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Chiharu Nacitas and Steve Myers rehearsng for my book launch party!

It was October 10, 1964 – a bright and beautiful Autumn day.

After years of hard work, years of worry, years of questioning whether the world would embrace Japan after the turmoil of world war, the Tokyo Olympics had finally arrived.

To the world, Japan was radiant, fresh-faced, smiling from ear to ear, looking at the world with eyes wide open, like a baby, looking at her beautiful mother for the first time.

The feeling at that time was reflected in the song, “Konnichiwa Akachan” (こんにちは赤ちゃん) , sung by Michiyo Azusa. This popular tune was released in 1963, but Japanese would still hear it on the radio and the TV constantly throughout 1964 as it captured the spirit of the time – optimism for a bright future!

Below is the singer, Chiharu Nacitas and the guitarist Steve Myers, performing “Konnichi was Akachan” (which means “Hello, My Baby!”) at my book launch party on October 10, 2019, the 55th anniversary of the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games.

The sense of optimism at the time was powerful, as Japanese adults who made the Olympics possible, and who cheered on and welcomed athletes from all visiting nations, were alive at the end of the Pacific War, when all they and their families knew was poverty, homelessness, hunger, and disease, at least for those in the burned out rubble-strewn cities of Japan.

The Japanese rebuilt the nation and were rightly proud to bring to the world the most logistically demanding global event of its time. And on that beautiful Autumn day on October 10, never was the nation prouder. Japan was akin to a newly born baby, smiling into the eyes of her mother, as in the song.

The person who wrote the lyrics to “Konnichiwa Akachan” was Rokusuke Ei. He also wrote the lyrics to a 1961 song that was very popular during the Olympics, not only to the Japanese, but also to foreigners visiting the country. The song was sung in Japanese, and still sold over 13 million copies worldwide, hitting number 1 on the pop charts in the US, Canada and Australia.

This song was known in Japan as “Ue o Muite Arukou,”(上を向いて歩こう) and its catchy melody made singer Sakamoto Kyu a global star, and made Japan relevant to the world. To the rest of the world, it was known as “Sukiyaki,” the idea of a British music promoter who thought that the Japanese dish would make more sense to the Western world. You can’t argue with success.

If you understand the lyrics,“Ue o Muite Arukou” sounds like a love song, or one of unrequited love. But Rokusuke Ei wrote not about love, but about defeat.

Ei participated in the anti-government protests against Japan’s signing of the Mutual Treaty of Cooperation and Security with America. And after the government signed the treaty, American soldiers and military bases were allowed to remain in the country. Ei was sad, and wrote that famous song, reflecting a more complex relationship Japan had with the West, particularly the United States.

While anti-government protests were happening in Japan in the early 1960s and around the world, they were gaining real force in the late 1960s. In fact, the 1968 Mexico City Olympics were scarred by the killing of dozens if not hundreds of students during an anti-government protest by government forces, only 10 days prior to the start of those Games.

If the Olympics came to Tokyo in 1968, it’s likely that the clamor of anti-government protests in Japan would have created tension if not trouble during the Games.

If the Games came to Tokyo in 1960, it’s likely that the Japanese economy in the 1950s, while accelerating, would not have been robust enough to support the organization of the Games for the summer of 1960.

In other words, 1964 was the perfect time, the right time. And after the successful completion of the 1964 Olympics, they were often called the Happy Games, and in retrospect, the Last innocent Games.

Two of Rokusuke Ei’s most popular songs captured the mood of the time, and are, in my mind, intertwined with the joy and wonder the Japanese had for the XVIII Olympiad in Tokyo.

Here again are Chiharu Nacitas and Steve Myers with their beautiful rendition of “Ue o Muite, Arukou.”

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Tokyo 2020 torch relay torch

Olympic torches have been carried on planes and boats, via wheelchairs and bicycles, even underwater. But never in space – until now.

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronauts, Soichi Noguchi and Akihiko Hoshihide, will be orbiting the earth from the International Space Station (ISS) during the Olympic torch relay, which begins on March 26, 2020 in Fukushima and ends on the day of the Opening Ceremony on July 24, 2020.

According to Nikkan Sports, Noguchi will be in the space station from the end of 2019 for six months, while Hoshihide will check in to his new abode around May next year. While they will bring the Olympic torch with them in space, they apparently will not light the torch. It would be the symbolism of peace and resilience that the space torch bearers wish to share with the world. In a press release, Noguchi said

I believe that the light of the flame will encapsulate the “power of recovery” emanating from Japan’s recent natural disasters, as well as the “tolerance” that allows us to accept diversity and the “dynamism” uniting local communities in a global festival, and that it will herald the sunrise of a new generation. To everyone in Japan, I say please join with us astronauts and help create a road of hope illuminated by flame.

