Lyzia Xu 5

Olympians are inspirations because of their achievements despite the barriers before them. Lijia Xu won the gold medal in the Laser Radial sailing competition at the 2012 London Olympics for Team China, reaching the heights of her sport after overcoming a lack of hearing and sight, a sporting complex inexperienced in sailing, cancer, and a culture not yet open to new ideas.

Today, the Shanghai native is based in Dorset, England, and like so many high-performance athletes, figuring out how to transition from sport to new and sustainable career opportunities.

As a coach and trainer, Xu has gone online, sharing her techniques and insight on Airbnb Experiences. Xu has two courses: Olympic Champion’s Sailing Journey, and the one I participated in, Home Workouts & Q&A with Olympic Gold Medalist.

In the Home Workouts course, Xu is all business, as she takes you through a wide range of stretching and small-muscle group workouts, explaining how “T,” “Y,” and “W” exercises can relieve pain and improve posture. For a first-timer like me, those exercises proved to be a heck of a workout.

Lijia Xu 1

Xu learned these techniques as a teenager when she first started training with sailor and coach, Jon Emmett, who taught her that not only could Pilates resolve her spine issues, they would give her the mobility and movement required for the very physical aspects of sailing in a one-person dinghy.

Xu met Emmett because she was desperate to learn. Within the sports development system in China, Xu was beholden to her coaches and the sporting administrators who dictated the training regimen of all their athletes. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, competitive sailing was a relatively new sport in China, and so the local expertise was not so advanced.

Thirsty for knowledge, Xu read a book called “Be Your Own Sailing Coach,” and reached out to the author, Emmett, on Facebook, as she explained in her fascinating book, “Golden Lily: Asia’s First Dinghy Sailing Gold Medalist.” Despite the local protests, Xu helped get Emmett hired to coach the sailors in China. But that was just the beginning of the challenge, as Emmett and his coaching ways created discomfort for the local coaches, as Xu wrote:

All the sailors have to listen unconditionally to their coaches; the coaches obey their leaders; and the leaders report to their superiors. What Jon found hard was how those leaders, who had never sailed, could say that they knew what was best for the sailors and arrange everything based on their knowledge of an unrelated realm. They were unwilling to listen to the sailors’ opinions and it was a common practice to deny or disagree with what someone in a lower position said or asked for. So however hard the sailors tried to make the most reasonable and sensible suggestions to their coaches and leaders, their effort was mostly in vain.

Up to the moment Xu won the gold medal in the Radial Laser competition at the 2012 London Olympics, she had to fight for time and advice from Emmett, as access to the English coach was highly restricted. But in some ways, that was par for the course for Xu.

When Xu was born in 1987, her parents learned that she had half the hearing of an ordinary person and very poor vision in her left eye. Throughout her childhood and teenage years in Shanghai, she had to deal with the embarrassment of asking people to repeat themselves, or the spiteful laughter of children and adults who could not understand why she had to be told things over and over again.

But thanks to a chance meeting in Shanghai with a sailing coach who spotted the 10-year-old swimmer at a pool one day, Xu was asked to try out for the nascent sailing team, in a boat called “Optimist,” an appropriate name for the young girl who continued to keep her chin up. Once she realized the benefits of sailing, her self-esteem bloomed.

The freedom (of the water) was particularly appealing because I felt my life was limited by my poor hearing and eyesight while on land. Young children laughed at me, made fun of me, and didn’t allow me to join their activities due to my lack of these basic human functions. So the moment I boarded a boat, a deep sense of freedom suddenly overwhelmed my body, heart and mind. I loved to be in the boat surrounded by nature which isn’t judgmental; just fresh, open and vast! I had never been so happy and fulfilled as I was on a boat.

Lyzia Xu 2

The little tomboy grew from 130 to 176 cm and doubled her weight from 30 to 60 kg. She won the 1998 Chinese National Championships in Hong Kong, and in 1999, won her first international competition, taking gold at the Asian Championships. Soon she was flying to other countries and winning championships overseas. And in 2002, at the age of 15, she had the 2004 Athens Olympics in her sights.

