Running a stade in Greece
A picture of a stade in Greece, on my tour of Europe in August, 1985

It was the first week of August, 1985. I was in Greece. And it was hot.

On a tour of Europe with some 50 American students ranging in age from 15 to 50, I was tired after half a day in a boat and buses. We had left Corfu, where we got about the beautiful resort island on Vespas, caressed by cool breezes and enchanting vistas. When we arrived in Delphi, close to midnight, the camping grounds were not ready to receive us, so we slept on a gravel lot.

Delphi was home to the Oracle, a priestess of Pythia who consulted to the rich and famous from the 7th century BC to the 4th century BC. But we didn’t visit the Oracle. Perhaps, hot and tired, I didn’t care. We did visit an ancient sports stadium, where the professor leading this band of students arranged foot races for us.

In ancient Greece, the most common foot race was a stade, which is about 200 yards (180 meters), and which was the length of a stadium. Our professor had us race the length of the stadium…and back…essentially the length of four soccer pitches…in the hot August mid-day sun. Two of our number passed out. I don’t recall my race. Maybe I passed out too.

Our mighty tour leader, Prof. Emmanuel Fenz, cheering us on.

But if I had known then what I knew now, I would have been ecstatic to be there! This was Greece – the birthplace of the Olympics. And Delphi was home to one of four athletic competitions, collectively regarded as the Panhellenic Games:

  • The Pythian Games: based in Delphi, the Pythian Games were held in honor of Apollo every four years – this was the location where Apollo was said to slay a monstrous python.
  • The Nemean Games: based in the northeastern part of the Peloponnese, Nemea is where the Nemean Lion lurked, slayed by Heracles; the Nemean Games were held biannually in honor of Zeus.
  • The Isthmian Games: named after the Isthmus of Corinth, a narrow strip of land which connects Peloponnese with the rest of Greece, the Isthmian Games were like the Nemean Games, were held the same two years as the Pythian Games; these games were held in honor of Poseidon.
  • The Olympian Games: located in an area called Olympia, near the town of Elis on the Peloponnese peninsula, this was the first of the four quadrennial Games, starting in the 8th century BC. Of the four Games, this was the biggest and most prestigious. While the Olympian Games are dedicated to Zeus, it is at the Temple of Hera where the custom of igniting the Olympic flame takes place.

The order of these Games were as follows:

  1. Olympian Games
  2. Isthmian Games
  3. Nemean Games
  4. Isthmian Games

Over time, the word “olympiad” became a unit of time, a four-year period, a historical point of reference no doubt noted by the founder of the modern Olympic Games, Baron de Coubertin.

For a wonderful modern-day journey of these four locales, read this New York Times article, An Olympic Odyssey: Where the Games Began, by Bill Hayes.

 

Anthony Nesty
Anthony Nesty in 1992

Suriname – a country so small, you may not have realized it was a country (to paraphrase John Oliver).

With a population of about 570,000 people, Suriname is the smallest country in South American, just north of South America’s largest country, Brazil. Since forming a national olympic committee, Suriname has sent small teams to the Olympics since 1960, although never forming a team larger than 7.

In 1988, Anthony Nesty was a 20-year-old swimmer, was one of six to represent Suriname at the Seoul Olympics. And represent he did!

Not only was Nesty the first ever Surinamese to place in the finals of an Olympic competition – the 100-meter butterfly – he took gold in a surprising finish. Watching this video clip from an American broadcast, the announcer mentions the American Matt Biondi who led the entire race, as well as Michael Gross of Germany and Jon Sieben of Australia – all proven champions. The only time Nesty’s name is mentioned is after the finish.

ANNOUNCER: They now have 10 meters to swim, Matt Biondi going for the gold. Jon Siebens coming hard on the outside. But Biondi looks like he’s going to take it to the wall. And they get….NESTY! Nesty finally takes in lane 3 at the very last moment!

