James Wong at 2018 Asian Para Games in Jakarta_@jameswong6

Like so many 14 year olds around the world, James Wong watched swimming sensation, Michael Phelps, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics with awe. Wong wanted to be Michael Phelps one day….albeit the one-armed version.

Born without a left arm, the native of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia didn’t know anything about the Paralympics at the time. But his father found a grainy YouTube video of the men’s SB8 100m breaststroke finals at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, and pointed out one of the swimmers – Andreas Onea of Austria.

“My dad noticed Andreas was only a few years older than me, and he had a similar build,” said Wong. “He felt relatable. I watched how he swam in that video and tried to see how he was doing it. Basically, that video kind of helped set in stone the vision of what I wanted to achieve. Prior to this, I didn’t actually know what para sport even looked like.”

Eleven years later, Wong was at the World Para Swimming Championships in London. It was a tough time. He was jetlagged. He swam poorly. His chances of making the Tokyo2020 Paralympics were diminished. But he finally got to meet Onea, who was pleasantly surprised to meet Wong. After all, five other swimmers finished better than him at the finals during that competition, so he wondered why Wong liked Onea’s swimming so much.

Andreas Onea at the Tokyo2020 Paralympics_courtesy of Andreas Onea

But Wong then told Onea the story of the YouTube video in 2008. Onea said he was touched.

The Paralympics can have an impact on my life and on the world population. I realized that in 2019, when I was at the London world championships in swimming, and James told me that the first swimming competition he ever saw was the final at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics on the 100-meter breaststroke. And this was the day, he told me, that he wanted to compete in the Paralympics, that he wanted to be a professional swimmer like Andreas Onea. I was emotionally impressed by the story when he told me. Without knowing me, because of me, just seeing me swim, he wanted to swim also.

Andreas Onea, who won a bronze medal in the 100-meter breaststroke SB8 at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, competed at the Tokyo2020 Paralympics. He did not medal this time, but Onea has developed a successful media career in television and print, as well as a motivational speaker. He understands how important it is for persons with disabilities, some 15% of the entire world population, to be given opportunities to lead fuller lives that help them approach their full potential.

Guest speaker, Onea, at a webinar “Tokyo 2020 Paralympics – One Day to Go!” hosted by the Paralliance, a coalition of 20 foreign chambers of commerce in Japan supporting the Paralympics.

We are 15% of the world population,” said Onea. “In Austria, companies are looking for talent. They are fighting over the best talent for their workforce. This is a high potential pool that no one is tapping into. People think they will have problems with figuring out how to bring them into the workforce. These issues are things proven wrong. There are so many companies doing amazing things with people with disabilities.”

Wong told me that swimming gave him those opportunities.

In 2008, he was spotted by the national swimming head coach of Malaysia, Lewin Lim, and was told he had potential as a swimmer. Over the next 11 years, Wong was introduced to a whole new world of training, travel and competition.  He competed for the first time in a tournament in Borneo, which was another part of Malaysia. But it could have been a foreign country as the people and the culture felt so different to Wong.

And when he came away with a gold and silver medal a the 2009 Asian Youth Games in Tokyo, Japan, he imagined one day winning Paralympic gold. Guangzhou in China, Berlin in Germany, Solo in Indonesia, Naypyidaw in Myanmar – Wong was going places he never could imagine.

In 2012, he moved to Australia. His parents thought it would be great if their son could get an education overseas. Because Wong’s hero, para-swimming champion, Matt Cowdrey,  was from Australia, Wong looked down under and targeted the University of Adelaide, which was located relatively near the Norwood Swimming Club.

James Wong at the Norwood Swimming Club_@jameswong6

Wong worked hard to balance academic life and the rigors of training at the world-class level. At the 2014 Asian para Games in Incheon, South Korea, Wong finished 4th in the 50-meter Freestyle S8, behind the top two in the world, and another who was a finalist at the 2012 London Paralympics. And in 2016, he graduated from university.

Wong did not make the Malaysian team for the 2016 Rio Olympics. In fact, Wong has never competed in a Paralympics. But para-swimming changed his life.

The 2019 World Para Swimming Championships was his last major competition, but it gave him the credentials to apply for and receive permanent residence in Australia through a talent visa, not something that the Australian government hands out liberally.

Wong has continued his studies and is pursuing his masters in accounting and finance at the University of Adelaide, which he hopes to leverage into an opportunity at a Big Four accounting firm after he graduates in 2022. He’s happy about his future, something that he owes to swimming.

“Through swimming I met an amazing number of people I would not have met otherwise,” he said. “Without it, I’d have a completely different life.”

