RIP Vichai

“Brighton for Chilwell again…and Graaay…Goal for Leicester City!” shouted the play-by-play announcer as Demarai Gray of Leicester City Football Club knocked a half volley into the Cardiff net. Gray immediately removed his shirt to reveal the words “For Vichai,” and then joined his teammates to celebrate with LCFC fans in their corner of Cardiff City Stadium.

“And the perfect tribute for their former chairman, who died so tragically a week ago, beautifully taken by Demarai Gray. And just look at the collective celebration, players and supporters alike.”

Demarai Gray celebrates goal against Cardiff Demarai Gray celebrates goal against Cardiff

Leicester City (LCFC) defeated Cardiff City on Saturday, November 4, 2018, in a somewhat meaningless game in the Premier League standings, but oh so meaningful to Leicester City and Premier League fans all over the world.

It was only a week ago on Saturday, October 27, when the routine turned into disaster as LCFC’s chairman, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, boarded the team helicopter at the end of a Leicester City game from the middle of the LCFC pitch. Only moments later after barely making it out or the stadium, the helicopter spun out of control and crashed into the stadium parking lot in a ferocious ball of flames.

While players, staff and fans speculated, it took several hours before the press told the world what was suspected – Vichai, along with two members of Vichai’s staff, Nursara Suknamai and Kaveporn Punpare, pilot Eric Swaffer and the pilot’s friend, Izabela Roza Lechowicz, perished in the accident.

It has been a week of shock and tears for Leicester City fans, whose love for their former chairman is bottomless. Fans and experts credit Vichai with a turnaround that is, essentially, unprecedented in the Premier League. In 2010, Vichai was part of a consortium that purchased the English Football League Championship club Leicester City, and became chairman a year later.

Leicester City Cardiff City moment of silence Moment of silence before start of match between Leicester City and Cardiff City

Leicester City would then go on a run that is essentially unprecedented. The team made it to the top football league in England, the Premier League, and in the 2015-2016 campaign, despite being given a 5,000-to-1 shot of winning the league championship, decisively brought the title home to Leicester City. Imagine a Double AA team in America’s baseball farm system rising together to make it to Triple A ball, the Major Leagues, and then winning the American League East. In America, that’s not possible. But then again, no one thought Leicester City’s rise to the heights of England’s top league was possible either.

As one fan said after Vichai passed away, “he made us champions.”

FCLC’s chairman was also the founder of King Power, the dominant duty-free business in Thailand, which is the name that adorns the team’s stadium and jerseys. And while there has been resistance to foreign owners of Premier League football clubs in the past, Vichai helped bring a winning attitude to the team while demonstrating a powerful common touch, reaching out to the fan base in intimate ways. He would provide beer and food to fans in the stadium, handing them personally to them. He awarded 60 random season ticket holders free renewals this year on his 60th birthday, a special birthday for Asians.

“It’s a big thing for Leicester City, this,” said one elderly lady paying tribute outside King Power Stadium. “And he was the best bloke you could have. He never went without acknowledging you. He was OK giving you bacon sandwiches you know, your cup of tea before you went your breakfast.”

Gab Marcotti, senior writer for ESPN FC, remarked how unique Vichai was:

Without question Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, from the moment he took over Leicester City FC, well before the miracle and whatever else, he invested money in the club. He was also very clear about having a footprint in the community, donating money to local charities, taking time to stay and greet the fans before and after games. It’s very easy to be cynical about these billionaires who buy Premier League clubs. Is it just a play thing? Is it something where he wants a financial return? It might have been those things but it was also something he really lived for every match day.   It’s no coincidence that it led to his passing that he made the effort of coming over there, flying his helicopter onto the pitch, on and off before and after the game. Without question, he was one of the most beloved owners of the Premier League.

Vichai The Boss

A couple of days before the match with Cardiff City, LCFC manager, Claude Puel said that “The game is not important. The result is not important, but our desire, our actions to give our best on the pitch to honour our chairman, is the most important thing. About our conviction, our focus, we will be ready. I am confident the players can give their best.”