Perhaps the Olympics had always been a silent goal. Xu wrote in her book about how she was inspired by a Japanese television series about a female volleyball player hoping to make it to the Olympics. And when she eagerly watched the opening ceremonies on the 2000 Sydney Olympics, her father teased her by saying, “Will I see you on TV one day, representing China in the Olympic Games?”

However, as Xu wrote, “life doesn’t always go the way we plan.” In November of 2002, a tumor was discovered in her left thigh bone. Surgery would mean that the dream of making the team for the Athens Games was over. Not having surgery, she was told, would mean the possible loss of her leg, if not her life.

After the surgery, after the unbearable pain began to fade, she started her recovery – excruciating exercises so that she could reactivate her leg muscles and walk again. But beyond the exercises, she used the downtime to study English, with the intent to communicate with foreign sailors to improve her craft. And it was in those quiet moments alone, she realized how much she missed sailing.

Sometimes I would ponder how boring my life was without sailing. It was like a life without vigor, a picture without color, or a movie without sound. It was in those quiet days, reflecting on myself and the past, that I realized how deeply I loved the sport of sailing. My life just couldn’t continue without it. When I steered the boat it is actually the boat which was pointing out a route for me, guiding me towards my dream goal and life values.

Sometimes you meet someone whose life energy is so great, it’s visible. If you have the opportunity to meet Lijia Xu, online or otherwise, you’ll know what I mean.

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Jimmie Johnson in eNASCAR iRacing Pro
NASCAR racecar driving great, Jimmie Johnson, competing in the first eNASCAE iRacing Pro Invitational on Fox.

What’s a diehard sports fan to do? This weekend, the only games being played were by football teams in the Belarus Vysshaya Liga and Burundi Primus League, by baseball teams in Nicaragua, and by ice hockey teams in Russia’s Liga Pro, according to flashscore.com.

 

Fans have more time to watch sports than ever before as coronavirus has forced a daily domestic life upon hundreds of millions of people around the world. Unfortunately, and ironically, there are almost no sports events to watch.

 

Every weekday morning in Japan, I should be at the office, peeking at my smartphone to see if my New York Rangers sneak into the NHL playoffs, or my New York Knicks can compete again for a Lottery Pick in the 2020 NBA draft, or my New York Mets pick up where they left off last year and make a determined march to the MLB playoffs. Now, I self isolate by working at home, with no sports to distract, trying to keep coffee and toast crumbs out of my keyboard.

 

Yes, the great pandemic of 2020 is enabling CIOs globally to accelerate the corporate digital revolution as they race to enable massive numbers of people to work from home, creating significant changes in the way we work.

 

The great pandemic of 2020 is also accelerating the growth of an already booming business – eSports – which is projected to surpass $1 billion in revenue for the first time this year, with expectations to hit $1.8 billion by 2022. The timing is strangely coincidental, but the Japanese government announced on March 29 a plan to expand Japan’s nascent eSports industry in collaboration with the private sector with the hopes of driving revenues of over $2.5 billion by 2025.

 

To the surprise of most people over 40, there is a growing audience for watching other people play video games, particularly on the biggest viewing platform – Twitch. And thanks to the need for greater social distancing, viewership has boomed. According to thegamingeconomy.com on April 2:

 

Market-leader Twitch has surpassed its records for hours streamed, average concurrent viewership (CCV), and hours watched, with the latter passing 3.1 billion hours for the first time. Comparing the figures to last year, Facebook Gaming has seen dramatic increases in its streaming portfolio, with hours watched up 236% to 563.7 million, hours streamed up 131.5% to over 4.9 million, and average CCV up to 256,000 at any one time.

 

In search of sports content, Fox Sports in the US broadcast on Sunday, March 22 the first of several broadcasts of eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, a live event featuring some of America’s best racecar drivers doing 100 laps for a contest of 150 miles…on a game counsel…in their homes.

