I celebrate the fourth anniversary of my blog, The Olympians, by announcing that my book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics is coming out in July.
The book, 1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes, is the product of the thousand-plus posts from my blog, The Olympians, which I started on May 1, 2014. It is also the product of interviews of over 70 Olympians from those 1964 Games, people whose memories and insights are lifeblood to the book.
I’ve had the honor for some of those Olympians, as well as writers and academics read the manuscript. Here are their advanced referrals for my book. Take a look!
Look for details going forward on the book here on my blog, The Olympians!
Tomorrow, May 1, 2019, begins the era of Reiwa in Japan.
Today, April 30, 2019, Emperor Akihito, the son of Emperor Hirohito, will abdicate the throne and be succeeded by his son, the Crown Prince Naruhito.
In Japan, every period of an Emperor’s rule is given a name, and the Japanese commonly used the era name to mark time. Hirohito’s was Showa, and I was born in the year of Showa 38 (or 1963). Akihito’s was Heisei, and I was married in the year of Heisei 2 (or 1990).
Akihito (age 85) is the first emperor in 200 years to step down from the throne, and he does so in order for he and his wife, Empress Michiko (age 84), to live out the remainder of their lives in a more leisurely fashion, without the daily duties of the royal house. After all, Akihito and Michiko, showed Japan throughout their courtship and marriage that they too had to grow and change with the times.
They first met on a tennis court in Karuizawa one day in August 1957. According to The Daily News, Michiko was partnered with an American named Bobby Doyle, and the Japan-US duo defeated Akihito in his partner over a two-hour two setter. It is said Akihito took a picture of Michiko and quietly had a friend deliver it to her. He also invited Michiko to join another tennis match, with the Shah of Iran.
Thus began the famous tennis romance, that blossomed not only for the couple, but for the entire nation. Not only did the royal couple spark a tennis boom in Japan, there was a boom in interest in the royal family. For Michiko was not of royal blood – a commoner who won the heart of the future Emperor, and “Mit-chi” as Michiko was affectionately called, was highly popular. Their eventual marriage on April 10, 1959, complete with a 8.8 kilometer procession through Tokyo in horse-drawn carriage, was viewed by half-a-million people who lined the course, and tens or million more on newly purchased televisions.
In another break from tradition, Akihito and Michiko decided that they would raise their own children instead of the practice of leaving the rearing of the children to tutors.
Thanks to the newly-founded powers of television to bring images instantly and up close to the average person, the crown prince and princess became celebrities of sorts. People were happy to catch a glimpse of them on a tennis court in Karuizawa or at a pizza restaurant in Roppongi. The members of a preparatory committee who hoped to bring the Stoke Mandeville Games to Tokyo also hoped to leverage the star power of the royal couple.
As related in a previous post, Yoshiyuki Kasai, who led the preparatory committee to bring what would become the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, arranged for Akihito and Michiko to meet the first Japanese to compete in the Stoke Mandeville Games in London, and tell the couple of their experience competing in a foreign land. Photos of the popular prince and princess with the disabled athletes ignited the preparatory committee’s ability to gain support more broadly within public and private circles.
As a result, not only did Akihito and Michiko help make the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics a reality, they were present during much of the 5-day Tokyo Paralympics, not just sitting in the audience, but interacting with the athletes on camera. They single-handedly brought significant national attention to the disabled, and raised the profile of this new international event despite the fact that Japan had just experienced it’s greatest international event, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, only weeks before.
The reign of Heisei is ending. But the legacies of Akihito and Michiko, including those in the world of sports, will last forever.
Over 80% of the citizens supported it. Some 80% of the infrastructure was in place. It was September, 2013 and Spaniards were feeling good about their third bid for the Summer Olympics.
The organizers of the bid campaign for Madrid, Spain had come in third for the 2012 Olympics, and then finished an excruciating second to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics. But this time around, three was going to be the charm.
Unfortunately, three was their fate.
Tokyo, Japan won going away, defeating Istanbul, Turkey by 60 votes to 36 at the 125th IOC Session in Buenos Aires, Argentina on September 7, 2013. In the first round of voting, Japan scored 42 votes from IOC members, while Madrid and Istanbul tied at 26, resulting in a run-off match to compete against Tokyo. In the run-off, Madrid was out-counted by the narrow margin of 49 to 45.