At the end of the match with Cardiff City, happy they could win the game for their beloved chairman, the team stood together in front of their fans. As Cardiff City Stadium emptied out, the LCFC fans in their corner of the stadium, many wearing white t-shirts with Vichai’s face boldly saying “The Boss,” stood and sang Leicester City songs, held up flags of Thailand, chanting “Vi-chai.”

For a long time, amidst the empty stadium, the players and fans communed, trying their best to say good bye. The players finally parted, and made their way to the locker room to begin preparations for a long flight to Bangkok, Thailand to attend the funeral for their chairman.


head tackle football

It was November 1982, and I was a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, in the nosebleed seats of Franklin Field with friends, watching our Quakers fritter away a 20-0 lead against Harvard, which took the lead 21-20 late in the game.

With less than 2 minutes to play, the Quakers somehow make a miraculous comeback – missing a field goal but still getting the roughing the kicker call, and making a winning field goal with zero seconds on the clock.

It was a euphoric moment for students at Penn on that cool Autumn afternoon. With that victory, Penn won it’s first Ivy League championship in 26 years. Did we expect Penn to go on to win four more Ivy titles in a row? Did anyone outside of Penn care? In college-football-mad-America, probably not. But we the students were pleased as punch – we could shout “Kill ’em Quakers!” with glee and pride while enjoying the irony.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Call for a Boycott

And then, 36 years later, I’m listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, and feel this tightening of the stomach as my writer hero rips into my alma mater, reliving a speech he gave to Penn students in 2013 that football was dangerous, citing the death of Penn student and varsity football player, Owen Thomas. Gladwell called for Penn students to boycott football, that we were too smart to be so ignorant of the inherent risk of the game.

Well, it’s your classmates who are dying, right? It’s your classmates who are putting their lives at risk by playing this game. I think all of you has to think about, has to consider boycotting football games at Penn and I think you have to convince your friends to boycott football games at Penn and I think you have to picket outside football games at Penn. And I think you have to go to the administrators of this university and you have to ask them why is a world-class institution, one of the finest universities of higher learning in this planet, exposing its own students to the risk of injury and death? And if they ask for proof, tell them you don’t need proof. Sometimes proof is just another word for letting people suffer. Thank you.

The reaction at Penn was mixed and muted. A Wharton senior who was also on the Penn football team, John Onwualu, said that “the way [Gladwell] expressed his opinions was inappropriate and disrespectful for a speech like that.”

Dartmouth Leads the Way

Gladwell’s intent was to be provocative. Perhaps he was aware of the movement taking place in another part of the Ivy League when he broadcasted this podcast earlier this year. According to a New York Times article called “The Ivy League Becomes the Future of Football,” the coach of the Big Green of Dartmouth began instituting changes to the way the team practices that impacted not only the number of injuries sustained during the season, but also the team’s performance. More significantly, Dartmouth’s practices have influenced how football players all over the country, at the college and professional level train. Here’s a close look at two that are revolutionizing football:

No Tackle Practice: When the head is hit or shaken countless times, the brain is physically impacted and over time, this repeated head trauma can lead to degenerative brain disorders, life-threatening disorders, like CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). In 2010, the head coach of Dartmouth College’s football team, Buddy Teevens, decreed something very unique – the elimination of tackling in practice year round. As the Times’ article states, Teevens likes to say that a Dartmouth player will never get tackled by another Dartmouth player in his career there.

Remote-controlled Tackling Dummies: Looking for a way for his players to safely practice their tackling, Teevens helped develop a technological solution – remote-controlled dummies. Dubbed “mobile virtual players,” these MVPs are fast, able to change directions quickly, and can self-right themselves after getting tackled. In this manner, Teevens can arrange practices that allow his players to focus on tackling technique without the risk of injury to another player.

“The only times my guy tackle are ten times in games,” said Teevens in the video below. “It will allow them to be more proficient and successful. And concussive injury reduction is going to be huge for us.”

The Impact: Immediately after the implementation of the No Tackle policy, Dartmouth’s Big Green had mixed results, but trended positively. In 2011, 2013, and 2104, they always won their final three games of the season, displaying a late-season resiliency, before winning a share of the Ivy title in 2015.

