Hagibis
PHOTO: Typhoon Hagibis is heading north over the Pacific towards Japan’s main island. (AP: NOAA)

As I sit at home this quiet Saturday morning, Tokyo braces for the mighty hurricane Hagibis.

As Forbes claims, Hagibis could be as powerful as Hurricane Sandy, a category 2 storm that resulted in 2 billion dollars worth of damage to the East Coast of the US in 2012.

Today is October 12, 2019. For all the amateur and professional weather prognosticators who are fretting about the potential heat wave during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, to be held from July 24 to August 9, calm down.

So many have said, “Why didn’t they schedule the upcoming Olympics in October like they did in 1964?” They could have. But for financial reasons outlined in this informative New York Times article, they didn’t.

So imagine the Olympics taking place in mid-October, on a day like today. What would have happened?

The 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan is a test case. The organizers for the 2-month tournament, which has been very well received in Japan, selling out stadiums across the nation, have cancelled (not postponed) two matches between New Zealand and Italy, and between England and France due to the threat of Hagibis.

Well, the organizers couldn’t have predicted that.

Exactly.

Bob Schul wins 5000 in 1964
Bob Schul wins 5000 in 1964 in a cold and rainy day.

If the third day of the Olympics fell on October 12 like today, the organizers would have to cancel surfing, rowing, beach volleyball, skateboarding, shooting, archery, field hockey, softball, tennis, sailing, canoe slalom, road cycling, soccer, and equestrian dressage because they are outdoor events. But they would also likely cancel all of the indoor events as well, which include volleyball, fencing, gymnastics, table tennis, badminton, taekwando, swimming, weighlifting, baseketball, handball, judo, and diving because of the risk of harm and delay to spectators, organizers and athletes getting to and from venues.

Hurricanes aside, yes, it will likely be hot during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Most athletes and organizers will do the cost-benefit analysis in their heads, weighing their options, as they did regarding the more fearsome Zika Virus scare prior to the Rio Olympics. My guess is that even the marathoners and triathoners, who could be affected by the heat, will decide to go to Tokyo for the Olympics. I’m sure  the organizers will go overboard on creating cooler environments (although I doubt they can bring down the summer water temperature of Tokyo Bay for the triathletes.)

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the weather was actually far from beautiful Autumn weather. The temperatures ranged from 14.6 C (58.2F) to 21.7C (71F), and was basically cool, cloudy and rainy almost every day. The road cyclists could see their breath in the hills of Hachioji, the runners in the Stadium had to run through rain and sometimes muddy conditions on certain days.

Atomic Bomb Japan Times_Oct 17 1964

And smack dab in the middle of the Tokyo Olympics, everybody in Japan were deeply concerned about radiation poisoning. Communist China decided to detonate its first atomic bomb as a test, on October 16, 1964.  The only nation to have an atomic bomb dropped on its soil, organizers and citizens alike were concerned about radiation fallout blown on the winds over the waters that separated the two countries.

Predicting the unpredictable – it’s cool if you can do it. I wouldn’t bet on it.

So for those who are sure what the weather will be like in Tokyo from July 24 to August 9 – here’s hoping you had nothing great planned outdoors today.

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Dark Tourist Japan A scene from Dark Tourist – Japan from season one.

Watching the Japan episode of Netflix’s first season of Dark Tourist was harrowing.

New Zealand journalist, David Farrier, went on a tour in Fukushima, likely in early 2018, and filmed scenes not far from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant where radiation levels climbed dangerously high. Those on the tour were visibly worried.

So was I, and I was safe and sound in my living room.

The government evacuated about 160,000 people in the areas around Dai-Ichi right after the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, but restrictions for most of those areas have since been lifted. But I wondered again, is it safe or not?

I get that question a lot from people, particularly foreigners, especially since I write a blog on Japan, sports and the Olympics, and organizers for the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are holding sporting events in areas of Northern Japan impacted significantly by the 3.11 earthquake and tsunami.

Azuma 16
Signage at Fukushima Station for Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympics.

In the case of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, softball and baseball games will be held in Azuma Baseball Stadium in Fukushima, which is about 10 kilometers west of Fukushima Station, and 90 kilometers northwest of Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant.