If you want to literally join them in the torch relay, and carry that gorgeous sakura gold torch, you can apply now as the deadline is August 31, 2019. There are four corporate sponsors and 47 prefectures which are taking applications for the torch relay with the goal of recruiting 10,000 torchbearers under the theme: Hope Lights Our Way ( 希望の道を、つなごう).

The corporate recruiters are Coca Cola, Toyota, Nissay and NTT. In all cases, you need to pick one of the prefectures of Japan where you want to run. Here is the map of the torch relay, and here is the schedule. If you want, you can apply to up to five recruiting entities.

People born on or before April 1, 2008, of any nationality will be considered.

Prefectures: You can apply directly with each of the prefectures. You can find the links to each of those prefectures and their applications in the middle of this page. There are 47 prefectures, so there are 47 links.

Coke on app torch relay page
Coke on app torch relay page

Coca Cola: The longest-running sponsor of the Olympic Games, Coca Cola, has been a sponsor of the torch relay for 13 Olympiads. You have to apply via their Coke On smartphone app. This “pre-selection” step is a challenge as you need to explain in 200 characters or less (not words) “what you love and do as you are and…if there is an episode that you made someone happy with it.” You also get to upload “your appealing photo or video” up to 40mb in size. After I applied, I received a notification that if they think I’m worthy, I will hear back from them in 3 to 5 weeks. The announcement of those selected will be as early as the end of the year. Apply here.

Toyota: Like Coca-Cola, Toyota is a TOP sponsor, which means they are able to market their brand with the Olympic brand globally. Unlike Coca-Cola, their “pre-selection” is comprehensive. In addition to contact information, they are looking for “local challengers,” asking for your plans “to make your community (= your desired prefecture) a better place,” in 220 words or less (not characters). Toyota also allows you to upload three photos or video files, as well as provide links to “relevant websites or videos.” In that same box, they allow you to provide additional information – “a simple comment showing your enthusiasm.” Toyota replied via automated email that “entrants who pass preliminary selection will be notified in early October 2019.” Apply here.

Nissay (Nippon Life Insurance Company): Nissay is a Tokyo 2020 Olympic Gold Partner, and like Toyota, their pre-selection application is fairly comprehensive. They provide an opportunity to explain your relationship to the prefecture (relatives, etc.), what people important to you are you running for, and why. There is an additional text box to add information or links to sites. Different from the others, they ask for you to select from a drop-down list of “Torchbearer values.” I selected “Sense of Unity Born of Celebrations (The Spirit of Encouraging.” Apply here.

2020 tokyo olympic torch relay map and schedule

NTT: NTT, the Japanese telecommunications and infrastructure giant, is also a Tokyo 2020 Olympic Gold partner. Like Nissay, the emphasis is on the connection you have with a particular prefecture, as well as a general section to “self PR” yourself in 400 characters or less. They have a drop-down menu that asks you how to categorize your “action and legacy plan: Sports and health,  Urban planning and Sustainability, Culture and education,  Economy and technology, or Reconstruction, all japan, transmission to the world. This is the only corporate partner which asks for a “third-party” recommendation. This was the only one of the application processes I could not complete. There were technical issues of saving my input, and then trying to re-register proved futile. Apply here.

Meiji 3

It was a normal Saturday morning, out shopping with the wife at the local supermarket when I spotted the display of chocolate with the now omnipresent Tokyo 2020 mascots, Miraitowa and Someity.

The 4th largest chocolate confectionary producer in the world, Meiji, has the Olympic and Paralympic mascots hawking their famous chocolate snacks, kinoko no yama (mushroom mountain) and take no sato (bamboo village), which are essentially morsels of cookie topped with chocolate in the shape of a mushroom and a bamboo shoot respectively.

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And then I saw the price for a bag of these snacks – JPY1,000 (a little less than USD10). Holy moly, I thought.

That’s when my finely honed investigative journalistic instincts sent tingles though my body like a Bob Woodward version of spidey sense. As they always say, follow the money!