Perhaps influenced by the fewer injuries and freshness of Dartmouth players, Ivy League coaches voted unanimously in March, 2016 to change a rule that results in the elimination of tackling in practices during the season throughout the conference.

At the same time, the Ivy League also voted to reduce injuries during kick-off returns, where 21% of all concussions were experienced, despite the fact that the kick-off return accounted for only 6% of all plays. The kick off allows players to get to full acceleration before hitting each other – imagine two accelerating cars smashing headfirst into each other. A rule change moved the kick-off to the forty yard line from the thirty-five, resulting in far more kicks unreturned. Two years of data showed a significant decrease in concussions during kick offs.

Buddy Teevens
Head coach of Dartmouth College football team, Buddy Teevens

The NFL is making changes, probably due to a fear of liability and diminished popularity over time. As the San Francisco Chronicle points out, participation in high school in the United States has been dropping since 2008, falling even more rapidly in California, probably because high school football players are significantly more likely to experience a concussion than baseball or basketball players in high school.

It may not seem like an existential crisis for football in America. But safety is growing in importance, as Teevens is quoted in the Times:

Beyond wanting to win, Teevens is motivated by a fear that an irreplaceable sport could die. “I think it’s too valuable a game to say, ‘Oh, we’ll do something else,’” he said. “But I also look at the data and the medical side of it. Something has to be done.”

Max Muncy
Max Muncy after his walk-off homer in the 18th inning of Game 3 of the 2018 World Series.

It was 30 minutes past midnight Friday night in Los Angeles. The game had been going for well over 7 hours. Up stepped tired veteran infielder, Max Muncy, who sent an opposite field home run to left center that won it for the Los Angeles Dodgers over the Boston Red Sox in game 3 of the 2018 World Series.

In Tokyo, Japanese fans watched Kenta Maeda play a pivotal role pitching shut out ball in the 15th and 16th innings, helping the Dodgers to victory in the 18th inning. It was after 4pm Saturday afternoon in Japan, which gave die-hard fans a chance to catch their breath, have an early dinner, and settle in to watch game 1 of Japan’s baseball championship series – The Japan Series.

And as the baseball fates would have it, the Hiroshima Carp battled the SoftBank Hawks of Fukuoka into extra innings as well. With a runner on second in the bottom of the 12th, Kosuke Tanaka of the Carp was up with Tomohiro Abe on 2nd with the potential winning run. Alas, Cuban southpaw Livan Moinelo of the Hawks struck out Tanaka, ending the inning…and to the surprise of the casual foreign fan, the game.

Game 1 of the Japan Series ended in a 2-2 tie!

Japan Series Game 1 score

Different from Major League Baseball, Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) has a rule that a game cannot continue beyond 12 innings, even if the two teams are tied. This is true during both the regular season and the post season. However, it is possible for the best-of-seven championship Japan series to go more than seven games.

For example, if both the Carp and the Hawks win three games each over the next six games, an eighth game will be scheduled, and the teams would play as long as it takes to determine the winner of the decisive fourth victory.

Of course, if there happens to be two ties, a ninth game could be needed, and so on.

Explanations as to why baseball in Japan has this particular rule are vague, and yet the ones bandied about have a whiff of cultural relevance.

Bob Whiting, long-time writer on Japanese baseball, said that “the explanation usually given is that the trains shut down around 11-12  each night so calling game a tie is so fans can go home. But that doesn’t explain the time limit on afternoon games.”

Another explanation of limiting the length of games is related to energy conservation. It’s possible league officials and owners did not like the optics of keeping the bright lights of the stadium on into the late hours of the evening while the average worker had been asked to make efforts to save energy, particularly during the oil shock years of the 1970s.

These optics were worsened again after the March 2011 triple disaster of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant crisis in northern Japan. As a result, the NPB ruled that games would not be allowed to go into extra innings at all if the game had already passed 3 hours and 30 minutes. Conserving power after the loss of the Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Plant, and subsequent suspension of almost all nuclear power plants across the country, was the call to action.

There is no energy crunch today in Japan. Most people watch baseball games on TV, not in person. And yet a championship baseball game in Japan can end in a tie.