Certainly, in the areas directly in and around the nuclear power plant, radiation levels can be high. The areas that Farrier filmed in his controversial program were in prohibited areas – thus the high radiation levels measured. But when I ask the experts, my fears are, on the whole, allayed.

bGeigie nano
The bGeigie Nano I built myself (with a lot of help from Jon Moross!)

I have been talking recently with leaders of the volunteer citizen science organization, Safecast, which came together very quickly in the aftermath of 3.11 to measure radiation levels in Tohoku in the absence of open and transparent reports from TEPCO and government officials.

In order to measure radiation levels, the team designed a geiger counter that volunteers can build and use, and they then worked to deploy these geiger counters to gather data and better understand where radiation levels are high.

I recently participated in a Safecast workshop to build my own device – the bGeigie Nano – a truly cool and compact measuring tool. On a trip to Fukushima, I decided to go to Azuma Baseball Stadium and measure radiation levels myself.

Getting off a local bus, I had to walk about 15 minutes, crossing the scenic Arakawa River, before entering the spacious grounds of the Azuma sports complex. In addition to the baseball field, there are facilities for track and field, tennis and gymnastics.

With my bGeigie Nano on and clicking away, I walked around the grounds for an hour, circling the track and field stadiums, as well as the perimeter of the baseball stadium.

The conclusion?

Measurements for radiation on the grounds around Azuma Baseball Stadium, including the surrounding roads, were low. My measurements appeared consistent with measurements taken by Safecast in the past.

Azuma 1
Azuma Baseball Stadium

According to Safecast lead researcher, Azby Brown, “all of the measurements you obtained showed the current radiation levels to be within normal background, ranging from 0.08 microsieverts per hour to 0.16 microsieverts per hour.”

Normal radiation exposure is usually described in millisieverts per year (mSv/yr = 1/1000th of a sievert) or in microsieverts per hour (uSv/hr = one millionth of a sievert). While a sievert is a massive dose, someone who spends 12 hours at the Azuma Baseball Stadium next year is likely to get only one or two millionths of that. Brown went on to explain that the measurements I registered around the stadium were fairly typical for what people encounter normally around the world.

For comparison, based on Safecast data, the levels you found around the stadium are similar to those in Tokyo, Brussels, Buenos Aires, or Washington DC, and less than in Rome, Hong Kong, or Seoul. The radiation that overseas visitors will be exposed to on their flights to Japan will almost certainly be higher than what they would get spending time at this stadium for Olympic events.  

We do not yet have measurement data for the nearby woods or riverbank, however, and experience suggests that these areas may show higher radiation levels. We will survey those areas soon, and let everyone know what we find. 

Azuma Stadium Safecast bGeigie measurements_RT
My measurements around Azuma baseball stadium as well as my route there by bus. Blue means low (normal) levels of radiation.

Certainly, there are concerns still about the long-term impact of the meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant. While the government has lifted living restrictions in many areas around the nuclear power plant, and is now heavily encouraging residents of those areas to return, the majority have chosen to stay away.

Still, if we look at the data, outside of the inaccessible exclusion zone, radiation levels in Tohoku are, on the whole, at normal levels.

That’s what the data shows.

And that’s good enough for me.

Construction of Olympic Village July 2018
Construction on the Olympic Village, seen on Tuesday, continues in Chuo Ward ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Games – July 2018 | YOSHIAKI MIURA

In 2008, the novel, “Olympic Ransom, (Orinpikku no Minoshirokin), the author, Hideo Okuda, reimagined the history of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, telling the story of a radicalized Tokyo University student who seeks to set off a bomb in the National Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremonies of those Games.

Ever since learning that his brother had died in an accident at a construction site related to the Tokyo Olympics, Kunio Shimazaki led the police on a wild goose chase, setting off low-level explosions across Tokyo in a run-up to the Games. When the novel’s hero, Inspector Masao Ochiai, confronts Shimazaki at a hiding place in Tokyo University, Shimazaki delivers his monologue:

Ochiai-san, do you know there is an underground passageway into the National Stadium? An underpass to all for the movement of players from underground into the world’s best stadium? The country has spared no expense in the making of it. Due to various pretexts though, the use of it was stopped. My older brother for the sake of constructing that unused underpass was forced into working shifts of sixteen continuous hours. In order to get through those shifts he turned to taking bad Philopon….and died. For the national honor, the country wasted huge amounts of money all while treating migrant workers like trash until they die, paying them only tens of thousands of yen. If we don’t change something here, the unfair gap between rich and poor will go on widening forever. And endlessly the same tragedy will repeat.