 

Denny Hamlin, a 30-time NASCAR champion, and a three time Daytona 500 champion, pulled out a stunning last-second victory over legendary racer Dale Earnhardt Jr. Thanks to the simulation platform called iRacing, and its realistic rendering of the raceway and cars in motion, as well as the entertaining and real-time commentary by the Fox sports announcers, the eRace felt like a real car race. Over 900,000 fans tuned into this inaugural event, and a week later in the series’ second installment, over 1.3 million watched the simulated race.

 

 

The NBA has promoted its NBA 2K20 tournament, which features 16 NBA stars competing against each other on the league’s flagship video game, NBA 2K20. In the tournament’s first match on the morning of Saturday, April 4 (Japan time), Brooklyn Net superstar, Kevin Durant, took on Miami Heat small forward, Derrick Jones Jr. The tournament player can pick any NBA team to represent them. In this case, Durant played the Los Angeles Clippers while Jones used the Milwaukee Bucks.

 

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A screenshot from the inaugural game of the NBA 2K20 Tournament between Jones and Durant.

As media experiments in trying to figure out which eSports and what formats will best attract the audiences, there will be flops. eNASCAR is very watchable, thanks to the realistic visuals and the use of real announcers providing the call and the color. The NBA 2K20 in its current form relies on the game’s own play-by-play announcers, as well as the personality and communication skill of the players. Here’s how CBS Sports described the match between NBA players Patrick Beverley and Hassan Whiteside.

 

Let’s be honest: the first night of this tournament was boring. Beverley spiced up the ending, but that’s an unfair standard because he could spice up a baby shower. The normal human beings that participated in this tournament weren’t exactly trading barbs. All things considered, it was a dull start to a tournament that had real potential. Whether players are unwilling to open up in front of cameras or if this tournament needs a broadcaster to host the games and stimulate conversation is unclear, but what we saw on Friday wasn’t exactly thrilling content. 

 

But that’s sports. You win some. You lose some.

Max Whitlock sofa
Max Whitlock showing off in a new sport – pommel couch.

Two-time Olympian and five-time medalist in gymnastics for Team GB, Max Whitlock, has been helping his gymnastic colleagues stay in shape with his #GymnasticsWithMax series. On a lighter note, he showed a new event he created – “pommel couch.”

The first Team USA sports climber selected for Tokyo2020 was Brooke Raboutou, who has been keeping sharp by getting around her house without touching the floor. Here she is getting a snack.

Oktawia Nowacka, the bronze medalist in modern pentathlon at the 2016 Rio Olympics, stays in shape at home in Starogard Gdanski Poland with a variety of exercises that require s litle open space, furniture, resistance bands and a dog.

Retired javelin thrower, James Campbell, raised GBP26,000 by running the equivalent distance of a marathon in his garden. April 1 was his birthday so he decided to do celebrate in a most monotonous manner – circling the grounds of his 6-meter long garden area for over five hours. Campbell from Chelthenham, England set the Scottish record in the javelin throw at 80.38 meters, which stands today.

 

Mary Pruden is a sophomore swimmer at Columbia University who gave it her all in a 100 individual medley race. So inspiring were Pruden’s efforts that sports broadcasters Dan Hicks and Rodney Gaines dubbed their play-by-play onto Pruden’s video, this “race of the century.”

Rikako Ikee in the pool
言葉に表せないくらい嬉しくて、気持ちが良くて、幸せです。 “Words can’d describe how happy I am! It feels so good to be back in the pool. I’m so happy!” – Rikako Ikee, 406 days after being told that she can’t swim and compete in Tokyo2020.

 

It’s official. Tokyo 2020 is happening in 2021.

What does that mean? What impact does the change have on anything?