Andreas Onea and James Wong meeting for the first time in London in 2019_courtesy of Andreas Onea
Yui Wagou, as the one-winged plane in the Opening Ceremony_Yomiuri Shimbun

This was an opening ceremony of conviction.

This was an opening ceremony with a message.

And when conviction and message come together, you get goosebumps.

 

The opening ceremony of the Tokyo2020 Paralympics was electrifying, its Olympic counterpart paling in comparison.

 

The Tokyo2020 Olympics lacked conviction and a clear message, not because the officials, like IOC president Thomas Bach, lacked confidence, or the right words to say about the importance of the Games. It’s because the Japanese public lacked confidence in the organizers’ motivations – many were not prepared to listen as infection rates in Japan continued to climb.

 

But that may not have been the case with the Paralympics, at least with the public’s perception of the opening ceremonies. Japan’s Twitterverse reaction was positive, if not enthusiastic.

In contrast to the subtlety and vagueness of the Olympics opening ceremony, there was a consistent story told throughout the Paralympics opening ceremony, showcased by the theater of the one-winged airplane, with the theme “We Have Wings.” This show had energy!

 

The shifting expressions of the 13-year-old junior high school student, Yui Wagou were captivating. The wheelchair-bound first-time actress portrayed a small plane with only one wing, and her face portrayed beautifully the transformation from a sheltered, timid girl to a little plane that could.

 

Part of the trigger for the one-winged plane’s transformation was a legion of role models, led by Japanese rock legend, Tomoyasu Hotei, who brought explosive energy to the Stadium with his electric guitar. There was the ballet dancer with one leg, Kouichi Ohmae and the one-armed violinist, Manami Itou, who also explained through their performances that one wing is enough.

The story of the one-winged plane was in two parts, with speeches in the middle. Andrew Parsons, the president of the International Paralympic Committee had the unenviable position of speaking right after, Seiko Hashimoto, head of the Tokyo2020 organizing committee, who’s appearance created moans of disappointment across Japan. Many departed for the kitchen and restroom, hoping to be spared the words of a person who, in their minds, does not listen.

 

Andrew Parsons is a relative unknown to the Japanese public. He hasn’t been vilified by the press for shopping in the Ginza, as his counterpart in the IOC has. And Parsons did not shy away from his opportunity. Instead, he leaned in. He shouted with passion. He gestured powerfully. And he sent a message, above and beyond the requisite thank yous to the organizers for making Tokyo2020 happen.

 

Parsons launched a movement – WeThe15. He emphasized that the IPC and its partners were here “to change the entire world” by bringing attention not just to the para-athletes in front of him, but to the 1.2 billion people around the world who have disabilities, or 15% of the world population. He said that the IPC and the International Disability Alliance, along with a broad-based network of civil society, business and media organizations, will work every year to make a difference.

 

Over the next 10 years, WeThe15 will challenge how the world’s 15% with disabilities are perceived and treated at a global level. With the support of 20 international organizations, civil society, the business sector, and the media, we will put the world’s 1.2 billion persons with disabilities firmly at the heart of the inclusion agenda.

 

Parsons noted that the pandemic has been a struggle for everybody, and is particularly a time when people have to come together, indirectly referencing the flaming of fear of the other, which leads to hate and discrimination.

 

When humanity should be united in its fight against COVID 19, there is a destructive desire by some to break this harmony. Overlooking what brings us together, to focus on the factors that differentiate us, fuels discrimination. It weakens what we can achieve together as a human race. Difference is a strength, not a weakness and as we build back better, the post-pandemic world must feature societies where opportunities exist for all.

 

Parsons then brought us down from the helicopter view of WeThe15 and the need for global diversity, and honed in on the reason they are all in Tokyo – the athletes.

 

Paralympians, you gave your all to be here. Blood, sweat, and tears. Now is your moment to show to the world your skill, your strength, your determination. If the world has ever labelled you, now is your time to be re-labelled: champion, hero, friend, colleague, role model, or just human. You are the best of humanity and the only ones who can decide who and what you are.

 

The Paralympics are about celebrating diversity, and creating role models for a generation of persons with disabilities, showing them they too can fly.

 

In 2012, it was “Meet the Superhumans,” with images of heroic para-athletes.

In 2016, it was “We’re the Superhumans,” heroic para-athletes mixed in with images of everyday folk.

In 2021, it’s “Super. Human.” with the emphasis on Human.

Channel 4, the official broadcaster of the Paralympics in the UK, has, since the 2012 Games, captured and shaped the pop culture view of the para-athlete, and in a broader way, those with disability. Through the eyes of Channel 4, our view of the disabled has evolved.

