In commemoration of the 56th anniversary of the XVIII Olympiad, here is an excerpt from my book “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes.”
日本語版:「原爆っ子」とアメリカへのささやかな抵抗

Seventeen-year-old Dick Roth, winner of the individual medley race at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, was thirteen years old when he first travelled with the US swim team to Japan in 1960. He remembers being treated like a celebrity. Toward the end of his stay, the team went to Nikko, the beautiful resort town not far from Tokyo. And while walking about the woods with the team, he saw something he clearly remembers today.

I wandered off on my own, which was a habit I have when I travel, skipping the handlers. I was walking back to the lodge and I came face to face with a group of eight to ten horribly disfigured children of my age, probably older. They were from Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Later I talked with one of my handlers and asked about them. He said they were also on a tour. The organizers were trying to keep us apart. I was shocked and horrified. To think anyone could do anything so barbaric. I know we dropped the bomb to shorten the war. But it’s a visceral feeling I will never forget.

Back in Tokyo four years later, Roth also remembers the Opening Ceremonies when a sole torchbearer ran into the National Stadium. “The torchbearer came in and there was cheering and a kind of reverence. I don’t know what to call it. The attention was locked on this individual. I was stunned by the switch in the crowd. He got to the top and turned around. It was like another one of those moments that defies description. When he stood there and held the torch high, I was stunned.”

Roth was referring to Yoshinori Sakai, who was born in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the day an atomic bomb was dropped on his city. “When he reached the bottom of the stairs he didn’t stop, just ran up the stairs in stride. He only paused at the top, turning to face the full stadium and the world. He then turned and lit the flame, causing an entire nation a collective moment of pride and sadness.”

It was a bold move. For a country that was trying desperately to erase from its collective memory the horrors of World War II, the Olympic organizers risked offending the United States of America by reminding the world that Japan was the first and only country to be attacked by nuclear weapons.

In fact, prominent Japanophile and translator of such classics as The Tale of Genji, American Edwin Seidensticker, said that the selection of Sakai as the final torchbearer was not “incidental,” and was “unpleasant to Americans.”

When G. D. Sondhi of India, a member of the International Olympic Committee who had just witnessed Sakai’s torch lighting at the opening ceremonies, was asked to comment on Seidensticker’s reaction, he replied, “He (Sakai) is good and I’m happy to see him do it so nicely. We must bring young people in the Olympics and let those old men just sit and help them.” Sondhi went on to say that he did not think Sakai’s selection to be political, and rather thought that Sakai represented “a big hope” for Japan, and that his was “the most touching of all Olympic ceremonies I ever saw.”

Still, it’s amazing that the organizers, on Japan’s biggest day, consciously chose to highlight Hiroshima via Sakai—whom the press dubbed “Atomic Bomb Boy”—a poke in the ribs of the United States.

Photograph by Kevin Ing

In Japan, you can emphasize ownership over something by placing the English phrase “my” in front of it. Thus when people dream of expensive purchases, they dream about buying “My car,” or “My home.” This summer, I dreamed about buying “My torch.”

And so I got one.

Photograph by Kevin Ing

“My torch” is from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Scars of spent fuel are wrapped in ribbons around the silver cylinder of “My torch,” which protrudes from a black aluminum holder, also sporting stains of fiery remains. “My torch” is a handsome reminder that someone in Japan proudly held the Olympic flame aloft with this torch, while running amidst spectators cheering along the sides of some small town road.

“My torch” was the amalgamation of two Japanese businesses: Showa Kaseihin and the acclaimed designer, Sori Yanagi.

The Cylinder: The gauntlet was thrown down the by the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee: create a torch that would “absolutely not go out, even in the rain.” The job to develop the cylinder and the fuel to sustain a fire was given to defense contractor, Showa Kaseihin in early 1964. The cylinder, from the tip of which flames would fly, is 55 centimeters long, 3 centimeters in diameter, and 54 grams in weight. Inside the stainless steel cylinder, Showa Kaseihin (which is now called Nippon Koki) packed a chemical amalgam into the cylinder of red phosphorus, manganese dioxide and magnesium. The flare-like flame that emerged when the amalgam was lit would last up to 14 minutes come rain or shine, while creating a billowy trail of smoke that can be seen from afar.

The Holder: Sori Yanagi is one of Japan’s most famous industrial designers of the 20th century, who helped put Japan on the map with his globally recognized furniture and kitchenware. (Maybe you’ve seen his famous butterfly or elephant stools in a MOMA exhibit.) His father, Soetsu Yanagi started the Japanese folk craft movement, passed the torch to his son, Sori. In a case of symbolic justice, Sori Yanagi was asked to create the receptacle for the cylinder of the Olympic torch. Crafted from a metal alloy composed primarily of aluminum, the holder is simple and elegant, with a clean black finish. The words “XVIII OLYMPIAD TOKYO 1964” are etched into the surface of the holder’s face, along with the Olympic rings.

