American Justin Gatlin is the fastest man in the world today, but can he beat the speed of a ball in freefall that accelerates at 9.81 meters per second squared in the Shotgun Touch competition?
Russian Denis Ablyazin won the silver medal in the men’s vault at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, but can he win the “Monster Box” competition, hurdling a vault over 3 meters high?
New Zealander Tomas Walsh won the bronze medal in the men’s shot put at the Rio Games, but can he defeat All Blacks rugby player and fellow New Zealander, Nepo Laulala, in the excruciating “Power Wall” contest?
If you’re a big fan of Ninja Warrior, you know the incredible obstacle course is based on a Japanese television program called Sasuke, produced by Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS). The same network, TBS, also produces a program called Sports Grand Prix Top Athletes which puts athletes to the test in creative competition.
And being an Olympian does not put you to the front of the class. Ablyazin made it look easy vaulting a horse built up some 2.5 meters high. But near the 3-meter mark, he faltered and lost to a Japanese trampoline competitor. Walsh also made it look easy pushing a movable wall against other competitors who sought to push the wall back, an event that is akin to a reverse tug of war.
But one would have thought that racing a falling ball to a spot requires pure speed, and that the fastest man in the world should win hands down. The “Shotgun Touch” competition requires a runner to touch a button which releases a ball from the ceiling (an unknown number of meters above the ground). The object is for the runner to get any part of their body, usually hands and fingers, on the ball before it touches the ground.
For competitors like track stars Kenji Fujimitsu and Gatlin, as well as Kansas City Royal Whit Merrifield, or J-League soccer star, Kensuke Nagai, getting to the ball 12 meters away was not so difficult, but another 50 to 100 centimeters, and the ball can seem to be accelerating faster than the law of physics. In some of the early attempts around 12 meters, Gatlin made it look easy with the ball hitting him in the back or his arms.
And yet, he actually missed at 12.60 meters and twice at 13 meters, disqualifying him from the rest of the competition. As he learned, diving technique is as important as speed. There’s no way Merrifield would beat Gatlin in a 100-meter sprint, and yet he was able to succeed at 13 meters. In the end, it was J-League soccer star Nagai who triumphed the shotgun touch competition.
Kinda silly, kinda fun…that’s how I spent my New Year’s evening.
As I drive towards the first draft of my book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, I wrote extensively on some of the greatest as well as some of the lesser known dramas of those Games, some of these based on interviews I’ve had with Olympians. Interviewing Olympians, as well as reading about them, has been such an inspiration to me. I hope they are to you too.
Aly Raisman is already a two-time Olympian with 6 medals from the 2012 London and 2016 Olympics, including gold medals in the team competition, while serving as captain. She is also the latest gymnast to step forward with allegations of sexual abuse against USA Gymnastics and their team doctor, Larry Nasser.
Thanks in part to the powerful coverage of the Indianapolis Star, and also in part to the recent wave of “#MeToo” revelations against men in power who prey on women, dozens of young women have come out publicly about Nasser, who has been arrested and been slapped with lawsuits.
In an interview with John LaPook of 60 Minutes, Raisman spoke about the denial, confusion and anger she went through upon realizing that she had been abused, and her advice to other girls who may be in an uncomfortable situation alone with an adult. Her words are powerful, and I want to note them:
Raisman: I was in denial. I was like, “I don’t thi– I d– I don’t even know what to think.” It– you don’t wanna let yourself believe but, you know, I am– I am– I am a victim of– of sexual abuse. Like, it’s really not an easy thing to let yourself believe that.
Raisman: I was just really innocent. I didn’t really know. You know, you don’t think that of someone. You know, so I just– I trusted him.
LaPook: You thought it was medical treatment.
Raisman: I didn’t know anything differently. We were told he is the best doctor. He’s the United States Olympic doctor and the USA Gymnastics doctor, and we were very lucky we were able to see him.
Raisman (when asked quite suddenly by an investigator to comment on Nasser): And I said, you know, “Well, he– his touching makes me uncomfortable, but he’s so nice to me. And I– I don’t think he does it on purpose because, you know, I think he cares about me.”
LaPook: So it was only after the investigator left that you began to put the pieces together.
Raisman: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s important for people to know too I’m still trying to put the pieces together today. You know it impacts you for the rest of your life.
Raisman: Why are we looking at why didn’t the girls speak up? Why not look at what about the culture? What did USA Gymnastics do, and Larry Nassar do, to manipulate these girls so much that they are so afraid to speak up?
LaPook: You’re angry.