I went down aisle five to see if the regular kinoko no yama/take no sato snacks were available. And there I saw it, the truth as plain as day – a pack of 12 for 275 yen. The Tokyo2020 bag was a pack of 8 for 1,000 yen! I took a few nervous minutes to crunch the numbers checking them several times over because I simply could not believe my eyes.

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Miraitowa’s version was selling for 125 yen a pack while the traditional version was about 23 yen a pack. Miraitowa has a heck of a brand that he can hawk his version of the same product for over 5 times the normal rate!

It’s like finding out that Supreme T-Shirt you bought for $1,150 was actually made for about $10. (Please don’t fact check me on that last point. I have no idea.)

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And they taste exactly the same!

Ok, but then my eagle eyes caught the fine print on the back of the packaging:

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of Tokyo 2020 Official Licensed Products will be used to help stage the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

I did check on the internet, including Meiji’s site. This packaging and price was released on July 23, to commemorate the Tokyo2020 Year to Go campaign. But to be honest, there is no mention about how much of that 1,000 yen is going to Tokyo 2020. I hope it is a large percentage.

I fear though that most people are not going to put a premium on the chocolate-covered-mushroom-cookie. I hope they do, and contribute to the coffers of Tokyo2020…but mom’s probably not going to shell out 5 times the price so that Taro-kun can get the sticker inside.

But who knows?

Olympic fever is rising with the temperature.

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The “free” sticker in side.

My book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics is now available. And through July 31, you can buy the Kindle (ebook) version for 99 cents, or the equivalent in your region. I don’t mind if you buy the paperback version or even the hard cover if it is available on your Amazon site. Note, if you buy a Kindle version, please be careful that you are buying from the Amazon store your Kindle is registered.  Click here to buy the book, and understand why I entitled it:

1964

The Greatest Year in the History of Japan

How The Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes

Final Book Cover-LOCK

Dark Tourist Japan A scene from Dark Tourist – Japan from season one.

Watching the Japan episode of Netflix’s first season of Dark Tourist was harrowing.

New Zealand journalist, David Farrier, went on a tour in Fukushima, likely in early 2018, and filmed scenes not far from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant where radiation levels climbed dangerously high. Those on the tour were visibly worried.

So was I, and I was safe and sound in my living room.

The government evacuated about 160,000 people in the areas around Dai-Ichi right after the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, but restrictions for most of those areas have since been lifted. But I wondered again, is it safe or not?

I get that question a lot from people, particularly foreigners, especially since I write a blog on Japan, sports and the Olympics, and organizers for the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are holding sporting events in areas of Northern Japan impacted significantly by the 3.11 earthquake and tsunami.

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Signage at Fukushima Station for Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympics.

In the case of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, softball and baseball games will be held in Azuma Baseball Stadium in Fukushima, which is about 10 kilometers west of Fukushima Station, and 90 kilometers northwest of Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant.

Certainly, in the areas directly in and around the nuclear power plant, radiation levels can be high. The areas that Farrier filmed in his controversial program were in prohibited areas – thus the high radiation levels measured. But when I ask the experts, my fears are, on the whole, allayed.

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The bGeigie Nano I built myself (with a lot of help from Jon Moross!)

I have been talking recently with leaders of the volunteer citizen science organization, Safecast, which came together very quickly in the aftermath of 3.11 to measure radiation levels in Tohoku in the absence of open and transparent reports from TEPCO and government officials.

In order to measure radiation levels, the team designed a geiger counter that volunteers can build and use, and they then worked to deploy these geiger counters to gather data and better understand where radiation levels are high.

I recently participated in a Safecast workshop to build my own device – the bGeigie Nano – a truly cool and compact measuring tool. On a trip to Fukushima, I decided to go to Azuma Baseball Stadium and measure radiation levels myself.

Getting off a local bus, I had to walk about 15 minutes, crossing the scenic Arakawa River, before entering the spacious grounds of the Azuma sports complex. In addition to the baseball field, there are facilities for track and field, tennis and gymnastics.

With my bGeigie Nano on and clicking away, I walked around the grounds for an hour, circling the track and field stadiums, as well as the perimeter of the baseball stadium.

The conclusion?

Measurements for radiation on the grounds around Azuma Baseball Stadium, including the surrounding roads, were low. My measurements appeared consistent with measurements taken by Safecast in the past.

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Azuma Baseball Stadium

According to Safecast lead researcher, Azby Brown, “all of the measurements you obtained showed the current radiation levels to be within normal background, ranging from 0.08 microsieverts per hour to 0.16 microsieverts per hour.”