Nesty is 5ft 11 in (1.8 meters) tall, and is significantly shorter than the 6ft 7 (2 meters) Biondi. In very real terms, Biondi has a 8 inch lead on Nesty at the start of every race. But at the finish of this finals, Biondi lost by the barest of margins because he glided in, instead of stroking in. “I was halfway between a stroke and trying to kick in and I decided to kick in,” said Biondi. “If I had to stroke, I might have touched with my nose.”

Nesty was born in Trinidad in 1967. His family moved to Suriname, about a thousand miles southeast, to Paramaribo, Suriname. While Nesty enjoyed soccer, his father encouraged his son to swim. Clearly his father saw something in his son’s stroke, but Suriname, a country about the size of Georgia, USA primarily covered in rain forests, was not rich in swimming pools. In fact there was only one 50-meter pool in the country.

Where he could, Nesty trained and got stronger, strong enough to be named one of only two to represent Suriname at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Outclassed, the 16-year old finished in 21st place in the 100-meter butterfly, but as is explained in this article, he got a taste of the Olympics and wanted more, promising himself “to be more competitive next time around.” That commitment led to his acceptance at the Bolles Prep School in Florida, where world-class swimmers come to train and develop. Nesty developed so quickly he ended up breaking the prep school’s record for the 100-meter butterfly, set by Pablo Morales, who had a gold and two silvers, including one in the butterfly, at the 1984 Games.

He told the press in 1987 that he was not very well known in Suriname as he was now training in the United States.

“I’m proud, I guess,” says Nesty, who had the world’s 10th fastest time in the 100-meter freestyle, finishing 10th in the trials. He possibly has more fans in the United States than in Surname, a small nation in northern South America. “They respect me there, but I haven’t been there for over a year,” he said. “Suriname has a lot of military coups and political things. My dad told me if I stayed there much longer wouldn’t have much of a swimming career.”

Matt Biondi, Anthony Nesty, Andy Jameson
Matt Biondi, Anthony Nesty, Andy Jameson on the medals podium at the 1988 Seoul Olympics
But when Nesty returned from Seoul, Korea to Paramaribo, Suriname, he returned a conquering hero, greeted by 20,000 people at the airport and mobbed in the streets. His face was placed on commemorative stamps, coins and banknotes. And the indoor national stadium was named in his honor.

To this day, Nesty, with his gold in the 100-meter butterfly at the Seoul Olympics, as well as a bronze at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, remains the sole Olympic medalist from Suriname.

Samurai Surfing

My friends know this: I’m addicted to Nissin Cup Ramen.

There’s something about the aroma after I’ve waited that obligatory 3-minutes for the hot water to soften the noodles and bind the various spices and ingredients in a flavor that instantly gratifies me. This is not a universal addiction to Cup Noodle. It has to be made in Japan – the ones manufactured elsewhere are probably catering to local tastes, and to my palate, pale in comparison.

I don’t believe they manufacture the King Size version anymore, but if they did, I’d buy.

Nissin Cup Ramen also tends to have the coolest commercials. One released in November, 2016 is not only super fun, it is appealing to the same demographic the Tokyo 2020 Olympics are trying to appeal to. In a somewhat tenuous take on The Seven Samurai, Nissin created a commercial that features athletes decked out in traditional armour that the West now associate with the warrior class known as the samurai.

And the seven featured in this commercial are magnificent! They surf, they skateboard, they pogo-stick over street vendors, they spin on their bikes, do acrobatic twists on skis to the amazement of the bewildered crows around them.

Over the decades, the IOC has worked with host countries to appeal to the youth, and ensure a market for their product for years to come. The X-Games, an ESPN-sponsored event featuring extreme sports, drove up the popularity of skateboarding and freestyle motocross. Thanks to growing popularity of these youth-driven activities, snowboarding became an Olympic sport in 1998, while BMX cycling debuted at the 2008 Olympics.

Tokyo 2020 will feature a bevy of new competitions that the organizers hope will build a new generation of Olympic fans, including surfing, skateboarding, and sports climbing.