Raisman: I am angry. I’m really upset because it’s been– I care a lot, you know, when I see these young girls that come up to me, and they ask for pictures or autographs, whatever it is, I just– I can’t– every time I look at them, every time I see them smiling, I just think– I just want to create change so that they never, ever have to go through this.
Raisman (explaining the predatory practice of “grooming”): He would always bring me, you know, desserts or gifts. He would buy me little things. So I really thought he was a nice person. I really thought he was looking out for me. That’s why I want to do this interview. That’s why I wanna talk about it. I want people to know just because someone is nice to you and just because everyone is saying they’re the best person, it does not make it okay for them to ever make you uncomfortable. Ever.
Where Were the Parents?
Lynn Raisman (Aly’s mother): We were there. But if she’s not knowing that it’s wrong — never in a million years did I ever even think to say, “Hey, when you see the team doctor, is there someone with you?”
LaPook: If you could hit the rewind button, is there anything you would have done differently?
Lynn Raisman: I think the most important thing, if anyone takes anything away from this interview is sit down with your kids and explain to them that predators aren’t just strangers. They can be highly educated. They can be very well-respected in the community. It could be a family member, it could be a family friend. So, you know, that’s really, the, I mean, if I could go back in time, I would do that.
As 60 Minutes explains, USA Gymnastics has always had a policy that an adult should “avoid being alone with a minor.” Clearly that policy was not publicized or enforced. But as far as Raisman is concerned, it’s time to publicize and enforce.
Raisman: Nobody ever educated me on, “Make sure you’re not alone with an adult.” You know, “Make sure he’s not making you uncomfortable.” I didn’t know the signs. I didn’t know what sexual abuse really was. And I think that needs to be communicated to all of these athletes, no matter the age.
The robots aren’t quite taking over by 2020. But they will be assisting gymnastic judges at the 2020 Olympics.
The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) intends to employ laser technology in order to provide data and recommendations to judges instantaneously to supplement their own judgment based on what they see with their own eyes.
Fujitsu, which is a Tokyo 2020 Gold Partner, has been focusing its 3D sensory technology on the world of gymnastics in order to provide real-time feedback on techniques a gymnast is attempting and making, the elements of which can be hard to catch by the naked eye. This technology, an advance on the more familiar technology of applying motion capture balls all over the body of an athlete, does not require the subject to apply anything. Instead a device that emits lasers from a single point, one that looks like a camera, feeds data that processes, essentially, 360 degree views of the subject.
With that amount of data captured, the software is able to assess exactly how the body has moved through the air. Benchmarking against standards of excellence inputted into the software, the system is then able to provide a report to judges what techniques were attempted or made, and then assess points to those series of techniques. In essence the 3D sensory system can do the gymnastic judge’s job.
Clearly, there is an advantage a non-human system has over a human – a “robot” will not get tired or cranky at the end of the day, nor will it allow unconscious biases about nationality, race, appearance, etc to seep into its judgment. But there has been some concern, as there should be.
According to this article, whenever you place your measuring and evaluating systems in the hands of algorithms, you are subject to hacking of some sort.
“In gymnastics, you can have 10 to 100 independent moves the system is trying to score. If the algorithm were manipulated by even a small portion you could affect the overall outcome score and it would be very hard to detect,” said Betsy Cooper, the executive director for long-term cybersecurity at UC Berkeley.
Any technology that relays information from an external source – like this 3D sensor does – to a computer is at risk. Mix the technology with a scoring panel of judges, and there is room for manipulation. “You can manipulate the algorithms to change the score one out of every five times, making it hard to detect. That area is most disconcerting. Whoever has an interest in the outcome of these major sporting events will also have an interest in trying to take advantage of any such system,” Cooper said.
This is why, the plan is to have 3D sensory system only assist judges, not replace them.
Perhaps the greatest impact will be in faster development of gymnasts. Coaches and gymnasts can examine the data, understand the micro-movements that keep their points down, and apply their practices to improving their movements to get their points up.
In other words, the next generation of gymnasts will grow up on this feedback, understanding what specific things they need to do for perfection at very early stages in their career. In this new age of digital analytics and 3D modeling, athletes are able to approach perfection at a faster rate than ever before.
On this 31st day of October, aka Halloween, here are three legitimately scary moments in Olympic history. These images are not for the faint of heart.
Samir Ait Said, gymnast for France, broke his leg in a vault qualifier at the 2016 Rio Olympics, the snap of the bone so loud that people in the stands could hear it.
Armenian weightlifter, Andranik Karapetyan, dislocated his left elbow attempting a lift in the clean and jerk competition at the 2016 Rio Olympics
At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, diver Greg Louganis was performing a reverse somersault dive in the preliminaris of the 3-meter springboard competition when the back of his head slammed into the board full force. Despite the concussion and five stitches he received after that dive, he still went on to win the gold medal.