The product of this collaboration is an Olympic torch which fits nicely in one’s palm, its heft equal to its gravitas,  its lines simple and striking. This is a torch that spread the word throughout Asia that the world was coming to Japan, and brought hundreds if not thousands running to see the flame, born of the sun in Greece, destined for Tokyo and the commencement of the Olympics, and a new chapter in Japanese history.

Photograph by Kevin Ing

“I was supposed to be in Tokyo today, rehearsing my opening speech,” said Andrew Parsons wistfully.

It was a little after 8pm on Monday, August 24, 2020 Japan time. Parsons, the President of the International Paralympics Committee (IPC), was addressing members of 20 foreign chambers of commerce in Japan in a Zoom meeting. The event marked one year to go for the Tokyo2020 Paralympics.

The Paralympics would have kicked off in Japan on Tuesday, August 25, 2020 if not for the devastating and global impact of COVID-19 virus. It was March 24, 2020 when the fateful decision was made to postpone both the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics for a year. “That decision was not taken lightly, but it was the right one,” said Parsons. “Had the games been tomorrow, there’s no chance they would have happened.”

Putting the Puzzle Back Together

March 24 brought devastating news to the organizers in Japan. Yasushi Yamawaki, IPC Governing Board Member at Large and Tokyo 2020 Vice President said they were more than surprised.

“When the decision was made to postpone the games, most of the staff and partners, were very much shocked. They had spent seven years putting together the biggest and most complicated jigsaw puzzle. And with a few pieces to go, they were told to start over again.”

There are dozens of major sponsors, over 180 National Paralympic Committees, dozens of international sports federations, and thousands of athletes who had questions. But for the IPC, a huge question that had to be answered was how to ensure funding for Tokyo2020 in 2021. As Craig Spence, IPC Chief Brand & Communications Officer, explained, it was critical to re-do the contracts with the broadcasters first.

“From an IPC point of view, we had to review 300 contracts in the space of two weeks. We have TV contracts with 165 broadcasters. Each contract needed to be reviewed. And each contract impacted the cash flow of the IPC for 2020 because we were due money this year, but the TV contract was then moved to next year.”

And Parsons reminded everybody that this incredibly complex and urgent work had to be done in the challenging environment of a pandemic. “We had to manage our cash flow,” said Parsons. “But we also needed to work with our staff all over the world, many of whom were living away from their families during the most demanding period ever for the IPC.”

Parsons is hopeful, but he is realistic. He said that everything that can be done, that can be controlled, will be. Planning will continue through the end of September. The IPC will focus on countermeasures to COVID-19 in the last quarter of 2020, and then will enter operational readiness in the first quarter of 2021. After that, important decisions will have to be made.

“We still have one year to go. We will follow the development of the pandemic. Unfortunately, none of us have a crystal ball. We have to work as if the Games are going ahead. This is the tricky part – how to work towards something you don’t know 100% is going ahead or not. But at the moment we are working full speed ahead preparing for the Games as if they are happening.”

The postponement resulted in a re-planning process that prioritized two things: the safety and health of the athletes and an approach to budgeting only what is necessary, a sustainability mindset that can be applied to future Paralympics, something that Parsons calls the Principles. “In these principles, the safety of athletes Is the number 1 priority for us,” said Parsons. “Everything that is not fundamental for the Games will be downscaled or cut.”

No Question of the Tokyo2020 Legacy

The Paralympics were postponed for a year. But Tokyo2020 is already establishing a legacy in Japan. Yamawaki explained that Tokyo is one of the most accessible cities in the world for the disabled, and that the media showcases the capabilities and personalities of the Para athletes almost on a daily basis.

Spence shared comparative data showing the impact of the run-up to the Games.

“In the build up to London 2012 with 18 months to go, less than 1% of the British population could name a Paralympian, and everyone sees London as the benchmark. In Tokyo last year, 45% of the Japanese population could recognize Shingo Kunieda, the wheelchair tennis player. So that shows the real difference in interest. In terms of accessible transport, I think when Tokyo won the right to stage the Games, around 75% of the city’s metro stations were accessible. By the time the Games happen next year, that’s going to be at 99%. That would never have happened had it not been for the Paralympics coming to Tokyo. The legacies are going to be tremendous.” 

Yamawaki oversees the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center, which is driving a groundbreaking education program in Japan’s school system. The IPC’s “I’mPossible” program – a toolkit of resources designed to engage 6-12 year old students about the Paralympic movement – is being pioneered in Japan with great success. Yamawaki said that this program has been delivered to 36,000 primary and secondary schools across Japan.

Children can learn from this unique learning opportunity,” said Yamawaki. “They will become future leaders in creating an inclusive society in this country after the Paralympics are over. It’s going to be one of the biggest legacies. Usually the parents teach the children, but in the I’mPossible program, kids teach the parents. This will increase parents’ awareness of the Paralympic Games and Paralympic sports. That’s the biggest impact we’re seeing.”

What You Can Do

Here are a few suggestions from IPC leaders on what we all can do to support the Paralympics broadly, and people with disabilities specifically.

Employ Persons with Disabilities: If your company does not employ persons with disabilities, it should. If your office is not set up to deal with people in wheelchairs, put in ramps. If you have a restaurant or a canteen, make your menus available in braille, or put your information on the internet so that people with disabilities can more easily access the information.