In 2012, we needed our attention grabbed to even think of the circumstances of the disabled. For many, the para-athlete had to be portrayed as superhuman, placed on a pedestal so we could start a conversation about how inspiring the disabled are.

But the para-athlete no longer wants to be your inspiration, no longer desires to pose on your pedestal.

As disability rights activist and writer, Penny Pepper said in reaction to the 2016 Superhumans video, “the superhuman shtick is a tiresome diversion away from what is important. Let us be ordinary, let us be every day and let us at least have rights. Rights to independent living.”

People with disabilities want you to know that they are you, and you are they – just another person trying to get along in life.

A recently released video captures that tone perfectly: a man in a wheelchair responds to adoring statements of how inspiring the disabled are, with a single word of defiance.

“Bull$#!+.”

That short film is the clarion call for the “WeThe15” campaign, symbolizing the estimated 15% of the global population that are disabled. Launched on the eve of the Tokyo2020 Paralympic Games, WeThe15 “aspires to be the biggest ever human rights movement to represent the world’s 1.2 billion persons with disabilities.”

If people with disabilities had its own country, it would be the third largest in the world.

In other words, one out of every seven of your own family members, friends and colleagues have some form of disability, who may be marginalized or discriminated in some way.

It’s possible that you are treating people with disabilities in ways that are perceived as patronizing, divisive or hurtful without realizing it.

As the WeThe15 film explains, people with disabilities are not “the other.” They are the same as you.

People call us special, but there’s nothing special about us. We have mortgages. We kill houseplants. We watch reality TV. We get sunburned on holiday. We get married. We swipe right. We go on first dates, and get lucky too.

WeThe15 is a broad-based alliance of global organizations related to sports, human rights, policy, business, arts and entertainment, led primarily by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and the International Disability Alliance (IDA).

“WeThe15 is a decade long campaign bringing together the biggest coalition of international organizations ever to work towards a common goals: to end discrimination and transform the lives of the world’s 1.2 billion persons with disabilities who make up 15% of the global population,” said Craig Spence, IPC Chief Brand & Communications Officer.

“This could be a game changer of a campaign looking to initiate change from governments, business and the general public.  By doing so we can place disability at the heart of the diversity and inclusion agenda.”

Rainbow Bridge in Tokyo Bay in Purple, courtesy of Craig Spence

The goals of WeThe15, which are aligned to the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, are to change attitudes and create more opportunities by:

  • Putting persons with disabilities at the heart of the diversity and inclusion agenda,
  • Implementing a range of activities targeting governments, businesses, and the public to drive social inclusion for persons with disabilities,
  • Breaking down societal and systemic barriers that are preventing persons with disabilities from fulfilling their potential and being active members of society,
  • Ensuring greater awareness, visibility, and representation of persons with disabilities, and
  • Promoting the role of assistive technology as a vehicle to driving social inclusion.

During the Tokyo Paralympics, you will see many references to Wethe15, including public light ups in purple, the symbolic color of inclusivity.

It is time to stand up for the 15, not because they are special, but because they are just like you.

So while the pedestals are nice, and the pity tolerated, we are not “special.” That’s not what it’s like. That’s not our reality. And only when you see us as one of you, wonderfully ordinary, wonderfully human, only then can we all break down these barriers that keep us apart.

– from the WeThe15 campaign film

Tokyo Skytree, courtesy of Craig Spence

 

As the jets passed over Paris drawing the tri-colors of the French flag in a semi-circle around the Eiffel Tower, a joyous and packed crowd of thousands in the square shouted, waved and clapped in celebration…in anticipation of the 2024 Paris Olympics.

That live broadcast at the end of the Tokyo2020 closing ceremony stood in stunning contrast to the empty seats of the National Stadium in Tokyo, as the baton was passed from the organizing committee of Tokyo2020 to Paris2024.

To some, equally stunning is the fact that France’s daily COVID-19 infection rates (22,000) are about 70% higher than Japan’s daily infection rates (13,000 per day) – that despite Japan’s population being nearly double France’s.

Was Japan being overly cautious to ban spectators from the Olympic events? Was France being irresponsible in allowing its citizens to gather en masse, masked or not?

It’s hard to say as reasons for these different attitudes toward the current state of the pandemic are likely rooted in cultural traits.

Japan is often called a risk-averse culture.

Compared to, say America, savings rates in Japan are very high, and investments tend to be cash in the bank. As a result, Japan is not a hotbed for start ups and entrepreneurs (although that is slowly changing.)

And generally speaking, there is a tendency in Japanese organizations to plan, check, double check and triple check before moving ahead with execution, which can frustrate people who prefer to get things started ready or not, under the assumption that acting quickly gets you feedback you can iterate on.