The pace set by the Kenyans was relentless. The thin air of Mexico was punishing. Favorite Jim Ryun, weakened by a bout with mononucleosis, was whipped by 3 seconds, as Kip Keino dashed to a gold-medal finish in the 1,500 meters at the Mexico City Olympics.
Thirteen seconds after Keino crossed the finish line, Josef Odlozil of Czechoslovakia, finished in twelfth place. It was a poor finish compared to his silver medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, but in the end, Odlozil won the bigger prize.
At the end of the 1968 Olympics, Odlozil married compatriot, and one of the darlings of the Mexico City Games, Vera Caslasvska. The Czech gymnast who won three gold medals in Tokyo, did even better in Mexico City with four more golds. Thousands of people came out to the Mexico City Cathedral to wish the Olympic couple well.
Their marriage was to last not quite 20 years, ending in divorce in 1987. Those 20 years must have been filled with mini dramas, as Odlozil apparently worked for the Czech Army, while Caslavska struggled to establish a productive career after returning from Mexico City. She had supported anti-government movements, and protested against the Soviet invasion after the so-called Prague Spring. Caslavska was not allowed to leave the country or get coaching work.
Odlozil and Caslavska had two children, a boy named Martin and girl named Radka. It appears that relations between father and son were poor, possibly leading to a tragic conclusion.
On August 7, 1993, Odlozil was in a placed called “U Cimbury”, described as a “disco-restaurant” in this post from Once Up a Time in the Vest. As it turned out, Odlozil’s estranged son Martin was also present. Words were exchanged. Punches were thrown. Odlovil fell to the ground, hitting his head, and subsequently fell into a prolonged coma. A little over a month later on September 10, 1993, Odlovil died.
His son Martin was sentenced to four years in prison for murder.
His wife, Vera, fell into depression and was rarely seen in public.
Was Josef looking for his son Martin? Was it true that Martin, upon seeing his father, went to the DJ and request a song called “Green Brains” that was considered offensive to members of the Czech Army? Did Martin, in a fit of rage, go to his father’s car and vandalize it?
All the eyewitnesses were said to be drunk. The only thing that was clear – father and son were in the same place where a fight took place, and Odlovil fell to the floor unconscious.
From the Fall of 1968 to the Fall of 1993, a 25-year drama came to a horrific close.
Being an Olympic champion shields us not from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
The Olympic Channel features a video that recalls images and moments from the 2016 Rio Olympics. Entitled “Games to Remember – Re-Experience Rio 2016: The Official Summary of the Rio2016 Olympic Games,” the video runs over 37 minutes long.
I started it, but was only going to watch it for a few minutes. I ended up watching the entire video, a collection of short clips of the events of each of the 16 days. And they are all stunning!
Slow mo, normal speed, tracking shots, overhead shots, long shots, all edited to highlight the aesthetics of epic poetry in motion, to accentuate the limits to which the athletes will stretch themselves, to remind us of the chills we experienced when viewing the very best in the world achieve the highest levels of physical achievement.
Go to this link. If you can, put it up on your big flatscreen TV. And revisit the joy of the 2016 Rio Olympics.
I have searched far and wide for books in English about the 1964 Olympics, and have built a good collection of books by Olympians who competed in the Tokyo Olympiad.
My conclusion? Runners like to write! Of the 15 books written by ’64 Olympians I have purchased, 8 are by sprinting and distance track legends. But judoka and swimmers also applied their competitive focus to writing.
So if you are looking for inspiration in the words of the Olympians from the XVIII Olympiad, here is the ultimate reading list (in alphabetical order):
The Amendment Killer, is the sole novel in this list, a political thriller by Ron Barak, to be published in November of 2017. Barak was a member of the American men’s gymnastics team, who parlayed a law degree into a successful consulting business, as well as a side career as budding novelist.
Deep Water, is an autobiography of the most decorated athlete of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Don Schollander, who won four gold medals as the most dominant member of the dominant US men’s swimming team. Co-written with Duke Savage, Schollander writes intelligently of his craft, the technique and the psychological, finding a way for a swimmer strong in the middle distances, to sneak into victory in the 100-meter sprint.
Golden Girl is by one of Australia’s greatest track stars, Betty Cuthbert, whose life path from track prodigy in Melbourne, to washed-up and injured in Rome, to unexpected triumph in Tokyo is told compellingly in her autobiography.
See the remaining book list in my next post, Part 2.
Not as catchy as Death and Taxes, or Love and Marriage – but they go together like a horse and carriage.