Samura bike tricks

Mel Pender_100 meter_1968
Mel Pender starting strong in 100-meter finals at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics_from the collection of Mel Pender

I cannot explain why I came in sixth place in the 1968 Olympics when the 100 meters was my best event. I could have won that race, and thought I should have. My start was great! I was out in front, but it was like I lost all my momentum and fell way behind.

So wrote Mel Pender in regards to his 100-meter finals at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, as described in his autobiography, Expression of Hope – The Mel Pender Story. In fact, 1968 was in one respect a repeat of 1964 – a sixth place finish in the 100-meter finals. As Pender is painfully aware, there is no acclaim for the Sixth Fastest Man in the World.

But one significant difference between 1968 and 1964 was that at the Tokyo Olympics, Pender was running with a torn muscle in his ribcage, and was hospitalized after the individual 100 meters. In 1968, Pender had one more chance for a medal, as a member of the 4×100 meter relay team. And yet, while he was officially penciled in as the runner of the second leg, there was talk not only of replacing the injured lead-off man, Charlie Greene, but also Pender because of his age and his sixth-place finish in the individual finals.

Ronnie Ray Smith, Mel Pender, Charlie Greene, Jimmy Hines
Ronnie Ray Smith, Mel Pender, Charlie Greene, Jimmy Hines

And then there was the tension of race on Team USA. On October 16, Tommie Smith and John Carlos took first and third place in the 200-meter finals, and more famously, bowed their heads and lifted their fists in protest on the medal stand as the American anthem played. Their silent plea for equality and justice for Blacks in America created in an uproar in Mexico City and around the world. The IOC president, Avery Brundage, banned Smith and Carlos from the Olympic Village, and thus the Games.

As Pender recalled in his autobiography, Brundage “referred to black male athletes as boys. ‘If those boys act up, I’m going to send them home…’ was what he said publicly and privately. When the black athletes heard about this, it was more than we could stand. Remember, in April of 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Tennessee.”

Members of the US track team, particularly black athletes, with the support of their head coach, Stan Wright, protested Brundage’s decision. But Pender, and other members of the US military had an extra burden, told in no uncertain terms that they “could not be part of the demonstrations based on the oath of service we took.”

Ronnie Ray Smith, Mel Pender, Charlie Greene, Jimmy Hines_2

So, for Pender, Mexico City was not just a sports event, and the 4×100 meter relay was not just a race. It was to Pender, perhaps, an expression of hope, an opportunity to shine a spotlight of achievement for black Americans, and a shot at redemption for the five-foot-five man from Lynnwood Park. The 4×100 relay, an event of immense speed that requires split-second precision in the baton hand offs, was America’s to win or lose.

I took my position on the oval track, awaiting the baton from leadoff man Charlie Greene. Charley ran the first leg, and when he handed the baton to me, we were trailing a bit. Passing the baton was clean. I was in a good Lane; I think was the third lane. It was without those curves that you made you feel like you’re running sideways. I ran the second leg, which proved to be the fastest of the four, and gave our team the lead. When I pass the baton to Ronnie Ray, he did his job, and we maintained the lead. When Ronnie Ray handed off the baton, Jim Hines brought it home.

Greene, Pender, Ray and Hines set a new world record of 38.24 seconds.

 

Mel Pender_1968
Mel Pender_Olympic Trials 1968

When Mel Pender passed the baton to Ronnie Ray Smith, Pender had done his job. He was a captain in the US Army, and a reliable leader. And that’s what he did. He put his team in the lead, and his teammates did the rest. Pender, with Charlie Greene, Ray and Jim Hines, won the gold medal in the 4×100 meter relay at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. With a time of 38.24 seconds, the Americans set a world record.

Pender’s close friend, Greene, was 23 years old. Ray was the kid at 19. Hines was 22. But Pender was nearly 31 when he finally won his gold medal, an old man by sprinter’s standards. While many athletes in the United States who approach world-class speeds got their start in track in high school or earlier, Pender never got those opportunities, growing up economically disadvantaged in Lynnwood Park, a community in Decatur, Georgia.

