Tokyo2020 taketh, and Tokyo2020 giveth. My prayers were answered.

 

On March 20, the Japanese government announced that it would strictly limit overseas spectators to Tokyo2020. The authorized ticket reseller, CoSport USA, immediately informed paid customers that they would refund all tickets.

 

All my Tokyo2020 Olympic tickets were purchased through CoSport. Even though I live in Japan, my tickets were suddenly gone, as I wrote earlier.

 

But then, on April 6, I woke up to this surprising email message from Co-Sport: “We have recently received confirmation from the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee that we can allow you to keep your tickets if you so choose.”

 

I chose.

 

“Please note that we cannot be responsible for your travel to/from Japan as a result of the foreign spectator ban but we would also like to help accommodate your needs/plans based on your previous purchase(s).”

 

Well, I’m already in Tokyo. And I suppose there was feedback to Tokyo2020 of many others who were already in Japan, or who would be able to transfer them to people they know in Japan.

 

Then on April 9, I was informed by Tokyo2020 that the tickets I had won in the Paralympic ticket lottery would be delivered in late June.

 

Anything can happen. The 4th wave of the pandemic hitting the world, including Japan, could turn into a tsunami that alarms the most tunnel-visioned Olympians, and the Games could still end up cancelled.

 

But as of today, the political will to stage the Olympics and Paralympics is strong.

 

And I don’t mind.

 

I’ve got tickets. And if all is reasonably safe and sound, I will be there cheering (silently), smiling (behind a mask), and high fiving (the air).

Oh, the places I could have gone!

The men’s and women’s 10,000 meter finals! The men’s 100 meter sprint finals! The women’s 100m hurdles final! The men’s long jump final! The men’s 4X100 relay sprint finals!

The debut of karate! The women’s basketball gold medal game! The men’s basketball gold medal game!

Volleyball! 3X3 basketball! Wrestling!

And tickets to the coveted Closing Ceremonies!

Despite Covid, Tokyo2020 was going to happen and I had tickets to some of the most anticipated moments of these Games.

And then, suddenly, I didn’t.

 

Dreams Dashed

When the IOC and Tokyo2020 organizers announced on March 20 that overseas spectators would not be allowed to attend the Games, I was immediately saddened, of course for the parents and supporters of athletes who could not witness the accomplishments of their Olympians, but also because I might not be able to either.

I was unable to secure tickets to the Olympics during the lotteries held in Japan, but I was able to purchase them through the American authorized ticket reseller (ATR), Co-Sport. I held out hope that as a foreigner already living in Japan that I would be given the option to use my tickets.

But alas, that would not be possible. As I was informed this morning in an email from Co-Sport, my ticket order will be made invalid automatically. “Whether you choose to complete and submit the refund form, all ticket orders will be cancelled as a result of the international spectator ban imposed by the Japanese Government.”

To make matters worse, I likely won’t see a refund for many months, and I will not be reimbursed for the Co-Sport handling fees, which total about a thousand dollars in my case.

Any More Tickets?

So, I wondered, will any more tickets be sold to people living in Japan. At the Tokyo2020 lotteries in 2019, about 4.45 million tickets were sold to residents of Japan for the Olympiad, while an additional 600,000 were sold overseas through ATRs, which is how I got my tickets.

When Tokyo 2020 was postponed, residents in Japan were given the opportunity to ask for refunds, and 18% of tickets were cancelled as a result. Thus, there are now 3.6 million seats for the Olympics reserved for those in Japan.

As I understand it, organizers estimated a couple of years ago that approximately 7.8 million tickets would be made available for the Tokyo Olympics, although that could be closer to 9 million.

Based on those numbers, there should be another 3 to 4 million tickets that need to be accounted for.  A chunk of that was likely targeted for sponsors, organizers, sports federations and other assorted affiliated support groups. But since now there is a mandate to limit the number of overseas visitors to people essential to the operations of the Games, many of those people will not be coming.

So what will happen to all those tickets? It’s not clear yet.

Under the current conditions of the pandemic in Japan, it is unlikely that spectators will be banned from the Olympic and Paralympic venues, but it is likely they will be limited. The organizers will probably want to avoid disappointing ticket holders in Japan as much as possible. Ideally, they honor all 3.6 million tickets already purchased in Japan, which is about 45% of the total number of tickets expected to be available.