In fact, novelists swarm to politics and corruption like moths to flames. Staring into that flickering fire is former Olympian, Ron Barak, who is about to publish a novel, The Amendment Killer.
Barak was a member of the US Men’s Gymnastics team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And while he was also an NCAA champion with the gymnastics team at the University of Southern California, his studies at USC were arguably more critical to his long-term career: a BS in physics and a Juris Doctor of Law.
Barak became a lawyer in the 1970s, among other things, representing athletes as their agent, including football greats Bubba Smith and Ahmad Rashad. Most of Barak’s career was devoted to real estate law, and witnessed first-hand the rise of Japan’s economic influence in the 1980s when the yen overpowered the dollar and Japanese corporations bought up landmark properties and brands overseas.
But as Barak eventually understood, he had a knack for storytelling, and answered a dare from some friends to write a novel. His first novel was a “whodunnit” murder mystery set in D. C. – as Barak puts it, “a story of a political system gone awry and those who felt compelled to fix it.”
Barak’s latest political thriller, The Amendment Killer, hits bookstores in November. Let’s ask Barak a few questions about the book and the journey to his third career (writing following sports first and law second).
What is your novel about?
Modern day Washington, D.C, misconduct on the part of our political representatives has never been worse. In this backdrop, frustrated citizens form a tax-exempt watchdog foundation, The National Organization For Political Integrity (NoPoli), to remind our governmental leaders that they are there to serve, not to be served.
In short order, the membership ranks of NoPoli swells to hundreds of thousands of Americans disgusted by our abhorrent government. NoPoli sponsors and convenes a Constitutional Convention at which a 28th Amendment to the Constitution is adopted to criminalize political abuse and corruption.
Offended by the sudden demise of their many perks and the threat of incarceration, Congress challenges the Amendment and asks the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate it on an expedited basis. Because of the fundamental importance of the Amendment, the Supreme Court agrees to hear and decide the case in one televised week.
As the nine justices take the bench to hear oral argument, the justice expected to cast the deciding vote, Arnold Hirschfeld, receives a text that begins “We have your granddaughter. Here’s what you need to do.” Hirschfeld is warned that his granddaughter will be killed by the end of the one week expedited process if the Amendment is not defeated by the Court—or if word even gets out that his granddaughter is being held to control the outcome of the case.
What is the relevance of your novel to today?
I write first and foremost to entertain my readers, but also to “blur the line between reality and fiction.” In the case of The Amendment Killer, there are at least three such relevant intersections of reality and fiction:
First, the novel is particularly timely (“ripped from the headlines” some might say), addressing our highly dysfunctional U.S. government. It does this through my hypothetical 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution criminalizing abuse and corruption on the part of our political representatives, which Congress asks the Supreme Court to invalidate. Using my legal background, as well as my political knowledge, I actually drafted such an amendment on my website.
Second, I introduced diabetes into the novel because, like my young protagonist, Cassie, 30 million Americans today are diabetic. That’s one in ten Americans. That’s epidemic and another highly relevant issue today.
Third, there are serious ethical issues in the story. Cassie’s grandfather, the Supreme Court justice holding the swing vote in the case, must decide whether he can sacrifice the best interests of the country, and his duty as a Supreme Court justice, to save his granddaughter’s life. Are the best interests of the country worth his young granddaughter’s life?
Tell me about the character Cassie and why you wanted to create a character who has diabetes?
Part of the reason is that I wanted to draw attention to a disease that is at epidemic levels in the country (and the world) today. It is a subject I know well because I’m diabetic. My wife, Barbie, and I have also committed 50% of the proceeds of The Amendment Killer to diabetes research and education. There are millions in the world today who are diabetic but don’t know it—until it is too late for them. That’s tragic because diabetes can be intelligently well managed today. We have Olympic gold medalists who are diabetic. We have NFL and NBA athletes who are diabetic. Diabetes, if well managed, does not at all have to be a death sentence. Several prominent national diabetes organizations are solidly behind The Amendment Killer because they think Cassie is a poster child for diabetic youngsters. And The Amendment Killer is coming out in November, which is National Diabetes Month!
What inspired you to become a novelist? Were there indications as a youth that you had a storytelling gene?
I wrote my first novel on a dare from some friends. Being somewhat competitive, a trait perhaps attributed to my gymnastics days, I couldn’t turn my back on the challenge. As I wrote that first novel, I discovered that I loved it. I’ve worked hard ever since to learn how to write properly so that I could develop and continue this new pursuit. Some have commented that I simply transitioned from physical gymnastics to mental gymnastics. I don’t know about that, but writing is definitely easier on the joints than physical gymnastics, especially at my age today. I don’t know if I had a storytelling gene, but I actually might have. As a little kid, my dad used to tell stories to my younger brother and me. He had an incredible imagination and a genuine patience in his storytelling. Maybe some of that rubbed off on me because I have discovered how much fun I find it to weave a story. It presents an opportunity to create mystery but to inject humor at the same time. That’s a mix I really enjoy.
