Toyosu aerial view
The Toyosu fish market is pictured in this photo taken from a Mainichi helicopter on July 30, 2016. (Mainichi)

The Tsukiji era is over. The Toyosu era has begun today, October 11.

After decades in the planning, the government has finally moved the fishmongers of Tsukiji to a former gas storage facility in Toyosu, about a few kilometers southeast of the famed fish market.

One of the most popular tourist attractions in Japan, tens of thousands visited Tsukji daily to enjoy the fresh seafood, and if they arrived before 5 am, as hundreds did every weekday, to watch the auction of frozen tuna laid out like lumber on the slick fishmonger floor.

Tsukiji was also a significantly large market, as over 1,540 tons of seafood valued at USD14 million or JPY1.6 billion traded hands every day. Around 650 businesses operated in Tsukiji, including 100 vegetable traders that sold 985 tons of fruits and vegetables daily, creating a vibrant community with over 14,000 workers and 28,000 buyers doing in the crammed confines of the Tsukiji market.

This coziness of Tsukiji, while part of the charm, was also part of the problem. Working within facilities originally constructed prior to World War II, Tsukiji businesses were not air conditioned, and kept their fish and vegetables fresh with crushed ice. Since storage space was limited, fish could be found stored outside, even in the summer months. The hustle bustle of Tsukji was made greater with the countless number of trucks that transported goods in and out of Tsukiji on its narrow roads.

The cramped quarters were an issue, and the move to Toyosu nearly doubles the available space for the market from 23.1 hectares in Tsukiji to 40.7 hectares in Toyosu. There were other reasons to move – the steel beams that kept the buildings up were rusting, the building standards were not up to date in terms of eartquake resistance, asbestos was said to be in the walls, and rats filled the nooks and crannies.

Tsukiji tunnel and transportation hub_Asia Nikkei
The Loop Line 2 plan, Nikkei Asian Review

And then there is the coming 2020 Tokyo Olympics, providing an extra incentive to accelerate the move. Plans for 2020 included:

  • a transportation hub of 3,000 vehicles, called Bus Rapid Transport (BRT), that would be used to move athletes, officials, and volunteers around to the various Olympic venues,
  • an extension of a major road artery, called Loop Line 2, from downtown Toranomon to Toyosu, that would allow vehicles to move unimpeded via a tunnel dug underneath Tsukiji, and
  • The Olympic Village, to be built between the Tsukiji market and Toyosu market.

When Yuriko Koike came to power as governor of Tokyo in the summer of 2016, she put a halt to the planned November 7, 2016 move of the fish market to Toyosu when high levels of a poisonous chemical, benzene, were detected in the soil and in the air of the former gas storage facility.

Tsukiji Market aerial
Tsukiji Fish Market Aerial View

Two years later, after measures to diminish the impact of the contaminents in the soil were taken, Governor Koike officially gave the go ahead to open Toyosu on October 11.

That decision has brought closure to many of the Tuskiji businesses that eventually moved to Toyosu. But the delay has left considerable uncertainty for others, according to the Nikkei Asian Review.

One party is the Tokyo Olympic Organizing committee, which gives the committee much less time to convert the Tsukiji fish market into a transportation hub. Dealing with the tens of thousands of people on the move for two weeks during the Games, in addiiton to the already congested roads and trains of Tokyo, will be a tremendous challenge, and the readiness and effectiveness of the BRT will be critical to the success of the 2020 Olympics.

Another concerned party is a group, including Mitsui Fudosan Residential, Mitsubishi Jisho Residence, Sumitomo Realty & Development and Nomura Real Estate Development, which are creating different parts of the Olympic Village. The rooms for athletes will be converted and sold as condos after the Olympics, according to Nikkei Asian Review. They write that the 24 blocks of 5,600 condominums will help drive the population of the Harumi bayside area from 12,000 today to about 29,000 in ten years.

Unfortunately, the development of the tunnel part of the Loop Line 2, planned to transport people and vehicles underneath Tsukiji, was postponed after the move of the fish market to Toyosu was postponed.

