The women of Team Japan’s basketball team were on a run. They upset Belgium, and then France. The shorter but swifter Japanese moved the ball around, played hounding defense, and shot threes with ease. They were the darling of this year’s Games for Japan, heading into a unexpected gold-medal match with Team USA.
The Americans had not lost an Olympic match since 1992, and they did not lose on Sunday, this final day of the XXXII Olympiad. But Team Japan won silver, and the hearts of millions of young women who saw that hard work and teamwork can take you places you never dreamed.
Tokyo2020 has been a watershed Games for Japanese female athletes. Not since the 2000 Olympics had Japanese women won more medals than the men, and in those Sydney Games, Japan garnered only 18.
In these Tokyo Games, Japan won a record 58 medals, and the women won a majority of them – 30!
Japanese female judoka and wrestlers won a combined 8 gold medals. Risako Kawai won gold in freestyle wrestling, joining her sister Yukako as the second set of Japanese siblings to win gold. (Hifumi and Uta Abe both won gold in judo.) Risako won gold at the 2016 Rio Games at the 63kg and below weight class, but she dropped a level with the hope that the sisters would both triumph in Tokyo. They did.
Judoka Akira Sone won Japan’s 16th gold medal in the +78kg weight class. She was also on the mixed team that lost to France, the only one on her team to win in the Mixed competition. She won handily in fact, a rock among the judo greats on Team Japan.
And Japanese women won their first gold and bronze medals in boxing. Was there anyone more joyful than Sena Irie? When she entered the stadium for the gold medal match, she was smiling like she walked into a surprise birthday party. And after peppering her opponent with swift jabs and a flurry of combinations, she won, jumping high in the air with glee.
Japanese women are bad-ass strong!
The male swimmers have been the more likely medalists for Japan, but this time Yui Ohashi won gold in the grueling 400 and 200-meter individual medley competitions, the only Japanese to win swimming gold.
Hideki Matsuyama was the Masters Champion heading into the Olympics, but it was Mone Inami who medaled with a second place finish.
And girl power was on display in skateboarding. A few days after 13-year-old Momiji Nishiya won gold in women’s street skateboarding, 19-year-old Sakura Yosozumi and 12-year-old Kokona Hiraki took gold and silver in the women’s park skateboarding.
Japanese women had a chance at a sweep in park skateboarding when 15-year old Misugu Okamoto, the number one seed, set up for her final run. If she could only execute her final big trick, she could have climbed above Great Britain’s Sky Brown who was in third, but she couldn’t execute.
In one of the most heartfelt images of the Games, her teammates and competitors rallied around Okamoto as the cameras captured them group hugging and lifting the tearful teen into the air.
There’s a good chance that sales of skateboards by teenage girls in Japan are up.
There’s a good chance too a lot more girls in Japan are thinking, “I can do that!”
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.
The closer we get to the start, the farther we grow apart. Will Tokyo2020 be the Inclusion Games, or the Exclusion Games? Here’s an article I wrote for “Tokyo Updates.”
She was five years old, and she watched the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics with amazement.
Jackie Joyner Kersee! Carl Lewis!
And so Megumi Ikeda thought one day, this little girl from Nanyo, Yamagata in northern Japan would be as fast and as cool as Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
As it turned out, Ikeda (née Harada) simply didn’t have the athletic gifts to excel in track and field. And yet, the flame of high performance can be sparked in unexpected ways. Ikeda would go on to represent Japan at the 2004 Athens Olympics and the Beijing Olympics in individual épée fencing.
Fencing is an old sport, but it is not a money-making sport. People don’t fill arenas around the world to watch fencing, wrestling, weightlifting, curling, hammer throwing, cross-country skiing, or the luge.
But every four years, billions of people watch the Summer and Winter Olympic Games.
Why do so many people watch the Olympics?
