The closer we get to the start, the farther we grow apart. Will Tokyo2020 be the Inclusion Games, or the Exclusion Games? Here’s an article I wrote for “Tokyo Updates.”
She was five years old, and she watched the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics with amazement.
Jackie Joyner Kersee! Carl Lewis!
And so Megumi Ikeda thought one day, this little girl from Nanyo, Yamagata in northern Japan would be as fast and as cool as Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
As it turned out, Ikeda (née Harada) simply didn’t have the athletic gifts to excel in track and field. And yet, the flame of high performance can be sparked in unexpected ways. Ikeda would go on to represent Japan at the 2004 Athens Olympics and the Beijing Olympics in individual épée fencing.
Fencing is an old sport, but it is not a money-making sport. People don’t fill arenas around the world to watch fencing, wrestling, weightlifting, curling, hammer throwing, cross-country skiing, or the luge.
But every four years, billions of people watch the Summer and Winter Olympic Games.
Why do so many people watch the Olympics?
So many people watch the Olympics because they become witness to the very best athletes in the world. Human senses are lifted to their keenest. Human physicality is stretched to its limits. Human desire swells up from the deepest recesses of one’s will.
Sport, like painting, singing, dancing, acting and writing is an act of human expression. Like a sculptor in an attic, a rock band in a basement, or actors in a park, kids on the street playing football are expressing themselves.
At the Olympics, sport is art. The Olympics provide highly skilled, highly trained athletes an… (to read more, click on this link.)
Bill Barry was back in Tokyo. A silver-medalist for Great Britain in the coxless four rowing competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Barry flew into Japan as the coach of one of the rowers competing to qualify for Tokyo2020.
Amidst a State of Emergency in Tokyo, around 100 athletes, coaches and staff from 25 countries converged on Tokyo Bay for the Asia and Oceania Olympic and Paralympic Rowing Qualifier, which took place at the Sea Forest Waterway from May 5 to 7, 2021.
Barry was grateful to be here. Chungju, Korea was originally scheduled to host this qualifier in 2020, but they cancelled it with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Shanghai was a possible venue before China declined to host. That’s when the Japanese government stepped in and made the qualifier possible.
“It’s a miracle it took place,” said Barry, was the national rowing coach for Great Britain at the Athens, Beijing and London Olympics. “It was turned down in Korea and China and the Japanese government came to the rescue. That’s fantastic, considering the feelings of concern of the Japanese people.”
Except for a windy Wednesday of “white horse” waves, which forced organizers to postpone the competition one day, the event’s conditions and organization were perfect. “It’s been great,” said Barry, who was coaching Husein Alireza, a rower from Saudi Arabia. “The people have bent over backwards. It’s been incredibly well organized, to the last detail.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was one reported case of a staff person from Sri Lanka who tested positive for COVID on May 5. According to World Rowing, safety protocol kicked in, and other members of the Sri Lanka team were immediately tested.
The competitors and related coaches and staff are all a part of an extended bubble that envelops the visitors from airport to hotel to venue to hotel to airport, a smaller scale example of the more complex bubble that will protect the 15,000 plus athletes and para-athletes and support personnel this summer for Tokyo2020.
Barry said that the visiting teams spent three hours at Haneda Airport, going from station to station, answering questions, getting a covid test and filling in forms.
“I gave my address, telephone and email information many times,” said Barry. “They checked everything. Security was super tight. But it’s got to be done and done properly. And it was.”
Barry said they had to download three applications onto their phones, one that was to indicate where you were, and two others where one had to self-report on one’s health, and in Barry’s case, also one to report on the health of one’s team.
From Haneda Airport, the teams were transported in individual buses to the Hearton Hotel on the edge of Tokyo Bay. They were not allowed to leave the hotel except for travel to the rowing venue. Protocol required the wearing of masks and social distance (of course), travel only within teams, one person per hotel room, meals taken alone, and repeated testing.
“We were tested when we arrived, the day before a racing event, and when we left,” said Barry. “Since the day my rower was competing was postponed, I had to get tested twice for competitions.”
