a silver-gilt medal and a diploma, of the second team a silver medal and a diploma and of the third team a bronze medal and a diploma. Those team members who have not participated in the final matches are given diplomas but no medals. In “artificial ” team events one medal only shall be given to the team and the members shall receive diplomas only. Members of teams placed fourth, fifth and sixth receive diplomas only.

Gymnast Toshiko Shirasu-Aihara
Gymnast Toshiko Shirasu-Aihara, wearing in 2019 for the first time ever the team bronze medal awarded to Japan’s women’s gymnastics team took third place in 1964.

In today’s world, time for a separate team competition is carved out for gymnastics, so individuals can receive team medals.

A decade later, the IOC did indeed issue a special recognition to the individuals of such “artificial teams” – Olympic rings made of silver.

 

オリンピックで優勝してもメダルを授与されなかった選手たち

Team medals
1964年の東京オリンピックで1位(左)と3位(右)に輝いた日本体操男子団体と女子団体のチームに実際に授与されたメダル。 体操団体戦の1位から3位のチームには、メダルが1つしか授与されなかった。

体操の鶴見修司選手は、1964年に開催された東京オリンピックで、体操男子団体戦の日本チームとして金メダルを獲得し、さらに男子個人総合、あん馬、平行棒で3つの銀メダルを獲得するなど、同オリンピックにおいて数多くのメダルを獲得したオリンピック選手の1人として君臨した。

しかし、オリンピックに2回出場している鶴見選手の手元にあるのは、未だに1964年の東京オリンピックで獲得した3つの銀メダルだけである。

Masao Takemoto at front of line in 1960
Pictures shared of Takemoto – he’s at the front of the line in the team picture.

Sunday, September 29, 2019 was gymnastics legend, Masao Takemoto‘s birthday. Had the three-time Olympian been alive, he would have turned 100 that day.

So many of Japan’s gymnastics greats attended this event, including:

  • Shuji Tsurumi, two time Olympian and winner of 6 medals, including three silver medals at the ’64 Olympics to go with his team gold
  • Haruhiro Yamashita, Tsurumi’s teammate on the 1964 team and winner of two medals, including gold in individual vault
  • Toshiko Shirasu Aihara, two-time Olympian and 1964 women’s team bronze medalist
  • Gingko Abukawa-Chiba, two-time Olympian and 1964 women’s team bronze medalist
  • Koji Gushiken, 5-time medalist at the 1984 Olympics, including men’s individual all around
Shuji Tsurumi, Gingko Abukawa Chiba and Toshiko Shirasu Aihara
Shuji Tsurumi, Gingko Abukawa Chiba and Toshiko Shirasu Aihara

Takemoto was an inspiration to them all. Appearing at the 1952, 1956 and 1960 Olympics, Takemoto amassed 7 medals, and 7 medals in World Championships in 1954 and 1958, helping the Japan team to a team silver medal at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. When he finished his Olympic career, helping his team to the gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics, he helped ignite a 16-year stretch of absolute dominance for Japanese men’s gymnastics, as Team Japan took gold from Rome in 1960 to Montreal in 1976.

Legends at Takemoto Party
Legends at Takemoto Party

And he won that gold medal at the age of 41.

Japanese American gymnast, Makoto Sakamoto was a 13-year old in Los Angeles, after moving there from Tokyo, when Japan won their first team gold in Rome. Sakamoto, who was in Tokyo and attended the 100th anniversary of Takemoto’s birthday, told the attendees that he and his older brother had a copy of Takemoto’s book on gymnastics, and that they read every page and followed every line in the book like it was gospel.

Aihara and Sakamoto
Toshiko Shirasu-Aihara and Makoto Sakamoto

Sakamoto would go on to make the American men’s gymnastics team and compete at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, as well as serve as assistant coach to Team USA men’s gymnastics team that won gold at home in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Tsurumi and Yamashita_Takemotos party
The author convinces two legends of ’64, Tsurumi and Yamashita, to advertise the book.
Mark Williams 3
Coach Mark Williams leading a stretch

On Saturday, June 22, children of all ages gathered at the world-class gymnasium at Funabashi Municipal High School in Chiba to meet the Americans. They jumped and rolled and stretched to the instructions of essentially the men’s gymnastics team and the coaches who will compete in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Yul Moldauer 2
Yul Muldauer before displaying his floor routine.

Eight members of the team arrived a week ago to practice, get familiar with Japan and its facilities, and to inspire. Great efforts are being made by Japanese municipalities to attract sports teams  from the two hundred plus countries expected to compete at Tokyo 2020 for look-and-see practice tours.

Sam Mikulak 6
Sam Mikulak on his horse.