The first time Pender ever ran competitively was at the age of 25, in Okinawa of all places. It was 1960, and Pender had been sent to the American army base in the western-most islands of the Japanese archipelago. When officers noticed the speedy halfback on the Army Ranger football team, one of them ordered Pender to participate in a friendly competition between the American military and Japanese athletes training for the Olympics.

As Pender explained in his recently released autobiography, Expression of Hope – The Mel Pender Story, he hadn’t a clue. “Coach, what are you talking about? Run track? I asked. I never ran track in my life! I wouldn’t know the first thing to do? I continued.” Pender writes that when he first saw track shoes for the first time, with the long spikes and the flapping tongue, he thought they were “ugly, ugly, ugly.”

Mel Pender_Winning his first race
Mel Pender winning his first race in Okinawa_from the personal collection of Mel Pender

 

But that was the beginning of a new life for then Sgt Pender, who would go on to compete at both the 1964 and 1968 Olympic Games.

According to Mexico City teammate and 200-meter bronze medalist John Carlos, what Pender accomplished was “phenomenal”.

For him to do what he did at his age was exceptional! Mel was twenty-seven years old in 1964 and thirty-one in 1968. The competition we faced then was beyond world class, and everything he received is very much deserving. I was twenty, I think. We ran against each other in meets, and with each other in meets, all over the world. I don’t know of many, or anyone, who accomplished what he did in that day and time in history.

Mel Pender_Winning his first race 2
The fruits of Pender’s first race victory in Okinawa_from the personal collection of Mel Pender.

 

 

Next Big Pivot 2_Yuko Mitsuya
Yuko Mitsuya at The Next Big Pivot Charity Dinner 2017

 

“I’m tall, so I played volleyball. It was never a dream or a passion.”

It’s not what you’d expect to hear from an Olympian. But that’s how Yuko Mitsuya, member of the Japan woman’s volleyball team that took bronze at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, started off her speech at a charity event on February 23, 2016.

“I didn’t really like how tall I was. Volleyball was the only way to deal with this.”

One imagines someone who succeeds at the highest levels would be filled with passion for their accomplishment. But the 177 cm tall woman from Katsuyama, Fukui, was ever humble in a talk that was inspirational. Mitsuya was speaking at an event called “The Next Big Pivot Charity Dinner 2017” in Tokyo, raising funds to provide young Japanese women with an opportunity to learn about leadership in the sports industry. Last year, five women went to New York City to participate in a program called Future Frontwomen, which gave them in-depth exposure to how the NBA is run and how sports can be managed as business.

Those five women were present to hear Mitsuya explain that the path to success is not just fueled by passion, it is one of hard work, persistence and learning. Mitsuya, currently the chairperson of the Japan Basketball Association and the former CEO of a lingerie manufacturer, explained that she made the team because she was tall, but in her early junior high school days, she wasn’t very good. She worked at it, got better, and was able to contribute.

 

Next Big Pivot 1
Mie Kajikawa and the Future Frontwomen

 

I wasn’t that good. I was really a problem to the team. I hated it, but this was all I could do. Over time I got better, and more confident. I realized that becoming good at something was not a matter of whether I liked it or not. It mattered whether I practiced. And I practiced every day, and learned. I tried very hard and eventually got recognized as the best junior high school women’s volleyball player in Fukui.

Her one big lesson for young women in Japan (and perhaps for anybody who desires to achieve) is that no matter how good you are, there’s always another level up. She succeeded as a volleyball player in junior high school in Fukui, but when she moved to Tokyo for high school, she realized that she still had a lot to learn.

I thought I was good, until I got to this next level. And I lost confidence. But my friends supported me and helped me recover my confidence as I improved. And that’s what’s important – always stepping up, going another level up. There is always an opportunity to rise up further. You do well and you get to the top, and you realize, there’s another level to climb. As I got used to achieving and stepping up, I could always improve. For women, young women, I believe there are lots of chances to step up. You shouldn’t let your pride get in the way, worrying whether you will achieve or not. You need to understand that getting to a certain level means re-setting your mindset and your goals, so that you climb to the next level.