But as the Hawks manager said after the game, I hope with a straight face, “It was a big tie for us. We’ll be able to take advantage of it.”

2018 Japan Series Game 1

End of the 12th inning and Game 1 of the 2018 Japan Series
Seattle Monorail 2
Seattle Center Monorail, 1962; Seattle Times

When the monorail connecting Haneda Airport and downtown Tokyo opened up on September 17, 1964, a month prior to the opening of the XVIII Olympiad, it was yet another symbol of Japan’s revitalization and cutting edge.

The people who built the monorail in Tokyo likely saw the successful models before deciding on developing a monorail system of their own. Two of them were in the US – Disneyland in Los Angeles, which opened in 1959, and the Seattle Center Monorail, which debuted in 1962.

Half a century later, Haneda is still a reliable way to get to Haneda Airport. The Seattle Center Monorail is more of a decorative transportation option that takes you from one tourist destination to another. Still, the Seattle monorail transports over 2 million people a year. And for only a $2.50 one-way fare, the Seattle monorail takes you from Seattle Center, home of the city’s Space Needle, to WestLake Center, the heart of Seattle, in only 2 minutes. As you can see in the video, it’s a pleasant ride that gives you a great above ground view of the city!

 

 

Shimazaki on Yumenoshima
Shimazaki hiding from the police on Dream Island, in the Asahi Television produced film, Olympic Ransom

The phone rings. It’s Kunio Shimazaki, and he’s asking for police inspector Masao Ochiai, to inform him where to deliver the ransom money. If the police do not comply with his demand for 80 million yen, then he will set off another bomb in Tokyo, one that will certainly derail the good-feel bandwagon of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. (See part 1.)

Shimazaki hangs up, but the police notice in the recording of the call that seagulls could be heard in the background. The Tokyo University student, Shinozaki, as created by Hideo Okuda, in his 1984 novel “Olympic Ransom” (Orinpikku no Minoshirokin), is keeping out of sight.

IMG_0686
Yumenoshima today. The area behind the white fence will be the archery venue for Tokyo 2020. You can see the chimney for the incinerator that get rids of waste and provides heat for the greenhouse.

The police, of the possible hundreds of seaside spots along Tokyo Bay, wonder where Shinozaki, and his partner in crime, Tomekichi Murata, could be.

As it turns out, they are hiding on Dream Island, a landfill in Tokyo Bay off of the mouth of the Arakawa River. First planned in the 1930s as the possible site to replace Haneda Airport, it was opened to the public as a beach called Yumenoshima, the island of dreams. Alas, dreams don’t last forever. The beach was closed, re-opening as a garbage dump in 1957, an out-of-the way destination for the increasing amount of waste generated by a fast-growing economy.

IMG_0689
The map of Yumenoshima, the white box in the middle is where the archery venue will be.

Unfortunately, the ten million tons of garbage accumulated over a ten-year period, was left to fester. And only 8 months after the end of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, it was reported that massive number of flies, that literally blackened the sky, made their way from Yumenoshima across the Sumida River into the heart of Tokyo. As famed translator, Edward Seidensticker wrote in his book, Tokyo Rising, the Japan Self-Defense forces were brought into the fight off the plague of flies.

Initial efforts of the Self-Defense Force (the Japanese army by another name) to exterminate the flies seem initially to have had only the effect of spreading them. Finally a scorched-earth policy worked. Dream Island was for a time a cinder on which not even flies could live.

Today, Yumenoshima is a nice weekend outing, where you can hold a barbecue, sail away from the Marina, walk through a tropical greenhouse, visit the museum of the famed Daigo Fukuryu Maru, a symbol of the horrors of the nuclear age in the 1950s, or play baseball by the seaside on one of 12 fields.

Tokyo 2020 archery field yumenoshima
An illustration of the planned archery venue for Tokyo 2020.

It will also be the site for the archery competition during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. A grassy field across the street from the greenhouse, the area is fenced off as construction continues.

From an idea to a dream to a nightmare, Yumenoshima has settled into middle age as a family outing. And in 2020, the world of archery will descend on the man-made island, dreaming of gold.