Those were lines from Asahi Television’s dramatized version of Okuda’s novel, about an event that never happened. And yet, this dialogue is being echoed today, about the working conditions of the construction sites for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

On May 15, 2019, the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) along with the Japanese Federation of Construction Workers’ Union, Zenken Soren, released a highly publicized report entitled, “The Dark Side of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics.” The report cites great concern regarding overworked and underpaid workers on the Olympic construction sites. In this Kyodo News report,  BWI General Secretary Ambet Yuson summarized his concern:

The Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics was Japan’s opportunity to address some of the long-running gaps within the construction industry in Japan, however, these problems have just got worse.  Wages remain low, dangerous overwork is common, and workers have limited access to recourse to address their issues.

Mary Harvey, the CEO of the Geneva-based Centre for Sport and Human Rights, and goalkeeper on the 1996 US women’s Olympic soccer squad, told AP that we needed to pay attention to these labor issues.

To think this is going away is burying your head in the sand, and I’m concerned it’s going to get worse. The heat of the summer months is upon us while construction deadlines are trying to be met. Someone dying or committing suicide shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone. Everyone should be taking a serious look at the risks identified in BWI’s report and, by everyone, I mean everyone who is a stakeholder, including the IOC, the Japanese government and construction companies.

The report offers facts and assumptions, which I have organized in the following categories:

Labor Shortage and Overwork

  • “Japan is currently suffering from an acute labour shortage and this is particularly apparent in the construction sector, where, today there are 4.3 jobs available for every construction worker.”
  • “Workers on the New National Stadium reported working 26 days in a single month, and workers on the Olympic Village reported working 28 days in a single month.”
  • “Today one in four Japanese construction workers – approximately 800,000 – are over the age of 60, and the Infrastructure Ministry predicts that by 2025 the industry will face a shortage of 470,000 to 930,000 workers.”

 

Consequences

  • “According to Labour Ministry figures there were 21 deaths from karoshi in 2017 in the construction sector, the second highest of all sectors.”
  • “…overwork itself creates severe safety risks, as fatigued workers are more likely to cut corners or make mistakes, putting themselves and their fellow workers in danger. One worker commented that he felt he is ‘always being pushed to meet the deadline,” while another said, “It’s not worth your life for this’.”
  • “Delays (In a variety of construction projects)… in a tight labour market will all translate into additional pressure on workers to meet deadlines, and a higher likelihood of unsafe working practices.”

 

Lack of Worker Rights

  • “Some workers were made to purchase their own personal protective equipment.”
  • “Workers also noted that they have become reluctant to raise their voice because managers do little to respond. ‘You point the issues out and request improvements, but this falls on deaf ears’. According to the workers, part of this problem is likely connected to the fact that the site foremen being dispatched neither have nor has sufficient training to do the work.”
  • “Two union leaders of Doken General Labour Union reported during the September 2018 International Forum that union organisers were harassed and intimidated by authorities when they attempted to reach out to workers in Tokyo National Stadium.”

 

Foreign Migrant Workers in Particular at a Disadvantage

  • “The number of migrant workers in the construction sector almost tripled between 2014-2017, with numbers now reaching around 55,000.”
  • “In the construction sector most of migrant workers are engaged through the Technical Intern Training Program (TITP). The TITP programme is supposed to provide training for migrant workers in key sectors with labour shortages; however, there has been widespread criticism of it as an exploitative scheme intended to render cheap labour.”
  • “TITP interns must be paid the legal minimum wage but it is rare that they are paid more, and this is currently set at less than half the average annual wage for construction (~US$40,000).”
  • “…it was reported that they (migrant workers) spoke no Japanese and communication was a challenge, particularly on OHS matters. Under Japanese law, employers must set up necessary procedures to ensure that health and safety procedures are established in a way that foreigners can understand.

In response to these reports, the Malaysian news portal, Malasiakini, called out to the Malaysian action to protect migrant workers in Japan.