Currently, Japan has a restriction of a maximum of 10,000 spectators for baseball games in the coming Nippon Professional Baseball season. Will organizers be willing to relax restrictions for the Olympics and allow upwards of 45% attendance?

If they don’t relax those restrictions, then the organizers will also have to cancel and refund a certain number of tickets, maybe millions of tickets if they need to get to 20 or 30% of venue capacity.

This is an educated guess, and not one I like to make, but it’s likely that new tickets will not be issued.

Anyone got a ticket?

Seiko Hashimoto accepts the challenge_TBS N Star News

Mori Redux

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.

Iron Lady

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.

Pioneering Parliamentarian

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.

The Challenges

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.

Protest against the Olympics in Harajuku on November 8, 2020. Photo by Jon Omori

 

The Games will (very likely) go on.

Organizers of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, scheduled to commence on July 23 and August 24, 2021 respectively, are working, not under the question of “whether,” but “how” the Olympics will take place.

Scenarios

There are four basic scenarios:

  1. The Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics are cancelled because the pandemic continues to create unsafe conditions for athletes and organizers alike.
  2. Tokyo2020 takes place without spectators so that the Games can be broadcasted globally.
  3. Tokyo2020 takes place with spectators in limited numbers.
  4. Tokyo2020 takes place to capacity crowds.

In a recent survey by Kyodo News, 80% of people in Japan believe the first scenario is the likeliest, responding that the Olympics and Paralympics should be postponed again or cancelled.

In contrast, 60% of Japanese firms in an NHK survey showed support for holding the Tokyo Olympics. They believe that the Games can help the Japanese economy recover from the devastating effects of COVID-19.

Political Will

The IOC and IPC are also betting on the Games. And their plans are taking into account the second and third scenarios.

If testing is considered reliable, then athletes who test negative will be allowed to come to Japan, and at a bare minimum,  the Olympics and Paralympics can be broadcasted around the world. As a result, billions of dollars in global broadcasting rights will be paid to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which in turn will financially support the Olympic ecosystem of national Olympic committees and international sports federations.

Money makes the world go round. With so much investment already sunk, not just by the IOC, the Japanese government and businesses but also athletes, the political will to hold Tokyo2020 is immensely strong.

“We will do whatever is needed to organize a safe Olympic Games,” said Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee.

“We definitely should push forward as that is the only option for us,” said Yoshiro Mori, president of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee.

“We will organise an incredible Paralympic Games in Tokyo 2020,” said International Paralympic Committee President, Andrew Parsons. “But this will require the best of us. This will require a lot of hard work.”

Former IOC Vice President, Dick Pound, recently said “nobody can guarantee the Olympics will open on July 23. But I think there’s a very, very, good chance that they can, and that they will.” While Pound said that the Games will likely happen, having fans in the stands is a choice. “The question is — is this a `must-have’ or `nice-to-have.’ It’s nice to have spectators. But it’s not a must-have,” Pound said.

And yet, even if the conditions of the pandemic around the world remain the same, and especially if the vaccine has an impact on the spread of COVID-19, I believe the likelihood of spectators in the stands is high.

Orgy of Evidence

Tennis exhibition in Adelaide Australia before the start of the Australian Open; Source: Australian Open

 

In what may have seemed surreal to many, we saw images of 4,000 people – without masks – packing a stadium in Adelaide, Australia on January 29 to watch exhibition tennis matches with Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal, a week prior to the start of the Australian Open.

But the truth of the matter is, sports is big business around the world, and we have seen seasons and championships take place across the biggest professional leagues last year.

In the midst of the pandemic in 2020, Europe crowned football champions in the Bundesliga, La Liga, Premier League, and Serie A. In tennis, Naomi Osaka won the US Open and Rafael Nadal won the French Open, while in golf, Dustin Johnson won the Masters. The Los Angeles Lakers were crowned NBA champions while the Tampa Bay Lightning won the NHL Stanley Cup.

And little by little, fans have been allowed to watch events in person in America, the country with the world’s highest coronavirus infection numbers.