Guti (former Real Madrid player): “This is terribly sad, a huge blow, not just for Madrid, but for Spain as a whole.”
Javier Gómez Noya (Triathlete and Olympic silver medalist): “It’s a real shame, because everyone was very optimistic. But another city has got it and all athletes need to keep working hard and prepare for the Games in the same way. It will still be the Olympic Games, even though it’s a pity it will not be in Madrid.”
Jennifer Pareja (Waterpolo player): “We are lost for words, we didn’t expect to draw (with Turkey). It was the worst thing that could have happened. We hadn’t envisaged this, we were full of optimism. We are stunned. We don’t know what to say – everything could have changed and now it’s not going to happen. It’s a shame after all the efforts everyone has made.”
Tokyo, Japan was the oft-described “safe pair of hands,” an economically solvent economy with a reputation for dependability and quality. Yes, Japanese slowly warmed to the idea of hosting a second Summer Olympics as only a little over half of Tokyo citizens supporting a bid for the 2016 Olympics, although that number got into the 70’s as the bid for 2020 rolled around. More significantly, the vote for 2020 came only two-and-a-half years after the disastrous earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, and fears of radiation poisoning lingered in the minds of IOC members.
Istanbul, Turkey was an intriguing candidate, bidding to the be first Islamic nation to host an Olympics, an idea that appealed to the globalists of the IOC. Just four months prior to the IOC vote, protests erupted in Istanbul as people protested government plans to re-develop Gezi Park by barricading the streets and starting bonfires. Police battled protestors in the streets, where thousands were injured a few were killed. The domestic unrest was on top of Turkey’s growing involvement in the Syrian Civil war at their border. Only 11 months prior to the IOC vote, a Turkish fighter was shot down from the sky by Syrian forces in October, 2012.
One might think that if Spain were competing against a nation whose citizens were possibly under threat of radiation poisoning, and another nation which appeared on the brink of war, they should have a distinct advantage.
Alas, Madrid’s bid was seeming more like an impossible dream.
In 2013, Spain’s economy had racked up nine straight quarters of negative growth, and was so in debt that the government had to accept a bailout of 41 billion euros by European banks to get by. The country, in such financial distress, was the last letter in a slew of European nations under economic stress: Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain – with the unfortunate acronym PIIGS.
On top of that, the Spanish newspapers in 2013 were filled by stories of a trial about Operacion Puerto, a sting operation by the Spanish police that started in 2006, revealing the existence of widespread doping by Spanish cyclists, football and tennis players.
After losing the bid for 2020, the Madrid bid organizers called it a day, and declared they would not bid for the 2024 Games.
To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
Even for the Madrid team, it was time to stop tilting at windmills.
The 24-year old figure skater walked into a private room in Saitama Super Arena, the television to his left showing clips of the World Finals Figure Skating Championship that had just ended on the evening of March 23, 2019.
“I lost! I can’t believe it (“Maketa yo, kuyashii!),” said Yuzuru Hanyu. He glanced at the television set which showed his rival and winner of the world championship, American Nathan Chen. “How do I beat that?”
Despite Hanyu’s incredible free program and brief hold of first place, Chen’s was better.
“I really wanted to win when I was skating,” Hanyu stated. “I think I did my best, but the problem is that a figure skating competition consists of two days, and I lost both. It means that I simply do not have enough strength to win.”
Chen is a brilliant young skater, who has proven his metal by defending his world championship. But Hanyu will not go down without a fight.
Those who have followed Hanyu even a little know that he is not losing confidence. He may in fact be steeling himself for the greatest competition he has faced. Battling and overcoming an ongoing ligament injury to his right ankle, Hanyu won gold in PyeongChang last February, and the Cup of Russia in November. The flames of his competitive spirit have been fanned by Chen, and he’s out to take figure skating to the next level, which should surprise no one.
Hanyu is a living legend.