Many around the world wondered why the vaccine roll out in Japan was perceived to start so late even though officials knew tens of thousands of overseas visitors would likely be crossing their borders in July for the Olympics. I am not clear on the decision making process, but the attitude was likely caution: Are the vaccinations safe enough for our people? My guess is that a lot of people in Japan supported that cautious approach.

I am American, but I have lived in Japan for over 20 years. While I sometimes wish things could be executed more quickly, or others would be more willing to go out of their comfort zone and try new things, I know I live in a country where systems and services work very well, and are operated with the highest levels of safety in mind, because of the behaviors embedded in a risk-averse culture.

The Tokyo2020 Olympics have ended. A COVID bubble of immense proportions – containing some  50,000 overseas visitors – held firm, keeping people both outside and inside the bubble healthy. When Japan won the bid for 2020 in 2013, they were called a “safe pair of hands” for a reason. The reputation for Japan’s operational excellence is unparalleled.

The Tokyo2020 Olympics were a promise made to the sporting world in 2013. There was tremendous effort and political capital spent in order to keep that promise. Time will tell whether keeping that promise was the right decision or not.

But in terms of whether Japan’s cautious approach was the right one or not, I have to say it was.

Thank you Japan, for bringing the world together safely, so we could bear witness to, and draw inspiration from the artistry and humanity of the world’s best athletes.

Team Japan’s women’s basketball team get silver at Tokyo 2020 Olympics((C)デイリースポーツ)

The women of Team Japan’s basketball team were on a run. They upset Belgium, and then France. The shorter but swifter Japanese moved the ball around, played hounding defense, and shot threes with ease. They were the darling of this year’s Games for Japan, heading into a unexpected gold-medal match with Team USA.

The Americans had not lost an Olympic match since 1992, and they did not lose on Sunday, this final day of the XXXII Olympiad. But Team Japan won silver, and the hearts of millions of young women who saw that hard work and teamwork can take you places you never dreamed.

Tokyo2020 has been a watershed Games for Japanese female athletes. Not since the 2000 Olympics had Japanese women won more medals than the men, and in those Sydney Games, Japan garnered only 18.

Number of medals won by Team Japan by gender_Tomizawa

In these Tokyo Games, Japan won a record 58 medals, and the women won a majority of them – 30!

Japanese female judoka and wrestlers won a combined 8 gold medals. Risako Kawai won gold in freestyle wrestling, joining her sister Yukako as the second set of Japanese siblings to win gold. (Hifumi and Uta Abe both won gold in judo.) Risako won gold at the 2016 Rio Games at the 63kg and below weight class, but she dropped a level with the hope that the sisters would both triumph in Tokyo. They did.

Judoka Akira Sone won Japan’s 16th gold medal in the +78kg weight class. She was also on the mixed team that lost to France, the only one on her team to win in the Mixed competition. She won handily in fact, a rock among the judo greats on Team Japan.

And Japanese women won their first gold and bronze medals in boxing. Was there anyone more joyful than Sena Irie? When she entered the stadium for the gold medal match, she was smiling like she walked into a surprise birthday party. And after peppering her opponent with swift jabs and a flurry of combinations, she won, jumping high in the air with glee.

Japanese women are bad-ass strong!

The male swimmers have been the more likely  medalists for Japan, but this time Yui Ohashi won gold in the grueling 400 and 200-meter individual medley competitions, the only Japanese to win swimming gold.

Hideki Matsuyama was the Masters Champion heading into the Olympics, but it was Mone Inami who medaled with a second place finish.

And girl power was on display in skateboarding. A few days after 13-year-old Momiji Nishiya won gold in women’s street skateboarding,  19-year-old Sakura Yosozumi and 12-year-old Kokona Hiraki took gold and silver in the women’s park skateboarding.

Japanese women had a chance at a sweep in park skateboarding when 15-year old Misugu Okamoto, the number one seed, set up for her final run. If she could only execute her final big trick, she could have climbed above Great Britain’s Sky Brown who was in third, but she couldn’t execute.

In one of the most heartfelt images of the Games, her teammates and competitors rallied around Okamoto as the cameras captured them group hugging and lifting the tearful teen into the air.

There’s a good chance that sales of skateboards by teenage girls in Japan are up.

There’s a good chance too a lot more girls in Japan are thinking, “I can do that!”

Misugu Okamoto raised on the shoulders of competitors_Yahoo
The Olympic Cauldron and Sacred Flame on Yume no Ohashi Bridge. All photos by Roy Tomizawa

 

At the end of the opening ceremonies of the Tokyo2020 Olympics, Naomi Osaka lit the Olympic cauldron as a white ball peeled open like a flower, it’s metallic petals reflecting the light of the ignited Olympic flame.