See the Opportunity: As Spence explained, before he joined the IPC, he didn’t realize people with disabilities are such great problem solvers.

“People with disabilities face challenges on a daily basis. They don’t tend to moan. They don’t just sit around thinking I can’t get around this. They always find innovative ways to get around and beat the challenge. They can bring a whole new creativity and new outlook to your business.”

Go See the Games: Seeing the Para athletes in action will change your attitude for life. Get as many people around you to see the Games.

“There’s very few people in the world who can run 100 meters in under 10.5 seconds,” said Spence. “Yet we have athletes with prosthetic legs and running blades who can do it in 10.4 seconds. It really does challenge perceptions towards disability.”

See my review for Rising Phoenix.
Rising Phoenix: The Stirring Netflix Documentary on the Paralympic Movement that Seeks to Change the World

Dicki + Camera
Dick Lyon and his Bronica.

The photographer’s eye was keen, often captured by the person at work.

  • The woman shining shoes in front of a bank.
  • The man patching up the entrance of an old lady’s abode.
  • A man on his bike after making deliveries.
  • The proprietors of a tea house.
  • Men and women of the office entering a busy train station after a day’s work.

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Dick Lyon was in Japan for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and bought a Bronica camera. In his quiet walks around the Olympic Village, he was drawn to the working person, which might not come as a surprise to those who knew him.

“For work ethic, no one topped Dick, ever,” said Kent Mitchell, two-time Olympian, who won gold with Ed Ferry and Conn Findlay in the coxed pair at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. “Meticulous in everything was his mantra. For years I have kept a copy of Dick’s daily handwritten workout logs in my briefcase wherever I go. I don’t know why I carry it around. It exhausts me even to read it. I can’t imagine what Dick and Larry went through to do all those things day after day.”

Mitchell recalled that Lyon and his partner in the coxless pairs, Larry Hough, would get in shape for the 1972 Munich Olympics by running up and down stadium steps. “In 1972, he and his pair partner, Larry Hough, in their run up to the 1972 Munich Olympics in a two-man boat, both set records for running up and down ten sets of 88 stairs in Stanford’s Football Stadium. Their record still stands.”

“Pound for pound toughest oarsman I know,” said Ed Ferry, who won gold with Conn Findlay in the coxed pair at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Lyon, a native of San Fernando, California, was a rower at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Along with his teammates  Ted Nash, Phil Durbrow, Geoff Picard and Theo Mittet, his boat won the bronze medal in the coxless fours competition, in dramatic fashion.

06c-1964 Tokyo medalists 001
Theo Mittet, Dick Lyon, Geoff Picard, Ted Nash at Toda Rowing Center; from the collection of Theo Mittet.

“I spent hundreds of hours looking at the back of Dick’s head,” said Mittet. “His perfect rowing form was like his life…always striving, always gentle, always on center and always reliable.”

Like Mitchell, Lyon was a graduate of Stanford, who double majored in electrical and mechanical engineering. At the US Olympic trials in 1964, he rigged a double-steering mechanism so that both the stroke and the bow could steer if necessary…because he could. In his life outside of rowing, Lyon worked in the burgeoning IT world of Silicon Valley, many years in Hewlett Packard.

“I have many very smart friends, but Dick’s mind was unique among them,” said Mittet.

Richard Avery “Dick” Lyon died on July 8, 2019. After decades winning boatloads of medals in Masters rowing competitions, he was taking it easy on a sailboat on Huntington Lake with his wife, Marilyn. The boat flipped, and in the course of pulling the boat back to shore, Lyon had a heart attack and passed away soon after.

Mittet was close to Lyon, and appreciated his intellect and his empathy. “He was always objectively focused, soft spoken and an engaged listener without the appearance of effort.”

You can see the desire to tell the story of the everyday person in his pictures. He wrote to me a few years ago about how he enjoyed watching the Olympics on television because he knew the effort and challenges Olympians –  famous or not –  had to overcome just to get to the Games. And he appreciated them all for that.

The truth, of course, reveals that every elite athlete has a story, full of obstacles they have found their way around or over on the way to their goal. When you train and compete as an athlete at the highest levels, even if you don’t come out the winner, you are forced to learn more about who you are deep down. I have often thought of this as I watch Olympic Games on TV.  The commentator goes into depth about a number of particular Olympians, but how much could so many untold stories reveal?

06d2 Dick 1964 001
Dick Lyon with his bronze medal
Sergei Palchikoff
Sergei Palchikoff with his music students in Hiroshima

“Imagine coming out of a subway station in New York and all you see is horizon,” said Jan Palchikoff. That was her way of imagining what her father witnessed when he arrived in Hiroshima a few weeks after it was flattened by the first atomic bomb ever used in military conflict.

Jan was an Olympic rower who competed in the double sculls at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, one of nearly 400 who competed on Team USA. But her story of why she competed as an American is distinctly unique.

In 1942, after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor at the end of 1941, Jan’s father, Nikolay, was 17 years old and he wanted to join the US Army. He had emigrated to America in 1940, attended high school in Los Angeles and then worked odd jobs as a janitor and sales before answering the call for army recruits.

