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.
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.
Inside the cool and controlled confines of the Ariake Aquatic Center, temperatures are a comfortable 27 to 28 degrees Celsius. Swimmers and divers don’t give a thought to their environs.
But in the Tokyo2020 triathlon and marathon swimming competitions, athletes are freestyle swimming in the mouth of Tokyo Bay, where water temperature and quality are close to levels deemed unsafe.
“We are literally in the lap of the weather gods,” Dr David Gerrard, one of 10 members of the International Swimming Federation’s (FINA) sports medicine committee at Tokyo2020. He is also one of perhaps a handful of people to be accredited at both the 1964 and 2020 Tokyo Olympics, as Dr. Gerrard was a swimmer on Team New Zealand here 57 years ago.
“If water temperature gets above 31 degrees Celsius, we are legally bound to say it exceeds the safety levels, and the event cannot proceed,” explained Dr. Gerrard. He went on to say that special paddle wheel devices floating on pontoons are helping to circulate the cooler water from the bottom of the bay to the top, and that the marathon swimming competitions, which will take place on August 4 and 5, will start at 6:30 AM, when water temperature should be at its coolest.”
Dr. Gerrard was part of a research team at the University of Otago (New Zealand) that measured the impact of sustained high water temperatures on swimmers.
“The human body can’t sustain a core body temperature in excess of 39 or 40 degrees Celsius.” he said. “This results in hyperthermia, or heat stress, with potential life-threatening effects. It’s also critical to replace fluids and electrolytes which are lost through sweat.”
In marathon swimming, athletes have the opportunity to replenish fluids and electrolytes at feeding stations along the course. Coaches on the “feeding pontoons” also observe their swimmer for any unusual behavior that might indicate the onset of hyperthermia.
If water temperature is Scylla, then water quality is Charybdis.
Apparently, Tokyo Bay stinks.
The drainage systems for rainwater and sewage are the same, which on the average day is not an issue because the sewage is treated before entering the drainage system. However, when there is a typhoon or a sustained rainfall in Tokyo, the treatment system can be overwhelmed and untreated sewage gets swept into the Bay. Years of that have resulted in polluted waters.
In order to make Tokyo Bay safe enough for competitors during the Olympics and Paralympics, measures have been taken: implementing triple-layer screens to prevent pollutants from flowing into the Bay, as well as laying of sand at the bottom of the Bay making it easier for water-cleaning organisms to thrive.
Dr. Gerrard explained that event organizers monitor the bacterial count of E. coli and enterococci, bacterial markers of water quality. And if the water exceeds standards stipulated by the World Health Organization, the swimmers would be at risk of gastroenteritis, an infection of the digestive system, which could induce malaise, nausea and vomiting, and if not treated, dehydration.
However, he assured me that under current conditions, swimmers would have to drink a lot of Tokyo Bay to get that sick. He said that he gets daily reports of Tokyo Bay’s bacterial count, and is not concerned. “Right now, it’s a safe level. We’re very satisfied.”
Shortly after that, the rain came pouring down on Tokyo.
On the one hand, the rain is good for water temperature, he said. But on the other hand, there could also be some waste water runoff into the Bay, he added with a shrug.
Will the weather gods cooperate for marathon swimming? We will see.
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.
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.
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.”
The protests were never huge, but they seemed to be omnipresent. Groups of placard holders could be seen in front of train stations, at torch relay events, wherever there were crowds.
Their protests are symbolic of the seriousness with which people in Japan are taking the COVID-19 virus and its variants.
The climbing infection rates in Tokyo on the eve of the Games are like darkening clouds over the city. After a visit on Thursday, July 22, to the Tokyo Bay Ariake area where so many of the Olympic arenas are located, you might think the Games had already ended, there were so few people, and so little energy.
However, if on the afternoon of Friday, July 23 you visited Harajuku, minutes away from the National Stadium, you would have heard the constant buzz of a beehive in anticipation. Around 12:45 pm, thousands of people congested the intersection in front of Meiji Shrine, waiting in the hot sun for the roar of jet engines.
And suddenly, they were rewarded as the Air Self Defense Force air acrobat team called the Blue Impulse roared overhead. Cameras and phone pointed skyward as the jets formed the Olympic rings in the sky, an act harking back to the Opening Ceremonies of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
A 15-minute walk takes you to the National Olympic Stadium, where crowds line the street. It’s only 1pm and it may be too early for the arrival of the athletes, but Japanese were happy to see the National Stadium in full regalia, albeit behind fences to keep us out.
And when you get to the Olympic rings in front of the Olympic Museum and across the street from the National Stadium, the need to socially distance was totally forgotten. Anything to get a picture in front of the rings.
Yesterday, in my walk through Ariake, I was worried for the patient. But today, as I walked through the heart of the Tokyo Olympics, I felt a pulse.