Firstly, I hope it gives  swimmer Rikako Ikee a chance to compete. One of Japan’s rising stars, the then 18-year-old Ikee became the first swimmer to win six gold medals in the Asian Games back in August, 2018. Six months later, Ikee was diagnosed with leukemia, and had to cease all competitive training in order to defeat the cancer. She promised her fans to be back in racing form for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

On the road to recovery, Ikee posted the above Instagram picture on March 17, happy to finally get permission from the doctor to swim again. She said in the Instagram post that there were no words to describe how happy she was, and what a great feeling it was to be back in the pool.

I hope that somehow, Ikee is able to fully recover, get herself back in shape within a year, and swim in Tokyo, for her legion of fans.

Here are a few more random thoughts:

Four-Day Weekend: A couple of public holidays were moved around to give the country days off on Thursday, July 23, and Friday, July 24, in order to create a less congested Tokyo at the start of the 2020 Tokyo  Olympics. Do we still get to keep that long weekend?

Russian Roulette: In December of 2019, Russia was banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) from competing at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, as well as the 2022 Beijing Olympics. While Russian athletes could compete as “neutrals” if they can prove they have not doped, the case is still being appealed by Russia in front of the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Maybe the extra year helps them figure out how to sway the courts to allow Russia representation in Tokyo.

Olympic Village: Before the virus hit the fan, the rooms in the Olympic Village that would be converted into condos after the Games were seeing strong demand last year, with applicants outstripping number of rooms at a rate of 2.5 to 1. Will those who bought into the Harumi waterfront property have to wait a little longer to enter their Olympian abodes?

Summer Days: The 2020 Games were scheduled for July 24 to August 9. The equivalent time period would be July 23 to August 8, missing by a day that opportunity to end the Tokyo Games on the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki, as would have been the case in 2020.

A Marathon Battle: The IOC unilaterally moved the men’s and women’s marathons from the streets of Tokyo to Sapporo on November 1, last year. Will Tokyo governor, Yuriko Koike, make another push to restore the marathon to Tokyo?

Coronavirus Redux: If viruses like Coronavirus thrive in cold weather, will we see a recurrence in the next winter? Will we experience the anxiety of rising fevers and uncovered sneezes as the temperatures dip, making everyone wonder if an outbreak were imminent?

Kansai Masters: The “Olympics” for 35 years and older, The 10th World Masters, is coming to Japan from May 14 – 30. Thousands of athletes from 35 to 105 will be coming from all over the world to compete To be held in the Western part of Japan, the Masters will be the canary in the coal mine, as it were. If a virus is lurking in the Spring of 2021, the organizers of the Kansai Masters will be tasked with tough decisions.

Odd Year: Tokyo2020 will still be called Tokyo2020, despite the Games taking place in 2021, the first time for an Olympiad to be held in an odd year.

2021 will be an odd year. But I give it an even chance to be great.

Tokyo 2020 + 1.

Can’t wait.

Olympic and Paralympic banners

In 1964, the streets of Tokyo were filled with banners proudly proclaiming that the biggest international party was coming to Japan.

In 2020, the streets of Tokyo are again filled with banners for the coming 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

Tokyo 3 001
From the collection of Dick Lyon, American rower at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

The street banners, as is also the case with the ticket designs, are based on a singular “Look of the Games,” the visual identity formalized by the organizing committee. The foundation of this visual identity is the rectangular shapes that make up the Olympic and Paralympic logos.

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A banner distributed by the Tokyo government (from the collection of Roy Tomizawa)

One of the street banners in particular had an emotional impact on me the moment I saw it – the dark red on white, with the words Tokyo 2020 in gold. I’m sure this 2020 banner is a direct reference to the first poster released by the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee in 1961, a design by Yusaku Kanemura which was used heavily in artwork for all sorts of collaterals – programs, shirts, banners, for example.

Tokyo2020 vs Tokyo1964
On the left is from 2020, while the one on the right is Yusaku Kanemaru’s iconic design for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

On October 23, 1964, the day before the final day of the Tokyo Olympics, two Bulgarians tied the knot in a most unique venue – in the Olympic Village. Below 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, which tells the story of two Olympians, Diana Yorgova and Nikola Prodanov.