Normal radiation exposure is usually described in millisieverts per year (mSv/yr = 1/1000th of a sievert) or in microsieverts per hour (uSv/hr = one millionth of a sievert). While a sievert is a massive dose, someone who spends 12 hours at the Azuma Baseball Stadium next year is likely to get only one or two millionths of that. Brown went on to explain that the measurements I registered around the stadium were fairly typical for what people encounter normally around the world.

For comparison, based on Safecast data, the levels you found around the stadium are similar to those in Tokyo, Brussels, Buenos Aires, or Washington DC, and less than in Rome, Hong Kong, or Seoul. The radiation that overseas visitors will be exposed to on their flights to Japan will almost certainly be higher than what they would get spending time at this stadium for Olympic events.  

We do not yet have measurement data for the nearby woods or riverbank, however, and experience suggests that these areas may show higher radiation levels. We will survey those areas soon, and let everyone know what we find. 

Azuma Stadium Safecast bGeigie measurements_RT
My measurements around Azuma baseball stadium as well as my route there by bus. Blue means low (normal) levels of radiation.

Certainly, there are concerns still about the long-term impact of the meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant. While the government has lifted living restrictions in many areas around the nuclear power plant, and is now heavily encouraging residents of those areas to return, the majority have chosen to stay away.

Still, if we look at the data, outside of the inaccessible exclusion zone, radiation levels in Tohoku are, on the whole, at normal levels.

That’s what the data shows.

And that’s good enough for me.

Construction of Olympic Village July 2018
Construction on the Olympic Village, seen on Tuesday, continues in Chuo Ward ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Games – July 2018 | YOSHIAKI MIURA

In 2008, the novel, “Olympic Ransom, (Orinpikku no Minoshirokin), the author, Hideo Okuda, reimagined the history of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, telling the story of a radicalized Tokyo University student who seeks to set off a bomb in the National Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremonies of those Games.

Ever since learning that his brother had died in an accident at a construction site related to the Tokyo Olympics, Kunio Shimazaki led the police on a wild goose chase, setting off low-level explosions across Tokyo in a run-up to the Games. When the novel’s hero, Inspector Masao Ochiai, confronts Shimazaki at a hiding place in Tokyo University, Shimazaki delivers his monologue:

Ochiai-san, do you know there is an underground passageway into the National Stadium? An underpass to all for the movement of players from underground into the world’s best stadium? The country has spared no expense in the making of it. Due to various pretexts though, the use of it was stopped. My older brother for the sake of constructing that unused underpass was forced into working shifts of sixteen continuous hours. In order to get through those shifts he turned to taking bad Philopon….and died. For the national honor, the country wasted huge amounts of money all while treating migrant workers like trash until they die, paying them only tens of thousands of yen. If we don’t change something here, the unfair gap between rich and poor will go on widening forever. And endlessly the same tragedy will repeat.

Those were lines from Asahi Television’s dramatized version of Okuda’s novel, about an event that never happened. And yet, this dialogue is being echoed today, about the working conditions of the construction sites for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

On May 15, 2019, the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) along with the Japanese Federation of Construction Workers’ Union, Zenken Soren, released a highly publicized report entitled, “The Dark Side of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics.” The report cites great concern regarding overworked and underpaid workers on the Olympic construction sites. In this Kyodo News report,  BWI General Secretary Ambet Yuson summarized his concern:

The Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics was Japan’s opportunity to address some of the long-running gaps within the construction industry in Japan, however, these problems have just got worse.  Wages remain low, dangerous overwork is common, and workers have limited access to recourse to address their issues.

Mary Harvey, the CEO of the Geneva-based Centre for Sport and Human Rights, and goalkeeper on the 1996 US women’s Olympic soccer squad, told AP that we needed to pay attention to these labor issues.

To think this is going away is burying your head in the sand, and I’m concerned it’s going to get worse. The heat of the summer months is upon us while construction deadlines are trying to be met. Someone dying or committing suicide shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone. Everyone should be taking a serious look at the risks identified in BWI’s report and, by everyone, I mean everyone who is a stakeholder, including the IOC, the Japanese government and construction companies.

The report offers facts and assumptions, which I have organized in the following categories:

Labor Shortage and Overwork

  • “Japan is currently suffering from an acute labour shortage and this is particularly apparent in the construction sector, where, today there are 4.3 jobs available for every construction worker.”
  • “Workers on the New National Stadium reported working 26 days in a single month, and workers on the Olympic Village reported working 28 days in a single month.”
  • “Today one in four Japanese construction workers – approximately 800,000 – are over the age of 60, and the Infrastructure Ministry predicts that by 2025 the industry will face a shortage of 470,000 to 930,000 workers.”