As the area of the Olympic Village is not close to any train station (the closest station being a 25-minute walk to Kachidoki Station on the Oedo Line), the developers of the condos were depending on the development of high-speed connections from the Olympic Village Harumi waterfront area to Shimbashi train station in about 10 minutes, but that possibility appears to be in jeopardy with uncertainty over the development of the tunnel.

Uncertainty doesn’t sell.

Developers are hoping to start selling the condo units before the games, aiming to sell more than 4,000 of 5,600 units. But the uncertainty over whether the BRT will be fully operational by the autumn of 2022, when new owners are scheduled to take possession, is causing worries about how this will work out.

Toyosu has opened, and the era of early morning jaunts to the fish market, standing meters from the valuable frozen tuna being hawked in auction is over. As this site explains, you will find a more antiseptic version of the Tsukiji experience.

Expect the experience at Toyosu to be different from the lively, messy but also charming and authentic Tsukiji. It seems like a very organized and sterile atmosphere—and only certain clearly-marked areas will be accessible to visitors. The times of tourists touching the price tags of tuna are over—your experience is all behind glass windows now.

Tsukiji May 1989
The author at Tsukiji one early May morning in 1989, with an ugly moustache.
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undokai_savvy tokyo
Photo from Savvy Tokyo

Today is October 10. Until the year 2000, October 10 was a national holiday in Japan called Sports Day, marking that momentous occasion in Japanese history – the start of the XVIII Olympiad in Tokyo.

It is also a time marker to note when primary and nursery schools across Japan engage in the gathering of children, teachers and parents for undokai, an event dedicated to sporting events. Since 2000, Sports Day was moved from October 10 to the second Monday of October to ensure that Japan always celebrates with a three-day weekend. It is that weekend in which the undokai is often held.

According to this guide, typical sports organized at undokai are the running sports, but also include three-legged races and the formation of human pyramids. As the students get older, that sense of competition increases, but the overwhelming atmosphere is one of cheer and support, with shouts of “ganbare!” to encourage them to do their best.

I remember my son’s first undokai when he was 2, in the same way many parents do – through the countless pictures and video taken of the time. My son was going to a nursery school, and the teachers helped put these somewhat distracted, somewhat awkward children through the various running, jumping and throwing competitions.

Here’s my son in a throwing competition.

Tiger Woods TOUR Championship
Photo: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Tiger Woods won the TOUR Championship, his first victory in five years. He slogged his way to the finish with two bogies in the final four holes, but he enjoyed the stroll towards the green of East Lake Golf Course in Atlanta, Georgia, leading a Tiger swarm not seen in years.

“I had a hard time not crying coming up the last hole,” he said. “I had to suck it up and hit some shots.”

And when he hit his final putt on 18, the NBC announcer said what so many thought, that after so much injury, so many surgeries, and a very long championship drought, Tiger was back. “We thought we’d never see it. Probably he didn’t either. Tiger Woods – a winner again. Number 80.”

Up by three holes at 14 in the final round, his closest competitors fading, Woods two putts a birdie chance away, bogies away two shots on 15 and 16, and then hangs on for a 2-shot victory over fellow American Billy Horschel. “It was a just grind,” said Woods on NBC. “I loved every bit of it – the fight and the grind and the tough conditions. I loved every bit of it.

Tiger Woods TOUR Championship 2
TWITTER: Congratulations to our boss on winning the Tour Championship today, marking it his 80th PGA Tour victory and a comeback for the ages. – TGR #TW80

Justin Rose, who won gold at the re-boot of Olympic golf in Rio, finished tied for fourth but with enough points to win the FedEx Cup. Woods is not thinking of Tokyo 2020 right now, but you can bet organizers and members of the Kasumigaseki Country Club are catching Tiger Fever. The Kasumigaseki C. C. in particular does not want the gender controversy to get attention every time their club is mentioned, so a little Tiger magic will distract.

Will Tiger make it to Tokyo, and be one of the incandescent stars of Tokyo2020?

Right now, Tiger doesn’t make the cut.