 

Thousands of spectators watched the Los Angeles Dodgers win the 2020 World Series in Texas. American football fans were allowed into the stadiums of 19 NFL teams, including an average of around 15,000 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars, while the Dallas Cowboys hosted an average of 28,000 fans every home game. There will be over 20,000 fans attending the Super Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on February 7. And a limited number of fans have been able to attend the games of 8 NBA teams this season.

At the end of November, 2020 in Japan, nearly 70,000 fans watched in person the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks defeat the Yomiuri Giants to win the Japan Series over four games, averaging over 17,000 fans per game.

And on November 8, Japan held an international competition at Yoyogi National Stadium. Gymnasts from four nations competed, including Japan, the US, China and Russia. The 30 gymnasts were joined by 2000 spectators, and the day went without incident. This was the first experiment with a mini-bubble for an international competition in Japan, as athletes were isolated on different floors in hotels.

The above is some of the orgy of evidence regarding the ability of sports organizations to hold events safely despite the ravages of the coronavirus. These cases and many others are providing mountains of data of how and how not to organize a live sporting event, data that will be used to create the protocols and processes to ensure a safe environment for Tokyo2020.

And with the hope and promise of the vaccines, the path to a safe Olympics and Paralympics becomes clearer.

Learning to Live with Coronavirus in Japan

It was Saturday, January 30. It was a beautiful day in Tokyo – blue skies, crisp air and loads of people out and about. In my walk through Rinshi no Mori Park that day, hundreds of parents and kids, all wearing masks, were enjoying the day, kids running soccer or baseball drills, parents throwing or kicking balls with their children, and many others running and strolling.

And they were also going to the movie theaters. I was surprised to learn last year that an animated film called “Demon Slayer,” broke the box office record for films in Japan. I hadn’t realized that movie theaters were letting people in. In fact, theaters were filled to capacity to see this film. Even as the popularity of the film begins to fade, I went online to see if people were still buying tickets for this film. I looked at the ticket purchase page for the movie theater near me: 109 Cinemas in Futago Tamagawa.

Gray boxes indicate seat tickets sold.

And as you can see in the image of theater seating, where the gray indicates a seat sold, Demon Slayer was still filling seats. In fact, there were several films that were showing good ticket sales that Saturday morning. Attendees must wear masks, but they are allowed to sit elbow to elbow with others. And if you’re on a date, that’s ideal. As you can see, the January 30, 2:45 PM showing of the film “Hanabata Mitai na Koi o Shita,” a story of young romance featuring two popular actors, was nearly filled 3 hours before the start of the film.

Despite the constant talk of concern about the virus in Japan, the Japanese themselves are learning to live with it. Many may not think that the Olympics and Paralympics should be held now, but as we approach the summer, and the inevitability sinks in, and the stories of the Japanese athletes preparing for the Games become more frequent, a buzz of excitement will build.

That is what I believe.

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.

 

Reasons to Believe

 

Emotional Memories of Japan

 

The Paralympic Movement

Recalling 1980 and the Cold War

Paralympian Mami Sato speaks during the Tokyo 2020 bid presentation of the 125th IOC Session – 2020 Olympics Host City Announcement on September 7, 2013 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

In commemoration of the 56th anniversary of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, here is an excerpt from my book “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes.”

二〇二〇年に向かって

An Olympic legacy is commonly thought of as the tangible benefits of having hosted an Olympiad—the new sporting venues or transportation systems, the organizing know-how and the practical technology. But it is also the intangible benefits—the inspiration of an entire generation who see the very best athletes in the world strive to their utmost. And on occasion, citizens of the host nation get to see their own athletes and teams take their country on a thrilling ride to victory. These moments can jolt children and young adults, sparking them to dream, to believe that “anything is possible, even for me!”

 

This aspect of that first Tokyo Olympics carries great significance today as Japan gears up for its second hosting of the Games in 2020. Once again, the country is seeking to create a symbol of resilience, hope, and forward-looking energy as it faces a future encumbered by events of the recent past.

 

After the collapse of the financial bubble in the early nineties, the Japanese economy fell into protracted doldrums, a period which came to be known as the “Lost Decades.” Markets and corporate profits (with some notable exceptions) languished. Japan was superseded by China as the world’s second largest GDP. Overall, Japan’s presence on the world stage seemed to have dimmed.