What’s incredible is that he is not alone here. We in Japan have been blessed, recent witnesses to once-in-a-century global talents in a wide variety of sports – four of them to be exact:
Yuzuru Hanyu (figure skating)
Ichiro Suzuki (baseball)
Kohei Uchimura (gymnastics)
Kaori Icho (wrestling)
Yuzuru Hanyu (figure skating):The Sendai native is a two-time world champion, has broken the world record in figure skating scores eighteen times, and is the first person since Dick Button did so in 1948 to win individual gold in two consecutive Olympiads. Can he do the unthinkable at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, and win an unprecedented third Olympic championship? I wouldn’t bet against him yet.
Ichiro Suzuki (baseball): After 28 years of professional baseball, the athlete known as Ichiro retired last week amidst adoring fans at the opening season matches between his Seattle Mariners and the Oakland A’s. No one has had more hits in professional baseball than Ichiro (4,367), and in the Major Leagues in America, he set the season hit record in 2004 with 262 hits, surpassing George Sisler’s record that stood for 84 years. His speed and defense made him a threat to steal a base as well as hits and runs in the field. There’s an overwhelming consensus that Ichiro will be the first player enshrined in the baseball hall of fames of both Japan and America. His love of the game, his training regimen and his flare for the dramatic will live on forever.
Kohei Uchimura (gymnastics):He is called King Kohei. The native of Nagasaki is the only gymnast to win all-around gold in every major title in a four-year Olympic cycle….twice. In other words, Uchimura won the world championship and Olympic gold from 2009 to 2016. You may as well tack on his silver medal in the all-arounds at the 2012 London Olympics, and call it a decade of dominance. Calling him the Greatest of All Time (GOAT), as many do, is not hyperbole. As Uchimura is 30, it is unlikely that his dominance will continue at Tokyo 2020. But he might be there, giving us all still a chance to glimpse greatness.
Kaori Icho (wrestling):There is another Japanese GOAT – a woman from Japan named Kaori Icho. The freestyle wrestler from Aomori, Icho has won an unprecedented and incredible four straight Olympic championships since women’s wrestling became an Olympic sport at the 2004 Athens Summer Games. In fact, she’s the first female in any sport to win an individual gold in four straight Olympiads. Through that period, Icho had won 189 straight matches, a 13-year streak that ended in January, 2016 to a wrestler ten years her junior, only to re-start the streak and take her fourth gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. She is indeed the best female wrestler ever.
We in Japan have been most fortunate in recent years to live among living legends.
On March 20, 2019, just as cherry blossom buds were beginning to reveal their delicate pink petals in Tokyo, the organizers of Tokyo2020 revealed their own beautiful blossom – the Olympic torch.
On March 20, 2020, torch bearers will commence the torch relay and carry this 71-centimeter, 1.2 kilogram aluminum torch from Miyagi in Northern Japan, to Okinawa at the archipelago’s western-most tip, and then back to Tokyo in time for the opening ceremonies on July 24, 2020.
As cherry blossoms bloom and fall in March next year, torch bearers will hold aloft a torch gleaming in gold with a hint of pink – a color dubbed “sakura gold” – fashioned in the shape of the iconic Japanese cherry blossom. Fire will arise from the cylinders of the five petals to form a single flame.
Tokuijin Yoshioka, the torch’s designer, was not only inspired by the Olympic rings, but also by schoolchildren at an elementary school in Fukushima he visited, whom he said drew beautiful renditions of cherry blossoms. “I was very impressed with the powerful expression in the cherry blossoms drawn by kids in this area,” Yoshioka said in the Asahi Shimbun. “They are trying to overcome challenges and trying to move forward. I wanted to share that with the world.”
Three-time gold medalist judoka, Tadahiro Nomura, stood on stage with Yoshioka at the unveiling, and was breathless. “To actually be holding this superb work, is frankly giving me shivers,” he said in this Kyodo article. “I can only imagine the joy on the faces of people lining the route of the relay when they see it.”
Each of the torches to be produced will be made primarily of aluminum, 30% of which has been recycled from the temporary housing provided to those left homeless in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, in the wake of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant meltdowns that stunned Japan on March 11, 2011.
After the flame is ignited in Greece on March 12, 2020, the flame will be transferred to the sakura torch eight days later when the torch relay will begin in northern Japan, making its way through 47 prefectures.