 

Consequences

  • “According to Labour Ministry figures there were 21 deaths from karoshi in 2017 in the construction sector, the second highest of all sectors.”
  • “…overwork itself creates severe safety risks, as fatigued workers are more likely to cut corners or make mistakes, putting themselves and their fellow workers in danger. One worker commented that he felt he is ‘always being pushed to meet the deadline,” while another said, “It’s not worth your life for this’.”
  • “Delays (In a variety of construction projects)… in a tight labour market will all translate into additional pressure on workers to meet deadlines, and a higher likelihood of unsafe working practices.”

 

Lack of Worker Rights

  • “Some workers were made to purchase their own personal protective equipment.”
  • “Workers also noted that they have become reluctant to raise their voice because managers do little to respond. ‘You point the issues out and request improvements, but this falls on deaf ears’. According to the workers, part of this problem is likely connected to the fact that the site foremen being dispatched neither have nor has sufficient training to do the work.”
  • “Two union leaders of Doken General Labour Union reported during the September 2018 International Forum that union organisers were harassed and intimidated by authorities when they attempted to reach out to workers in Tokyo National Stadium.”

 

Foreign Migrant Workers in Particular at a Disadvantage

  • “The number of migrant workers in the construction sector almost tripled between 2014-2017, with numbers now reaching around 55,000.”
  • “In the construction sector most of migrant workers are engaged through the Technical Intern Training Program (TITP). The TITP programme is supposed to provide training for migrant workers in key sectors with labour shortages; however, there has been widespread criticism of it as an exploitative scheme intended to render cheap labour.”
  • “TITP interns must be paid the legal minimum wage but it is rare that they are paid more, and this is currently set at less than half the average annual wage for construction (~US$40,000).”
  • “…it was reported that they (migrant workers) spoke no Japanese and communication was a challenge, particularly on OHS matters. Under Japanese law, employers must set up necessary procedures to ensure that health and safety procedures are established in a way that foreigners can understand.

In response to these reports, the Malaysian news portal, Malasiakini, called out to the Malaysian action to protect migrant workers in Japan.

We call for a guarantee from our Government that Malaysian workers’ rights and safety will be protected if they travel to Japan to work. This should include pre-departure orientation seminars on Japanese labour and safety law, and facilitating direct access to trade unions in Japan to ensure they can safeguard their rights on the job. The Malaysian Government must make sure that Malaysian workers are not trapped in a rights vacuum.

This report is likely a concern to the IOC and the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee. The IOC released a statement, saying “We take these issues very seriously and are committed to working with the relevant stakeholders to address them and find the appropriate solutions.”

But with the incredibly tight labor market in Japan, the IOC’s drive to decrease the Tokyo2020 budget, the increasingly tight deadlines for completion of Olympic venues, as well as competition for construction resources from all over the country, including reconstruction efforts in Tohoku in the aftermath of the 3.11 disaster, it is going to be hard to alleviate the pressure on the construction industry.

Josh Larsen's hands

I was with the USA Climbing team in Tokyo a couple of weeks ago and talking with team coach, Josh Larson, and I couldn’t help but notice his hands.

They were ugly.

Fat. Dry. In desperate need of a manicure.

For climbers, the fingers carry a significant chunk of the freight, and as a result, get really fat. After years of sustaining one’s body weight on one’s fingertips, sliding them into the slimmest of crevices, and slipping off the tiniest of edges, fingers get swollen and calloused over time. The result – really ugly fingers.

But in the world of sports, sometimes ugliness is the price of admission.

Take basketball for example. LeBron James. Shaquille O’Neal. James Harden. These athletes are famous for their incredible athletic ability, but not for their feet….more specifically, some of the ugliest toes you can imagine. So what to do you get an NBA superstar who has everything? According to The Washington Post…a pedicure.

For MMA fighters, boxers and wrestlers, it gets even uglier with cauliflower ears and broken noses. I won’t show those images here. But if you have a strong stomach, or are an ENT specialist, enjoy!

Ears

Noses

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Lead Climbing Wall in MoriPark Outdoor Village in Akishima, Tokyo, Japan

The climbing wall looms high over the green at MoriPark Outdoor Village in Akishima, Japan, a yoga class finding serenity in the quiet strength of the monolith.