We call for a guarantee from our Government that Malaysian workers’ rights and safety will be protected if they travel to Japan to work. This should include pre-departure orientation seminars on Japanese labour and safety law, and facilitating direct access to trade unions in Japan to ensure they can safeguard their rights on the job. The Malaysian Government must make sure that Malaysian workers are not trapped in a rights vacuum.

This report is likely a concern to the IOC and the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee. The IOC released a statement, saying “We take these issues very seriously and are committed to working with the relevant stakeholders to address them and find the appropriate solutions.”

But with the incredibly tight labor market in Japan, the IOC’s drive to decrease the Tokyo2020 budget, the increasingly tight deadlines for completion of Olympic venues, as well as competition for construction resources from all over the country, including reconstruction efforts in Tohoku in the aftermath of the 3.11 disaster, it is going to be hard to alleviate the pressure on the construction industry.

Josh Larsen's hands

I was with the USA Climbing team in Tokyo a couple of weeks ago and talking with team coach, Josh Larson, and I couldn’t help but notice his hands.

They were ugly.

Fat. Dry. In desperate need of a manicure.

For climbers, the fingers carry a significant chunk of the freight, and as a result, get really fat. After years of sustaining one’s body weight on one’s fingertips, sliding them into the slimmest of crevices, and slipping off the tiniest of edges, fingers get swollen and calloused over time. The result – really ugly fingers.

But in the world of sports, sometimes ugliness is the price of admission.

Take basketball for example. LeBron James. Shaquille O’Neal. James Harden. These athletes are famous for their incredible athletic ability, but not for their feet….more specifically, some of the ugliest toes you can imagine. So what to do you get an NBA superstar who has everything? According to The Washington Post…a pedicure.

For MMA fighters, boxers and wrestlers, it gets even uglier with cauliflower ears and broken noses. I won’t show those images here. But if you have a strong stomach, or are an ENT specialist, enjoy!

Ears

Noses

Reiwa characters
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga unveils the new era name “Reiwa” at a press conference_Reuters

Tomorrow, May 1, 2019, begins the era of Reiwa in Japan.

Today, April 30, 2019, Emperor Akihito, the son of Emperor Hirohito, will abdicate the throne and be succeeded by his son, the Crown Prince Naruhito.

In Japan, every period of an Emperor’s rule is given a name, and the Japanese commonly used the era name to mark time. Hirohito’s was Showa, and I was born in the year of Showa 38 (or 1963). Akihito’s was Heisei, and I was married in the year of Heisei 2 (or 1990).

Akihito (age 85) is the first emperor in 200 years to step down from the throne, and he does so in order for he and his wife, Empress Michiko (age 84), to live out the remainder of their lives in a more leisurely fashion, without the daily duties of the royal house. After all, Akihito and Michiko, showed Japan throughout their courtship and marriage that they too had to grow and change with the times.

Akihito and Michiko playing tennis in their early years_Getty
Akihito and Michiko playing tennis after announcing their engagement in 1958.

They first met on a tennis court in Karuizawa one day in August 1957. According to The Daily News, Michiko was partnered with an American named Bobby Doyle, and the Japan-US duo defeated Akihito in his partner over a two-hour two setter. It is said Akihito took a picture of Michiko and quietly had a friend deliver it to her. He also invited Michiko to join another tennis match, with the Shah of Iran.

Thus began the famous tennis romance, that blossomed not only for the couple, but for the entire nation. Not only did the royal couple spark a tennis boom in Japan, there was a boom in interest in the royal family. For Michiko was not of royal blood – a commoner who won the heart of the future Emperor, and “Mit-chi” as Michiko was affectionately called, was highly popular. Their eventual marriage on April 10, 1959, complete with a 8.8 kilometer procession through Tokyo in horse-drawn carriage, was viewed by half-a-million people who lined the course, and tens or million more on newly purchased televisions.

In another break from tradition, Akihito and Michiko decided that they would raise their own children instead of the practice of leaving the rearing of the children to tutors.

Thanks to the newly-founded powers of television to bring images instantly and up close to the average person, the crown prince and princess became celebrities of sorts. People were happy to catch a glimpse of them on a tennis court in Karuizawa or at a pizza restaurant in Roppongi. The members of a preparatory committee who hoped to bring the Stoke Mandeville Games to Tokyo also hoped to leverage the star power of the royal couple.

