WMG promo page_Kyoto

Imagine over 40,000 people coming together in front of stunning Heian Jingu in Kyoto, people of all ages from all over the world, smiling and happy to be in Japan.

It’s hard to imagine that scene today, a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has left the biggest tourist destinations of the world, including the popular former capital of Japan, bereft of visitors. But that’s what Jens V. Holm sees in his head, in May of 2021. That’s when the World Masters Games 2021 Kansai takes place, the global sporting event that brings together two to three times the number of athletes than the Summer Olympics.

Holm is the CEO of IMGA, or the International Masters Games Association, and he expects to be in Japan from May 14 to 30 of next year, during the 17 days of the first ever World Masters Games (WMG) in Asia.

The WMG invites anyone 30 years of age or older to compete in 35 sporting disciplines ranging from track and field and swimming events to team events like baseball and rugby, to lesser known competitive sports like tug of war or orienteering. Held every four years, the year after an Olympic year, WMG is becoming one of the most popular Big Tent sporting events in the world.

A significant difference between WMG and the Olympics is that while the Olympics invite national teams, the WMG invites individuals, which means there is no mass directives from committees to dictate whether an athlete will attend or not attend. And while Holm, like the rest of us, does not know if there will be a vaccine by the end of the year, he does know we will be better prepared in 2021. “We will take precautions, do proper risk management,” he said. “We have spread the venues out over the entire region of Kansai so that we won’t have all the people in one area during the Games.”

The World Masters Games Kansai 2021 is Japan’s “canary in the coal mine” – the event that will determine the confidence the world has in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and whether the world will also come together for the opening ceremony on July 23. As we approach the Fall of 2020, we can look to the “health” of the canary, hoping to hear the chirpy notes indicating WMG is ready for flight in 2021.

And WMG can fly.

In the shadow of the Olympics, FIFA World Cup and other massive international sports events, the World Masters Games has quietly built up a tremendous fan base of participants. Additionally, Holm said that cities are eager to bring the Games to their areas, with four cities currently bidding for WMG 2025: Perth, Taipei, Paris and Singapore.

WMG map and sports

While the Olympics generally get a lot of bad press about budget overruns and white elephant “legacies,” the World Masters Games creates significant return on investment to the host city, without the development of any new infrastructure. In fact they insist that the host city employs only existing infrastructure. The World Masters Games focuses on attracting participants from around the world, like a major marathon or triathlon event, to generate revenue, not on television rights, spectator ticket sales or sponsorships like the IOC does. Holm explained that the IMGA is a non-profit, and that the purpose of the Masters Games is to serve as a tourism event.

Our focus is on the host cities making money, not the IMGA. We charge the host city rights fees, but always less than the city receives from the athletes in registration fees, so the organizers start in the black.  And we don’t allow the city to build anything. This way all their investment into operating the games will serve as an investment in tourism. The big revenue generation for the host city or region is athletes paying for their own travel and accommodation.   

In fact, if you watch the promotional video for WMG 2021 Kansai, it is essentially a tourism video enticing athletes to experience the beauty and cuisine of the nine prefectures hosting sporting events during the games.

Holm said that prior to the pandemic outbreak, expectations were that WMG Kansai was going to be their most popular event ever. While the last WMG saw over 28,000 athletes gather in Auckland, New Zealand in 2017, Holm was expecting a record-breaking 50,000 athletes, half from Japan, and half from overseas. And these athletes are above average spenders.

“The average age for both men and women is 51,” said Holm. “The athletes who come from overseas end up taking two weeks off to participate, indicating they tend to be from higher income groups. And 77% of them have a university degree. With high income and high education, you have more time and resources to focus on your health. That fits in very well with the Japan market, which is focused on building their tourism industry, as well as working to ensure their aging population has an active lifestyle.”

So without the financial burden of building costly infrastructure like sports venues or athlete accommodations, among other things, and the focus primarily on attracting motivated athletes (not spectators), the World Masters Games model has proven to have a positive impact on the host economy. An independently researched report on WMG2017 in Auckland, New Zealand stated that the “return on Auckland’s investment in WMG2017 was 151%, calculated as $34.2 million (WMG’s contribution to regional GDP) divided by $22.6 million (Auckland’s investment in WMG2017).”