He wasn’t even an American citizen. But he did speak fluent Japanese and Russian.

Nikolay eventually made his way to the Pacific theater, lent out to the Navy to question Japanese soldiers and listen in on radio conversations in Japanese. He did intelligence work in New Caledonia and the Philippines, roaming the seas in an American naval convoy as kamikaze pilots and Mitsubishi G4M bombers attacked.

When Japan surrendered, Nikolay was sent to Japan to help seek out safe places for American troops to land in the Tokyo area to ensure the safety of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, General Douglas MacArthur, for the surrender ceremony. And when MacArthur oversaw the signing of the instrument of surrender on the USS Missouri, Nikolay watched from a higher perch on the USS General Pershing, which was docked next to the Missouri.

With his primary duty in Japan done, Nikolay insisted that he be allowed to go to Hiroshima. Only one month after the atomic bomb was dropped on that city, the Army intended to send him to Korea, and was reluctant to send a random American soldier over 800 kilometers to the Western part of Japan which was not yet considered safe and secure.

But Nikolay was insistent. After all, Hiroshima was where he was born, and where his parents were.

Nikolay’s father, Sergei Palchikoff, was a Tsarist from Kazan, Russia, who fought the Communists across Imperial Russia before commandeering a ship in Vladivostok and escaping to Japan. Sergei and a few other Russian families ended up staying in Hiroshima.

A jarring fixture in Hiroshima, the Caucasian Palchikoffs stood out in the Japanese streets. Sergei made his way and built up social capital by teaching violin in an all-girls school, as well as teaching Russian and English.

Nikolay was born in Hiroshima, feeling at home playing Japanese war games with his neighborhood friends. As he said in this Japanese article, “When I lived in Hiroshima, I had many friends and I had never been treated as a foreigner. I was accepted as a single Hiroshima person – swimming, fishing in the river, riding around the city by bicycle.”

Nikolay Palchikoff as a child Hiroshima
Nikolay Palchikoff as a child in Hiroshima (from the collection of Jan Palchikoff)

However, as the 21-year-old approached Hiroshima on the train, he began to realize that his hometown would not be the same. His train passed the Kurii Naval Base and “you could see that all the Japanese ships were rusting, turned over” as Kurii had been shelled “for three days and nights. And I thought, “My god, Hiroshima couldn’t possibly be worse than this. And I was wrong.”

There was of course, nothing alive, no plants. No birds chirping. In Japan, there are these cicadas, and they make noise all day long. They’re up in the trees, and we used to try to catch them. Nothing. Dead silence. And I approached my house. There was nothing there, except my wrought-iron bed is used to sleep in, so I knew I was at the right place.

Nikolay could not find his family amidst the rubble. When he encountered one of the Parasuchin’s, one of the few other Russians living in Hiroshima, Nikolay was informed that the Russians were rounded up by the police and had taken them all to the mountainside. Whatever the reason for that, the Palchikoff’s were not in the central part of Hiroshima when the bomb hit. In fact, Nikolay’s parents, as well as his brother, David, and sister, Kaleria, were still alive!

The Palchikoffs were moved to a town called Taishaku away from the bomb blast and the initial spray of radiation. As far as the family in Hiroshima knew, their eldest son was in high school in America. But then one day, he shows up on their doorstep in a uniform, one of the first American soldiers to appear in Hiroshima.

It is hard to fathom the emotions of such a reunion. Most of this narrative is taken from an interview of Nikolay in May, 2003.  In the parts of the transcript where Nikolay is describing his return to Hiroshima, you can see the word “Cries” in brackets, where Nikolay apparently would be talking through his tears.

Nikolay’s sister, Kaleria, was interviewed shortly after the end of the war, her memories an example of the horrors the people of Hiroshima witnessed. In this excerpt, broadcasted on NPR, she described her shock at seeing people whose skin color were burned dark by the blast, and the subsequent radiation sickness that befell them.

We saw Negroes. They weren’t Japanese. They were Negroes. I asked them what happened to them. ‘We saw the flash and this is the color we turned.’ We reached the military hospital. I stayed there for two days. There were people wounded, badly wounded. The skin just peeled off. Some of them you could see the bone. The eyes were closed, the nose bled, the lips swelled, the whole head started swelling. As soon as they gave them water, they vomited it all out, and they would keep on vomiting until they died. On the second day, the wounds became yellow in color, and it would go deeper and deeper. No matter how much you tried to take off the yellow rotten flesh it would go deeper and deeper.

Kaleria Palchikoff class picture
Can you spot Kaleria Palchikoff in her class picture?

Nikolay had to return to duty back in Tokyo, and then in Korea. In the meanwhile, he made sure that his parents and siblings got safe transport back to Tokyo. He was also able to get his father a job in the Officers’ Club in Tokyo. In January, 1946, Nikolay was allowed to return to the United States, and he was able to bring his family with him.