As related in a previous post, Yoshiyuki Kasai, who led the preparatory committee to bring what would become the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, arranged for Akihito and Michiko to meet the first Japanese to compete in the Stoke Mandeville Games in London, and tell the couple of their experience competing in a foreign land. Photos of the popular prince and princess with the disabled athletes ignited the preparatory committee’s ability to gain support more broadly within public and private circles.

031164 - Crown Prince Akihito meets teams Tokyo Games - 3b - Sca
The Crown Prince Akihito and Empress Michiko meet representatives of the Australian Paralympic Team and other teams at the Opening Ceremony of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympic Games.

As a result, not only did Akihito and Michiko help make the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics a reality, they were present during much of the 5-day Tokyo Paralympics, not just sitting in the audience, but interacting with the athletes on camera. They single-handedly brought significant national attention to the disabled, and raised the profile of this new international event despite the fact that Japan had just experienced it’s greatest international event, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, only weeks before.

The reign of Heisei is ending. But the legacies of Akihito and Michiko, including those in the world of sports, will last forever.

Elderly Akihito and Michiko playing tennis

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.

 

Ralph Boston_Mexico 1968_from his collection
Ralph Boston jumping at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, from his collection.

I’ve researched the 1964 Tokyo Olympics for four years. I published an original blog post everyday for over a thousand days straight in the course of my research. And I finally completed the manuscript of my book, “1964:  The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise From the Ashes.” Here are a few of the articles I wrote in 2018 relevant to those Games in 1964:

Rich Stebbins_2016
Stebbins at the Northwest Express Track and Field Classic in Florida, June, 2016.
Fred Hansen on the medal podium
Fred Hansen on the medal podium.
Spartan_Emily 3
Emily Downey

Bear crawl under barbed wire. Scramble over a 2-meter wall. Climb a rope 5 meters, hand over hand. Flip a 100 kg tire. Get a strong grip and hoist a pack weighing 50 kilograms up about 10 meters. Lug a heavy bucket for what seems forever to many.  Jump into mud, run through fire, exert your body and your will to its fullest…for what?

According to Emily Downey, Managing Director of Global Partnerships for Spartan Japan, it’s about the camaraderie, the sustainable boost to confidence, and ultimately a lifestyle that contributes to better health, and a greater chance of living a longer, more satisfying life. Spartan Race makes that happen.

Downey gave a talk at the American Chamber of Commerce Japan on November 6, 2018 entitled “Spartan: The Business of Selling Mud, Barbed Wire, and Fire – Creating a Multi-million Dollar Sports Brand in Japan in Less than 2 Years”.

Spartan_Emily

Spartan Race is the world’s largest obstacle race and endurance brand in the world, with over 1.2 million enthusiasts competing in over 200 races in over 40 countries. It is the fastest growing obstacle race, if not one of the fastest growing sports in the world. And Spartan races in Japan have been a turbo engine to the company’s global success.

Founded in 2010 in the US by Joe De Sena, a born entrepreneur and former Wall Street trader, Spartan Race established itself in Japan in 2016, thanks to circumstances that brought De Sena and Downey together in Tokyo. Thirty minutes into an initial meet-and-greet, the two immediately started making plans for Spartan’s first race in Japan.

Two years later, Spartan Race Japan is hugely successful and garners the highest ATV (average ticket value) in the world for Spartan. Additionally, thanks to Downey’s initiative, Spartan secured Spartan’s largest global partnership to date – The giant Japanese brand Rakuten, which runs the largest e-commerce platform by sales in Japan. This global partnership provides Spartan Race, in addition to financial support,  the ability to more powerfully leverage Rakuten’s digital and marketing services. The partnership also provides Rakuten with access to the massive markets of middle America, as the Rakuten logo will be seen on over a million race ‘Finisher’ shirts, as well as in Facebook livestreams of races.

Rakuten values the highly-educated, high income and diverse demographics of Spartan Race participants, making Spartan Race Rakuten’s third significant sports global partnership, after the vaunted global brands of La Liga’s FC Barcelona and the NBA’s Golden State Warriors.