Ten thousand torches will be made, which is probably close to how many people will be needed to cross the nation in the four months prior to the opening ceremonies.
A picture, they say, tells a thousand words. You could also say, it tells it in a thousand languages as well.
In 1964, as organizers were preparing for the arrival of tens of thousands of foreigners for the Tokyo Olympics, the Japanese were concerned with how to direct people to the right places and the right events with the least amount of error, particularly in a country where foreign language proficiency was poor.
The decision was to use symbols to show people where various places were, like the toilets, the water fountain, first aid and the phone. Symbols were also used to identify the 20+ sporting events on the schedule for the Tokyo Olympics. Due to this particular cultural concern, the 18th Olympiad in Japan was the first time that pictograms were specifically designed for the Games.
Over 50 years later, the symbols have become de rigeur for presentation in Olympic collaterols and signage.
On March 12, 2019, the day when officials announced that there were only 500 days to go to the commemcementof the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, they introduced the pictograms designed for the 2020 Games.
“I was thrilled with being able to participate in the history of Olympics,” said Masaaki Hiromura in this Asahi Shimbun article, a Tokyo graphic designer who designed the pictograms for the 2020 Games. “I was able to make them in which we can be proud of as the country of origin that first made pictograms for the Games.”
At the top of the post is a comparison of the symbols designed by Yoshiro Yamashita in 1964 (in gray), and the symbols designed by Himomura (in blue).
I was asked that question by best-selling author, Bob Whiting, for a weekly column he writes for the Japanese newspaper, Yūkan Fuji. My answer to him?
And we don’t have to go too far back in time for a prime example.
It was less than three years ago when the organizers of the 2016 Rio Olympics had to endure an endless number of threats to the reputation of Brazil and the Olympics:
The Brazilian economy had tanked. Police and firemen protested at the airports they were not getting paid, warning people to stay away. There was even significant speculation that the organizers would cut air conditioning in the Olympic Village to save costs.
The largest scandal in Brazilian history filled the headlines in 2016, one that involved state-run oil company, Petrobras, in which officials received kickbacks in return for selection of specific suppliers, kickbacks that totaled some USD3 to 5 billion.
The question of whether the president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, would be impeached and removed hung over the Games like a cloud. (She was removed from office 10 days after the end of the Rio Olympics.)
The site of the triathlon and sailing competition, Guanabara Bay, was so contaminated with human waste that it threatened the health of athletes who would compete in those waters.
It’s impossible for Olympic officials to control the media’s thirst for issues and scandal, but the circumstances of Brazil at the time made it easy for the press to generate negative storylines.
Will that be the case in Tokyo, when the Olympics come to town in July and August of 2020? What are the headlines that could shake Olympic officials or encourage the naysayers?
North Korea Boycotts the Olympics: The Korean teams marched together at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in 2018, and even brought together North and South Koreans on the women’s ice hockey team. But if pressure mounts due to lack of progress in US-North Korea talks to denuclearize North Korea, who knows whether the Olympics will become an opportunity to raise the rhetoric and make North Korea’s participation a bargaining chip?
Magnitude 8.0 Earthquake Hits Tokyo – Olympics Disrupted: The timing of an earthquake just prior or during the Olympics are highly unlikely. And yet, the fear of the big one in Tokyo is in the back of the minds of many in Japan since there hasn’t been one since the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Last year provided multiple reminders of Japan’s vulnerability to mother nature. In an annual vote of the kanji character that bests represent the year of 2018, the symbol for “disaster” was selected. After all, in 2018, 200 people were killed in flood waters across 23 prefectures, dozens perished in a 6.6 magnitude earthquake in Hokkaido, and there were at least 11 fatalities when Typhoon Jebi swept through the Kansai region.
Is there precedent? Yes. The 1989 World Series, when a magnitude 6.9 earthquake struck San Francisco just prior to the start of Game 3 match between two Bay City teams, the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants.