Jens Holm_1
Jens V. Holm, CEO of the International Masters Games Association (IMGA)

A good part of that return on investment came from the over 27,000 visitors to Auckland who spent a total of 241,480 nights in hotels and Airbnb venues, staying on average 8.9 nights. The 17,000 overseas visitor spent over USD56 million in New Zealand, a fifth of that from visitors who flew in via the national carrier, Air New Zealand.

This is what the leaders of the nine prefectures in the Kansai region are hoping for, a jolt to re-energize their tourism ecosystem.

“That’s why we had it on the drawing board to spread venues across the region,” said Holm. “There is so much to see in Kansai from a tourism point of view. And the infrastructure is very good. This will be an excellent way for the country to promote itself.”

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Nearly 70% of people do not expect the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games to be held as scheduled, according to a Kyodo News survey in early March.

The reason is the global impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

From Shanghai to Rome, from London to New York, we’re seeing the most populous cities in the world turn into ghost towns overnight.

So while the Japanese feel that holding the Olympics and Paralympics may be impossible this year, they are doing so in a country that is surprisingly sociable. While the same Kyodo News survey showed that 44.3% of the Japanese survey disapproved of the government measures, people are out and about in ways that would be shocking to people elsewhere in the world.

Gakugeidaigaku 15March and Shibuya 21March
People out and about on March 15 in my neighborhood in Meguro (left), and on March 21 in Shibuya (right).

Yes, Japan had the scare of the Diamond Princess, a story brought live by Twitter and TV into the phones and homes of every citizen here. And when the passengers were released in a seemingly slipshod and insecure manner, there were fears of a potential outbreak in Japan.

Surprisingly, the outbreak never happened in Japan. Other countries raced ahead of Japan in terms of number of infections or coronavirus-related deaths. While other Asian nations got praise for their swift response regarding policies and testing, Japan has been criticized for its relatively limited testing and perceived lack of transparency. Still Japan is quietly sharing numbers that reflect a relatively low number of infections, and perhaps more significantly, a much lower number of reported hospitalizations and deaths due to coronavirus.

movie theater_8March
At least Japanese are refraining from movie theaters_Futagotamagawa on Sunday afternoon, March 8.

Is Japan exceptional? We’ll have to wait for the research after the pandemic has run its course, but this article cites several reasons why Japan may be ahead of the curve when it comes to fighting off coronavirus:

  • the most vulnerable demographic – 65 and older – is a very healthy one in Japan
  • Japan’s national health system is accessible to all and inexpensive
  • Senior care services are abundant and inexpensive
  • Japanese hospitals are experienced in detecting early and treating respiratory ailments in the elderly, and
  • Japanese  are very hygiene conscious, and do not have customs like hand shaking and kissing

Two months after the horror show that was the Diamond Princess, the Japanese health system is handling the comparatively small number of cases coming its way.

Farmers Market 5
The Farmers Market in front of the United Nations University Building in Shibuya open for business on Saturday, March 21. No ghosts here.

So while corporations across Japan have cancelled large events and large meetings, implemented policies that restrict movement and encourage work from home, there are still many people commuting to work in buses and trains.

While people in Japan are discouraged not to gather for cherry blossom viewing parties as the sakura begin to bloom this weekend, the restaurants and shopping areas are still filled with people.

Public schools all over Japan closed down a couple of weeks before the beginning of Spring Break. And yet, only several weeks later, the government is now recommending that  schools re-open (assuming there are no new confirmed cases) as planned at the beginning of the new academic year in April.

To the outsider, Japan may be compared to Nero fiddling while his city burned. But so far, the numbers are not indicating a city on fire.

Yes, it is strange to live in Japan today. Surreal in fact.

I think I’ll go for a walk among the cherry trees.

lining up for masks and restaurant in Shibuya
In Shibuya, on March 21, people were lining up for masks (left), as well as for their favorite restaurants (right).

The Surreality of Tokyo2020 in the Era of Coronovirus Part 1: Are We Witnessing Effective Decision Making or the Rearranging of Deck Chairs on the Titanic?

Torch Arrival 5_Rings blown to the wind
The Olympic rings in the sky, blowin’ in the wind.