So many people watch the Olympics because they become witness to the very best athletes in the world. Human senses are lifted to their keenest. Human physicality is stretched to its limits. Human desire swells up from the deepest recesses of one’s will.
Sport, like painting, singing, dancing, acting and writing is an act of human expression. Like a sculptor in an attic, a rock band in a basement, or actors in a park, kids on the street playing football are expressing themselves.
At the Olympics, sport is art. The Olympics provide highly skilled, highly trained athletes an… (to read more, click on this link.)
It was June 26, 2003 and Seiko Hashimoto, a junior member of Japan’s leading political party, was on a panel with then former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who said this, according to AP:
Welfare is supposed to take care of and reward those women who have lots of children. It is truly strange to say we have to use tax money to take care of women who don’t even give birth once, who grow old living their lives selfishly and singing the praises of freedom.
Eighteen years later, Mori made another derogatory statement about women, but this time it led to his reluctant resignation from the presidency of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee.
His successor is Seiko Hashimoto.
An independent succession committee made up primarily of former Japanese Olympians and Paralympians and led by the well-respected chairman and CEO of Canon, Fujio Mitarai honed very quickly on one candidate – the Olympic speedskater and cyclist from Hayakita, Hokkaido. It’s hard to argue that anyone else in Japan has had more Olympic experience or embodies the Olympic spirit than Hashimoto.
Born on October 5, 1964, 5 days before the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Hashimoto was given the name Seiko, a play on the Japanese characters for the word “seika,” or Olympic flame. Hashimoto started her Olympic career at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, and competed as a speed skater in the 1988, 1992 and 1994 Winter Games, winning a bronze medal in the 1500 meter speedskating finals in Albertville. More incredibly, Hashimoto competed as a cyclist at the 1988, 1992 and 1996 Summer Olympics.
That’s 7 Olympiads in 12 years! If there is one reason the Japanese press have started calling her the Iron Lady, it was her ability to persistently and intensely train at high performance levels. Her Olympic run is unprecedented and frankly, astounding.
Hashimoto would go on to become the head of the Japanese Olympic team delegation, or the chef de mission at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics, and then the first female to lead a Japan delegation at a Summer Olympics when she was appointed chef de mission at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
There is no rest in Hashimoto. Following her appearance in the 1994 Albertville Olympics, bronze medal in hand, she competed for a seat in the upper house of the Japanese Parliament in 1995, and won. While learning the ropes as a rookie politician, every day she trained for her final Olympics from 3am and worked at the Diet building from 8am. She was likely the only elected official competing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and certainly a first such double-hatter for Japan.
When Hashimoto gave birth to a daughter in 2000, she was first upper house legislator in Japan to give birth to a child while in office. As Hashimoto would have to rely on staff to watch over her daughter, she saw that others had a similar need, and would go on to establish a child care facility in the basement of a then newly built Second House of the House of Representatives. Not only lawmakers and staff could use the facilities, but also residents in the neighborhood of Nagatacho’s newest nursery.
Upon accepting the request of the selection committee to assume the role of President of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, Hashimoto resigned from her cabinet level position as Minister of State for Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. She had to resign from her government role for legal as well as ethical reasons. But there will likely be whispers of undue influence by the former president of the committee, Yoshiro Mori.
Mori, who was Japan’s prime minister from April 2000 to April 2001, has been for a long time a mentor and supporter of Hashimoto’s political career. Hashimoto has often publicly referred to Mori as “father,” and likewise, Mori has referred to Hashimoto as “daughter.”
Additionally, Hashimoto has been, ironically, accused of sexual harassment, primarily due to a public incident where Hashimoto may have had too much to drink at a celebration one evening at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and where, on camera, Hashimoto repeatedly kissed Japan figure skater Daisuke Takahashi.