Officials Deny Bribery Allegations in Black Tidings Affair: A dark cloud in the distance appears to be approaching. The former president of the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), and longtime IOC member, Lamine Diack, has been held by authorities in France since November, 2015. One of the allegations under investigation is whether Diack and his son Papa Massata Diack, were responsible for payments of USD2 million made from officials in Japan to Papa Diack through a company in Singapore called Black Tidings. It is alleged that these payments, made in July 2013, were connected to bribes that would “help the Japanese capital secure the hosting rights for the Olympic and Paralympic Games,” according to the French newspaper, Le monde. The current president of the Japan Olympic Committee, and member of the IOC, Tsunekazu Takeda, is under investigation for corruption, and may end up retiring from the Japan Olympic Committee in June or July.
Is there a precedent? Yes. A year after the end of the 2016 Rio Olympics, the head of the Rio de Janeiro Organizing Committee and member of the Brazilian men’s volleyball team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Carlos Nuzman, was arrested for soliciting votes ahead of the 2009 IOC session to select the host city for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Make no mistake – prior to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, there will be a lot of noise, much of it negative. That’s just the reality of hosting a high budget big tent event like the Olympics.
But also, make no mistake – in the end, it is always about the athletes – their stories of struggle, fair play, excellence and achievement – that drive the headlines during the Games. Those are the headlines that will inspire millions of young Japanese, and provide the motivation that propels a select few to future Olympiads.
By the way, the last two paragraphs are what Bob quoted me on at the end of his column – after all, you can’t end a story like this with such black tidings.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be great, and you won’t want to miss it!
It’s now 500 days to July 24, 2020, and the Opening Ceremonies of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics!
The National Stadium is taking shape.
Volunteers have raised their hands.
Tickets are close to going on sale.
In only 16 more months, the world will come to Japan for the XXXII Olympiad. Which made me wonder. What was it like on May 29, 1963 – when it was 500 days to go for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics? I took a look at The Japan Times for a week from May 23 to 31 to see what was top of mind in the press with 500 days to go.
First thing I noticed – no big deal was made that there were 500 days to go. But I also noticed that in addition to the significant progress on Olympic-related infrastructure, geo-political issues that were brewing in May, 1963, would come to a head 500 days later.
The facilities were taking shape: It was reported at a government meeting that “80% of the National Stadium, 20% of the track and field course, 25% of the boat course at Toda, 50% of the shooting range at Asaka, 50% of the sports center at Komazawa, and 75% of yacht harbor at Enoshima inland are completed.”
Indonesia’s Participation Under Threat: The IOC was scheduled to expel the National Organizing Committee of Indonesia, which would mean that Indonesian athletes would not be allowed to participate at the Tokyo Olympics. President Sukarno arrived in Tokyo unofficially before taking off for his planned trip to Europe, with hopes of improving the tone of Olympic discussions. This was part of an ongoing dispute over the politicization of sports, and it did not end well for Indonesia. As you can read here, the Indonesians could not get what they wanted, and boycotted the Games.
JFK Thanks Hayato Ikeda for Congratulating JFK: Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda received a cable of thanks from US President John F. Kennedy, for the prime minister’s message of congratulations on the successful orbiting of an American spaceship, Faith 7, which circled the earth 22 times in mid May, piloted by a single astronaut. During the Tokyo Olympics, the Soviet Union would surprisingly top that by sending the world’s first spaceship with a crew of three – the Voskhod – during the Olympic Games.
USSR, USA and Cuba: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev threatened that things could get worse than the Cuban Missile crisis of the year before if the United States did not cease in interfering in Cuban affairs. Little did Khruschev know that he would be ousted from power a bit over 500 days later.
Nuclear Tests: The Japanese government decided in May of 1963 to cease its protests against American underground testing of nuclear explosives, after one such test took place in mid May in Nevada. The Japanese government finally realized that simply protesting the US government to change its behavior was not working. They didn’t realize that about 508 days later they would have to protest China’s decision to test its first atomic bomb, which they did on October 16, 1964, six days into the Tokyo Games.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics begin on July 24 next year.
But the first sporting event will take place two days earlier, in Fukushima, when preliminary matches of women’s softball begin at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium.
Azuma Stadium is about 90 kilometers from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the site of Japan’s gravest nuclear disaster since World War II.