After returning stateside, Nikolay had an appendicitis attack and went to the hospital, where he had his appendix removed, and his heart stolen by a nurse named Dawn Clarke. Nikolay and Dawn got married, and had four children: Jan, Kim, Kai and Jay.

Jan rowed for UCLA, and then for Team USA at the Montreal Olympics. She is still an active athlete who competes in Masters competitions in cycling. She also currently serves as the senior vice president for sports & programs for Special Olympics Southern California.

But the journey of her family that brought Jan to achieve Olympian heights was a century-long road through the Siberian steppes and the atomic wasteland of Hiroshima.

Remembering my grandparents and my parents, it occurs to me now that one of the common threads that runs through our lives is simple perseverance – necessary for survival and for facing adversity and challenges.  My grandparents’ story and how my dad ended up in the US and met my mother has always filled me with awe, wonder and inspiration.  While I was not fighting for my life in sport, I am positive that the drive my grandparents had is alive in me today.  Perseverance and the drive to succeed most certainly are defining factors in my journey as an athlete and in my individual character.

Nikolay Palchikoff
Nikolay Palchikoff returns to Japan

one year to go pins

It’s One Year to Go!

On Friday, July 23, 2021 – 365 days from now –  the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will start!

I hope.

In this time of uncertainty, hope is all we have. No one can guarantee an Olympics in Tokyo. No one knows if the world will be healthy enough to come together in Tokyo a year from now.

With coronavirus infections on the rise in certain regions of the world, in particular the United States, doubt remains. Professional baseball has started in Korea and Japan. Football has commenced in Europe. Baseball, basketball and ice hockey are about to return to the United States. But no can say if they can finish what they start.

In Japan, as the number of infections climb, particularly in Tokyo, public sentiment towards the Olympics next year is running negative. Less than 40% of Japanese in a recent survey stated they would want to attend an Olympic or Paralympic event. This is only a year after over 7 million Japanese bought up nearly 8 million tickets in the opening stage of the ticket lottery, setting the tone for what was arguably to become the most popular Olympics ever.

Today, even if you have tickets, it’s unclear whether you’ll be allowed to go to the events. Right now, it doesn’t look good.

And yet, there’s still one year to go.

We face adversity all the time. Sometimes barriers or problems we face are out of our control, spiraling us into a vortex of hopelessness. But time and time again, we persevere, we see winds shift and fortunes change.

At times, film can powerfully convey our innate ability to overcome. I cite three scenes from movies you know.

First we do everything we can to put ourselves in a position to achieve our goal in the face of adversity. Al Pacino captured this mindset powerfully in his halftime speech to his football team, the film “Any Given Sunday.” He states the reality: “We are in hell right now, gentlemen.” But then tells them that “life is just a game of inches….” and that “the inches we need are everywhere around us,” and that “on this team, we fight for that inch.”

I believe there are many people around the world fighting for those inches, to cure the virus, as well as make sports in general, and Tokyo2020 in particular, safe.

In the final film of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo is ready to give up in his quest to save Middle Earth. But his friend, Sam, is not ready to give up on Frodo, literally lifting and carrying him forward.

I believe there are many people around the world willing to carry us when we are down, remind us of better times, and tell us those times will return.

And in the movie, Henry V, Kenneth Branagh brings incredible joy and energy to young King Harry as he wills his ragtag troops to take on the bigger, fresher French army at the Battle of Agincourt. Outnumbered, in the face of what they believe to be certain death, the men of England are inspired by King Henry to imagine a world when they have survived this battle and lived to a ripe age, telling their children of the scars they got and the feats they achieved that miraculous day in France.

I believe there are many people who see in their mind’s eye a packed stadium, a field filled with the best athletes in the world, and a brilliant blue sky, telling us all that anything is possible, including a Summer Games in 2021.

If there are people who fight for that inch,

If there are people who carry us when we need them,

If there are people who paint us a picture of a glorious future,

then there is hope.

See you in Tokyo, in a year.

WMG promo page_Kyoto

Imagine over 40,000 people coming together in front of stunning Heian Jingu in Kyoto, people of all ages from all over the world, smiling and happy to be in Japan.

It’s hard to imagine that scene today, a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has left the biggest tourist destinations of the world, including the popular former capital of Japan, bereft of visitors. But that’s what Jens V. Holm sees in his head, in May of 2021. That’s when the World Masters Games 2021 Kansai takes place, the global sporting event that brings together two to three times the number of athletes than the Summer Olympics.

Holm is the CEO of IMGA, or the International Masters Games Association, and he expects to be in Japan from May 14 to 30 of next year, during the 17 days of the first ever World Masters Games (WMG) in Asia.

The WMG invites anyone 30 years of age or older to compete in 35 sporting disciplines ranging from track and field and swimming events to team events like baseball and rugby, to lesser known competitive sports like tug of war or orienteering. Held every four years, the year after an Olympic year, WMG is becoming one of the most popular Big Tent sporting events in the world.

A significant difference between WMG and the Olympics is that while the Olympics invite national teams, the WMG invites individuals, which means there is no mass directives from committees to dictate whether an athlete will attend or not attend. And while Holm, like the rest of us, does not know if there will be a vaccine by the end of the year, he does know we will be better prepared in 2021. “We will take precautions, do proper risk management,” he said. “We have spread the venues out over the entire region of Kansai so that we won’t have all the people in one area during the Games.”