But clearly, the biggest challenge is leading the organization that is expected to successfully run the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics, amidst the uncertainty of a global pandemic, with only 5 months to go. The day before Hashimoto assumed leadership, the governor of Shimane prefecture, explained with emotion in his voice about the frustration with the response to the COVID-19 crisis by the Japanese central government as well as the Tokyo2020 organizers. He even expressed the possibility of cancelling the Shimane portion of the Olympic torch relay, scheduled for mid May.
“It’s difficult to cooperate with the holding of the Tokyo Olympics and the torch relay,” said governor Tatsuya Maruyama. “I want to make the decision (to cancel the torch relay) based on whether or not the response of the central government and the Tokyo government to the coronavirus improves.”
So Hashimoto has a mountain to climb. But if anyone has the energy and determination needed, the Iron Lady from Hokkaido does.
On February 12, 2021, the president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, Yoshiro Mori, announced his resignation, after making sexist comments during a board meeting of the Japan Olympic Committee. Since that day, the press has been speculating about who the best successor would be. After Mori attempted to appoint Saburo Kawabuchi, a man similar in age and temperament to the post, the criticism was immediate. The CEO of Tokyo 2020 quickly announced that the president of the organizing committee had not been selected, and that a selection committee would be formed to pick the best person.
The television news shows have had a field day throwing out names, based on such criteria as gender, age, Olympic experience, sports administration experience, political savvy or even business savvy. Here is a list of candidates compiled from news programs from two Japanese television stations: TBS and TV Asahi.
Shizuka Arakawa: Thanks to Shizuka Arakawa, all of Japan knows what an “Ina Bauer” is, a signature form that Arakawa displayed in the free program that led to her winning the gold medal in the Ladies’ Singles figure skating competition at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics. The TV Asahi remarked that she has a sharp sports mind, has strong recognition overseas, and has no connections to Japanese politics. Young and female, Arakawa represents the opposite of Mori and Kawabuchi.
Seiko Hashimoto: An Olympian’s Olympian, Seiko Hashimoto appeared in 7 Olympiads, both Winter and Summer, as a speed skater and cyclist, from 1988 to 1996. That alone is a WOW! The native from Hokkaido, Hashimoto entered the world of politics when she was elected to the House of Councillors of Japan’s National Diet in 1995. She now serves in the cabinet of the current prime minister, Suga Yoshihide, as Minister of State for Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. Can she leverage her compelling credentials as an Olympian, a woman in her prime, and as a politician to succeed Mori?
Mikako Kotani: Mikako Kotani took home two bronze medals in synchronized swimming at the 1988 Summer Olympics. Since then she has served on the Japanese Olympic Committee, and the IOC Athletes’ Commission, as well as the Association of the National Olympic Committees, among several local and international committees related to the Olympics. Kotani was Japan’s first female flag bearer at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Can you she become the first female head of the Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee?
Koji Murofushi: His mother was a Romanian javelin champion. His father was an Olympic hammer thrower for Japan. His sister competed in the discus and hammer as well. Koji Murofushi is from a family of powerful athletes, and won gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics, as well as bronze at the 2012 London Olympics in the hammer throw. He currently has one of the most challenging roles in the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee: Sports Director. He is also the current commission of the Japan Sports Agency. He’s got the build of Thor and the experience of Oden. Is he ready to step up?
Daichi Suzuki : Coming from behind in the final strokes, Daichi Suzuki won the gold medal in the 100 meter backstroke and became a legend in Japan sports swimming. Suzuki would go on to become a sports administrator, leading the Japan Swimming Federation before becoming the first commissioner of a new national sports government organization, called Japan Sports Agency. Suzuki was famous for swimming 20 or 30 meters underwater before breaking the water’s surface with his powerful backstrokes. Will he emerge from this vast talent pool as the winner of the Mori Sweepstakes?
Yasuhiro Yamashita: After tearing his right calf muscle in a semifinal judo match at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Yasuhiro Yamashita went on to win the gold medal in dramatic fashion, after being denied the opportunity when Japan chose to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Yamashita was appointed chairman of the Japanese Olympic Committee, replacing Tsunekazu Takeda, who became ensnarled in an alleged bribery scandal related to Tokyo’s winning bid for 2020. Will history repeat and Yamashita replace another leader embroiled in controversy?