 

In addition to economic and demographic issues (declining birthrate, rapid aging, the emptying out of rural areas), Japan has been beset by a series of natural disasters: torrential rains, floods, and mudslides that have claimed hundreds of lives and demolished whole communities in the western part of the country; the major earthquake in Kumamoto, Kyushu, in 2016; and most devastating of all, the earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan and triggered a nuclear disaster, on March 11, 2011. Recovery from that disaster, complicated by radioactive debris and contamination, is still far from complete.

 

Understanding the power of context, the Tokyo 2020 Bid Committee was wise to select a relatively unknown Paralympian named Mami Sato from the March 11 disaster area to kick off their presentation to the International Olympic Committee in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2013. Sato, a two-time Paralympian long jumper, thirty-one at the time, spent long hours of preparation on the speech she had to make in English, a task for which she had almost no background. But her honest and unaffected delivery of a very moving story created an emotional swell of support that helped propel Japan to the winning bid.

 

I was nineteen when my life changed. I was a runner. I was a swimmer. I was even a cheerleader. Then, just weeks after I first felt pains in my ankle, I lost my leg to cancer. Of course, it was hard. I was in despair. Until I returned to university and took up athletics.

For Sato, the simple idea in sports of having a goal and working to reach and surpass it became a passion, the loss of her leg serving as a catalyst to a sporting life as a long jumper. Sato competed at the Paralympics in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008. “I felt privileged to have been touched by the power of sport,” she said. “And I was looking forward to London 2012.”

 

Then disaster struck.

 

The tsunami hit my hometown. For six days I did not know if my family were still alive. And, when I did find them, my personal happiness was nothing compared to the sadness of the nation.

 

Like so many other survivors of the earthquake and tsunami in Northern Japan, Mami Sato helped others—forwarding messages, talking to victims, delivering food, and even organizing sporting events to take children’s minds off the daily worries of the aftermath.

Only then did I see the true power of sport…to create new dreams and smiles. To give hope. To bring people together. 

 

(Go to the 5 minute 25 second mark of the video below to see Mami Sato’s moving speech.)

Mami Sato has spent her recent years passing on that power to others—among them a young woman named Saki Takakuwa from Saitama. When Saki was in sixth grade, she loved playing tennis and running in track. One day she felt pain in her left leg after practicing hurdles, a pain that would not go away. It turned out to be a tumor below her knee, and at first the doctor couldn’t tell if it was malignant or benign. But after enduring four surgeries, including amputation, chemotherapy, hair loss, and the constant reliance on others for assistance, Takakuwa was despondent, wondering if she would ever walk again.

 

Her mother, Yoko, was determined to help her daughter turn her mindset around. She received a book from a friend called Lucky Girl, by Mami Sato. The mother scanned the book, looking for similarities in experience and stories that might make her daughter feel hopeful for the future. Those stories worked.

 

It was inspiring to read such a positive story by someone who’d gone through something similar to me. Her book made me realize there were opportunities out there and that I didn’t necessarily have to give up on sport. At a real dark time in my life, it gave me encouragement, but that doesn’t mean I suddenly decided to become a Paralympian. At that point I wasn’t really thinking about my future at all. It was just about getting through each day.

 

Even better, a doctor gave mother and daughter a sense of hope they simply had not imagined.

 

Once [Saki] becomes accustomed to the prosthetic, she will be able to go to school again. She will be able to go to senior high school and university. She will also be able to find a job and get married.

 

Buoyed by Sato’s example and the doctor’s new prognosis, Saki discovered that with practice, she could get around on her prosthetic leg. She could indeed walk again. And then she learned something even more powerful. By focusing on her thigh muscles and using them to maintain balance, Saki found she could run again, run straight, run hard.

 

At that time, I did not know what my own limitations were. But I was just happy to be able to do the same thing as everyone else, so I tried various challenges. I gave it my all in everything I did. I want to continue running while never forgetting that feeling.

 

Inspired, Takakuwa went on to compete in both the 2012 London Paralympics and the 2016 Rio Paralympics. At the age of twenty-eight, 2020 in Tokyo should be in her sights, with hopes of inspiring others.

 

Speaking of her own devastated hometown area, Mami Sato told the IOC delegates in Buenos Aires that athletes and their expression of Olympic values, can inspire:

 

More than 200 athletes, Japanese and international, making almost 1,000 visits to the affected area are inspiring more than 50,000 children. What we have seen is the impact of the Olympic values as never before in Japan. And what the country has witnessed is that those precious values, excellence, friendship, and respect, can be so much more than just words.