It’s a sunny Sunday morning on April 21, 2019, and the USA Climbing Team has just arrived and huddled on the grass to confirm their routine for the day. After training intensively most of the week indoors, it was time to get some work done outdoors.

MoriPark Outdoor Village, which is on the western edge of Tokyo, is a compact shopping center, with tenants which sell only outdoor gear and wear, or provide health and sporting services. For Team USA, the village’s climbing walls served as the venue for their day’s training.

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Drew Ruana and Nathaniel Coleman on the speed climbing wall.

Across the street from the rope-climbing wall was the speed climbing wall, used for one of the three climbing disciplines that will determine a medal for climbers at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. At the base of the 15-meter wall, the young men and women of Team USA (the oldest member was 22) began their stretching and prepping routine.

Five days later, the team would be competing for glory at the International Federation of Sports Climbing (IFSC) Worldcup in Chongqing, China. For now, it was a day for low intensity training.

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Ashima Shiraishia and coach Josh Larson

Members of the team, including USA Climbing coach, Josh Larson, first got their senses sharpened with a round of hacky sack. Others stretched in their own AirPod-induced sensory isolation. And a couple pulled out their favorite distraction – the kendama.

A simply constructed wooden plaything out of Japan’s traditional past, the kendama is a wooden ball connected by string to a hammer-like handle that allows the player to catch the ball on a spike or on one of two cups. According to climber, Nathaniel Coleman of Salt Lake City, kendama became an addiction among slacklining athletes, which spread to the climbing world.

Eventually, the climbers had their opportunities scrambling up the wall like frantic Spider-men, hitting the metal plate at the top of the wall stopping the clock in 7 to 8 seconds. A medal for sport climbing will be up for grabs for those athletes who can compile the best combined scores for three types of climbing: lead climbing, bouldering, and speed climbing.

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Claire Buhrfeind and Kyra Condie

Lead climbing is about creativity and endurance. Bouldering is about puzzle solving, getting introduced to a new pattern of hand and footholds, and figuring out the best path. Speed climbing is about practicing the same exact pattern of hand and footholds on a wall that has existed for 10 years, a pattern which is solidly entrenched in the muscle memory of the fastest climbers.

Many climbers love the chess match of the other disciplines – lead and bouldering – but broadcasters love the clear-cut simplicity of speed climbing. In fact, the fastest event in the Olympics will be speed climbing, where the world record is an incredible 5.48 seconds.

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Zach Galla

And like any young sport, there are those who wonder if sports climbing is being sold out to the broadcasters who cater to the lowest common denominator. Kyra Condie of Minnesota is ranked 8th in the world in bouldering, and she learned her skills in the climbing gyms that nurtured climbers, and encouraged support and fun. “I worry,” she said “that climbing will become too competitive,” and lose the fun part of the climbing culture.

But the competitive nature of  climbers are also stoked by sport climbing’s debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games. John Brosler of Dallas, Texas started climbing when he was 10, when his parents sent him to summer camp where he got hooked on the wall. John loves the competition of climbing and is “really psyched” to see the best.

John Brosler 1

“I got to see this sport grow from a niche when climbing gyms were few and far between,” said the 22-year old. “It’s really cool to see it gain traction and become an Olympic sport.”

But sports climbing is a global sport, and Team USA has some catching up to do.

In the three climbing disciplines of lead, bouldering and speed, Team USA is ranked 8th, 8th and 12th respectively. European nations like Slovenia, France, the Czech Republic and Russia, as well as Japan are proven teams that look to medal in 2020.

Ce Ce Kopf 1

While climbing teams in Europe and other parts of the world have been better funded, and training together more formally for a longer time, Team USA has just been unifying its resources in the past year, according to Larson. The Boston native was hired as the team’s first coach in 2018. He was hired by the new CEO of USA Climbing, Marc Norman, who asked his team’s officials to move to Salt Lake City in order to make it easier to coordinate Team USA’s activities.

USA Climbing Team

“It was only a few years ago when I’d go to a tournament in Europe, on my own, without a coach, and find out who else was on the team when I’d see them arrive,” Larson said.

In Tokyo, Team USA is together, benefiting from the camaraderie that comes from  training together, and the aggregate knowledge that comes from their shared experience. Team USA’s time together has been short, but sport climbing rise to Olympic levels has also been quick. Not everything about the strategy and tactics of how to win a combined climbing event is known.

In other words,  gold, silver and bronze in climbing is for the taking.