 

Designed by Japanese company, Nendo, helmed by a Canadian-born Japanese named Oki Sato, the cauldron is a scintillating sight.

 

At most Olympiads, the flame remains in that cauldron for the extent of the Games. But in the 2020 version, a lick of the Olympic flame was moved to a small lantern, and transported about 13 kilometers southwest of the stadium to a bridge that connected two man-made islands in Tokyo Bay – Yume no Ohashi Bridge (or Great Bridge of Dreams).

 

That Tokyo Bay area has many of the Olympic venues, and under normal circumstances, would have been viewed by masses of passersby. I passed by at noon on Thursday, August 5 where about a few dozen people were snapping pictures of the sacred flame.

 

The cauldron on display is not the same one that Naomi Osaka ignited – it is a replica about one third the size of the one still at the National Stadium. Smaller, yet stunning.

 

The sacred flame will be extinguished at the Closing Ceremony to be held on Sunday, August 8. It is unclear whether the flame will again be transferred from the Tokyo Bay cauldron to the National Stadium cauldron, or whether the flame continues to burn within the bigger version hidden inside the stadium.

 

It’s probably the former.

 

The National Stadium was designed without a permanent fixture for the Olympic cauldron. One underlying reason for not including such a fixture was the use of wood in the construction of the stadium. The most common and apparent use of wood are the eaves that adorn the roof and other levels of the stadium, made from cedar sourced from the 47 prefectures of Japan.

 

According to the stadium designer, Kengo Kuma, the cauldron wasn’t in the original specifications and so he imagined that it would be like other Olympiads where the cauldron was situated inside the stadium during the opening ceremony and then moved.

 

The fuel that sustains the flame in the cauldron is hydrogen, a clean-burning gas that represents Japan’s drive to become carbon-neutral by 2050. Hydrogen has fueled part of the torch relay, many of the hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles that transport athletes and officials, as well as one of the buildings in the Olympic Village.

 

So the Olympic flame, born of the rays of the hydrogen-fueled sun in Athens on March 12, 2020, will be extinguished on Sunday, leaving behind water vapors and memories of an Olympiad like no other.

 

Yulimar Rojas celebrates a gold and world record_photo by Willie Banks

The lanky woman from Venezuela was psyching herself up for her fifth leap. She took a deep breath, clapped her hands and then let her breath out in a big shout. She blurted out some words of encouragement, and began that rhythmic clap over her head, prompting the crowd to clap.

And then she began her run.

“Oh it’s massive! It’s absolutely massive,” exclaimed the play-by-play announcer.  “But it’s a red flag unfortunately.” The replay showed her toe 7.5 cm over the limit.

Yulimar Rojas had clearly set a world record in her fifth jump at the finals of the Tokyo2020 women’s triple jump competition at the National Stadium on the evening of August 1, if not for the foot fault. In fact, she did the same thing two leaps earlier, a world record jump unrealized for a second time because she stepped significantly beyond the line.

Rojas right now is so dominant that her first attempt of 15.41 meters was an Olympic record, and as subsequent leaps from her competitors showed, was good enough for gold. If she could only start her leap before the plastic board, she’d  set the world record.

Two-time Olympian Willie Banks knows this. The first man to start the modern-day tradition of clapping hands over one’s head to get the crowd into the moment, Banks too set the world record for the men’s triple jump on June 16, 1985 in Indianapolis.

Willie Banks of the World Athletics Council, at the National Stadium during the Athletics competitions.

Banks is in Tokyo serving on the Jury of Appeals for the World Athletics Council. He was present during the women’s triple jump and told me he knew Rojas was going to break the record, that it was just a matter of time. In the case of Rojas, she was so talented that it didn’t matter too much whether she launched perfectly from the board or not.

Too many people focus on the board. A lot will jump really well and not touch the board. For her, what matters are where your hips are in relation to the board. She has long legs relative to her body, which is important. A light body on top of your legs, like she has, helps as her legs are going to do the work. On top of that, she has very good acceleration, and so she is able to get good lift off the board without having to extend too much.

And so when her competitors failed to come close, Rojas approached her final attempt as a chance to put her name in the history books.

Rojas’s coach whistled encouragement. Rojas let out a shout. She swung her arms, got the audience clapping, and started off on a momentous spring. Her first hop was long, her second was flat, but her third launched her into the air and beyond the line for a world record. A white flag went up – no foul!

She did it – the first woman from Venezuela to win a gold medal. Her hands went to the back of her head, her mouth agape. She turned suddenly and nearly ran over the cameraman and let out a mighty yelp. Rojas triple jumped to 15.67 meters, way past the world record of 15.5 meters, set by Inessa Kravets of the Ukraine almost 11 years ago.