 

The legacy of the Olympics is the children and young men and women bearing witness to feats of peak performance, honest humility, exhaustive effort, and a perseverance beyond belief. It is also the respect the athletes have for one another, an appreciation on the part of all concerned of cultural differences and strengths, and a chance for the host country to display resilience, competence, goodwill, and hospitality to the rest of the world. Tokyo took full advantage of this opportunity in 1964. By all indications, it appears determined to surpass that performance in 2020.

1964 Paralympics_US vs Japan basketball. from the book 1964 Tokyo Olympiad, Kyodo News Agency

In commemoration of the 56th anniversary of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, here is an excerpt from my book “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes.”

気持ちは晴ればれ

Only two weeks after the exhilarating Tokyo Olympiad, the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, which ran from November 8 to 12, created an entirely new set of images and impressions on the Japanese psyche regarding notions of what disabled people could do.

 

Hundreds of foreign Paralympians were in Japan, serving as role models in terms of performance and attitude. According to Kazuo Ogoura, in his paper, The Legacy of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, their presence and their bearing were a jolt to Japanese society, which had until then tended to shun people with disabilities. As an administrator of the Paralympic Village put it, according to Ogoura, he remembers his surprise at seeing foreigners with disabilities so happy and full of life.

 

We were stunned to see overseas athletes in wheelchairs, hanging onto the back of a slow-operating Athlete Village loop bus to hitch a ride. It was sheer astonishment to witness their energy, enjoying themselves at a dance party at the International Club, or catching a taxi at night and loading their wheelchairs as well to go to Shibuya’s entertainment precinct.

 

The Japanese athletes who were asked to participate in the 1964 Paralympics likely had very little time to prepare, as the institutionalization of sports for disabled people had only just begun in Japan in the early 1960s. But when placed in a situation that tested their skills on an international platform, Japanese participants felt a rush of elation at being asked to stretch and compete.

 

A Japanese fencer, Shigeo Aono, felt empowered by the Paralympics in Japan, in a life-changing way.

 

Some said we were out of our minds for trying to compete in fencing, a traditional western sport, after just eight months of practice. Yet, we rejected the naysayers, followed through with our intentions and managed to win the silver medal—which gave us a powerful realization that we could do anything if we tried. That sense of confidence gave me strong insight and courage, which has been a guiding force of my life ever since.

 

Japanese discus thrower, Masayoshi Koike, said it more succinctly, “I had so much fun, with my spirit lifted high into the sky.”

 

With confidence came the realization for Japanese athletes that they were not disabled, but enabled. They took heart in seeing how independent the foreign athletes in Tokyo were, refusing assistance from officials and getting around on their own far more than the average disabled Japanese. They also learned that part of being more independent was being more accountable to one’s own health and condition.

 

Another demonstration of overseas athletes’ independent mindset was the day-to-day effort that went into boosting their physical strength and athletic abilities. Japanese athletes were reminded of the importance of maintaining and increasing physical strength in daily life, when they witnessed the large number of injuries sustained by their teammates during the Paralympics. Two Japanese athletes suffered Achilles tendon injuries and fourteen others sustained a range of other injuries during their respective events.

 

The common attitude was to treat anyone with a disability with kid gloves, as people who needed constant care and careful handling. But at the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, spectators and television viewers saw that the participants were athletes, not victims. Ogoura highlights this example of one of the swimmers:

 

One female athlete from overseas had to be carried by her husband to get into the swimming pool. When the race started, she was left behind the rest straight away. By the time the first swimmer finished the race, she had only just swum about five meters. She would start sinking, but get back afloat. Rescue staff was swimming about two meters  behind her just in case. When she began sinking after so many times, the rescue staff proceeded to help, but her husband on the poolside used a hand gesture to tell them to stop. Two more meters to go…one more meter…the progress was slow. Applause broke out in the spectators’ stand. After more than three minutes, she finally completed the 25-meter feat. Episodes like this prompted eminent persons and sporting officials to express the opinion that “Disabled sports must be fostered as regular athletic events.”