At the heart of Spartan Race’s business model is the ability for organizers to engage participants in life-changing ways. Overcoming our fear of trying new things, of attempting activities that are perceived to result in failure, or even pain, is a significant part of Spartan Race’s value proposition. Through a series of challenging but achievable activities laid out across a race course in a natural open vista or a closed Stadium grounds, the organizers and its countless evangelists exhort and cajole their fellow Spartans to push themselves to climb that wall, to keep carrying that weight, to keep their eyes on the goal.

Spartan_Emily 4

Initially Downey wondered if Spartan Race could be replicated in Japan. “I was told the Japanese, particularly Japanese women, hate mud, that the Japanese just won’t do mud! The bucket carry – that’s really hard. Japanese won’t do it. I was told I was crazy to do Spartan in Japan. But the reality is, the Japanese love it. They learn like everyone else that after you achieve all that, you’re just not the same person, you have changed.”

Spartan Race is about finding levels of confidence one never though were possible. Children from the age of 5 compete. Men and women in their 70’s and 80’s compete. The disabled compete.

Spartan_Marla
Marley Sweeney

Marla Sweeney is 73 years old and has a litany of health issues, as well as artificial vertebrae implanted after being run over by a drunk driver in 2006. And yet Sweeney, inspired by her son who competed in Spartan, decided to try it, and trotted to complete a three-mile Spartan race in 2015. Since that time, she has been unstoppable, completing another 15 spartan races. And as a result, arthritic pains have washed away, as did bouts of depression.

“It’s a passion, it’s addicting and the world is brighter,” she told Runner’s World.

Kacey McCallister lost his legs at the age of six after being hit by an 18-wheel truck. Surviving was one thing. Living was another. As he relates in this video, if his mother treated him like an invalid, he would become an invalid. McCallister liked sports, but couldn’t find the right avenue…until he discovered Spartan. People thought he was crazy to even consider an obstacle race like Spartan, but he went right at it, competing for the first time in a 9-mile race, on his hands.

“When people doubt me, when people tell me I can’t do something, that fires me up. That gets me going. In fact, in this recent Spartan run, my wife said this was going to kill me.  That makes me want to do it even more.”

McCallister completed the race and many more after. And he discovered the essence of his achievement, a lesson that applies not just to he disabled, but to all people.

Disability is in your mind. People out there with a totally functioning body have this mental block. That’s all it is for anybody. It’s a mental block that says I can’t do something because….. Sure there’s a lot of people out there in wheel chairs who think,  “Oh, I can’t do it, so I’m going to stay home and play Halo for eight hours a day. They can. You have to figure out a way.

Downey explained that the ripped athletes who look like they can conquer a Spartan race in their sleep, her so-called 1% of the population, are not the ones who ‘win’ the race. She said it’s the 99% who do – the housewife, the grandfather, the office worker, the casual sportsman. She has come to understand that winning the race is not the goal for so many, that in fact, the goal is realizing the potential within, a potential that many didn’t realize even lingered inside.

In fact, Downey challenges everyone to get off the couch, and tells them they’re not “special,” that they too can do so much more. “People participate in Spartan, gain confidence, and learn they can improve their lives.” More importantly, Downey notes, the results of achieving in a Spartan Race have longer-term implications, beyond the medals. “People say that money, family, children – these are the most important things. But really, health is. Without health you won’t have any of the other important things. Spartans treat their bodies well.  They don’t dump a lot of bad stuff in it.”

In fact, as obesity continues to grow as a global health threat, De Sena calls Spartan Race “a public service.”

This is not even a business. We have no choice but to do this and convince people to start getting healthy. This is not a want to do, this is a have to do.


head tackle football

It was November 1982, and I was a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, in the nosebleed seats of Franklin Field with friends, watching our Quakers fritter away a 20-0 lead against Harvard, which took the lead 21-20 late in the game.

With less than 2 minutes to play, the Quakers somehow make a miraculous comeback – missing a field goal but still getting the roughing the kicker call, and making a winning field goal with zero seconds on the clock.