According to the International Golf Federation (IGF), the Olympics limit the number of players to 60 each for the men’s and women’s competitions. The IGF will look to the official world golf rankings as a basis of their own Olympic World Golf Rankings (OWGR). The top 15 men in the world, ranked over the period of July 1, 2018 to June 22, 2020, will be eligible to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. There is a caveat – with countries rich in golf talent, there is a limit of four players.

Unless, Tiger really gets his game into high gear in the coming 22 months, he could get left behind. According to gold prognosticator, Nosferatu, Americans -Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, Bryson DeChambreau, Rickie Fowler, and Jordan Spieth – already occupy the first six slots in the OWGR rank list as of today. The PGA Tour official world gold ranking has Woods at 21, with 11 Americans ahead of him.

But that was before Woods’ final putt on 18 today. And he had already climbed from 80th in April to 13th in September in the OWGR. What do the coming weeks months have in store? Hopefully, we can follow those tiger tracks all the way to Tokyo in 2020.


Spring Forward daylight saving

2018 has been a sweltering summer in Tokyo. With temperatures surpassing 40 degrees Centigrade (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in early August, the media and internet had a field day on perceived disastrous consequences of athletes and spectators collapsing on the streets and in the stands during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

But when the idea of incorporating Daylights Saving Time in Japan came up, the media and internet in Japan had another field day condemning that idea.

Why is daylights saving time – the idea of pushing the clock ahead in the summer of 2020 – being considered? There are two reasons brought up.

  • Potentially cooler weather for the marathon runners: An early start time of 7:30 am is being considered for the marathons. If the clocks are pushed one hour ahead, 7:30 am is actually 6:30 am – the presumption being that the conditions will be cooler.
  • Broadcaster’s bottom line: Additional advertising revenue for the American broadcaster could be gained by shifting the clock at least one hour ahead. If we presume that 10 am will be a starting time for a lot of major events, that would be 9 pm in New York City without daylight saving, and 8pm with daylight saving.

The South Korean government agreed to institute daylight saving time in 1988, the year of the Seoul Olympics. According to this article, a Trans World International executive named Barry Frank was hired as a consultant to the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee (SLOOC), and helped the committee negotiate with the networks for broadcasting rights.

Frank seemingly had an insoluble problem — an Olympics half a world away, with individual athletic federations balking at changing their starting times and U.S. television balking at paying hefty rights for delayed telecasts. Any hour he could find to add to our prime-time schedule was crucial. NBC is paying a base of $300 million for U.S. television rights, with a risk-sharing formula tied to advertising sales that could boost the fee to $500 million. “This might have been worth $25 million in the overall scheme of things,” Frank said of the daylight savings ploy.

Countries using not using daylight saving time
Daylight saving time is used in over 70 countries.

So the clocks in South Korea shifted one hour ahead in the summer of 1988. That was the only year Korea had daylight saving time.

The Japanese government may be considering it, but there may be some lingering bad memories of a time when Japan did have daylight saving. That was in the immediate years after World War II. Japan had lost the war, and was placed under the control of the Allied Powers, led by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, American General Douglas MacArthur. The Americans, thinking of the positive impact that DST has had in the US, thought the Japanese would welcome an extra hour of daylight in the summer evenings. They didn’t.

According to historian John Dower, in his book, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, the immediate post-war years were miserable ones of loss, destitution and despair. Bringing on the night, and retreating to the shadows as soon as possible, was preferable apparently.

It was also in 1948 that lingering exhaustion in the general population translated into widespread popular criticism of one of the occupation’s most minor innovations, the introduction of American-style daylight savings time. Called sanmo taimu (“summer time”) in the marvelous new pidgin terminology of the moment, setting the clock forward an hour was opposed on the grounds that it simply extended the difficulty of “daily” life. People preferred that darkness come earlier, although they did not succeed in getting daylight savings time repealed until September 1951.

When it became known this year that daylight saving time was being considered by the government to deal with the summer heat issues during the upcoming Olympics, the reaction was generally negative. The recommendation being discussed was a two-hour shift ahead, and the fears of even longer working hours filled the air, according to Reuters.