The First Ever Olympic Wedding

For all of us who fly, it’s a sinking feeling when you arrive in a foreign land and your luggage hasn’t arrived with you. Imagine if you’re an Olympic athlete, and you land without your official uniform, training gear, and other personal belongings. “I was numb with distress,” said Diana Yorgova, a long jumper from Bulgaria. Fortunately, among the Japanese welcoming the Olympians at Haneda Airport were two legendary athletes, Mikio Oda, Japan’s first ever gold medalist, who won the triple jump competition at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, and Chuhei Nambu, who also took gold in the triple jump at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.

Nambu came up to Yorgova to comfort her, and told her that it would be OK, that in fact, he too had landed in Los Angeles without his luggage, and had make his first jump barefoot! She understood. But she was still unsettled. That feeling disappeared the next day.

After a sleepless night of worry and jet lag, the new day offered me a pleasant surprise: a huge parcel addressed to me containing a brand new outfit, absolutely my size from spikes and runners to training suit and, moreover, amazingly, a T-shirt with the national state emblem embroidered on it. I was stunned, deeply touched and full of admiration. I wanted to fly with joy because I knew now I was going to participate! In my thoughts I sent thousands of thanks to those Japanese who brought back my self-confidence and dignity and whom I not only didn’t even know but had unwittingly disturbed.

Yorgova would place a respectable sixth in the women’s long jump competition, her medal to come later with a second-placed finish at the 1972 Munich Games. To celebrate her strong performance in her first Olympics, Yorgova and her fiancé, Bulgarian gymnast Nikola Prodanov decided to do some very special shopping: wedding rings. They planned to hold their big day after their graduation from Sofia University on Prodanov’s birthday in May of 1965.

That same day, the couple went to visit the Bulgarian ambassador, Christo Zdravchev. When the ambassador saw the rings, he brought out a bottle of Bulgarian wine and toasted to the couple’s happy future. But then, despite the diplomatic nature of the ambassador’s job, he apparently let the cat out of the bag by informing members of the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee, who in turn implored the ambassador to request Prodanov and Yorgova to change their plans. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, they enthused, for the young Bulgarian couple to hold their wedding in Japan, in the Olympic Village, during the Olympic Games?

The next day, the ambassador sheepishly approached Prodanov and Yorgova with the surprising request.

“Thus our fairy tale began,” said Yorgova. “I can’t forget the attention and care with which the Japanese ladies of the beauty parlor in the Olympic Village were preparing me for the ceremony. There, for the first time in my life, I had my hair dressed and my nails polished by professionals, who also massaged my scalp and even my arms. When I saw and put on the most beautiful dress of white lace and Nikola put on the first tuxedo in his life we felt like the prince and princess of a fairy tale.”

It was October 23rd, 1964, the day before the closing ceremony. Prodanov and Yorgova were nervous and filled with mixed feelings as this impromptu wedding meant that instead of sharing the moment with families and friends in Bulgaria, they were sharing it with diplomats, administrators and athletes, as well as press from around the world.

With the civil ceremony completed at the Bulgarian Embassy, the couple then embarked on what can only be described as a most original wedding: Western Olympic Shinto.

Japanese who choose a traditional wedding take their vows before a Shinto priest. But this was something more than just a traditional wedding. Held at the Yoyogi Olympic Village International Club, Prodanov in a black morning coat and Yorgova dressed in a white lace gown and veil entered in the glare of television lights and hundreds of flashing cameras, as they came to take their places in front of the presiding priest.