Shinzo Abe: He appeared at the 2016 Rio Olympics dressed as one of the Mario Brothers. The two-time prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, left the leadership of Japan in August 2020, citing the need to recover from a recurring illness. If the role is more figure head than operations head, is it reasonable for one prime minister to succeed Yoshiro Mori, another former prime minister?
Tamayo Marukawa: Tamayo Marukawa is a former announcer for TV Asahi who started her political life after being elected to the House of Councillors of the Japanese National Diet in 2007. She served at the cabinet level as Minister in charge of the Toyo Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2016.
Hisako, Princess Takamado: She is the widow of Prince Takamado of Mikasa, who is the son of Prince Mikasa, the youngest of Emperor Taisho’s four sons. As members of the Japanese Royal Family, Prince Mikasa and Princess Takamado travelled the world extensively. They represented the government of Japan at the opening ceremony and games of the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea-Japan, which was the first time members of the Japanese Imperial Family set foot in South Korea since the Second World War. Princess Takamado has been a tireless supporter of sports organizations. Will she become the ultimate supporter of the ultimate sports organization in Japan?
Akio Toyoda: Akio Toyoda is the president of Toyota, one of the world’s biggest car companies and most famous brands. The grandson of Kiichiro Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Motors, Toyoda is perceived as an excellent communicator and resilient leader. Toyota is also one of the IOC’s biggest global sponsors, so he certainly understands the internal workings and governance of the Olympic and Paralympic eco-system. Will Toyoda take the driver’s seat in this lumbering sports vehicle lurching to the finish line?
As it turned out, Harada (whose family name changed to Ikeda after marriage) simply didn’t have the athletic gifts to excel in track and field. And yet, the flame of high performance can be sparked in unexpected ways. Ikeda would go on to represent Japan at the 2004 Athens Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Olympics in individual épée fencing. Her life as an Olympian was 5 parts luck, and 5 parts determination.
Yamagata is as far from the world of fencing as you can get. But one day, a teacher in her high school came up to her and said, “You’re a tall one! You should try fencing!” Ikeda knew nothing about fencing. But she thought she’d give it a try, and so joined 19 other boys and girls on the school fencing team. And when one of the boys a couple of years ahead of her won a national high school tournament, she knew that her teacher could get results.
Ikeda, whom I interviewed on Zoom, is such a pleasant person, all smiles and joy. She put on her full fencing uniform to surprise me. She giggles as she explains the amount of gear a fencer has to wear. But the story she tells in such a lighthearted fashion is one of pure determination.
When Ikeda was in her final year of high school, she told her parents she wanted to move to Tokyo, continue to fence, and then compete in the Olympics. Her parents were bewildered. She had to go to university and get a real job, not waste money on fencing. Going to the Olympics is “impossible,” they told her.
Ikeda always had the support of her parents, but when she was told her dream was impossible, the high school girl stood her ground. She had developed such a powerful image of making the Olympics that giving up on the dream so quickly was hurtful. Giving up without trying was unthinkable.
She pushed back. She fought with her parents for two months until she decided to lay out her plan and her vision of the Olympics in a formal presentation to her parents: what goals she would have to achieve in her four years in university, including making the national team, and becoming national champion by her junior year.
The eighteen year old closed the presentation by saying that if she did not achieve those goals, she’d return home to Yamagata and pursue a normal life. But if she did make those goals, she would try to make the Olympics, and then go on to graduate school. Her parents finally gave in, and allowed their daughter to move to Tokyo to pursue her dream.
Ikeda moved to Tokyo and made the national team by her junior year. Unfortunately she suffered a knee injury, upending any chance of going to the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In 2002, she graduated from university, and then began a second push for the Olympics.