In 1964, on Saturday, October 10, the Blue Impulse aerobatic jet team that painted the brilliantly blue sky with the Olympic rings on the opening day of the Tokyo Olympics, symbolizing then that the sky’s the limit for Japan.

In 2020, on Saturday, March 20, the Blue Impulse team reprised their role from nearly 56 years prior, sketching the five rings in the sky during the ceremony welcoming to Japan the sacred Olympic fire from Greece.

 

Unfortunately, the rings were immediately washed away by the blustery winds over Matsushima Air base in Miyagi prefecture, symbolizing, perhaps, that our limits are not quite so high.

 

I watched the officials, athletes and celebrities line up ceremoniously, undoubtedly proud to represent Japan in this extraordinary event. The Olympic flame is scheduled to start a nation-wide relay from Futaba, Fukushima on March 26 and end in Tokyo at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on July 24, perhaps at that time, showing the world that the Tokyo2020 Games are truly the “Recovery Olympics,” as the organizers have billed them.

 

But I couldn’t help but imagine that each and every one of them harbored the question, “Will this flame actually ignite the Olympic Cauldron on July 24?”

Torch Arrival 1

 

President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach, Tokyo2020 chief, Yoshiro Mori and Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe among many other officials have said that the Tokyo Olympics are going to take place as scheduled. “The I.O.C. remains fully committed to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, and with more than four months to go before the Games there is no need for any drastic decisions at this stage,” said Bach.

 

The cool and patient approach of the IOC may be the right approach, but their words are beginning to seem surreal, and increasingly at odds with the heated and urgent voices of athletes and officials around the world.

 

“Of course the IOC and the whole world wants a successful Olympics. But for that to happen I strongly believe the event needs to be postponed – unless the authorities can guarantee it will be business as usual, which I don’t believe they can,” said Guy Learmonth on March 17, who is competing for a spot on the Great British track team.

 

“I’m not against the Olympics. But saying that the Olympics will still go on is a big mistake in communication,” said Giovanni Petrucci on March 19, who served as president of the Italian Olympic Committee for 14 years.

 

“Our athletes are under tremendous pressure, stress and anxiety, and their mental health and wellness should be among the highest priorities. It is with the burden of these serious concerns that we respectfully request that the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee advocate for the postponement of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 by one year,” wrote USA Swimming CEO, Tim Hinchey, to the head of the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee CEO, Sarah Hirshland, on March 20.

 

The pressure on the local officials in Japan is immense, and we are seeing fissures in this brave front that the Games must go on. Recently two prominent Japanese voices have spoken up:

 

 

Japan is hosting the biggest, most logistically complex big-tent event in the world this year, but decisions regarding cancellation or postponement are made by the IOC. And as long as the IOC takes a wait-and-see approach, waiting to the last possible moment before making such a decision, Japanese officials believe they must do the same.

 

The decision that has to be made is a thankless one – there will be an outcry whether the Games go on as scheduled, are postponed or cancelled. I have no doubt that the IOC and the Tokyo2020 Olympic and Paralympic Organizing Committee are doing the best they can to make a wise decision.

 

In the meanwhile, the pressure continues to build, and reality continues to distort.

Torch Arrival 2
Wrestler and three-time gold medalist, Saori Yoshida, and judoka and three-time gold medalist Tadahiro Nomura, welcome the sacred flame to Japan.

The Surreality of Tokyo2020 in the Era of Coronovirus Part 2: Shopping, Dining and Sipping Sake Under the Cherry Trees

Diamond Princess

We followed the story of the Diamond Princess as if we were binge watching a Stephen King adaptation on Netflix – with fascination and fear.

 

The two-week quarantine of the 3,711 passengers and crew on the British grand-class cruise ship docked at Yokohama harbor was a constant reminder to the Japanese of how close the coronavirus outbreak has come to Japanese shores. The death of two elderly passengers on board the Diamond Princess on February 20 at the end of the quarantine intensified the concern over the Japanese government’s decision to release hundreds of passengers who tested negative for the virus.

 

In fact, as the number of reported infections on the ship climbed, so too did the number of reported infections across Japan: Kanagawa, Wakayama, Hokkaido, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Okinawa, Kyushu, Aichi, Chiba….