Nikolai Prodanov and Diana Yorgova_Japan Times
Nikolai Prodanov and Diana Yorgova_ The Japan Times

 

 

 

The traditional Shinto arrangements of sake bottles and rice, along with photos of the Olympic cauldron and the ever-present Olympic rings forming their wedding backdrop, were reminders that they were a long way from home in Bulgaria. An interpreter stood by to explain some of the more confusing aspects of the ritual. In Yorgova’s words:

We made our oath of allegiance to the Olympic Flag and a huge poster of the Olympic Flame in the presence of outstanding athletes from all over the world, official guests and journalists. To a background of gentle Shinto music we exchanged our rings, drank three sips of sake, and cut the most magical cake of our lives. At the end, we all danced Bulgarian traditional dances “horo” and “ruchenitsa.”

If one event symbolized the Olympics’ singularly international character, this may have been it.

After the ceremony, the couple were whisked away to the brand-new bullet train to enjoy a honeymoon evening in Kyoto and return to Tokyo the next morning to participate in the closing ceremonies in the afternoon.

Fifty-three years later, Yorgova recalled that magical moment with gratefulness. “As parents and grandparents of four grandchildren, we value the great efforts of the organizers more than ever before, and we apologize most heartedly for the extra anxiety, inconvenience and problems we caused to organize our wedding on such short notice,” she said. “We lived a moment we will never forget, thanks to the kind and gentle people of Japan, so full of goodwill.”

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Japan is an orderly place, run by officials and managers who tend to be risk averse. That’s why things work so efficiently and effectively here.

Thus, when Tokyo2020 organizers created an Artist Selection Committee to create official posters for the lead up to the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, I would have expected them to be traditional in their outlook.

After all, the posters that have been in the public eye for the past few years have been those of the Olympic and Paralympic logos – as conservative as you can be.

But Tokyo2020 is not your grandparent’s Tokyo1964. The committee commissioned19 artists to create posters, and I imagine that the brief they were given was very liberal. Of the 20 official posters that were officially revealed in early January, only 4 at most would be identified as representing the Olympics and Paralympics, either because the official logos are referenced, or Tokyo 2020 is explicitly displayed. The other 16 could be posters for anything.

But that’s OK. They are a wide variety of styles and interpretations of what the Olympics and Paralympics represent, which is in line with the hopes of Masayoshi Aoyagi, the chairman of the artist selection committee, who said in this article that the committee looked for a diversity of values and aesthetic sense to reflect this era of diversity, and so they selected photographers, manga artists, graphic designers. He said that you can see the very rich diversity of the art scene, as well as the incredible individuality and creativity of these artists.

If you are in Tokyo, you can see all 20 posters on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo until February 16, 2020. There is no charge for viewing this exhibit.

 

HARMONIZED CHEQUERED EMBLEM STUDY FOR TOKYO 2020 OLYMPIC/PARALYMPIC GAMES, by Asao Tokolo

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Tokolo was selected to design the logos for Tokyo 2020 in April, 2016, and it is his design that has been the object of the posters promoting the Olympics. For this larger poster project, Tokolo reimagined his design for two separate Olympic and Paralympic posters, creating patterns that to me, reflect celestial bodies or traditional Japanese fabrics. Tokolo said that “…these designs, ‘individual’ rectangles form ‘groups’ under ‘rules.’ The designs were created partly on the computer, partly by hand. My aim was to create a ‘relay baton’ to be passed on from 2020 to future generations. I created the designs as a tribute to the Tokyo 1964 designers, who relied on compasses and rulers for their creations, and by imagining what mediums would be employed by designers of the future.”

 

Now it’s your turn! by Naoki Urasawa and The Sky above the Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa by Hirohiko Araki

Urasawa and Araki

Both Urasawa and Araki are acclaimed artists of manga, the Japanese style of comic book drawing. Urasawa of Tokyo, whose manga works include best-selling titles as “Yawara!” and “MONSTER,” created a comic page that shows an athlete getting ready, with the anticipatory words “tsuzuku,” at the bottom, which means “to be continued.” Araki, a Miyagi artist who is known for his comic series, “Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure,” riffed on a very popular Japanese image – Hokusai’s “Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa. “I imagined the gods of sports descending on Japan from a sky filled with clouds resembling turbulent waves.