If you’re a world-class volleyball, basketball or baseball player in Japan, you are likely in a corporate or professional team. If you’re in a prominent sport like swimming, track and field, wrestling or judo in Japan, your sports association likely funds the training of the best athletes. But if you’re an adult in a lesser known sport, you are not going to get all that much financial support. According to Ikeda, the Japan Fencing Federation at the time was not financially strong, and provided no support.
In fact, Ikeda worked a variety of part-time jobs – at restaurants, bookstores, printing factories, delivery companies – so she could fund her dream. With no support from anyone, she planned to move to Europe where she could train at one of the meccas of fencing – Budapest, Hungary – so that she could travel easily to many of the épée world cups scheduled in Europe.
She knew the reigning Olympic champion in women’s individual épée, Timea Nagy, was based in Budapest.
Did Ikeda know her? No.
Did she know anyone in Hungary? No.
Ikeda took to the internet, identified a Japanese person living in Budapest, and convinced her to help. With the help of her new friend, a detailed plan emerged. On a budget of 2 million yen (or about USD18,700 in 2003), Ikeda was going to rent an apartment in Budapest, train at a nearby fencing club and compete at tournaments in Europe.
Thanks to her Japanese friend in Budapest, she was able to train at the club where Nagy trained. “To get really good, really quickly, it’s better to train with the champion, right,” she told me.
During the weekdays, she trained with the best fencers in Hungary. Then she took the night train to Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Russia, to compete in épée world cups on the weekend. Ikeda got better. She accumulated points. And at the 2004 World Cup in Thessaloniki, Greece she had enough points to qualify for the 2004 Athens Olympics and represent Japan.
Her parents, who objected so fiercely to her “impossible” dream, sat proudly in the stands when their daughter entered the stadium in Athens at the opening ceremony, as an Olympian.
Ikeda would lose in the second round to the Italian Cristiana Cascioli, who nearly toppled eventual champion, Nagy in the third round. And Ikeda represented Japan again in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, only to fall to silver medalist Ana Brânză of Romania in the second round.
Today, Ikeda supports the Olympic movement with her work in the Japan Anti-Doping Association (JADA) educating athletes and the parents of athletes on the issues of doping, how to prepare for drug testing, and what medication and supplements to avoid. She also believes it’s important to get these messages across to the top athletes, the “influencers” of the next generation of athletes.
In the end, it is always about influencing and inspiring the next generation.
In 1964, Ikeda’s father was a teenager when the torch relay passed through her hometown of Nanyo. He didn’t carry the torch, but he was part of a team of kids who would jog behind the torchbearer as they brought the sacred Olympic flame closer to Tokyo.
This year, the Olympian Ikeda was scheduled to run in the Tokyo2020 torch relay on March 24 this year, if not for the CoronaVirus pandemic. But she hopes that the torch relay is revived in 2021. And she hopes she can convince her father to run with her.
When coronavirus body slammed the world, the IOC and the government of Japan postponed the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics as the global economy stood punch drunk in the corner, tagged with constant jabs and body blows.
As we approach the end of the year, as infection rates continue to soar, a ray of hope has appeared in the form of newly developed vaccines. Will that ray of hope grow into that light at the end of the tunnel IOC president Thomas Bach desperately wants to see?
I hope so.
As a footnote, my own 2020 was not a total bust – the Japanese version of my book was published, and I appeared in A&E History Channel’s documentary, Tokyo Legacy, which is about the history of Tokyo from 1945 to 2020. While I was not so prolific this year in my blog, I did write a number of original articles I am proud of.
Superheroes often emerge from intense pain and suffering, according to their origin stories.
Jean-Baptiste Alaize was three years old when he witnessed the slaughter of his Tutsi mother at the hands of Hutus during the Burundi Civil War, and he himself fell to four machete blows that resulted in the loss of a leg.