Banks thinks that Rojas has a long career ahead and can smash the 16-meter barrier if she makes one improvement.

“That middle step is kind of short,” he explained. “She makes up for it on her jump phase at the end, but what could she accomplish if she got it right? I hope she doesn’t get too comfortable like I did, and work on improving, so she can blast past 16 meters.”

But for now, Banks believes she is great for the sport.

Photo from Willie Banks.

“She’s energetic,” said Banks. “She’s empathetic, and I like that she shows her emotion, that she is enjoying this all the time. When you’re enjoying the sport, you are demonstrating the purest form of the sport, something I have always strived for, but never quite got to. But when you’re as good as Rojas, you can really enjoy yourself.”

Wendell Mottley

Ever since he remembered, he loved track. Little Wendell Mottley would tag along with his dad, who was in a local athletic association in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. As he got older, he began to run in competitions sponsored by the oil companies that had refineries on that Caribbean island.

“These refineries would give off a certain smell,” Mottley told me. “And as I got closer, that smell would trigger adrenaline.”

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the adrenaline was pumping. Mottley was all grown up, former captain of the Yale track team, and representing the upstart track team of a country that established its independence only two years before. “We were ambitious and we thought we had a chance to bring down the big boys – the USA.”

Mottley at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

As Mottley waited for Edwin Skinner to hand him the baton for the anchor leg of the 4×400 relay race finals, he knew he had a chance to upset the Americans. By the time he got the baton, Trinidad and Tobago was already in second, but the Jamaican, George Kerr, was just inside of Mottley and created a bit of havoc for Mottley.

“I tried to run around him, but he flailed the baton so much that I had to run very wide of him, and those extra steps in a race of that quality cost us,” Mottley said. “When I came around in the final lap, I was tiring, and that allowed Robbie Brightwell of Great Britain to run past me, and we ended with a bronze medal.”

Team USA took gold.

Mottley won a silver medal in the 400-meter sprint as well at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, but he lost his heart to Japan.

Chrysanthemum

The first time he came to Japan was for the Olympics. He knew very little about the country, except WWII and kamikaze pilots. And ikebana. Mottley is a lover of flowers, and he enjoyed the flower arrangements he saw wherever he went.

“Tokyo blew my mind,” he said. “To see the chrysanthemum all laid out in their glory – what a people to be able to do this, I thought. I was also struck by Japanese landscaping, particularly Japanese gardens, the brushing of the sand and stone, and the spare architecture. I had read about these things as a hobbyist, but I was amazed when I saw these things in person.”

Observing the care that went into the gardens and the flower arrangement, as well as how organized the Games were, nothing like he had seen at track meets in the US or Europe, he came to this realization: “It must take a very disciplined people to do these things.”

In the final leg of the 1964 Olympic finals of the men’s 4×400 relay

Discipline

As a teenager, Mottley had a life-changing turn of luck.

Running at yet another high school meet, a track coach from Loughborough University in the UK said he knew another track coach at Yale University in the US, and would young Mottley be interested in running track there. Mottley applied and was accepted into Yale, and the head of track for the Elis was legendary coach, Bob Giegengack, who ended up being the US track coach for Team USA in 1964.

“For this coach from the UK, who knew another coach in the US who might be interested, to see me run in Trinidad and Tobago, the stars had to align for this to have happened,” Mottley remarked.

But after getting to Yale, luck would not be enough. Mottley would learn a life-long lesson in the value and impact of discipline.

Mottley was a sprinter, but Giegengack also had him run cross country, which he hated. In the winter, too cold for the boy from the tropics, he competed at indoor meets, when arenas were filled with cigarette smoke. “After running 600 meters, it felt like someone took a pitchfork to your lungs.” Then it was back to outdoor running in the Spring.

Every day was full.

“You get up in the morning, have breakfast, and take classes because at Yale there were no concessions for athletes,” he said. “Then we trained from 2  to 5:30 pm, had dinner at 6, and then studied. It was a disciplined process, a rhythm of life. All of those years of training, that was tough work for a kid coming out of the tropics. But it served me well for the rest of the life.”

 

Life Goes On

Mottley recalled the moments just prior to the start of the finals of the individual 400-meter sprint at the Tokyo Olympics. The athletes were inside the bowels of the stadium, the nerves of the competitors palpable. The officials were nervous, checking to make sure the right people were there at the right time. The runners were nervous as they began to hear and feel the buzz of the crowd.

“You emerge into the sunlight, the crowd is roaring, and the nervousness climbs, and all things race through your mind,” he explained. “Then you start hammering in your starting blocks, and suddenly everything gets shut out and the focus comes back. It’s silent. You’re absolutely focused, bam, and the race is on.”