 

FLY HIGH by Shoko Kanazawa and Open by Koji Kakinuma

Kanazawa and Kakinuma

Two calligraphers were invited to create posters for Tokyo2020.  Kanazawa selected the first character in her first name “sho,” to boldly represent her wish that “everybody supporting the Olympic Games, will soar high above Tokyo to reach people the world over.” The character “sho” means “to fly high.” Kakinuma selected the characther “開,” which means “open.” He said “I imagined Olympic and Paralympic athletes working toward new height every day, and told myself, ‘Open, open, open!’ as I applied brush to paper until I felt myself to be completely ‘open.'”

 

Flow line, by Daijiro Ohara

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Ohara is an artist from Kanagawa, Japan who imagined the route of the Olympic flame from Athens to Tokyo as a jumbled set of intersecting lines and loops, which reflects the complexity of connectivity. “What could possibly link an individual with an event in which world-class athletes compete?” asked Ohara. “It is not easy to grasp what does connect a huge-scale event with an individual –  such connections can be erratic, or elusive.”

 

Higher than the Rainbow by Mika Ninagawa, and Ludus, by Viviane Sassen

Ninagawa and Sassen

Ninagawa is a photographer and filmmaker who is reflecting the limitless potential of para-athletes. Of this image of Renshi Chokai, she said “para-athletes are cool. This simple message is what this picture is about.”  Sassen, a photographer, from Amsterdam, said she wanted to “depict the JOY of PLAY,” as well as cultural diversity and the variety of nationalities who all come together to participate in the Olympic Games.”

 

Wild Things – Hachilympic, by Tomoko Konoike

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The most arresting poster to me was this “wild thing,” chasing a bee (“hachi” in Japanese). Perhaps Konoike, an artist from Akita, was channeling Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things. She said that “as animals, each human being grasps the world with totally different perceptions. We see the world through our own unwelts. None are the same. No words are identical. No light is identical. If the Olympic Games prepare themselves for that and address it honestly, then in time, a new ecosystem, filled with the senses, for a small organism, will begin to function.”

All photographs above were taken by the author.

You can see all of the posters at this link.

Happy 2020 New Year from the olympians

Welcome to 2020!

Welcome to the Year of the Rat!

While the “rat” in English tends to have negative connotations, in terms of the Chinese zodiac, the rat is seen in a very positive light.

In Chinese culture, the rat is energetic, alert, flexible, witty and full of life. The rat, because of it’s reproductive prowess, is a symbol of wealth.

As the Chinese zodiac runs on 12-year cycles, and the Olympics run on 4-year cycles, there have been a large number of Olympiads, both summer and winter, held in the Year of the Rat.

Year of the Rat

Summer

Winter

1900

Paris

1912

Stockholm

1924

Paris

Chamoix

1936

Berlin

Garmisch-Partenkirchen

1948

London

St. Moritz

1960

Rome

Squaw Valley

1972

Munich

Sapporo

1984

Los Angeles

Sarajevo

1996

Atlanta

2008

Beijing

2020

Tokyo

You can see a few selection trends via the above table. Initially, the Olympics were highly European-centric, with a shift to North America towards the end of the 20th century. The 21st century has seen a shift towards Asia, including three Olympiads in a row held in Asia (2018 – PyeongChang, 2020 – Tokyo, and 2022 – Beijing).

The 1972 Sapporo Olympics, only 8 years after Japan’s triumphant hosting of the Summer Olympics in 1964, were also a success. Not only did Japan win its first gold medals in a Winter Olympiad, it is said that the Sapporo Games turned a profit. The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics were considered the first Olympiad to make money as well.

So while the Olympics in general are not profit-making events, the Year of the Rat and its aura of prosperity may make a difference in the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics. By many measures, Tokyo2020 is already a success.

So if you smell a rat this year, that may be a good thing.

japan womens volleyball team victorious_Bi to Chikara
The women’s volleyball team victorious, from the book “Bi to Chikara”

The Japanese were buying televisions, this magical device that brought the world into their homes. And with the Tokyo Olympics arriving in October, 1964, sales for color television were soaring like their pride in hosting the Olympics.