When Japan Air Self-Defence Force’s acrobat jet team, The Blue Impulse, flew across that beautiful blue sky on October 10, 1964, Japan ooh-ed and ah-ed.
It was a spectacular moment on a spectacular day as Japan welcomed the world to a country, not bowed and backward, but proud and modern.
Victor Warren, a member of the Canadian field hockey team, was on the filed during the 1964 Opening Ceremonies. “I’ll never forget,” he said. “It stuck in my mind – five jets in the air which drew the Olympic rings. It was magic. It was terrific. It was a beautiful start to a beautiful day.”
On July 23rd, a little bit before 1 pm, the organizers hoped to capture that magic again. I made my way to Harajuku, near the entrance to Meiji Shrine. As I got close to the intersection in front of the main train station, the sidewalk got more congested.
The place was packed. People filled the overpasses and the sidewalks, looking upwards, hoping to pick up telltale sounds of approaching jet engines. And then suddenly, there they appeared from the north, five jets in formation. Way up high amidst puffy white clouds and a light blue sky, the jets made a couple of passes. Their third time through, they flew in individually, spewing colored smoke.
In 1964, you could see the rings and their colors clearly. But the clouds seemed to get in the way in the 2021 version. People ooh-ed and ah-ed, but in an uncertain way. I could see the rings formed partially, but I never saw five fully formed rings in the sky.
The crowd applauded, politely.
More importantly, there was a crowd. And they were excited to connect to the spirit and energy of 1964.
Just watch this clip from the movie, “Always – Sunset on Third Street ’64.” This scene captures that moment in Japan perfectly.
As the protagonist in the film clip says, “and now, finally, it’s the Olympics!”
(For better pictures of the 2020 sky writing, go here.)
Oh, you could see people walking here and there. But under normal circumstances, I imagine I should have been surrounded by thousands on this day, a public holiday to boot.
Tourists, volunteers, staffers, officials, journalists and athletes from Olympics past should have been wandering around sipping cold Coca Colas, trading pins, and taking selfies.
Sponsors should have had booths or centers to educate, entertain and give out prizes to giggling kids and adults alike. But not during these Olympics. Most sponsors have toned down their affiliation to the Games. Toyota announced only a few days ago that they would not run Tokyo2020-related TV commercials.
I passed by the Panasonic Center, a place for tourists to learn about future Panasonic products and ideas. It’s in a prime spot, right on the corner of a park near so much of the action, selected probably just for these Olympic Games.
Except for a picture of Naomi Osaka, you wouldn’t have known that Panasonic was a Global TOP Sponsor of the Olympics and Paralympics.
Next to the Panasonic Center, floral versions of Miraitowa and Someity, the mascots of the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics, stood behind fences, looking a little worse for wear these days.
When he arrived in Tokyo on May 1, 2021, he felt fine – ready to compete in the race of his life, to determine whether he was coming back to Tokyo for the Olympics in July. And since his times in the single sculls were good to enough qualify, he felt he had a shot to do well at this Asia and Oceania rowing qualifier, to become the first rower from Saudi Arabia to compete in the Olympics.
But on May 2, he felt a slight pain. “It’s a sore ab,” thought Husein Alireza, so not a worry. But then it was May 5, time to race, and Alireza was in significant pain. The doctor there told him he had a stress fracture of the rib, and he probably shouldn’t race. To Alireza, there was no question – he raced.
And then Husein went back to the UK, where scans revealed his left lung had collapsed during the race and needed to have surgery, in fact fairly invasive lung surgery in early June, with painful post-op recovery. Then began the negotiation with the doctor, who told him he had to rest for two months. Not being able to train for two months would mean no trip to Tokyo, so doctor and patient got it down to 2 weeks.
Husein’s dream to compete in Tokyo was still alive.
As for the question of qualification, he had to wait. Olympic qualification in rowing is a complex process predominantly dependent on the qualifier results, as well as on the boat selection of other nations. The process took about two weeks. Two nail-biting weeks.
Husein’s coach Bill Barry is a veteran rowing coach, a member of the Great Britain coxless four rowing team that took silver at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Qualification for Tokyo 2020 would mean Barry would be the first person ever to attend the Olympics in the same city as an athlete and a coach.
Alireza would be the first Olympic rower in his nation – a critical step to increasing the popularity of rowing in not only Saudi Arabia, but across the Middle East where rowing is an unknown sport. After all, the Arabian Desert, 2.3 million square miles of sand, covers almost the entirety of Saudi Arabia. There is plenty of space to play football, but not to row.
So, when the final rankings were confirmed and the phone call came in late May that Alireza had qualified and was going to the Olympics, he realized he was no longer in injury recovery mode, but in training mode.