The morning after the competition ended on May 7, Barry was headed to the airport and home. He was grateful to be back in Japan, and optimistic about Japan’s ability to host the Olympics.
“You wouldn’t think there was a problem,” he said. “Everyone enjoyed it. Everybody praised the organization, the volunteers, the Japanese Government, Japan Rowing Association, they all put on a great show.”
On a day when Osaka had 1,161 infections, it’s fifth day in a row over 1,000, skaters from six nations competed in that city at the Maruzen Intec Arena.
On April 15, 2021, the first day of the four-day ISU World Team Trophy in Figure Skating, 48 skaters from six nations, along with coaches, team staff, referees and tournament staff all tested negative for coronavirus, allowing them to enter the competition bubble and perform in front of a live audience.
On Saturday night April 17, Team Russia won the competition, with Team USA and Team Japan finishing second and third. As the International Skating Union (ISU) determined that this event would have Beijing Olympic implications, some of the world’s best figure skaters came to Osaka, including potential 2022 individual gold medalists, Nathan Chen of the USA and Anna Shcherbakova of Russia.
In November 2020, Skate Canada expressed concern about competing in Japan as they wondered if COVID-19 protocols were sufficient enough. In the end, teams from Canada, Italy and France joined Russia, America and Japan in the ISU bubble.
The Maruzen Intec Arena seats about 10,000 people. Watching the event on TV Asahi one could estimate that attendance was probably less than a thousand, with spectators sitting every other seat, with no one in front or behind.
With fewer than 100 days to go, this is the first major example of an international sporting event taking place this year in Japan with spectators, more evidence that Tokyo2020 will likely happen this summer.
Tokyo2020 taketh, and Tokyo2020 giveth. My prayers were answered.
On March 20, the Japanese government announced that it would strictly limit overseas spectators to Tokyo2020. The authorized ticket reseller, CoSport USA, immediately informed paid customers that they would refund all tickets.
All my Tokyo2020 Olympic tickets were purchased through CoSport. Even though I live in Japan, my tickets were suddenly gone, as I wrote earlier.
But then, on April 6, I woke up to this surprising email message from Co-Sport: “We have recently received confirmation from the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee that we can allow you to keep your tickets if you so choose.”
“Please note that we cannot be responsible for your travel to/from Japan as a result of the foreign spectator ban but we would also like to help accommodate your needs/plans based on your previous purchase(s).”
Well, I’m already in Tokyo. And I suppose there was feedback to Tokyo2020 of many others who were already in Japan, or who would be able to transfer them to people they know in Japan.
Then on April 9, I was informed by Tokyo2020 that the tickets I had won in the Paralympic ticket lottery would be delivered in late June.
Anything can happen. The 4th wave of the pandemic hitting the world, including Japan, could turn into a tsunami that alarms the most tunnel-visioned Olympians, and the Games could still end up cancelled.
But as of today, the political will to stage the Olympics and Paralympics is strong.
And I don’t mind.
I’ve got tickets. And if all is reasonably safe and sound, I will be there cheering (silently), smiling (behind a mask), and high fiving (the air).
The men’s and women’s 10,000 meter finals! The men’s 100 meter sprint finals! The women’s 100m hurdles final! The men’s long jump final! The men’s 4X100 relay sprint finals!
The debut of karate! The women’s basketball gold medal game! The men’s basketball gold medal game!
Volleyball! 3X3 basketball! Wrestling!
And tickets to the coveted Closing Ceremonies!
Despite Covid, Tokyo2020 was going to happen and I had tickets to some of the most anticipated moments of these Games.
And then, suddenly, I didn’t.
When the IOC and Tokyo2020 organizers announced on March 20 that overseas spectators would not be allowed to attend the Games, I was immediately saddened, of course for the parents and supporters of athletes who could not witness the accomplishments of their Olympians, but also because I might not be able to either.
I was unable to secure tickets to the Olympics during the lotteries held in Japan, but I was able to purchase them through the American authorized ticket reseller (ATR), Co-Sport. I held out hope that as a foreigner already living in Japan that I would be given the option to use my tickets.