It was 8 years ago today when a 9.1 magnitude earthquake rattled the Pacific coast side of northern Japan (Tohoku), triggering enormous waves of water inland, both resulting in approximately 16,000 deaths, and leading to nuclear meltdowns in the Fukushima reactors as the tsunami overwhelmed the power plants. The nuclear fallout turned communities around Daiichi into ghost towns, and the prefecture into a national pariah.
The decision by the organizers to bring sporting events to Tohoku during the Olympics was made with the intent to drive investment back to the area, and build a sense of hope to the region.
“This is a great opportunity to bring the spirit of the Olympic Games to this region, which was affected by the tsunami in 2011,” IOC leader Thomas Bach told a press conference in Pyeongchang, South Korea when this was announced on March 17, 2017. “It is also an expression of solidarity of the Olympic movement with the people in this region who are suffering from the consequences of this disaster.”
Baseball infielder, Akinori Iwamura, who played many years for the Yakult Swallows as well as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, was a member of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles when the earthquake and tsunami hit, continuing to play for a minor league squad called the Fukushima Hopes through 2016. His hope too was that the region would be revitalized, and Iwamura was a vocal cheerleader, according to this New York Times article.
“I call myself a missionary,” Iwamura said. “Even though it’s a negative way many people know the name of Fukushima, we have to change it into a positive way.”
Iwamura believed that hosting softball games during the Olympics at Azuma Stadium, where his Fukushima Hopes play, would build the area’s image and attract tourism. “When they go back to their country, they can tell their impression to the local people of their countries so it will bring more people to come for tourism,” he said.
Immediately after the announcement in March that Fukushima would host baseball, anti-nuclear activists denounced the move. They argued that it created a false impression that Fukushima had returned to normal and glossed over the remaining hardships faced by an estimated 120,000 residents who still cannot – and may never – return to their homes.
Kazuko Nihei has two daughters, and she fled her home in Fukushima City in 2011, and has sworn never to return. The government has provide financial assistance to people evacuated from the terribly affected areas, particularly those in the area where nuclear radiation fears are greatest. The government ended that assistance for people like Nihei, and so she struggles to make ends meet, according to Channel News Asia.
“I have to work with every ounce of energy,” said Nihei, who works seven days a week to help keep the family afloat.
Why won’t she return with her family to Fukushima? The Japanese government has worked hard to decontaminate the area so that families can return. But the fears of radiation in the environment remain.
…the programme has not swayed everyone, with a poll conducted in February by the Asahi Shimbun daily and Fukushima local broadcaster KFB finding that 60 per cent of Fukushima region residents still felt anxious about radiation.
Nihei worries about “various health risks for children, not only thyroid (cancer) but others including damage to their genes. If there was a comprehensive annual health check, I might consider it, but what they are offering now is not enough, it only concentrates on thyroid cancer,” she told AFP.
Then there is the contaminated water used as a coolant in the nuclear reactors – a million tons of water that contain radioactive elements. Processing the contaminated water, as well as the ongoing dismantling of the nuclear plants, are long, difficult and costly tasks – the New York Times states it would take 40 years and cost nearly USD200 billion.
Additionally, there is a risk to keeping the radioactive water in the thousand or so water tanks on land, near the power plants – the number will rise and the space to store the water is limited. And the tanks could crack, particularly if another major earthquake hits Tohoku.
The Japanese government hopes to purify that water to the point where the water can be disposed of in the Pacific Ocean. But, as one can imagine, that idea doesn’t sit well with people who live there, particularly those in the fishing industry.
“That would destroy what we’ve been building over the past eight years,” said Tetsu Nozaki, head of the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Co-operative Associations. Last year’s catch was just 15 percent of pre-crisis levels, partly because of consumer reluctance to eat fish caught off Fukushima.
The Olympics will come and go. But the disturbing legacy of 3.11 in Fukushima will linger on.
“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” Oliver Wendell Holmes
The nineteen-year-old landed in Tokyo, Japan wide-eyed.
A rising star in the best women’s athletic program in the United States, Wyomia Tyus had incredible opportunities for a young woman traveling the world, including Poland, Germany, England and the Soviet Union. But nothing prepared her for the crowds of Tokyo, she told me.