Economists said the measure’s impact on behavior could be mixed. “If people start working two hours early and finish two hours early, consumer spending is expected to rise,” said Toshihiro Nagahama, executive chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute. “But given the labor shortage, the end of working time may not change and people may still work longer hours.”

That was the biggest fear on social media, where the topic was one of Monday’s hottest and worries ranged from having to reprogram computers to losing sleep. “It’s way too easy to imagine that we’ll start work two hours earlier and finish the same in the dark, meaning long days,” wrote one.

Grave of the Fireflies 1

Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓 Hotaru no Haka) was released in 1988, in hindsight, a surprisingly sober film from Studio Ghibli, the production company that has brought the world such wondrous animated films as My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away.

I watched it for the first time this week.

Destruction in war time, no matter which side of a conflict you’re on, is hard to comprehend in times of peace, or in the security of your living room, in front of a large flatscreen TV. And yet, in Grave of the Fireflies, the director, Isao Takahata, transports us to Kobe, Japan, in the waning days of World War II – a time of routine air raids, frantic dashes to air raid shelters, and fruitless attempts to extinguish the fires of napalm bombs dropped from American B-29s.

Over 60 cities in Japan were bombed in the months leading to the war’s end on August 15, 1945, including Kobe, a port city that was a major industrial center, particularly for shipbuilding.

Takahata, based on a short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, tells the semi-autobiographical story of a brother, Seita, and his younger sister, Setsuko, who are orphaned when their mother dies from full-body burns in a air raid, and their father in the Imperial Navy perishes in the Pacific. They stay at an aunt’s home, but as the days pass, the siblings feel they are an unwelcome burden, and leave to survive on their own in an abandoned cave. Their resources dwindling, the two make do, but eventually, Setsuko, and finally, Seita, succumb to the slow death of malnutrition and starvation.

orphan children post war japan 2.jpg

John Dower, who wrote the book Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, wrote of the stigma and the challenges that returning soldiers, war widows, and war orphans faced, driven in part by the culture of the country.

Despite a mild Buddhist tradition of care for the weak and infirm, despite Confucian homilies about reciprocal obligations between social superiors and inferiors, and despite imperial platitudes about all Japanese being “one family” under the emperor, Japan was a harsh inhospitable place for anyone who did not fall into a “proper” social category.

In the early stages of the post-war period in mid-1946, the Ministry of Health and Welfare estimated there about 4,000 war orphans in Japan, but that number climbed to over 120,000 eighteen months later.

According to Dower, the war orphans lived by their wits doing anything they could to survive, “shining shoes, selling newspapers, stealing, recycling cigarette butts, illegally selling food coupons, begging,” with teenage girls ending up prostituting themselves to get by.

orphan children post war japan
Grave of the Fireflies powerfully brings the war orphan experience alive – a desperate experience – and one in the thoughts of the late, great film critic, Roger Ebert that speaks to the unfairness of war in its lack of precision, by showing the innocent nature of these two children, and the agonizing specifics of their circumstances.

I’ve seen a lot of war films. Many of them are exciting, or moving, or dramatic or artistically effective. And a few of them reach you at an emotional level and not just at an action level. I was amazed the first time I watched Grave of the Fireflies that I was actually moved just about to tears by this film. This film has an emotional breadth involving war, and the results of war, and two victims of war that is astonishing.

I think this movie is saying that firebombing is not a very precise way of going after the enemy. It’s a way to destroy morale, a way to break down a nation’s will to resist, but at the same time, are we really thinking about people like this little brother and his even smaller sister, when we drop these bombs. Or are we managing to objectify the Japanese as an evil race who deserve to have this happen to them.