The World Masters Games Kansai 2021 is Japan’s “canary in the coal mine” – the event that will determine the confidence the world has in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and whether the world will also come together for the opening ceremony on July 23. As we approach the Fall of 2020, we can look to the “health” of the canary, hoping to hear the chirpy notes indicating WMG is ready for flight in 2021.

And WMG can fly.

In the shadow of the Olympics, FIFA World Cup and other massive international sports events, the World Masters Games has quietly built up a tremendous fan base of participants. Additionally, Holm said that cities are eager to bring the Games to their areas, with four cities currently bidding for WMG 2025: Perth, Taipei, Paris and Singapore.

WMG map and sports

While the Olympics generally get a lot of bad press about budget overruns and white elephant “legacies,” the World Masters Games creates significant return on investment to the host city, without the development of any new infrastructure. In fact they insist that the host city employs only existing infrastructure. The World Masters Games focuses on attracting participants from around the world, like a major marathon or triathlon event, to generate revenue, not on television rights, spectator ticket sales or sponsorships like the IOC does. Holm explained that the IMGA is a non-profit, and that the purpose of the Masters Games is to serve as a tourism event.

Our focus is on the host cities making money, not the IMGA. We charge the host city rights fees, but always less than the city receives from the athletes in registration fees, so the organizers start in the black.  And we don’t allow the city to build anything. This way all their investment into operating the games will serve as an investment in tourism. The big revenue generation for the host city or region is athletes paying for their own travel and accommodation.   

In fact, if you watch the promotional video for WMG 2021 Kansai, it is essentially a tourism video enticing athletes to experience the beauty and cuisine of the nine prefectures hosting sporting events during the games.

Holm said that prior to the pandemic outbreak, expectations were that WMG Kansai was going to be their most popular event ever. While the last WMG saw over 28,000 athletes gather in Auckland, New Zealand in 2017, Holm was expecting a record-breaking 50,000 athletes, half from Japan, and half from overseas. And these athletes are above average spenders.

“The average age for both men and women is 51,” said Holm. “The athletes who come from overseas end up taking two weeks off to participate, indicating they tend to be from higher income groups. And 77% of them have a university degree. With high income and high education, you have more time and resources to focus on your health. That fits in very well with the Japan market, which is focused on building their tourism industry, as well as working to ensure their aging population has an active lifestyle.”

So without the financial burden of building costly infrastructure like sports venues or athlete accommodations, among other things, and the focus primarily on attracting motivated athletes (not spectators), the World Masters Games model has proven to have a positive impact on the host economy. An independently researched report on WMG2017 in Auckland, New Zealand stated that the “return on Auckland’s investment in WMG2017 was 151%, calculated as $34.2 million (WMG’s contribution to regional GDP) divided by $22.6 million (Auckland’s investment in WMG2017).”

Jens Holm_1
Jens V. Holm, CEO of the International Masters Games Association (IMGA)

A good part of that return on investment came from the over 27,000 visitors to Auckland who spent a total of 241,480 nights in hotels and Airbnb venues, staying on average 8.9 nights. The 17,000 overseas visitor spent over USD56 million in New Zealand, a fifth of that from visitors who flew in via the national carrier, Air New Zealand.

This is what the leaders of the nine prefectures in the Kansai region are hoping for, a jolt to re-energize their tourism ecosystem.

“That’s why we had it on the drawing board to spread venues across the region,” said Holm. “There is so much to see in Kansai from a tourism point of view. And the infrastructure is very good. This will be an excellent way for the country to promote itself.”

Note: WMG2021 Kansai was postponed to 2022, based on a decision by the IMGA Assembly held early November, 2020. 

Book Cover Japanese version
The cover of the Japanese version of my book, from a flyer to booksellers.

I started this blog on May 1, 2015 with the hopes of publishing a book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics before the start of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. I achieved my goal, with time to spare.

1964

日本が最高に輝いた年

敗戦から奇跡の復興を遂げた日本を映し出す東京オリンピック

For more information in Japanese, click here.

It certainly was disappointing to see Tokyo2020 postponed to 2021. But my fingers are crossed that the world will still come to Japan in July 2021 for the Olympics, and August, 2021 for the Paralympics.

As I explained to Kyodo News, Tokyo2020 could be a great Games:

If the world is able to come to Tokyo next July without concern for their health, leaders will be able to speak out proudly about the resilience of the human spirit, and many will likely agree. On top of the natural celebration of sport and achievement, there will be stories of how individuals, teams and nations overcame the pandemic that will further inspire.

 

Best of The Olympians 2020 So Far

Tokyo2020

Learning from Olympians Online

CoronaVirus

1964 and 1980

tantor cover 1964

I didn’t realize I had so many foreign words in my book.

 

When David Shih, the reader for the audio version of my book, 1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan, contacted me to confirm pronunciations in my book, I thought it would be for a few dozen Japanese names and words.