Bebe Vio was eleven years old when she fell in a coma induced by a battle with meningitis, a condition akin to “imploding inside.” A budding fencing star and a ball of energy, the Italian pre-teen had to make the horrible decision to amputate both arms and legs to thwart the advance of the disease.
Tatyana McFadden was born in the Soviet Union with a congenital disorder which paralyzed her from the waist down at birth, in a country that did not officially recognize the existence of disabled people.
However, these three and many others profiled in a recently released Netflix documentary found redemption and achievement in sport. The film, Rising Phoenix, is an impassioned introduction to the Paralympic movement. Layering on top of the powerful theme of Channel 4’s marketing of the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Paralympics – We’re the Superhumans! – Rising Phoenix gives Para athletes the Hollywood superhero treatment.
The production values of Rising Phoenix can be described as lavish. Aussie swimmer Ellie Cole is shot dancing under water, rays of light piercing the dark waters. Alaize sits open and relaxed on a spacious couch in an ornate French Baroque setting. South African sprinter Ntandu Mahlangu is interviewed with an actual cheetah in repose at his own cheetah blades. And Vio is filmed lovingly in slow motion, strapped to a wheelchair, lunging and gyrating to angelic music.
And yet when it comes to recognizing the disabled, Rising Phoenix is the exception. Every superhero has a weakness. For Superman, it is kryptonite. For Para athletes, and people with disabilities, it is apathy.
Rising Phoenix is a tale of Two Paralympics, nearly the best of times and the worst of times for the paramount global event for athletes with disabilities. The 2012 London Paralympics were a triumph of the organizers, an event that packed the stadiums and arenas, energized a city, and inspired the world. The 2016 Rio Olympics, as we learn in the film, nearly ended the Paralympic movement.
Seven weeks before the start of the 2016 Rio Paralympics, then president of the Brazilian Paralympic Committee. Andrew Parsons was given terrible news by the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games – they did not have enough money to run the Paralympic Games.
“They are not telling you, we can do that, or we can do that,” said Xavier Gonzalez, CEO of the IPC at that time. “They are telling you we cannot organize the games. I couldn’t at that moment see how we could fix it. And that was scary.”
And as potential Rio Paralympians began to understand that the rumors were true, they had that sinking, familiar feeling from childhood, their teenage years, and still today: unfairness, humiliation, helplessness. Said two-time T-44 men’s 100-meter sprint champion, Jonnie Peacock of Team GB, “you just feel like these people don’t view the Paralympics as anything.”
Parsons explained in exasperation how he could not give clear answers to the national Paralympic committees who worried whether the Games would happen or not. But he and the filmmakers were explicit in explaining who was to blame. Speaking over images of the Rio Olympic Organizing Committee, including chairman Carlos Nuzman, who was subsequently arrested for corruption and bribery, Parsons said, “forget about these guys, the leadership, because they won’t help.”
Rising Phoenix goes on to tell the nail-biting story of how IPC leadership, Parsons, Craven and Gonzalez, convinced the Brazilian government and skeptical authorities to keep this dream alive not only for over 4,300 Para athletes, but also for 24 million persons of disability in Brazil.
The 2012 London Paralympics is held up as the gold standard for awakening the world to the incredible athletic abilities of Para athletes. But it is the 2016 Rio Paralympics that may have saved the movement. Said Craven, “We’d have really broken the cycle. Confidence wouldn’t have been there in the future. It would (have been) the extinguishing of that Paralympic flame.”
Changing the World
Instead, the flame burns brightly today. Rising Phoenix brings alive the power of the movement, and the dreams of these superheroes.
The reunification of mother and child as summer Paralympian, Tatyana McFadden wins cross-country silver in the Winter Paralympics in her country of birth, Russia.
The dramatic and stirring gold medal victory of ebullient Bebe Vio in wheelchair fencing, who carries you on her shoulders in waves of joy.