So many decades later, in the 21st century, many around the world have little visceral understanding of the immediate post-war period, their understanding based on text books and dry historical explanations. But Grave of the Fireflies, considered one of the best animated films ever produced, brought that difficult time in history to life, a powerful reminder of what the stakes are when we go to war, and what depths Japan emerged from to get to where it is today – a nation where some of the most beautiful and touching animated works of art have been created.

homeless in postwar japan
Hundreds of Japanese jam the Ueno railway station in Northeast Tokyo, on Oct. 26, 1945, these windy autumn nights seeking shelter. Homeless, the old and the young huddle together on thin matting and old newspapers, and try to sleep. Many are starving. Police estimate there are two of three deaths nightly from starvation. (AP Photo)

At the end of World War II, in 1945, there were 9 million Japanese left homeless, primarily due to the devastation wrought by B-29s and their bombing raids for nearly a year.

With 80% of all ships destroyed, 33% of all industrial machine tools destroyed, 25% of all trains and cars destroyed, and with the allied-ruled governing body, led by General Douglas MacArthur, imposing a rule of law that prioritized dispersing of Japanese assets to allied victors, the economy was in ruins.

Hunger and malnutrition were the norm, as Japanese managed to live off of 550 to 1,100 calories per day, about 25 to 50% the minimum required to maintain health.

The years after the end of the war was a desperate time for Japanese. Historian John Dower referred to this post-war malaise in his book, Embracing Defeat, as kyodatsu, a Japanese word for the collective depression that fell on the country. After all, when the Emperor got on the radio on August 15, 1945 to announce that the war had ended, they had not only heard the voice of a divine being for the first time, after years of being told of the need to fight to the end, they were suddenly told to stop their resistance, and to continue to live and work towards Japan’s recovery.

The immediate meaning of ‘liberation’ for most Japanese was not political but psychological. Surrender – and, by association, the Allied victory, the American army of occupation itself – liberated them from death. Month after month, they had prepared for the worst; then, abruptly, the tension was broken. In an almost literal sense, they were given back their lives. Shock bordering on stupefaction was a normal response to the emperor’s announcement, usually followed quickly by an overwhelming sense of relief. But that sense of relief all too often proved ephemeral.

Malnutrition poster 1946_Dower

From John Dower’s Embracing Defeat.

On top of all that, the post-war period saw the return of countrymen and women who served in other parts of Asia in the military or as civilians working in Japanese organizations. From October 1, 1945 to December 31, 1946, about 5.1 million repatriated back to Japan, adding to the misery of Japan that already had too few jobs and too little food for those already in the country.

An early first-hand account was written by AP journalist, Russell Brines, in his book, MacArthur’s Japan, who described a Japan unrecognizable today. Here’s how he described the repatriation of Japanese soldiers and civilians from abroad.

Men, women and children – tired and dirty – plodded off the ship, wound past the American sentry and pushed up a hill toward a weather beaten building. They stood like cattle while doctors deloused them, then walked to the railroad station. As they waited for trains, gloomy and apprehensive, commuters eyed them stiffly before hurrying away. Only relatives gave them a smile or a soft word. They soon learned the rest of Japan was too busy – or just unconcerned – to give them much thought to the cycle of fate that had deposited them like rubbish on their nation’s doorstep.

Jammed, filthy trains took them to all parts of the homeland. Some had been away as long as eight years. They returned to blowsy cities, tiny villages or drab farms; to the narrow, contained life they had left for conquest. Many found stony neighbors, silently condemning them for sharing in defeat or for failing to die, as custom decreed. Others encountered resentment from people miserly over food and patched clothing. Some located only ashes where their homes had been and only vagueness when they searched for missing relatives.

The sifting of lives continues, day by day, behind paper-curtained little homes. Men returned to find their “widows” remarried. Some wives had become streetwalkers, through necessity or restlessness. Women had lost some of their obedience and most of their patience. The fabric of prearranged, loveless marriages was too weak in many cases to survive long separation and irritable reconciliation. For the first time, women became complainants in divorce suits; including one whose husband brought back a native wife and two children from Borneo.

Jobs were scarce, money useless and the new life confusing. Those who returned swaggering, found no one willing to cringe before them, as had subject peoples. Those who came back ashamed and penitent found no pity. Only the opportunists profited, the men who had kept their eyes open to all the sharp practices they saw abroad.