Ichiro Uchimura Hanyu Icho
Clockwise from upper left: Ichiro Suzuki, Kohei Uchimura, Kaori Icho, Yuzuru Hanyu

The 24-year old figure skater walked into a private room in Saitama Super Arena, the television to his left showing clips of the World Finals Figure Skating Championship that had just ended on the evening of March 23, 2019.

“I lost! I can’t believe it (“Maketa yo, kuyashii!),” said Yuzuru Hanyu. He glanced at the television set which showed his rival and winner of the world championship, American Nathan Chen. “How do I beat that?”

Despite Hanyu’s incredible free program and brief hold of first place, Chen’s was better.

“I really wanted to win when I was skating,” Hanyu stated. “I think I did my best, but the problem is that a figure skating competition consists of two days, and I lost both. It means that I simply do not have enough strength to win.”

Chen is a brilliant young skater, who has proven his metal by defending his world championship. But Hanyu will not go down without a fight.

Those who have followed Hanyu even a little know that he is not losing confidence. He may in fact be steeling himself for the greatest competition he has faced. Battling and overcoming an ongoing ligament injury to his right ankle, Hanyu won gold in PyeongChang last February, and the Cup of Russia in November. The flames of his competitive spirit have been fanned by Chen, and he’s out to take figure skating to the next level, which should surprise no one.

Hanyu is a living legend.

What’s incredible is that he is not alone here. We in Japan have been blessed, recent witnesses to once-in-a-century global talents in a wide variety of sports – four of them to be exact:

  • Yuzuru Hanyu (figure skating)
  • Ichiro Suzuki (baseball)
  • Kohei Uchimura (gymnastics)
  • Kaori Icho (wrestling)

Yuzuru Hanyu (figure skating): The Sendai native is a two-time world champion, has broken the world record in figure skating scores eighteen times, and is the first person since Dick Button did so in 1948 to win individual gold in two consecutive Olympiads. Can he do the unthinkable at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, and win an unprecedented third Olympic championship? I wouldn’t bet against him yet.

Ichiro Suzuki (baseball): After 28 years of professional baseball, the athlete known as Ichiro retired last week amidst adoring fans at the opening season matches between his Seattle Mariners and the Oakland A’s. No one has had more hits in professional baseball than Ichiro (4,367), and in the Major Leagues in America, he set the season hit record in 2004 with 262 hits, surpassing George Sisler’s record that stood for 84 years. His speed and defense made him a threat to steal a base as well as hits and runs in the field. There’s an overwhelming consensus that Ichiro will be the first player enshrined in the baseball hall of fames of both Japan and America. His love of the game, his training regimen and his flare for the dramatic will live on forever.

Kohei Uchimura (gymnastics): He is called King Kohei. The native of Nagasaki is the only gymnast to win all-around gold in every major title in a four-year Olympic cycle….twice. In other words, Uchimura won the world championship and Olympic gold from 2009 to 2016. You may as well tack on his silver medal in the all-arounds at the 2012 London Olympics, and call it a decade of dominance. Calling him the Greatest of All Time (GOAT), as many do, is not hyperbole. As Uchimura is 30, it is unlikely that his dominance will continue at Tokyo 2020.  But he might be there, giving us all still a chance to glimpse greatness.

Kaori Icho (wrestling): There is another Japanese GOAT – a woman from Japan named Kaori Icho. The freestyle wrestler from Aomori, Icho has won an unprecedented and incredible four straight Olympic championships since women’s wrestling became an Olympic sport at the 2004 Athens Summer Games. In fact, she’s the first female in any sport to win an individual gold in four straight Olympiads. Through that period, Icho had won 189 straight matches, a 13-year streak that ended in January, 2016 to a wrestler ten years her junior, only to re-start the streak and take her fourth gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. She is indeed the best female wrestler ever.

We in Japan have been most fortunate in recent years to live among living legends.

Ichiro Suzuki batting practice
Ichiro Suzuki during batting practice in MLB’s Opening Day game on March 20, 2019_Kyodo

It was opening day for Major League Baseball, and the Seattle Mariners were taking on the Oakland Athletics in Japan at the Tokyo Dome.

The A’s were winning 5-4 in the top of the fourth, and Ichiro Suzuki was coming up to bat. The future first-ballot hall of famer extended his right arm, holding his bat straight up, and awaited the pitch.