 

Thanks to these examples, the government also awakened to the possibilities. Seiichiro Ide of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, acknowledging that “Japan had the culture of shunning people with disabilities,” asserted that from then on, “making the disabled more visible in society” was a new goal for the new Japan.

 

Another significant effect of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics was the shift in the medical world, where doctors and institutions began to realize the need to focus more on rehabilitation, not just cure or prevention of disease; that to ignore the state of the disabled, who may have the potential of athletes seen at the 1964 Paralympics, is to ignore the opportunity to bring confidence and joy to a significant part of the population. Ogoura quotes a healthcare worker:

 

Modern medicine focused too much on diseases and ignored people who suffer from them. It was the case of hunters being too busy looking for deer to look at the mountain itself, as they say in Japanese. Take spinal cord injuries for example. If medicine had focused more on achieving patients’ recovery than merely treating the condition, I have no doubt that those with spinal cord injuries today would have enjoyed a higher level of physical recovery, even joining in on the funfair of the Paralympics.

 

The exposure to foreign equipment used by the disabled was also hugely impactful. When the hundreds of foreign Paralympians, coaches, and administrators came to Tokyo in 1964, they brought things that Japanese people had never seen, and immediately set the standard for Japan. Ogoura cited wheelchairs:

 

The greatest technological impact the Paralympics had was on the development and proliferation of equipment and tools for the care of those with disabilities, which were still underdeveloped in Japan at the time. There was a clear performance gap between foreign-made and Japanese wheelchairs and urine collectors, etc. Commenting on this matter, Yutaka Nakamura said, “The difference of wheelchairs was as clear as day.” British sport-use wheelchairs weighed 13 kilograms, whereas Japanese wheelchairs were as heavy as 23 kilograms. Overseas players had wheelchairs made to suit their physique, while Japanese sport wheelchairs were the case of one-size-fits-all.

 

The Japanese could see the difference in performance based on the foreign athletes’ use of the wheelchairs compared to themselves. Said one athlete, “Overseas players are bigger, but very skilled at handling their wheelchairs. We looked more like the wheelchairs were handling us. Then again, the experience gave us confidence that practice would improve our skills.”

 

The 1964 Tokyo Paralympics caused a monumental mind shift in Japanese society. Dr. Yutaka Nakamura, one of the key players in making the Tokyo Paralympics happen, wrote in 1964 something that is the essential message of inclusion today:

 

Our society in general tends to underestimate the capability of people with disabilities. An event like this is significant in that it is a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate their capability to the rest of the society.

Superhero Movie

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.

Rising Rio

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.

“Fµ©≤ing hell,” said Sir Philip Craven, then president of the International Paralympic Committee. “There was no money.”

“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 incredible story of the movement’s founder, Ludwig Guttman
  • 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.

“I was supposed to be in Tokyo today, rehearsing my opening speech,” said Andrew Parsons wistfully.

It was a little after 8pm on Monday, August 24, 2020 Japan time. Parsons, the President of the International Paralympics Committee (IPC), was addressing members of 20 foreign chambers of commerce in Japan in a Zoom meeting. The event marked one year to go for the Tokyo2020 Paralympics.

The Paralympics would have kicked off in Japan on Tuesday, August 25, 2020 if not for the devastating and global impact of COVID-19 virus. It was March 24, 2020 when the fateful decision was made to postpone both the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics for a year. “That decision was not taken lightly, but it was the right one,” said Parsons. “Had the games been tomorrow, there’s no chance they would have happened.”

Putting the Puzzle Back Together

March 24 brought devastating news to the organizers in Japan. Yasushi Yamawaki, IPC Governing Board Member at Large and Tokyo 2020 Vice President said they were more than surprised.

“When the decision was made to postpone the games, most of the staff and partners, were very much shocked. They had spent seven years putting together the biggest and most complicated jigsaw puzzle. And with a few pieces to go, they were told to start over again.”

There are dozens of major sponsors, over 180 National Paralympic Committees, dozens of international sports federations, and thousands of athletes who had questions. But for the IPC, a huge question that had to be answered was how to ensure funding for Tokyo2020 in 2021. As Craig Spence, IPC Chief Brand & Communications Officer, explained, it was critical to re-do the contracts with the broadcasters first.