After Mottley wins his silver medal at the end of the race, he sees Coach Giegengack, who gives him a salute. “That’s it. It’s relief that it’s all over.”

Mottley ended his track career a year later, going on to an amazing career in government, serving as Finance Minister for his country in the 1990s, and then in financial services as a senior advisor and investment banker at Credit Suisse.

But before he left his sporting life behind, he had one more score to settle. It was August, 1966, and Trinidad and Tobago was competing at the 8th British Empire and Commonwealth Games, which were being held in Kingston, Jamaica.

Mottley, with 1964 Tokyo teammates Kent Bernard and Edwin Roberts, joined by Lennox Yearwood faced off against Jamaica on their home turf in the 4X400-yard relay. Mottley had an agenda. He remembered how Kerr swung the baton and forced him wide in Tokyo.

So when Mottley completed the anchor leg of the finals, Team Trinidad and Tobago not only beat Team Jamaica, they set a world record, a coda to a great career in track.

Simone Biles_AP Photo/Ashley Landis

In 1964, freestyle Shunichi Kawano was banned from the Olympic Village. The head of Japanese wrestling okayed that act as Kawano showed “a lack of fighting spirit” in a match the day before. It didn’t help that the crown prince and princess were in the audience. His coach said his presence in the village would “adversely affect the morale of other athletes,” according to The Japan Times. He returned to the Village after shaving his head, although he said he did not agree with the assessment of his spirit.

For a few days after the Kawano incident, the press was filled with accounts of the mystery female Olympian who reportedly shaved her head bald in tears. It was finally reported that Soviet javelin thrower, Elvira Ozolina, had cut her shoulder-length chestnut hair completely off. Ozolina, who ended the javelin competition in fifth, was a favorite to win gold.

Various headlines from AP news wire stories on Ozolina

And then there was the poignant tale of Kokichi Tsuburaya, who ran a long 42 kilometers in the Tokyo Olympic marathon, entered the National Stadium to the roar of the crowd expecting their Japanese hero to win a silver medal in track, only to see UK’s Basil Heatley storm from behind, leaving Tsuburaya in third place. A disappointed Tsuburaya took accountability and said he would do better at the 1968. But injuries and a failed wedding engagement, both caused by a superior where he worked in the Japan Defense Forces, may have led to Tsuburaya’s decision to end his life in early 1968.

At all levels of competition, sports show us how people respond to pressure. At the Olympics, the pressure can be extreme. We expect Olympians who do not “win” to be grateful and graceful losers, but we also know that the drive and determination that got them to that point can also manifest itself in anger, frustration, fears and questions of self worth.

In this first week of Olympic competition, mental health is an emerging theme at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, journalists and spectators alike were less concerned about the psychological well being of athletes. But at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, there appears to be a more sophisticated understanding of these issues.

Naomi Osaka may have laid the groundwork for that understanding. After the French Open had started, she  announced she would not engage in press conferences in order to diminish what she said was battles with anxiety and depression. After some online parrying with organizers, she pulled out of the French Open. Then last week, she lost in the second round of the singles tennis Olympic competition, sparking questions of whether the stress of the constant attention had affected her.

On July 16, WNBA Las Vegas Aces star, Liz Cambage, announced she was leaving Australian national basketball team. Suffering from panic attacks, and unable to sleep, she admitted that she would be unable to perform to the best of her abilities.

“It’s no secret that in the past I’ve struggled with my mental health and recently I’ve been really worried about heading into a ‘bubble’ Olympics,” according to the Sydney Morning Herald. “No family. No friends. No fans. No support system outside of my team. It’s honestly terrifying for me.

Then on July 27, just after the start of the women’s gymnastics team competition, American gymnast Simone Biles suddenly announced she was no longer going to compete. The world media had already declared her Olympic champion years before the start of Tokyo 2020. She has been repeatedly called the GOAT (greatest of all time). But after a poor vault at the start of the competition, she realized that she had to put her mental health first. Here’s how she explained it to NPR:

It’s been really stressful, this Olympic Games. I think just as a whole, not having an audience, there are a lot of different variables going into it. It’s been a long week, it’s been a long Olympic process, it’s been a long year. So just a lot of different variables, and I think we’re just a little bit too stressed out. But we should be out here having fun, and sometimes that’s not the case.

In the judo competition, Team Japan has had unprecedented success – out of 14 possible gold medals, they grabbed 9, as well as a silver and bronze.

Judoka Hisayoshi Harasawa lost to two-time Olympic champion Teddy Riner of France in the bronze medal round, one of the few not to medal for Japan. Amidst Japan’s amazing gold rush in judo, Harasawa was devastated, speechless and in tears, struggling to find any words in a painful post-match interview.