Six people on the 2019 Oakland roster were not even born when Ichiro started his career as a rookie for the Orix BlueWave in 1992. The hair on his head and face was trimmed nearly to the skin, but even that couldn’t hide the gray of a grizzled 45-year-old veteran.

Ichiro in the batters boxOpening day 2019
Ichiro awaiting a pitch at the opening day match up between the Mariners and the A’s. (photo by author)

Ichiro took a first-pitch strike, worked it to a 3-2 count, hitting a ball off his leg twice, before ripping a ball foul down the right field line, electrifying the crowd, all of whom were essentially willing Ichiro to get a hit – one more to the 4,367 hits in his professional baseball career.

Ichiro walked, and then, as the Mariner’s took the field for the bottom of the fourth, Ichiro jogged back in, embraced teammates around third base and entered the dugout to the applause of the fans.

I was one of those 45,787 fans, wondering if we had seen the last appearance of Ichiro on the field. Joining an American Chamber of Commerce of Japan event, I got a unique behind-the-scenes look at Major League Baseball. Jim Small, Senior Vice President of International Business at Major League Baseball, took us on a tour of Tokyo Dome: the press room, the bullpen and the field to watch batting practice.

Ichiro on lineup
Peeking inside the Mariners’ bullpen, with the game’s lineup written on the board. Ichiro batting ninth.

We watched Ichiro’s replacement in right field, Dan Vogelbach slash balls in the batting cage as Small pointed to the red patches in the green sea of artificial turf. He told us that two tons of clay on the mound and around the bases had been shipped in from the United States….by plane…after issues at the Panama Canal thwarted the forward progress of the freighter ship.

Getting the proper clay to Japan for two exhibition games and two official games was vital to Major League Baseball (MLB). With tens of millions of dollars of assets on the field in the form of professional baseball players, MLB didn’t want to have a repeat of what happened to Robin Ventura of the Mets, when they took on the Chicago Cubs in Japan in 2000, the first time any regular-season games had taken place outside North America. According to the New York Times, Ventura slipped twice in the batter’s box during a game, the Japanese clay being of a looser, drier consistency.

When we got into a meeting room for an Inside Baseball talk before the game, Small got down to business. Japan is a critical market, and a major source of revenue for MLB, whether it is media (e.g.: streaming of MLB games), sponsorships (e.g.: commercials or corporations that want to market themselves using the MLB logo or Japanese players in MLB uniforms), consumer products (e.g.: jerseys and caps), and events (e.g.: exhibition or regular-season games).

And MLB, like so many other businesses, want to grow smartly around the world. According to Small, investing in markets like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Latin America is a no brainer – baseball is a popular part of the culture and so the fandom and infrastructure are in place for MLB to plug and play. That’s why MLB is holding 2019 regular season games not only in Japan, but also in Mexico.

MLB is also looking at emerging markets, those with strong economies and perceived  to have the potential to grow the sport. Thus, games between teams in one of the fiercest and famed rivalries in baseball – The New York Yankees and The Boston Red Sox – will take place in London, England on June 29-30.

Jim Small on Bloomberg

It’s unclear whether baseball will take off in England – there is so much competition for the English sports fans’ mindshare and wallet. But MLB believes that the Asian emerging markets show tremendous potential for growth, particularly China and India.

China: As China prepared for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Small told us that leaders in China recognized that they were not competitive in baseball compared to its Asian neighbors, like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. They saw baseball as an Asian sport and they wanted to be better. Today, 650,000 viewers watch each MLB game broadcasted in China, in Chinese, which actually dwarfs the Japanese market. Some 300 stores sell MLB goods. And there are actually 7 Chinese nationals in the farm systems of major league baseball teams. China may not make the top 12 for the Olympics in Tokyo, but they are determined to catch up to their Asian brethren.

India: In 2008, the Pittsburgh Pirates created some media buzz by announcing the signing of two pitchers from India to minor league contracts. As interest by Indians in American baseball has grown, so too has MLB’s interest in growing the India market. As Small explained, India’s love for cricket is an advantage, particularly from a talent perspective, as the throwing and catching movements, on the whole, are similar to those in baseball. But perhaps even more intriguing is this: India has an incredibly high percentage of people who own connected devices like smartphones and tablets – 90%. That’s 90% of 1.1 billion people, of which 89% interact on social media. That’s the kind of market where the right steps can grow brand awareness very quickly.

Ichiro maybe saying goodbye to baseball. But the MLB is saying hello, konnichiwa, namaste and ni hao to the world.

(Oh by the way, Seattle won 9-7.)