“From an IPC point of view, we had to review 300 contracts in the space of two weeks. We have TV contracts with 165 broadcasters. Each contract needed to be reviewed. And each contract impacted the cash flow of the IPC for 2020 because we were due money this year, but the TV contract was then moved to next year.”

And Parsons reminded everybody that this incredibly complex and urgent work had to be done in the challenging environment of a pandemic. “We had to manage our cash flow,” said Parsons. “But we also needed to work with our staff all over the world, many of whom were living away from their families during the most demanding period ever for the IPC.”

Parsons is hopeful, but he is realistic. He said that everything that can be done, that can be controlled, will be. Planning will continue through the end of September. The IPC will focus on countermeasures to COVID-19 in the last quarter of 2020, and then will enter operational readiness in the first quarter of 2021. After that, important decisions will have to be made.

“We still have one year to go. We will follow the development of the pandemic. Unfortunately, none of us have a crystal ball. We have to work as if the Games are going ahead. This is the tricky part – how to work towards something you don’t know 100% is going ahead or not. But at the moment we are working full speed ahead preparing for the Games as if they are happening.”

The postponement resulted in a re-planning process that prioritized two things: the safety and health of the athletes and an approach to budgeting only what is necessary, a sustainability mindset that can be applied to future Paralympics, something that Parsons calls the Principles. “In these principles, the safety of athletes Is the number 1 priority for us,” said Parsons. “Everything that is not fundamental for the Games will be downscaled or cut.”

No Question of the Tokyo2020 Legacy

The Paralympics were postponed for a year. But Tokyo2020 is already establishing a legacy in Japan. Yamawaki explained that Tokyo is one of the most accessible cities in the world for the disabled, and that the media showcases the capabilities and personalities of the Para athletes almost on a daily basis.

Spence shared comparative data showing the impact of the run-up to the Games.

“In the build up to London 2012 with 18 months to go, less than 1% of the British population could name a Paralympian, and everyone sees London as the benchmark. In Tokyo last year, 45% of the Japanese population could recognize Shingo Kunieda, the wheelchair tennis player. So that shows the real difference in interest. In terms of accessible transport, I think when Tokyo won the right to stage the Games, around 75% of the city’s metro stations were accessible. By the time the Games happen next year, that’s going to be at 99%. That would never have happened had it not been for the Paralympics coming to Tokyo. The legacies are going to be tremendous.” 

Yamawaki oversees the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center, which is driving a groundbreaking education program in Japan’s school system. The IPC’s “I’mPossible” program – a toolkit of resources designed to engage 6-12 year old students about the Paralympic movement – is being pioneered in Japan with great success. Yamawaki said that this program has been delivered to 36,000 primary and secondary schools across Japan.

Children can learn from this unique learning opportunity,” said Yamawaki. “They will become future leaders in creating an inclusive society in this country after the Paralympics are over. It’s going to be one of the biggest legacies. Usually the parents teach the children, but in the I’mPossible program, kids teach the parents. This will increase parents’ awareness of the Paralympic Games and Paralympic sports. That’s the biggest impact we’re seeing.”

What You Can Do

Here are a few suggestions from IPC leaders on what we all can do to support the Paralympics broadly, and people with disabilities specifically.

Employ Persons with Disabilities: If your company does not employ persons with disabilities, it should. If your office is not set up to deal with people in wheelchairs, put in ramps. If you have a restaurant or a canteen, make your menus available in braille, or put your information on the internet so that people with disabilities can more easily access the information.

See the Opportunity: As Spence explained, before he joined the IPC, he didn’t realize people with disabilities are such great problem solvers.

“People with disabilities face challenges on a daily basis. They don’t tend to moan. They don’t just sit around thinking I can’t get around this. They always find innovative ways to get around and beat the challenge. They can bring a whole new creativity and new outlook to your business.”

Go See the Games: Seeing the Para athletes in action will change your attitude for life. Get as many people around you to see the Games.

“There’s very few people in the world who can run 100 meters in under 10.5 seconds,” said Spence. “Yet we have athletes with prosthetic legs and running blades who can do it in 10.4 seconds. It really does challenge perceptions towards disability.”

See my review for Rising Phoenix.
Rising Phoenix: The Stirring Netflix Documentary on the Paralympic Movement that Seeks to Change the World