David sent me a list of over 330 words, phrases and names to confirm. Suddenly, I realized that the world of reading was different from the world of listening.

 

When you read 10.54 seconds, do you say “ten point five four seconds,” or “ten and fifty four one hundredth seconds”? When you read the year 2020, do you say “twenty twenty, or ” “two thousand and twenty”?

 

The writer of a book leaves the pronunciation to you. The reader of an audio book does not have that luxury. When asked how to actually say names and words like Kurfürstendamm Strasse, Anton Geesink, Boris Shakhlin, or Ranatunge Koralage Jayasekara Karunananda, I must admit – I had to guess. I assumed I was worldly enough to get pronunciations right or close enough, particularly the Japanese ones.

 

David Shih_Henry VI
David Shih in Henry VI: Shakespeare’s Trilogy in Two Parts

Thankfully, David looked into the pronunciations as well, thanked me for providing my feedback, but also indicating very clearly that my pronunciation was incorrect on “a few”. It was more than a few, and David showed me his research on why a particular name or word was pronounced in a certain way. He even corrected my pronunciation on a Japanese word.

 

After receiving that feedback, my confidence level in David went through the roof! David is a professional in his craft, as an actor, a narrator of documentaries and as a reader of audio books. He has appeared in a wide variety of American television and film productions, as you can see below.

 

But when my audio publisher, Tantor Audio, asked me to consider David, I saw that he had read for a book I really like: Strangers from a Different Shore, by Ronald Takaki, which tells the stunning history and stories of Asians emigrating to America. David’s reading of Takaki’s book brought the experience of my grandfather alive for me, and so I very quickly said yes to Tantor’s recommendation of David.

                                                                                                                                  David, like me, is Asian American, but unlike me, he grew up in an area where there were not so many Asians. I was raised in New York City, the ultimate melting pot. We both grew up identifying more as Americans, than Asian Americans, but for different reasons.

 

David Shih_The Path
David Shih with Aaron Paul in The Path.

In a place like New York, you are surrounded by so many different ethnicities that you quickly realize you have more friends outside your own particular ethnic “brand” than inside. The way you affiliate with your friends are through your neighborhood, your school or your sports teams. It wasn’t until I left the US for Japan in 1986 that I began to identify with my Japanese side. I was 23 years old and I finally learned how to pronounce my own family name, the first of many revelations about my family culture.

 

As David explained to me via email, he grew up in “a small Midwestern town with little diversity and very few Asians. I found myself trying to blend in and felt very disconnected from that part of my identity.”

 

I used to think of myself as an American just like everyone else I grew up with. I considered myself an actor, not an Asian American actor. But at that time, the type of roles that were available to Asian actors were extremely limited and tended to be very stereotypical: restaurant delivery boy, deli owner, doctor, tourist, etc.

                                                                                                                                    There were virtually no Asians on TV or in movies, and the ones that you saw were frequently humiliating caricatures, like Long Duk Dong from “Sixteen Candles” not to mention all the Asian roles that were played by White actors. There wasn’t much to look up to. Suddenly, I was confronted with being an Asian American actor and what that meant. At first, it felt very limiting and was difficult to embrace. But things started changing over time, and slowly more and more roles became available to Asian actors that would not have been when I started.                                                                                                          

DAvid Shih_Billions
David Shih in Billions.

 

David is not a sports fan, but I’m glad he enjoyed reading my book. He cited the stories about the underdogs and overcoming adversity – the Sri Lankan runner who came in dead last in the 10,000 meter race, or the American swimmer Dick Roth who avoided the surgeon’s knife to win the individual medley, or the story Hungarian canoeist, Andras Toro, who had to make the life-changing decision to defect to America or not.

 

I think this plurality of stories is what I really loved about this book. For me, the Olympics aren’t simply about competitions between nations to see who’s the best. It’s a moment where a remarkably diverse group of people with vastly different backgrounds, experiences and circumstances come together to find the best in themselves. Sometimes it’s found on the field of competition and sometimes it’s found off the field. Even Japan itself, rose to the occasion and found just what it was capable of both as a nation and as a people. 

 

I am proud to have David read my book. His resonant actor’s voice gave me chills when I first heard him read my words.

I hope you agree.

 

David Shih is a New York based actor. His theater credits include The Great Wave (Berkeley Rep); Henry VI: Shakespeare’s Trilogy in Two Parts, Awake and Sing!, [veil widow conspiracy] (NAATCO); KPOP (Ars Nova); Somebody’s Daughter (Second Stage); Tiger Style! (La Jolla Playhouse); Bike America (Ma-Yi Theatre Co.); Crane Story (The Playwrights Realm).  His television credits include “Hunters,” “Billions,” “City on a Hill,” “Iron Fist,” “The Path,” “Blindspot,” “Elementary,” “Madam Secretary,” “The Blacklist,” “Blue Bloods,” “Mozart in the Jungle,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” And his film credits include All the Little Things We Kill, Mr. Sushi, Eighth Grade, Fan Girl, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Saving Face. He narrated the History Channel documentary China’s First Emperor and the Discovery Networks series Royal Inquest, voiced the character of Eddie Toh in the hit video game Grand Theft Auto V (Rockstar Games), and is a critically acclaimed audiobook narrator. He also works with Only Make Believe performing for children in hospitals and care facilities.