But alas, that would not be possible. As I was informed this morning in an email from Co-Sport, my ticket order will be made invalid automatically. “Whether you choose to complete and submit the refund form, all ticket orders will be cancelled as a result of the international spectator ban imposed by the Japanese Government.”
To make matters worse, I likely won’t see a refund for many months, and I will not be reimbursed for the Co-Sport handling fees, which total about a thousand dollars in my case.
Any More Tickets?
So, I wondered, will any more tickets be sold to people living in Japan. At the Tokyo2020 lotteries in 2019, about 4.45 million tickets were sold to residents of Japan for the Olympiad, while an additional 600,000 were sold overseas through ATRs, which is how I got my tickets.
When Tokyo 2020 was postponed, residents in Japan were given the opportunity to ask for refunds, and 18% of tickets were cancelled as a result. Thus, there are now 3.6 million seats for the Olympics reserved for those in Japan.
As I understand it, organizers estimated a couple of years ago that approximately 7.8 million tickets would be made available for the Tokyo Olympics, although that could be closer to 9 million.
Based on those numbers, there should be another 3 to 4 million tickets that need to be accounted for. A chunk of that was likely targeted for sponsors, organizers, sports federations and other assorted affiliated support groups. But since now there is a mandate to limit the number of overseas visitors to people essential to the operations of the Games, many of those people will not be coming.
So what will happen to all those tickets? It’s not clear yet.
Under the current conditions of the pandemic in Japan, it is unlikely that spectators will be banned from the Olympic and Paralympic venues, but it is likely they will be limited. The organizers will probably want to avoid disappointing ticket holders in Japan as much as possible. Ideally, they honor all 3.6 million tickets already purchased in Japan, which is about 45% of the total number of tickets expected to be available.
Currently, Japan has a restriction of a maximum of 10,000 spectators for baseball games in the coming Nippon Professional Baseball season. Will organizers be willing to relax restrictions for the Olympics and allow upwards of 45% attendance?
If they don’t relax those restrictions, then the organizers will also have to cancel and refund a certain number of tickets, maybe millions of tickets if they need to get to 20 or 30% of venue capacity.
This is an educated guess, and not one I like to make, but it’s likely that new tickets will not be issued.
It was June 26, 2003 and Seiko Hashimoto, a junior member of Japan’s leading political party, was on a panel with then former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who said this, according to AP:
Welfare is supposed to take care of and reward those women who have lots of children. It is truly strange to say we have to use tax money to take care of women who don’t even give birth once, who grow old living their lives selfishly and singing the praises of freedom.
Eighteen years later, Mori made another derogatory statement about women, but this time it led to his reluctant resignation from the presidency of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee.
His successor is Seiko Hashimoto.
An independent succession committee made up primarily of former Japanese Olympians and Paralympians and led by the well-respected chairman and CEO of Canon, Fujio Mitarai honed very quickly on one candidate – the Olympic speedskater and cyclist from Hayakita, Hokkaido. It’s hard to argue that anyone else in Japan has had more Olympic experience or embodies the Olympic spirit than Hashimoto.
Born on October 5, 1964, 5 days before the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Hashimoto was given the name Seiko, a play on the Japanese characters for the word “seika,” or Olympic flame. Hashimoto started her Olympic career at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, and competed as a speed skater in the 1988, 1992 and 1994 Winter Games, winning a bronze medal in the 1500 meter speedskating finals in Albertville. More incredibly, Hashimoto competed as a cyclist at the 1988, 1992 and 1996 Summer Olympics.
That’s 7 Olympiads in 12 years! If there is one reason the Japanese press have started calling her the Iron Lady, it was her ability to persistently and intensely train at high performance levels. Her Olympic run is unprecedented and frankly, astounding.
Hashimoto would go on to become the head of the Japanese Olympic team delegation, or the chef de mission at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics, and then the first female to lead a Japan delegation at a Summer Olympics when she was appointed chef de mission at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
There is no rest in Hashimoto. Following her appearance in the 1994 Albertville Olympics, bronze medal in hand, she competed for a seat in the upper house of the Japanese Parliament in 1995, and won. While learning the ropes as a rookie politician, every day she trained for her final Olympics from 3am and worked at the Diet building from 8am. She was likely the only elected official competing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and certainly a first such double-hatter for Japan.