IMG_0700
If you look closely, you can see Tokyo Skytree in the distance.

 

no tattoo sign

Some of the famous people in the world have tattoos. The US tattoo industry alone is a $1.5 billion business. And many of the 20 million plus foreigners visiting Japan every year are sporting tattoos. But as some visitors are surprised to learn, their tattoos are sometimes frowned upon, and result in being turned away from the hot springs and beaches of Japan.

Rugby World Cup Organizers are excited about the 2019 Rugby World Cup tournament coming to Japan, and have been eager to show respect to their hosts next year. At the one-year-to-go milestone, tournament director Alan Gilpin stated in a press conference that rugby players with tattoos need to cover up their body ink.

“We will make (Japanese) people aware around the facilities that players will use in the country that people with tattoos in a Rugby World Cup context are not part of the yakuza, the Japanese mafia,” added Gilpin.

It’s a socially sensitive statement as there is generally a negative attitude of Japanese towards tattoos – a common rationale being that Yakuza were commonly associated with tattoos. In fact, there is a law against tattoo artists without a medical license, which has been enforced. And signs at pools, hot springs and public beaches commonly explain in multiple languages that people with tattoos are prohibited from entry, or at least asked to cover them up.

The Japan Travel Association (JTA), eager to avoid private establishments from kicking surprised foreign guests out of their establishments, have encouraged hot spring proprietors to relax their rules against people with tattoos. But the reality is, with the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and the Olympics in 2020, Japanese will see a lot of foreign athletes with tattoos – on the beach, in the pools, all round town.

Here are a few of the Olympic hopefuls who sport tattoos.

Joseph Schooling tattoo
Joseph Schooling – swimmer, Singapore, gold medalist in 100 meter butterfly at the 2016 Rio Olympics
Shaun White tattoo
Shaun White – three-time gold medalist in showboarding halfpipe, American, and potential Olympian in skateboarding at Tokyo 2020 Olympics

 

Simon Biles tattoo
Simone Biles – gymnastics, American, four-time gold medalist

To think that Japan is anti-tattoo is taking a negative perception too far. The fact is the number of tattoo artists (despite the law) has increased significantly in the past 30 years. And foreigners with tattoos who come to Japan feel that attitudes are shifting. According to best-selling Australian author, Tara Moss, “there is a quiet rebellion against these prevailing rules and social norms in Japan.”

I received several compliments when mine were visible, and one of my favourite moments on our most recent trip was when I had a summer dress on in the subway and my forearm tattoos were showing. One particularly cool young man seemed quietly fascinated, and rolled up his shirt sleeves silently to reveal the very lower edges of his arm tattoos. We were part of some similar ‘tribe’. No words were exchanged, only a nod that my husband could take his picture as he posed nonchalantly against the train door.

If you have tattoos and plan a visit to Japan, Moss writes that you should take the following under advisement:

  1. Expect to completely cover tattoos at any pool, gym and most water parks and beaches.
  2. Tattoos are banned at onsens (bath houses).
  3. Many ryokans (Japanese inns) will not accept tattooed guests.
  4. You should consider covering your tattoos at any temple or sacred site.

And what does Moss suggest are the best ways to avoid Japanese seeing your tattoo?

  1. Use a rashie at the pool
  2. Book a private onsen instead of attending a public one.
  3. Use clothing/scarves.
  4. Try arm covers
  5. Use a bandaid or bandage.

IMG_6275

The Olympians is three years old! Thank you all for your support!

I was happy to attend the Olympics for the first time at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. And what an amazing time I had. I felt like a newspaper reporter again, and generated close to 30 articles while I was there from February 8 to 18. I hope you like these select articles from 2018.

USA House 24_Michelle Kwan
Michelle Kwan at USA House.

North and South Korean leaders are talking. The momentum today is in part due to the opportunity the PyeongChang Olympics presented to the Koreans. Fingers are crossed for future talks of peace.

Chance Meeting with the North Korean Cheering Squad
Chance meeting with the North Korean Cheering Squad at the end of the Opening Ceremonies

And of course, it’s all about the athletes.

Savchenko and Massot 4
Massot and Savchenko in their amazing long skate to win gold