IMG_4115
Japanese television speculating all weekend on when Tokyo2020 will be scheduled in 2021.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics, scheduled for July 24 to August 9 of this year, were postponed to next year. The question that will be answered in the coming weeks, if not coming days by the IOC, will be when the Games will be held in 2021.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will likely be held in late July to early August – more specifically: Friday, July 23 to August 8, 2021. Here’s why, as we break down the pros and cons of Spring, Fall and Summer.

Spring: Imagine the Tokyo Olympics in April, after the Masters in Augusta takes place in April 8-11, Tiger Woods winning a Green Jacket and then playing for gold at the Kasumigaseki Golf Country Club with cherry blossoms scattering in the gentle spring breeze. Also imagine a marathon in Tokyo as the runners run in a most temperate clime, not the hot-and-humid they would experience in July and August.

But then there’s the uncertainty: will the coronavirus be rearing its ugly head again in the winter of 2021, and will a treatment or cure be available to ease our anxiety about the sneezing and coughing of those around us in the late winter, early spring? Additionally, there is the logistics of re-starting the operations of the Olympic Games. According to this article, Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics organizing committee President Yoshiro Mori said that there would not be enough time to secure volunteers and ensure execution of qualifying events.  “It’s better for preparation time to be kept as long as possible,” he said.

Additionally, in the US market, the Olympics would have significant competition with the NBA playoffs, which take place from the middle of April to the middle of June, as does the NHL playoffs. NBC is in the middle of a US$12 billion contract to cover all Olympic Games, summer and winter, from 2014 to 2032. The reason the American television network paid so much was because the Olympics help them dominate the ratings and sell profitable ad space. Suddenly competing for eyeballs against the NBA playoffs as well as the NHL playoffs, which is also broadcast on NBC, would not be what the network signed up for.

This is true for Europe and the football broadcasters, according to this article from The Sports Examiner. “…it’s worth noting that the European soccer league schedules run into the middle or end of May (as does the UEFA Champions League). That means that European broadcasters are not going to be interested in having an Olympic Games start any earlier than the middle of June and that might be pushing it.”

 

Fall: The 1964 Tokyo Olympics took place in October, in order to avoid the heat and typhoons of summer. It’s true, they did not get heat and typhoons; they got rainy and cold instead. While NBC was the American broadcaster then, the business of sports broadcasting was not so large that concern about competing against the World Series  or the start of the professional and college football and basketball seasons was non-existent. That is not true today, as both the World Series and American football are highly popular sports, and would eat heavily into NBC’s ratings and ad revenue. Yes, this schedule conflict is a significant part of the decision making matrix for the IOC, according to veteran Mainichi Shinbun sports writer, Takashi Takiguchi.

As the provider of the highest payments for Olympic broadcast rights, the US media giant NBC is most averse to changes in its timing. The games are well known for scheduling events to meet NBC demands. Autumn is the peak season for baseball, basketball, and American football in the North American market, ensuring that NBC will not sign off on holding the Olympics then. And in Europe, where paid satellite broadcasting is common, soccer leagues are in full swing at that time.

 

Summer: Mori as well as John Coates, who is the main liaison between the IOC and the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Organizing Committee, have already stated that the likeliest schedule for 2021 will be in late July, early August, according to the New York Times. In fact, NHK has already reported that Friday, July 23, 2021 is the most likely date for the opening ceremony for Tokyo 2020.

NHK sources say the option of opening the Olympics in July of next year is gaining support at the committee, considering the time needed to contain the virus, make preparations, and select athletes.

One of the biggest challenges for figuring out when to schedule the Olympics in 2021 is the fact that there are already so many sports events scheduled, some of which have been re-scheduled from 2020. (You can see a schedule from AIPS Media here.) Takiguchi of Mainichi wrote, “the sporting calendar is so packed that any change in schedule for the Olympics will have knock-on effects. These inevitably deal heavy blows to the sports business, which is always bound by contracts.”

In the case that Tokyo2020 is moved to late July, early August, a couple of major world championships have to be re-scheduled if they do not want to be overshadowed by the Olympics:

  • the FINA World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, from July 16 to August 1, and
  • the World Athletics Championships in Oregon, American, from August 6 to 15.

In fact, the head of World Athletics, Sebastian Coe, already said in the NYT article that he is open to moving the dates of championship in Oregon, citing the benefits of moving the event to 2022. “You may have world championships in consecutive years where we wouldn’t normally have had that,” he said. “But for athletics, it’s not such a bad thing. To go from 2021 Olympic Games into two editions of the world championships, ’22 — possibly ’22 — ’23 we’re in Budapest, and then into the Olympic Games in Paris in ’24. It would offer athletics center stage at a very public point of the year.”

So the smart money for the commencement of the 32nd Olympiad is on Friday, July 23, 2021 – maybe a couple of seats for the Opening Ceremony will open up by then.