When Hashimoto gave birth to a daughter in 2000, she was first upper house legislator in Japan to give birth to a child while in office. As Hashimoto would have to rely on staff to watch over her daughter, she saw that others had a similar need, and would go on to establish a child care facility in the basement of a then newly built Second House of the House of Representatives. Not only lawmakers and staff could use the facilities, but also residents in the neighborhood of Nagatacho’s newest nursery.
Upon accepting the request of the selection committee to assume the role of President of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, Hashimoto resigned from her cabinet level position as Minister of State for Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. She had to resign from her government role for legal as well as ethical reasons. But there will likely be whispers of undue influence by the former president of the committee, Yoshiro Mori.
Mori, who was Japan’s prime minister from April 2000 to April 2001, has been for a long time a mentor and supporter of Hashimoto’s political career. Hashimoto has often publicly referred to Mori as “father,” and likewise, Mori has referred to Hashimoto as “daughter.”
Additionally, Hashimoto has been, ironically, accused of sexual harassment, primarily due to a public incident where Hashimoto may have had too much to drink at a celebration one evening at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and where, on camera, Hashimoto repeatedly kissed Japan figure skater Daisuke Takahashi.
But clearly, the biggest challenge is leading the organization that is expected to successfully run the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics, amidst the uncertainty of a global pandemic, with only 5 months to go. The day before Hashimoto assumed leadership, the governor of Shimane prefecture, explained with emotion in his voice about the frustration with the response to the COVID-19 crisis by the Japanese central government as well as the Tokyo2020 organizers. He even expressed the possibility of cancelling the Shimane portion of the Olympic torch relay, scheduled for mid May.
“It’s difficult to cooperate with the holding of the Tokyo Olympics and the torch relay,” said governor Tatsuya Maruyama. “I want to make the decision (to cancel the torch relay) based on whether or not the response of the central government and the Tokyo government to the coronavirus improves.”
So Hashimoto has a mountain to climb. But if anyone has the energy and determination needed, the Iron Lady from Hokkaido does.
Organizers of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, scheduled to commence on July 23 and August 24, 2021 respectively, are working, not under the question of “whether,” but “how” the Olympics will take place.
There are four basic scenarios:
The Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics are cancelled because the pandemic continues to create unsafe conditions for athletes and organizers alike.
Tokyo2020 takes place without spectators so that the Games can be broadcasted globally.
Tokyo2020 takes place with spectators in limited numbers.
Tokyo2020 takes place to capacity crowds.
In a recent survey by Kyodo News, 80% of people in Japan believe the first scenario is the likeliest, responding that the Olympics and Paralympics should be postponed again or cancelled.
In contrast, 60% of Japanese firms in an NHK survey showed support for holding the Tokyo Olympics. They believe that the Games can help the Japanese economy recover from the devastating effects of COVID-19.
The IOC and IPC are also betting on the Games. And their plans are taking into account the second and third scenarios.
If testing is considered reliable, then athletes who test negative will be allowed to come to Japan, and at a bare minimum, the Olympics and Paralympics can be broadcasted around the world. As a result, billions of dollars in global broadcasting rights will be paid to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which in turn will financially support the Olympic ecosystem of national Olympic committees and international sports federations.
Money makes the world go round. With so much investment already sunk, not just by the IOC, the Japanese government and businesses but also athletes, the political will to hold Tokyo2020 is immensely strong.
“We will do whatever is needed to organize a safe Olympic Games,” said Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee.
“We definitely should push forward as that is the only option for us,” said Yoshiro Mori, president of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee.
Former IOC Vice President, Dick Pound, recently said “nobody can guarantee the Olympics will open on July 23. But I think there’s a very, very, good chance that they can, and that they will.” While Pound said that the Games will likely happen, having fans in the stands is a choice. “The question is — is this a `must-have’ or `nice-to-have.’ It’s nice to have spectators. But it’s not a must-have,” Pound said.
And yet, even if the conditions of the pandemic around the world remain the same, and especially if the vaccine has an impact on the spread of COVID-19, I believe the likelihood of spectators in the stands is high.