It was a euphoric moment for students at Penn on that cool Autumn afternoon. With that victory, Penn won it’s first Ivy League championship in 26 years. Did we expect Penn to go on to win four more Ivy titles in a row? Did anyone outside of Penn care? In college-football-mad-America, probably not. But we the students were pleased as punch – we could shout “Kill ’em Quakers!” with glee and pride while enjoying the irony.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Call for a Boycott

And then, 36 years later, I’m listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, and feel this tightening of the stomach as my writer hero rips into my alma mater, reliving a speech he gave to Penn students in 2013 that football was dangerous, citing the death of Penn student and varsity football player, Owen Thomas. Gladwell called for Penn students to boycott football, that we were too smart to be so ignorant of the inherent risk of the game.

Well, it’s your classmates who are dying, right? It’s your classmates who are putting their lives at risk by playing this game. I think all of you has to think about, has to consider boycotting football games at Penn and I think you have to convince your friends to boycott football games at Penn and I think you have to picket outside football games at Penn. And I think you have to go to the administrators of this university and you have to ask them why is a world-class institution, one of the finest universities of higher learning in this planet, exposing its own students to the risk of injury and death? And if they ask for proof, tell them you don’t need proof. Sometimes proof is just another word for letting people suffer. Thank you.

The reaction at Penn was mixed and muted. A Wharton senior who was also on the Penn football team, John Onwualu, said that “the way [Gladwell] expressed his opinions was inappropriate and disrespectful for a speech like that.”

Dartmouth Leads the Way

Gladwell’s intent was to be provocative. Perhaps he was aware of the movement taking place in another part of the Ivy League when he broadcasted this podcast earlier this year. According to a New York Times article called “The Ivy League Becomes the Future of Football,” the coach of the Big Green of Dartmouth began instituting changes to the way the team practices that impacted not only the number of injuries sustained during the season, but also the team’s performance. More significantly, Dartmouth’s practices have influenced how football players all over the country, at the college and professional level train. Here’s a close look at two that are revolutionizing football:

No Tackle Practice: When the head is hit or shaken countless times, the brain is physically impacted and over time, this repeated head trauma can lead to degenerative brain disorders, life-threatening disorders, like CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). In 2010, the head coach of Dartmouth College’s football team, Buddy Teevens, decreed something very unique – the elimination of tackling in practice year round. As the Times’ article states, Teevens likes to say that a Dartmouth player will never get tackled by another Dartmouth player in his career there.

Remote-controlled Tackling Dummies: Looking for a way for his players to safely practice their tackling, Teevens helped develop a technological solution – remote-controlled dummies. Dubbed “mobile virtual players,” these MVPs are fast, able to change directions quickly, and can self-right themselves after getting tackled. In this manner, Teevens can arrange practices that allow his players to focus on tackling technique without the risk of injury to another player.

“The only times my guy tackle are ten times in games,” said Teevens in the video below. “It will allow them to be more proficient and successful. And concussive injury reduction is going to be huge for us.”

The Impact: Immediately after the implementation of the No Tackle policy, Dartmouth’s Big Green had mixed results, but trended positively. In 2011, 2013, and 2104, they always won their final three games of the season, displaying a late-season resiliency, before winning a share of the Ivy title in 2015.

Perhaps influenced by the fewer injuries and freshness of Dartmouth players, Ivy League coaches voted unanimously in March, 2016 to change a rule that results in the elimination of tackling in practices during the season throughout the conference.

At the same time, the Ivy League also voted to reduce injuries during kick-off returns, where 21% of all concussions were experienced, despite the fact that the kick-off return accounted for only 6% of all plays. The kick off allows players to get to full acceleration before hitting each other – imagine two accelerating cars smashing headfirst into each other. A rule change moved the kick-off to the forty yard line from the thirty-five, resulting in far more kicks unreturned. Two years of data showed a significant decrease in concussions during kick offs.

Buddy Teevens
Head coach of Dartmouth College football team, Buddy Teevens

The NFL is making changes, probably due to a fear of liability and diminished popularity over time. As the San Francisco Chronicle points out, participation in high school in the United States has been dropping since 2008, falling even more rapidly in California, probably because high school football players are significantly more likely to experience a concussion than baseball or basketball players in high school.

It may not seem like an existential crisis for football in America. But safety is growing in importance, as Teevens is quoted in the Times:

Beyond wanting to win, Teevens is motivated by a fear that an irreplaceable sport could die. “I think it’s too valuable a game to say, ‘Oh, we’ll do something else,’” he said. “But I also look at the data and the medical side of it. Something has to be done.”