The Tokyo Games had a massive impact on the psyche of the Japanese – no event in the history of Japan was viewed as much by as many people. Reports of television ratings in Japan vary wildly depending on the source. One source explains that over 75 million people watched some part of the Olympics over the two-week period, for a rating of 97.3%. That’s amazing since the population in Japan at the time was about 100 million.

Another source explains that three of the four highest rated programs in Japan in 1964 were related to the Olympics:

  1. 15th NHK Red and White Song Battle (NHK General, December 31) 72.0%
  2. Tokyo Olympic and Volleyball Women’s Final “Japan vs Soviet Union” (NHK General, October 23) 66.8%
  3. Tokyo Olympics Closing Ceremony (NHK General, October 24, 16: 52-18: 20) 63.2%
  4. Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremony (NHK General, October 10 13: 43-15: 20) 61.2%

But I suspect this list from Wikipedia is misleading as it focuses on ratings for one channel. The number one program, the annual new year’s eve programming (Red and White Song Battle) was broadcast only on NHK. But the Tokyo Olympics, on the whole, was broadcasted on multiple channels, sometimes up to five channels covering the same event. That was the case for the Opening and Closing ceremonies, as well as the highest rated event during the Olympics – the women’s volleyball final – when the Japanese defeated the Soviet Union to win gold.

Japan Television Program_Volleyball_October 23
Japan Television Program on October 23, 1964

One can say, with little exaggeration, that nearly everyone in Japan was watching that match.

Think about that – when was the last time an entire nation’s eyes were watching the same exact thing, united in their attention and feelings? In recent years, I can think of only moments of disaster and distress: 9.11 in the US or 3.11 in Japan.

In terms of uplifting moments, never was Japan more united, or prouder, than at 9 pm on October 23, 1964, when the final point sealed the victory for the Witches of the Orient, as the women’s basketball team was affectionately called.

I must admit. I believe I felt a bit of that unity and pride 55 years later, in September and October 2019. The Rugby World Cup is currently being held for the first time in Asia, and the host country, Japan has the only Asian representative in the tournament.

Rugby Fans go wild after Japan defeats Ireland_Kyodo
Japan supporters at a public viewing site in Tokyo celebrate after Kenki Fukuoka scored a try. Photo: Kyodo

Japan kicked off the tournament on September 20, 2019, defeating Russia 30-10. The television rating was 18.3%, attracting a peak of 26 million viewers. On September 28, Japan pulled off an upset, upending Ireland 19-12, igniting celebrations across the country, and sending ratings higher with 29.5 million viewers. As excitement and expectations noticeably grew among casual and non-rugby fans, viewers of the Japan-Samoa match on October 5 climbed to 47 million.

With three wins in hand during the tournament pool plan, a Japan victory against Scotland would send Japan into the Top 8 for the first time. Nervous but hopeful, over 54 million people were tuned into to watch, attracting a peak rating of 53.7% at the end of the match, when Japan realized their dream of advancement into the elimination round.

Alas, the Brave Blossoms could not survive the South African python that squeezed the life out of the Japanese ruggers. Ratings during the course of the match suffered as viewers realized that the impossible dream was indeed just a dream.

But the dream is the thing. Japan was living a dream vicariously through the incredible energy and surprising skill of the Brave Blossoms – these upstarts turned world beaters.

Is the 2019 Rugby World Cup a sign of things to come? Will the 2020 Tokyo Olympics raise expectations of triumph and pride? Will Japanese heroes emerge to capture the imagination of children and adults across the nation? Will the Olympics unite Japan in a way that exceeds the unity inspired by the Japanese ruggers?

There is little doubt in my mind – the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will bring the nation together.

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Chiharu Ts’baki 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 Ts’baki 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 Ts’baki and Steve Myers with their beautiful rendition of “Ue o Muite, Arukou.”