What writers have inspired you? Why?
The list is long. I love to read and have for years. I read mostly fiction, but I do occasionally read some non-fiction too. I read to be entertained. Perhaps that’s why I write to entertain. Examples in no particular order are Ian Fleming (James Bond novels, I’ve read every one), John Grisham (I’ve read probably about half of his), Michael Connelly (I’ve read most of his), Lee Child (Jack Reacher novels, I’ve read most of them), Daniel Silva (I’ve read most of his), David Baldacci (I’ve read most of his), Vince Flynn (read most of his too), Robert North Patterson (read most of his), Scott Turow (I’ve read most of his), John Lescroart (I’ve read most of his), Greg Isles (I’ve read most of his). I have also read a lot of Stephen King. And I’ve read a miscellany of lesser known novelists. I’m sure I’ve missed some. As for why, these authors have a few things in common: most of all, they can tell a great story. Beyond that, they keep you guessing and turning the pages.
How has being a 1964 Tokyo Olympian impacted your career?
In countless ways. First, training brought discipline and commitment into my life at a young age, when I didn’t otherwise exhibit much of that and neither did my friends. Second, it was an absolute joy. Third, it provided great education; I got to travel around the world, and I learned how to handle celebrity, not to let it get out of proportion. Fourth, it was a great source of self-confidence and self-esteem; it helped me know that if I put my mind to something, and worked hard at it, I could usually accomplish it. Fifth, along the way, it has opened doors that might not otherwise have opened. (Note: I used numbers here, but I am not prioritizing these things and don’t think I could.) So, in terms of my career, while I was at the near top of my law school class, my Olympic career got me more job offers than might otherwise have been the case, a combination of the celebrity and the maturity and people skills. It didn’t make me a better lawyer, but strong work habits learned in sport probably did.
Stay tuned for the November 1 launch of The Amendment Killer!
The Tokyo2020 Olympics will be the closest the Olympics have ever come to gender equality, with female:male participation reaching an amazing 48.8 to 52.2 percent ratio. This list from the IOC shows an amazing level of equality in the 321 events currently planned for Tokyo.
In part two of this look at the remaining holdouts of gender-specific events, let’s take a look at the women-only events.
No Men Allowed
Synchronized Swimming:Bill May is a relative rarity in sports – a male synchronized swimmer. When people wonder if men compete in a sport heavily represented by women, May is the poster child. Essentially, he’s the only one. There are discussions of adding male synchronized swimming as an Olympic event, but that would not happen until 2024 at the earliest. Synchronized swimming emerged from a sport called “water ballet” in Europe in the late 19th century. What’s interesting, according to this article, is that synchronized swimming as a show or a sporting event at that time was male only. But as people understood that women actually had body make ups that made them more effective as synchronized swimmers, women began to play bigger roles in events and competitions. The association of women to this discipline became stronger in America in the 1930s, when a swimming coach named Kay Curtis developed a form of “water pageantry” which we today call synchronized swimming, and publicized it through a swimming act known as the Modern Mermaids, a show that became very popular across America.
Rhythmic Gymnastics:Rhythmic Gymnastics, which involves elements of ballet, gymnastics and dance while manipulating a rope, hoop, ball and/or ribbon, has been an Olympic sport since the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. However, this discipline was born from the work of men in France “who all believed in movement expression, where one used dance to express oneself and exercise various body parts,” according to Wikipedia. So why the gender split? The New York Times essentially concluded in this article that real men don’t do rhythmic gymnastics. “There are male rhythmic gymnasts, but not at the Olympics. And their numbers are small. The stigma of the term rhythmic gymnastics poses “a huge marketing challenge,” said Mario Lam, a martial arts and gymnastics instructor in Canada. Lam uses the term “martialgym” to help avoid the connotation that it is a female-only sport, he said.”
Balance Beam:As this site explains, the gymnastics discipline of the balance beam is an event that requires “an obscene amount of strength, flexibility, and balance” on a long and narrow piece of wood, 10cm wide and 500cm long. The reason why men don’t compete? “Basically, the decision to keep men off of the balance beam most likely borrows from centuries-old gender norms. …the balance beam requires a particular amount of grace and flexibility — traits that are designated to the women of gymnastics, whereas the men’s sport keeps a more specific focus on displays of strength.”