Yuzuru Hanyu and Pooh

It rained Pooh.

And that meant Hanyu was back.

Ever since 2014 Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan went down painfully after injuring his right ankle in October last year, his legions of fans in Japan and around the world have been collectively holding their breath.

 

TOPSHOT-FSKATE-JPN-HANYU
TOPSHOT – This picture taken on November 9, 2017 shows Japanese figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu reacting as he falls after missing his jump during a practice of the Grand Prix of Figure Skating 2017/2018 NHK Trophy in Osaka. Japan Skating Federation announced the Olympic champion Hanyu withdraw from the NHK Trophy after injuring his right ankle. / AFP PHOTO / JIJI PRESS / STR / Japan OUT

 

Would the world’s greatest figure skater be able to return to the ice in time for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. Nobody really knew because he had hidden himself from the probing Japanese media in Toronto, under the guidance of his coaches and Olympic medalists, Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson.

In fact, the current World Champion was not even in South Korea in the first few days of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, and confessed at his press conference on February 14 that he “had a little bit of uncertainty.” For a man of few words, that’s telling.

Yuzuru Hanyu PyeongChang short program 1
Yuzuru Hanyu performs his short program on Friday at the Pyeongchang Olympics at Gangneung Ice Arena. | AFP-JIJI

And yet, as you know now, Hanyu nailed his short routine, scoring the second highest short program score ever – 111.68 points. More importantly, his 4.1 point lead over Javier Fernandez is even greater than his lead when he won gold in Sochi four years earlier.

More significantly, he landed a series of quads, including a a quad toe followed hard upon by a triple toe, all landing on his right leg, after which the NBC color commentator said in mock disbelief, “What injury?”

Hanyu was indeed back….back for more gold. And not just the golden fur of his favorite fuzzy character, Winnie the Pooh.

Athlete Anatomy Olympic Channel

You’ve done it. Admit it. All those surveys that tell you which Beatle you are, what famous portrait in the world’s museums you most look like, and what your mental age is.

The Olympic Channel has another one “Athlete Anatomy – Which Sport Suits You?” Through a series of questions that asks you about your gender, body shape, agility, power, reaction times, preference for summer or winter sports, land or water sports, sports with or without equipment, etc., you get a result.

For me, a person who is short, not so strong, and average in many ways physically, I ended up with two sports that surprised me momentarily, and then didn’t.

Olympic Channel My sport match is wrestling.jpg
My match for summer sports.

My anatomy apparently fits the profile for a wrestler, or for a ski jumper.

I was surprised at first because I have no interest in either sport. But perhaps if I were in an institution that demanded I be placed in a sports activity, perhaps that is where people of my type go.

When I think about it, wrestling requires no equipment, and the thinking is that probably anyone can do it. Now, with all due respect to the great athletes who are wrestlers, the point is not everyone can do it well. But I suppose with training and practice, I could become OK.

Olympic Channel My sport match is ski jumping
My match for winter sports is ski jumping.

As for ski jumping, that sport definitely requires buckets loads of courage, to go flying down a mountain at speeds that could send you flying into a spin that breaks many bones in your body. But with the example of Eddie the Eagle still fresh in many of our minds, the short, stocky, average-body type guys like me might see a bit of ourselves in Eddie.

How about you? What sport suits your anatomy?

PyeongChang Weater Feb 1

It’s a week away. I’m so excited. I’m getting chills.

I will be in South Korea for the opening ceremonies of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, with the world’s best winter sports athletes, world leaders, celebrities, the North Korean cheering squad and 35,000 other participants….freezing our butts off.

I routinely look at the weather app on my iPhone for the temperature in the area of the PyeongChang Olympic Stadium, and it’s always minus-something celsius. In fact, over the past ten years, the average temperature of this northern part of South Korea is -5.8 Celsius.