I grew up in Griffin, Georgia, where maybe there was 40,000 people, with half of that in the countryside. When we flew in to Tokyo, I will never forget seeing the lights from the plane, so beautiful. And the big buildings, which reminded me of New York. But there were so many people! That was a little scary.
Tyus told me that her coach, the legendary Ed Temple, made sure that his athletes’ lives were more than just running and jumping. He would tell his athletes to experience things, to go on sightseeing tours and see as much as possible. And being in the Olympic Village was eye opening, as she described in her autobiography, Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story, co-authored by Elizabeth Terzakis.
Coming from Georgia and Tennessee, not knowing anything but “you’re black” and “You’re white,” and then seeing all these different hues and colors, all these different ethnicities, there was nothing I could do but grow. It made me have a better understanding of people in general – and of myself. Everybody always talks about the differences between blacks and whites, but the truth is, certain aspects of the black and white cultures in the South were pretty much the same: people who came from the farms ate mostly the same, dressed mostly the same, depending on their class. But in the Olympic Village, here were all these people who ate different foods and spoke different languages and word different clothes – they lived differently, and they had a different understanding of the how we lived.
Tyus told me how she could go so long without knowing that the world was so diverse. “It was such a growth period for me,” she said. “I didn’t know these things. How come nobody talked about these things in high school, I wondered.” Having a wide number of experiences and interacting with a diverse group of people became a basic tenet for success in Tyus’ life, and thought she needed her children to understand that. She made sure that she sent her kids to her home, and to her first husband’s home in Canada to experience different ways and thinking. She said her son and daughter were sometimes put off by the way their aunts and uncles talked, and smelled and acted. But their mother had this belief:
Knowing that someone who is so different from you is also a part of you makes you a stronger person. It helps you to be able to appreciate life, to really laugh at life, to see the things that people do as part of a culture. I wanted my kids to know that my dad’s side of the family is different from my mom’s side, and both are different from Duane’s family in Ohio and his grandmother who grew up in Tennessee. This is your family. This is part of you, so you should appreciate difference and not put other people down.
Of course, this tolerance is tested at times, and like mothers around the world, Tyus needs to balance principles with common sense. While race relations in America have improved significantly in some ways, they have stayed the same in others. Like many other black parents, she has had to provide uncomfortable advice to her children about how to behave in the presence of police, as she explains in Tigerbelle:
If the police pull you over, you need to keep your hands on the wheel, you need to say ‘Yes sir’ and ‘No sir,’ and you need to say everything you’re going to do before you do it.
You need to say: ‘Can I roll my window down?’ You need to say, ‘I am reaching for my wallet now.’
You need to tell them which hand you are going to use to do it.
Her son is incredulous, but Tyus feels that in the 21st century it is still necessary for a person of color to be extra careful. She’s known this ever since she first moved to California, a place she knew would be very different from Griffin when she moved West as a 23-year-old – temperate weather, more glamorous, and more tolerant of difference. While that was generally true, Tyus still experienced the discomfort of being perceived as a maid in the elevator of her apartment complex, or stared at for swimming in the pool, as she noted in Tigerbelle.
Before I came out west, I thought it would be different—lots of people in the South thought that. To this day, people in Griffin will say to me, “California? Oh, you could have it so free there!” And before I moved, I agreed. California’s so open, I thought. But no. It’s not. Things are just more subtle than they are in the South. Because a lot of the people in California came from the South. And moving to California didn’t necessarily change their ideas. It just meant that they were surrounded by change and maybe they had to bend a little bit.
Unpleasant as that revelation is, Tyus gained this insight because she changed her environment, interacted with different people, reflected on what she understood, and revised her worldview.
Tyus is not an activist. She’s an introvert. She’s inquisitive. And thanks to a world of experience, encouraged by her parents and her mentors, like Ed Temple, she is very self aware and insightful about the world around her. Tyus is not just the first person ever to win back-to-back gold medals in the Olympic 100-meter sprint. She is a learner and a teacher – and we need more people like Wyomia Tyus than ever before.
“Every new experience brings its own maturity and a greater clarity of vision.” Indira Ghandi