But in 2021, at least, we are finding the words to talk about mental health in sports.

Sport is universal. But since many sports either originated in the United States or are big enough businesses to ensure lucrative tournament income, many go to the United States to train.

In these early days of the Olympics, I’ve noticed several stars who were born in Japan, but made in America.

Jay Litherland: Kevin, Mick and Jay were born triplets in Osaka, Japan. Born of a father, Andrew, from New Zealand and a mother, Chizuko, from Japan, Jay came in third on their birthday. But at the 2020 Olympics, Jay came in 2nd to win gold in the grueling 400-meter individual medley swimming finals.

The brothers have done everything together. They all graduated from Chattahoochee High School in Georgia, trained at the Dynamo Swim Club in Atlanta, and swam competitively for the University of Georgia. They all raced with Chase Kalisz, who beat out Jay to win gold in the 400-meter IM.

But Jay, a citizen of both Japan and America, was the only one to make it to Japan. Fluent in Japanese and eager to enjoy his favorite foods around town, he will have to wait till conditions improve in Japan to really celebrate. For now, he has a silver medal and a chance for more.

 

Yuto Horigome: The son of a taxi driver in Tokyo, who used to skateboard, Yuto Horigomo would go the park and skateboard with his dad. Somehow the son became a phenom, who was shuttled to California in 2016 to learn from the best.

Today, Horigomo is considered a favorite to win gold. In fact, he recently defeated another favorite, American Nyjah Huston, at the 2021 Street Skateboarding World Championship held in Rome in June.

As Dew Tour, a sponsor of American tournaments, put it, “Yuto’s skating is a shocking combination of massive rails and gaps and hyper-balanced flip-in, flip-out ledge wizardry. If that weren’t enough, he’s got vert skills, as well—including padless McTwists. Yuto is the definition of an all-terrain vehicle.”

 

Rui Hachimura: Hachimura went to NCAA basketball powerhouse, Gonzaga University from 2016 to 2019, and then was selected 9th in the NBA draft by the Washington Wizards. Gonzaga was famed for its international recruiting, but the coaches were surprised at how little English Hachimura spoke.

Well, that’s par for the course for Japanese. Hachimura is born and raised in Toyama, an out-of-the-way sea-side prefecture, and one of the least populated in Japan. He played basketball through high school in Japan.

His biracial features, a product of a Japanese mother and a father from Benin, make him stick out of the everyday Japanese crowd. But from his respectful nods and his soft-spoken nature, his mannerisms are Japanese.

In Japan’s own nod to the growing importance of being seen as diverse, Hachimura was given the honor of Japan’s flag bearer in the parade of athletes, a very tall, biracial representative of Japan.

 

Naomi Osaka: Born in the city of her last name, Osaka is ranked #2 in the world in women’s tennis. Due to a high level of self awareness and ability to align her values to the times, and communicate them in an authentic and humble manner, Osaka has become one of the most marketable brands today.

The child of a Japanese mother, Tamaki Osaka, and a Haitian father, Leonard Francois, Osaka and her older sister were taken to New York to live with her father’s parents. Francois was impressed by the rise of the Williams sisters in tennis, and sought to emulate Venus and Serena’s father, Richard Williams, and train his own daughters to become a powerful tennis tandem.

Osaka trained primarily in America, but her parents thought it best for Naomi to represent Japan. But in many ways, Osaka’s aura crosses boundaries, and is a global fan favorite. As if to bookend Hachimura’s symbolic role in representing Japan at the opening ceremony, Osaka represented the world by lighting the cauldron with the Olympic flame.

 

Kanoa Igarashi: Kanoa Igarashi, a handsome flashy surfer for Japan, technically, was conceived in Japan. He was actually born in Huntington Beach, California. When Igarashi’s mother, Misa learned she was with child, she and her husband, Tsutomu, decided to move the family to the United States with dreams of creating a star in Surf City.

Like the father of Tiger Woods, who choreographed the golfing great’s career from Tiger’s childhood, Tsutomu envisioned a future champion in his baby’s face. From the age of 3, Tsutomu would take Kanoa to the beaches of California in the early mornings, shaping the habits that would earn Kanoa his first championship at the age of 7.

In 2018, anticipating the benefits of competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Igarashi changed his nationality from USA to Japan, to become the face of Japanese surfing.

As surfing writer, Daniel Duane wrote, Igarashi is “a smooth-muscled, 22-year-old pro surfer with peroxide-blond hair and the youthful beauty of a boy-band teen idol in a comic book about young rock stars who become space warriors to save the galaxy.”