Orgy of Evidence
In what may have seemed surreal to many, we saw images of 4,000 people – without masks – packing a stadium in Adelaide, Australia on January 29 to watch exhibition tennis matches with Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal, a week prior to the start of the Australian Open.
But the truth of the matter is, sports is big business around the world, and we have seen seasons and championships take place across the biggest professional leagues last year.
In the midst of the pandemic in 2020, Europe crowned football champions in the Bundesliga, La Liga, Premier League, and Serie A. In tennis, Naomi Osaka won the US Open and Rafael Nadal won the French Open, while in golf, Dustin Johnson won the Masters. The Los Angeles Lakers were crowned NBA champions while the Tampa Bay Lightning won the NHL Stanley Cup.
And little by little, fans have been allowed to watch events in person in America, the country with the world’s highest coronavirus infection numbers.
Thousands of spectators watched the Los Angeles Dodgers win the 2020 World Series in Texas. American football fans were allowed into the stadiums of 19 NFL teams, including an average of around 15,000 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars, while the Dallas Cowboys hosted an average of 28,000 fans every home game. There will be over 20,000 fans attending the Super Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on February 7. And a limited number of fans have been able to attend the games of 8 NBA teams this season.
At the end of November, 2020 in Japan, nearly 70,000 fans watched in person the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks defeat the Yomiuri Giants to win the Japan Series over four games, averaging over 17,000 fans per game.
And on November 8, Japan held an international competition at Yoyogi National Stadium. Gymnasts from four nations competed, including Japan, the US, China and Russia. The 30 gymnasts were joined by 2000 spectators, and the day went without incident. This was the first experiment with a mini-bubble for an international competition in Japan, as athletes were isolated on different floors in hotels.
The above is some of the orgy of evidence regarding the ability of sports organizations to hold events safely despite the ravages of the coronavirus. These cases and many others are providing mountains of data of how and how not to organize a live sporting event, data that will be used to create the protocols and processes to ensure a safe environment for Tokyo2020.
And with the hope and promise of the vaccines, the path to a safe Olympics and Paralympics becomes clearer.
Learning to Live with Coronavirus in Japan
It was Saturday, January 30. It was a beautiful day in Tokyo – blue skies, crisp air and loads of people out and about. In my walk through Rinshi no Mori Park that day, hundreds of parents and kids, all wearing masks, were enjoying the day, kids running soccer or baseball drills, parents throwing or kicking balls with their children, and many others running and strolling.
And they were also going to the movie theaters. I was surprised to learn last year that an animated film called “Demon Slayer,” broke the box office record for films in Japan. I hadn’t realized that movie theaters were letting people in. In fact, theaters were filled to capacity to see this film. Even as the popularity of the film begins to fade, I went online to see if people were still buying tickets for this film. I looked at the ticket purchase page for the movie theater near me: 109 Cinemas in Futago Tamagawa.
And as you can see in the image of theater seating, where the gray indicates a seat sold, Demon Slayer was still filling seats. In fact, there were several films that were showing good ticket sales that Saturday morning. Attendees must wear masks, but they are allowed to sit elbow to elbow with others. And if you’re on a date, that’s ideal. As you can see, the January 30, 2:45 PM showing of the film “Hanabata Mitai na Koi o Shita,” a story of young romance featuring two popular actors, was nearly filled 3 hours before the start of the film.
Despite the constant talk of concern about the virus in Japan, the Japanese themselves are learning to live with it. Many may not think that the Olympics and Paralympics should be held now, but as we approach the summer, and the inevitability sinks in, and the stories of the Japanese athletes preparing for the Games become more frequent, a buzz of excitement will build.
When coronavirus body slammed the world, the IOC and the government of Japan postponed the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics as the global economy stood punch drunk in the corner, tagged with constant jabs and body blows.
As we approach the end of the year, as infection rates continue to soar, a ray of hope has appeared in the form of newly developed vaccines. Will that ray of hope grow into that light at the end of the tunnel IOC president Thomas Bach desperately wants to see?
I hope so.