“No one stays the same after watching the movie,” said Parsons in a recent interview with 20 foreign chambers of commerce in Japan. “If ten people watch the movie, ten people will be changed. If ten million people watch the movie, ten million people will be changed. I want the entire world to watch this movie.”
So do I.
Note: All film poster images shared with permission of the IPC.
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.
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.
“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?
When Soviet troops marched into Afghanistan in December, 1979, Juan Antonio Samaranch was Spain’s ambassador to the Soviet Union. After two years of cultivating a trusting relationship with Soviet leadership, Samaranch, an International Olympic Committee (IOC) member with a strong desire to become president of the IOC in 1980, was angered when the Spanish government expressed their support of the American call for an Olympic boycott.
As Andrew Jennings wrote in his book, “The New Lord of the Rings,” Samaranch was forbidden to attend the Moscow Olympics by his government, which could put his election to the IOC presidency in jeopardy. Certainly, he’d lose the Soviet vote. Samaranch hurriedly returned to Madrid and persuaded/strong-armed the Spanish National Olympic Committee to ignore the government and accept the IOC’s invitation to participate.
On Wednesday, July 16, 1980, three days before the start of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Juan Antonio Samaranch was elected president of the International Olympic Committee, replacing Lord Killanin, who retired at the end of the 1980 Olympics.
Over 60 nations boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics in support of the American government’s protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, and some suspected that stronger leadership by Lord Killanin might have influenced fewer nations to boycott. As an AP article noted on June 10, 1980, Lord Killanin did not compare favorably in style to his predecessor, American Avery Brundage, whom Killanin had replaced after the 1972 Munich Olympics.
The reporter noted that when the West German National Olympic Committee voted in Duesseldorf on May 15, 1980, or when the United States Olympic Committee voted in Colorado Springs on April 12, 1980 to support the boycott, Brundage would not have stood for that, and instead would have met members of those Olympic committees and challenged them to stand up to their governments. Citing a long-timer reporter of the Olympic Movement, John Rodda of the London Guardian, the article explained what Brundage might have done.
If Brundage had still been president, he would have been in Duesseldorf for this meeting. If Brundage had still been around, and living up to his reputation, he probably would have been defying governments right and left at this movement. He was always the purist, depending the ideals of the Olympic Games as a supranational movement outside of governments and politics, uncompromising in his idealism and abrasive in his public comments. He never once faltered in this defense of the Olympic Charge in his 20 years as IOC president. Brundage, if true to form, might have gone to Colorado Springs to harangue the US Olympic Committee and call its leaders to ignore the White House and send athletes to Moscow. He might have gone to Dusseldorf. He might have been jet-hopping to Tokyo and Sydney, whipping into line NOCs of Japan and Australia.
David Kanin, who was a CIA Analyst in the American government during this time, agreed that different leadership was needed in these times, and that the IOC believed a more politically savvy person was needed at the top of the IOC. Kanin explained in a podcast called “Sport in the Cold War: Carter’s Olympic Boycott,” that one of the myths the 1980 Olympics exposed was that politics and the Olympics were separate. In fact, politics and the Olympics were coming together in a way that was financially lucrative for all involved.
(The 1980 Olympics) ended that fiction. And the best evidence of that was the movement away from Lord Killanin, who was from the old school, and I think a bit over his head, to Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain, who was a seasoned diplomat. He wanted to get the Olympics for Barcelona and did. He understood geo-politics. He knew that the Games and politics were mixed. He knew and everybody else in the Olympic movement knew they could make a lot of money and get a lot of attention and a lot of influence by accepting that, and basically embracing the political side, even while they reject that publicly.
And while Samaranch could not strongarm the Soviet Union and her allies to participate in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, he was able to bring the world together again at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. At the next Summer Games, Samaranch presided over an Olympics in his home country, opening the doors wide to professionals in basketball with the introduction of the American Dream Team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
The Olympics were again a party everyone wanted to join.
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