Every effort had to be made so that he could perform his best at the Olympics. But with the injury, the surgery and the reduced lung capacity, Husein realized that he wouldn’t be able to do his best. He could, however, overcome the challenges and represent, not just to bring meaning to his seemingly endless and exhaustive training, but also to his family and his country.
“Competing at the Olympics would be historic for my country while also honoring my family who’ve done so much for me,” Alireza told me. “It means the world. There is no greater honor than to represent your country on the biggest spectacle of all. It’s a moment I wish I could’ve shared with my late mother, Salma.”
“It’s very exciting being at the forefront of a new sport in the Kingdom,” he continued. “When I went back home last year, we organized an indoor rowing championship. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of youngsters in both genders asking so many questions and showing interest.”
As if to emphasize the impact Husein is having, he recently learned he would be the flag bearer for Team Saudi Arabia during the opening ceremonies of the Tokyo2020 Olympics.
Alireza realizes he has an opportunity to grow a sport not just in Saudi but in the Middle East Region. He knows he must raise funds, which means he has to educate people in the Saudi Olympic Committee and other relevant agencies. The funds are needed firstly to create a place where people can train in Saudi Arabia.
Fortunately, the Saudi Rowing Federation found a narrow strip of water located in a housing development in the northern part of the city Jeddah and is getting approval for its use as a rowing facility. “It’s close to the city, it is a perfect 2k rowing course, and that’s where the center of Saudi rowing will be.”
But first things first. Alireza has to get ready for the Olympics.
Barry said, “you need to understand that rowing is the toughest of all sports. It requires the most training to get aerobic conditioning and strength. People on the rowing team train 11 months of the year, 3 times a day, at least 4 days a week. A typical day might be sculling 16k in a boat, 16k on the rowing machine, one and half hours on weights. That’s a typical day. Scientifically, rowers breathe more oxygen in one minute than in any other sport.”
Alireza broke down how much effort went into that one race – a 2-kilometer sprint which takes a little over 7 minutes. “I rowed 30,000 kilometers,” said Alireza. “Eight hours of training went into every one second of my qualification race, which equals 15 kilometers for every 1 meter. In other words, the race was rehearsed 15,000 times.”
And when you row in a single scull for a country that has no rowing tradition, it is not just painful, it’s lonely, and Alireza wants to make sure that future generations of Saudi rowers feel strength in numbers.
“When I travel to an international race,” he told me. “In front of me I can see the Thai team, or the Japan team, having a great time together. Team spirit and camaraderie is a powerful thing, while I do my warm ups alone in silence envisioning coming back with a Saudi team one day.”
Barry, who is making history himself by being one of the very few to be credentialed for the two Olympics in the same host city (1964 and 2020), understands the importance of Husein Alireza.
“Husein is putting rowing on the map in Saudi Arabia.”
The XXXII Olympiad’s opening ceremony is the evening of Friday, July 23 in Tokyo.
But the Tokyo Olympics actually begin on the morning of Wednesday, July 21, in Fukushima. It’s the women who kick off the Games, when Japan takes on Australia in softball from 9 am (JST) at Azuma Baseball Stadium. In fact, there will be three opening round softball matches in Fukushima on July 21, as well as three more on July 22.
Women’s soccer will also debut on the two days prior to the Opening Ceremonies, with Great Britain taking on Chile in Sapporo, Hokkaido, China battling Brazil in Miyagi, Sweden against the US in Tokyo, and a second match in Hokkaido in the evening, pitting Team Japan against Team Canada.
As Tokyo and neighboring prefectures Chiba, Saitama, Kanagawa, as well as Osaka and Okinawa are under varying forms of a State of Emergency, spectators have been banned from Olympic events in those areas.
Fukushima and Hokkaido prefectures are not in a State of Emergency, but officials there chose to also ban spectators from the softball matches at Azuma Stadium, as well as soccer matches at Sapporo Dome.
As of this writing, however, a limited number of fans will be allowed to attend the football matches in Miyagi Stadium, which is in Rifu, Miyagi. The governor of Miyagi, Yoshihiro Murai, has held steadfast in his desire to have fans in the stands.
The governor cites the fact that on July 24, the women from China and Zambia compete in a soccer match at Miyagi Stadium, while on the same day there will be a warm up match for Team Japan’s men’s baseball team at Rakuten Seimei Park in nearby Sendai, Miyagi, which is scheduled to have about 13,000 fans. (Professional baseball in Japan has allowed limited number of spectators throughout the year.)
Spectators, as of this writing, appear also to be allowed for soccer matches in Ibaragi and cycling events at Izu Velodrome in Shizuoka.
So, if you want to attend a live Olympic event, try to get a ticket to soccer matches at Miyagi Stadium on July 21, 24, 27, 28, 30, or 31, or at Ibaragi Kashima Stadium on July 22, 25, 27, 30, 31, August 2, 3 or 5. Cycling at Izu Velodrome will be from August 2-8.
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