As a footnote, my own 2020 was not a total bust – the Japanese version of my book was published, and I appeared in A&E History Channel’s documentary, Tokyo Legacy, which is about the history of Tokyo from 1945 to 2020. While I was not so prolific this year in my blog, I did write a number of original articles I am proud of.
After overcoming the fright of a false positive corona virus test, Kohei Uchimura re-tested negative enough times he could compete at the first major international gymnastics competition since the pandemic began wreaking world havoc. When two-time Olympic champion Uchimura landed the dismount after a very strong horizontal bar routine, the announcer was vocal:
The gymnastics world dares to dream! King Kohei – massive work from one of the finest of all time. Oh we’ve waited for that one!
At the age of 31, Uchimura has suffered shoulder injuries and has given up the pursuit of a third all around Olympic championship, but is gunning for gold in the horizontal bar at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. His performance was hopefully a sign of things to come.
The International Gymnastic Federation (FIG) certainly hopes so. They brought 30 men and women gymnasts from China, Japan, Russia and the USA together on Sunday, November 8, 2020 to participate in Tokyo at the Friendship and Solidarity Competition.
One of the first major international sporting events, this competition held at the Yoyogi National Gymnasium is a test of readiness – a chance to understand what it takes to hold a sporting event with spectators and participants from multiple countries, data that will be used to develop operational plans for Tokyo 2020, which was postponed to the summer of 2021.
“One goal is to prove that staging a high-profile event in Tokyo is possible in the current context of the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to FIG, which organized this event.
Another goal is to send a message to athletes around the world who are hoping to make their Olympic teams, and make it to Tokyo for the Summer Olympics.
“I’m so happy we can hold this competition with spectators,” said Uchimura, who opened up the competition with a nifty opening vault. “I know this has been tough. But even with the restrictions due to COVID, we can still hold these events, and as athletes we can follow our dreams even with these hardships. For next year’s Olympics, it’s important that we, as athletes, are still able to pursue our dreams.”
Jon Omori, special liaison and advisor for the United States Olympic Committee, was present at the competition and noted that the crowd was sparse and social distancing was thus an easy objective. Yoyogi National Gymnasium, which was host to the swimming and diving events at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, can accommodate upwards of 13,000 spectators – and yet only 2,000 tickets were sold.
He said all people entering the arena were given a registration form that reminded them that
They had to wear their masks at all times.
If they were not feeling well they should contact the nearest staff person.
They can find the disinfectants at the entrances, and apply to their hands.
And as you move in and out of the arena, ensure you maintain social distance with others.
The form has a QR code which takes them to a LINE survey, in which they are asked such questions as
“Is your body temperature above 37.5 degrees?”
“Are you showing any cold symptoms, like coughing or scratchy throat?”
“Have you had any close contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19?”
“Are you aware of any cases of family members or close friends who have been suspected of infection?”
While not all gymnastic teams are taking the precautions that the Chinese gymnastics team have (as you can see in the picture), athletes at the Friendship and Solidarity Competition, in general, seem to be taking fundamental measures of care.
Kyodo News says that gymnasts entering Japan had to take PCR tests 72 hours prior to departing their countries, and flew to Japan in chartered planes. They have also been taking daily tests while in Japan. The gymnasts are staying on a floor dedicated to their own team, watched over by security guards. Omori said that the hotels have also dedicated specific entrances and exits for the athletes, to ensure minimal contact with other people.
Omori also noted that there were no fixed exits and entrances, or pathways delineated to control traffic flows in Yoyogi National Gymnasium, but that everyone was wearing masks. “Coaches are all wearing masks,” said Omori, “and athletes are too, but take them off before they compete.”
In the end, Team Solidarity defeated Team Friendship. 423.6 to 421.3.
The real winners? The gymnasts and athletes around the world who get a strong whiff of hope that Tokyo 2020 will be a reality in 2021.
Superheroes often emerge from intense pain and suffering, according to their origin stories.
Jean-Baptiste Alaize was three years old when he witnessed the slaughter of his Tutsi mother at the hands of Hutus during the Burundi Civil War, and he himself fell to four machete blows that resulted in the loss of a leg.