Prior to Mitsuya’s retirement, the only life she had known was volleyball. But she took it to the next level by transitioning to teaching at the high school and university level. Three years after participating in CSR activities with the leadership of a lingerie company called Ten Arrows, she was named CEO of that company. That was a big step up.

 

Mitsuya Yuko 1
Yuko Mitsuya in 1984

When I became a company CEO, a lot of people said I was hired just because I’m a well-known person. But I want young women to realize that specialization in one area does not mean that you cannot do something else. You need to challenge yourself and try different things because there are common skills you can use in other types of work. Based on my experience in volleyball, I learned how to motivate people (which is important for company leaders). I learned another important lesson from sports, which is also important in companies: resilience. I encourage people to challenge themselves because you need the experience of overcoming issues. And if you fail, well, through failure you grow. More importantly, if you do not challenge yourself, you may regret not making the attempt.

 

Mie Kajikawa understands this. Kajikawa was first a basketball player at Nagoya University. She worked in sales for the Japan Travel Bureau in Nagoya, studied French in France for a month, spent a few years doing secretarial work for executives in foreign financial services firms in Tokyo until she realized what she wanted to do – study sports management in the United States. During her master’s program at Ohio University, she had a career-defining experience – an internship with the Detroit Pistons.

From that point on, the doors to NBA officials or relevant sports industry players, as well as sports associations in Japan opened up. Kajikawa went on to participate in Tokyo’s bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics (which eventually went to Rio), and founded the company, Cheer Blossom, Inc., which provides consultation in CSR to Japan’s professional basketball league – B. League. And when she established the non-profit organization, Next Big Pivot, she became a significant player not only in promoting the empowerment of women in sports business, but also advocating for the development of basketball in Japan.

If you are interested in learning more about Next Big Pivot and Kajikawa’s plans, click here.

 

Individual Men's Road Race
From the book, Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Service

It was the morning of October 8, two days before the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Top Swiss cyclists Hans Lüthi and Heinz Heinemann were on the Koshu Highway in western Tokyo getting some training in when a truck, entering from a side road, hit them.

Lüthi had contusions on his left arm and his chest, waist and thighs, while Heinemann, a veteran of the 1960 Rome Olympics, had contusions on his waist, legs and hands. Doctors at the Jinwakai Hospital in Hachioji, according to The Yomiuri of October 9, 1964, were quoted as saying “Heinemann’s injuries would require one week’s medical treatment and Luthi’s three weeks’ treatment.” The article also said that they “might be unable to participate in the Olympic events.”

As it turned out, the men’s individual road race took place on October 22, two weeks after the accident, and both Lüthi and Heinemann were able to compete. While the records of who was in what place and when they finished in this 194-kilomter race is unclear for this particular event, according to this site, Lüthi appears to have finished in 16th in a field of 107, not far off from legend-to-be Eddy Merckx . Heinemann finished 63rd.

If one believes what one reads in the press at the time, every single Japanese in Tokyo took it upon themselves to be the perfect ambassador to any foreigner they came upon. Thus the truck driver, one Katsu Wada, might have been mortified that he was the one who may have ended the Olympic dreams of these cyclists.

Cyclist Hans Luthi and driver Katsu Wada
Cyclist Hans Luthi and driver Katsu Wada.

As you can see in the above photo, Wada publicly showed his contrition.

But as The Yomiuri article goes on to say, it may have been the Swiss who were in the wrong. According to the Metropolitan Police Department, “the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee (TOOC) had approved an advance schedule for practice by Olympic cyclists to enable police to impose restrictions to protect cyclists from vehicles. According to the schedule, Olympic cyclists were to practice on the road race course on eight days, October 2, 4, 5, 6, 12, 14, 19 and 22 under police protection, said the MPD.”