In this case, the city of Funabashi, Chiba has been the host sponsor of the USA men’s gymnastics team for the past two years, covering costs of accomodations and logistics while they are in Japan.

Sean Melton 1
Sean Melton giving the kids of Funabashi a lift.

The gymnastics demonstration was in conjunction with the US Embassy’s Go for Gold program, which is an effort to engage students in Japanese schools with American athletes and diplomats.

Genki Suzuki 4
Genki Suzuki on the rings.

“This is a great way for USA Gymnastics to give back to the people of Funabashi and thank them for being such gracious hosts during this training camp stay,” said Jon Omori, special liaison and advisor for the United States Olympic Committee.

To get an idea of the engaging way the members of the men’s team worked the crowd, watch this video.

Ichiro Uchimura Hanyu Icho
Clockwise from upper left: Ichiro Suzuki, Kohei Uchimura, Kaori Icho, Yuzuru Hanyu

The 24-year old figure skater walked into a private room in Saitama Super Arena, the television to his left showing clips of the World Finals Figure Skating Championship that had just ended on the evening of March 23, 2019.

“I lost! I can’t believe it (“Maketa yo, kuyashii!),” said Yuzuru Hanyu. He glanced at the television set which showed his rival and winner of the world championship, American Nathan Chen. “How do I beat that?”

Despite Hanyu’s incredible free program and brief hold of first place, Chen’s was better.

“I really wanted to win when I was skating,” Hanyu stated. “I think I did my best, but the problem is that a figure skating competition consists of two days, and I lost both. It means that I simply do not have enough strength to win.”

Chen is a brilliant young skater, who has proven his metal by defending his world championship. But Hanyu will not go down without a fight.

Those who have followed Hanyu even a little know that he is not losing confidence. He may in fact be steeling himself for the greatest competition he has faced. Battling and overcoming an ongoing ligament injury to his right ankle, Hanyu won gold in PyeongChang last February, and the Cup of Russia in November. The flames of his competitive spirit have been fanned by Chen, and he’s out to take figure skating to the next level, which should surprise no one.

Hanyu is a living legend.

What’s incredible is that he is not alone here. We in Japan have been blessed, recent witnesses to once-in-a-century global talents in a wide variety of sports – four of them to be exact:

  • Yuzuru Hanyu (figure skating)
  • Ichiro Suzuki (baseball)
  • Kohei Uchimura (gymnastics)
  • Kaori Icho (wrestling)

Yuzuru Hanyu (figure skating): The Sendai native is a two-time world champion, has broken the world record in figure skating scores eighteen times, and is the first person since Dick Button did so in 1948 to win individual gold in two consecutive Olympiads. Can he do the unthinkable at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, and win an unprecedented third Olympic championship? I wouldn’t bet against him yet.

Ichiro Suzuki (baseball): After 28 years of professional baseball, the athlete known as Ichiro retired last week amidst adoring fans at the opening season matches between his Seattle Mariners and the Oakland A’s. No one has had more hits in professional baseball than Ichiro (4,367), and in the Major Leagues in America, he set the season hit record in 2004 with 262 hits, surpassing George Sisler’s record that stood for 84 years. His speed and defense made him a threat to steal a base as well as hits and runs in the field. There’s an overwhelming consensus that Ichiro will be the first player enshrined in the baseball hall of fames of both Japan and America. His love of the game, his training regimen and his flare for the dramatic will live on forever.

Kohei Uchimura (gymnastics): He is called King Kohei. The native of Nagasaki is the only gymnast to win all-around gold in every major title in a four-year Olympic cycle….twice. In other words, Uchimura won the world championship and Olympic gold from 2009 to 2016. You may as well tack on his silver medal in the all-arounds at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and call it a decade of dominance. Calling him the Greatest of All Time (GOAT), as many do, is not hyperbole. As Uchimura is 30, it is unlikely that his dominance will continue at Tokyo 2020.  But he might be there, giving us all still a chance to glimpse greatness.

Kaori Icho (wrestling): There is another Japanese GOAT – a woman from Japan named Kaori Icho. The freestyle wrestler from Aomori, Icho has won an unprecedented and incredible four straight Olympic championships since women’s wrestling became an Olympic sport at the 2004 Athens Summer Games. In fact, she’s the first female in any sport to win an individual gold in four straight Olympiads. Through that period, Icho had won 189 straight matches, a 13-year streak that ended in January, 2016 to a wrestler ten years her junior, only to re-start the streak and take her fourth gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. She is indeed the best female wrestler ever.

We in Japan have been most fortunate in recent years to live among living legends.

Katelyn Ohashi 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.

Tokyo wins 2020 bid
Tokyo wins 2020 bid

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.