Bebe Vio was eleven years old when she fell in a coma induced by a battle with meningitis, a condition akin to “imploding inside.” A budding fencing star and a ball of energy, the Italian pre-teen had to make the horrible decision to amputate both arms and legs to thwart the advance of the disease.
Tatyana McFadden was born in the Soviet Union with a congenital disorder which paralyzed her from the waist down at birth, in a country that did not officially recognize the existence of disabled people.
However, these three and many others profiled in a recently released Netflix documentary found redemption and achievement in sport. The film, Rising Phoenix, is an impassioned introduction to the Paralympic movement. Layering on top of the powerful theme of Channel 4’s marketing of the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Paralympics – We’re the Superhumans! – Rising Phoenix gives Para athletes the Hollywood superhero treatment.
The production values of Rising Phoenix can be described as lavish. Aussie swimmer Ellie Cole is shot dancing under water, rays of light piercing the dark waters. Alaize sits open and relaxed on a spacious couch in an ornate French Baroque setting. South African sprinter Ntandu Mahlangu is interviewed with an actual cheetah in repose at his own cheetah blades. And Vio is filmed lovingly in slow motion, strapped to a wheelchair, lunging and gyrating to angelic music.
And yet when it comes to recognizing the disabled, Rising Phoenix is the exception. Every superhero has a weakness. For Superman, it is kryptonite. For Para athletes, and people with disabilities, it is apathy.
Rising Phoenix is a tale of Two Paralympics, nearly the best of times and the worst of times for the paramount global event for athletes with disabilities. The 2012 London Paralympics were a triumph of the organizers, an event that packed the stadiums and arenas, energized a city, and inspired the world. The 2016 Rio Olympics, as we learn in the film, nearly ended the Paralympic movement.
Seven weeks before the start of the 2016 Rio Paralympics, then president of the Brazilian Paralympic Committee. Andrew Parsons was given terrible news by the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games – they did not have enough money to run the Paralympic Games.
“They are not telling you, we can do that, or we can do that,” said Xavier Gonzalez, CEO of the IPC at that time. “They are telling you we cannot organize the games. I couldn’t at that moment see how we could fix it. And that was scary.”
And as potential Rio Paralympians began to understand that the rumors were true, they had that sinking, familiar feeling from childhood, their teenage years, and still today: unfairness, humiliation, helplessness. Said two-time T-44 men’s 100-meter sprint champion, Jonnie Peacock of Team GB, “you just feel like these people don’t view the Paralympics as anything.”
Parsons explained in exasperation how he could not give clear answers to the national Paralympic committees who worried whether the Games would happen or not. But he and the filmmakers were explicit in explaining who was to blame. Speaking over images of the Rio Olympic Organizing Committee, including chairman Carlos Nuzman, who was subsequently arrested for corruption and bribery, Parsons said, “forget about these guys, the leadership, because they won’t help.”
Rising Phoenix goes on to tell the nail-biting story of how IPC leadership, Parsons, Craven and Gonzalez, convinced the Brazilian government and skeptical authorities to keep this dream alive not only for over 4,300 Para athletes, but also for 24 million persons of disability in Brazil.
The 2012 London Paralympics is held up as the gold standard for awakening the world to the incredible athletic abilities of Para athletes. But it is the 2016 Rio Paralympics that may have saved the movement. Said Craven, “We’d have really broken the cycle. Confidence wouldn’t have been there in the future. It would (have been) the extinguishing of that Paralympic flame.”
Changing the World
Instead, the flame burns brightly today. Rising Phoenix brings alive the power of the movement, and the dreams of these superheroes.
The reunification of mother and child as summer Paralympian, Tatyana McFadden wins cross-country silver in the Winter Paralympics in her country of birth, Russia.
The dramatic and stirring gold medal victory of ebullient Bebe Vio in wheelchair fencing, who carries you on her shoulders in waves of joy.
“No one stays the same after watching the movie,” said Parsons in a recent interview with 20 foreign chambers of commerce in Japan. “If ten people watch the movie, ten people will be changed. If ten million people watch the movie, ten million people will be changed. I want the entire world to watch this movie.”
So do I.
Note: All film poster images shared with permission of the IPC.