And because the Olympic Stadium was built without a roof – to save costs – there are fears that the cutting winds of that area will give the “lucky” spectators a chance to sit for 4-5 hours in a wind chill of -12 degrees. This may not be healthy. According to this article, six people were treated for hypothermia at a concert they attended in the Olympic Stadium in November, 2017.

In order to prevent the mountain winds from sweeping through the stadium, organizers have built a wall 3.5 meters high, that circles around the stadium for 350 meters, which they hope will keep the wind chill down. They will also hand out blankets and heat packs to each of the participants. You can bet I will have those little instant heat packs all over my very layered body.

Here is one of a great set of FAQs on the PyeongChang Olympics from the Associated Press:

Q:  What’s the weather like?

A:  Bundle up. Gangwon Province is one of the country’s coldest places. The wind is brutal, and the stadium for the nighttime opening and closing ceremonies is open air and has no heating system. Locals make it a matter of pride not to complain about daily wintertime life, but visitors risk misery if they’re unprepared.

Fortunately, misery loves company…and maybe 35,000 people together can bring the heat!

IX Winter Olympics in Austria, 1964

There were whispers.

The four-time Olympian and 7-time medalist in cross-country skiing, including three gold medals, Eero Mantyranta of Lankojarvi, Finland was a legend in his country and his sport. But he could not outrace the rumors of blood doping when he competed.

As a child, everyone in Lankojarvi skated and skied, but Mantyranta excelled, winning his first cross-country ski race at the age of 7, and then dominating all takers into his early teens. Eventually he was able to find employment as a border patrol guard, who got around his territory on skis. As a twenty-year old, he made the Olympic squad that traveled to Squaw Valley, California for the 1960 Winter Games, snagging a gold medal in the 4x10km cross-country ski event.

Four years later at Innsbruck, Austria, Mantyranta was one of the Games’ stars, taking two more golds in the 15 and 30-km races, as well as a silver medal in the 4x10km relay. And in his third Olympics, Mantyranta tool home a silver and two bronze medals.

All that success only encouraged the rumors. After all, it was known since he was a teenager that Mantyranta had “high hemoglobin and far more than the usual amount of red blood cells,” according to David Epstein, author of the fascinating book, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. “Normally, those are signs that an endurance athlete is blood doping, often with a synthetic version of the hormone erythropoietin, or EPO. EPO signals the body to produce red blood cells, so injecting it spurs an athlete’s own body to bolster its blood supply.”

But also according to Epstein, the rumors were untrue.

First there were indications that other members of the Mantyranta family also rested for high levels of hemoglobin, but because there were little ill effects from higher-than-average hemoglobin levels, doctors were never concerned. But this coincidence made hematologists from Finland wonder. After putting the Finnish Olympian through additional blood testing, it was learned that in fact Eero Mantyranta had very low levels of EPO, and that when most people stopped producing hemoglobin based on what the body considered enough, Mantyranta’s body was genetically designed to continuouisly pump out hemoglobin.

And more hemoglobin meant not only very ruddy cheeks. It also meant high levels of oxygen circulated inside Mantyranta, a significant advantage that allowed him to ski faster and longer than almost every other cross-country skier. Most certainly, Mantyranta’s singular drive to train and increase his performance as a cross-country competitor was essential to his Olympic success. But most certainly, so was this genetic advantage.

Here’s how Epstein remembered Mantyranta in this obituary, when the great cross country skier passed away in 2013.

Being born with talent is one thing; alchemizing it into Olympic gold entirely another. And though I drew attention to Eero’s startling biology, that’s worth remembering as well. I’ll remember Eero the way he was when I met him. A jovial and remarkable-looking man, with dark, slicked-back hair and prominent cheekbones that seemed to pull at the corners of his mouth, giving him a slightly inquisitive look. There was a thickness about him, a barrel chest and bulbous nose. I remember when he shook my hand, I felt as if he could’ve crushed my fingers, and I noticed that his middle finger was bent at a right angle from the top joint. He spent the brief period of Arctic winter sunlight that day working in his reindeer yard. I thought he must have been the strongest seventy-three year old I had ever met. That’s how I’ll remember him.

Eero Mantyranta at home