 

Masks are the coinage of the land. Tokyo and Kyoto are no longer swarming with tourists as inbound cancellations climb. Announcements of meeting and conference cancellations in companies across the country are coming hard and fast. Organizers for the March 1 Tokyo Marathon and the March 8 Nagoya Women’s Marathon are dropping tens of thousands or participants from the race, and allowing only the elite runners to compete.

 

And then there’s the elephant in the room.

 

Will the Tokyo2020 Olympics be cancelled?

 

Yashiro Mori, former Japan prime minister and current president of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games pointed at the elephant in the room and said:

 

I would like to make it clear again that we are not considering a cancellation or postponement of the games. Let me make that clear.

 

That was February 13, just before the cases of coronavirus began to crisscross the country.

 

Dr. Hitoshi Oshitani, a Japanese virologist, said on February 19 that the Olympics could not take place today.

 

“I’m not sure [of] the situation in Japan at the end of July,” he said at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan on Wednesday, as per The Associated Press. “We need to find the best way to have a safe Olympics. Right now we don’t have an effective strategy, and I think it may be difficult to have the Olympics [now]. But by the end of July we may be in a different situation.”

 

Or we may not be.

 

We have no cure for coronavirus right now. We understand so little about the latest virus outbreak. And in the absence of clear facts, what often fills the void is doubt, speculation and fear.

 

Am I safe? Will a cure be found in time? Will the virus burn out as the temperature climbs?

 

Will the Olympics be cancelled, its sunk cost like an albatross around the necks of the country, the IOC and the massive number of organizations and businesses that have invested in these Games?

Or will the Olympics rise like a Phoenix, overcoming crisis, sending our spirits aloft?

 

Note: This article was written on February 22, in the midst of daily changes and updates regarding the coronavirus in Japan.

Hagibis
PHOTO: Typhoon Hagibis is heading north over the Pacific towards Japan’s main island. (AP: NOAA)

As I sit at home this quiet Saturday morning, Tokyo braces for the mighty hurricane Hagibis.

As Forbes claims, Hagibis could be as powerful as Hurricane Sandy, a category 2 storm that resulted in 2 billion dollars worth of damage to the East Coast of the US in 2012.

Today is October 12, 2019. For all the amateur and professional weather prognosticators who are fretting about the potential heat wave during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, to be held from July 24 to August 9, calm down.

So many have said, “Why didn’t they schedule the upcoming Olympics in October like they did in 1964?” They could have. But for financial reasons outlined in this informative New York Times article, they didn’t.

So imagine the Olympics taking place in mid-October, on a day like today. What would have happened?

The 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan is a test case. The organizers for the 2-month tournament, which has been very well received in Japan, selling out stadiums across the nation, have cancelled (not postponed) two matches between New Zealand and Italy, and between England and France due to the threat of Hagibis.

Well, the organizers couldn’t have predicted that.

Exactly.

Bob Schul wins 5000 in 1964
Bob Schul wins 5000 in 1964 in a cold and rainy day.

If the third day of the Olympics fell on October 12 like today, the organizers would have to cancel surfing, rowing, beach volleyball, skateboarding, shooting, archery, field hockey, softball, tennis, sailing, canoe slalom, road cycling, soccer, and equestrian dressage because they are outdoor events. But they would also likely cancel all of the indoor events as well, which include volleyball, fencing, gymnastics, table tennis, badminton, taekwando, swimming, weighlifting, baseketball, handball, judo, and diving because of the risk of harm and delay to spectators, organizers and athletes getting to and from venues.

Hurricanes aside, yes, it will likely be hot during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Most athletes and organizers will do the cost-benefit analysis in their heads, weighing their options, as they did regarding the more fearsome Zika Virus scare prior to the Rio Olympics. My guess is that even the marathoners and triathoners, who could be affected by the heat, will decide to go to Tokyo for the Olympics. I’m sure  the organizers will go overboard on creating cooler environments (although I doubt they can bring down the summer water temperature of Tokyo Bay for the triathletes.)

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the weather was actually far from beautiful Autumn weather. The temperatures ranged from 14.6 C (58.2F) to 21.7C (71F), and was basically cool, cloudy and rainy almost every day. The road cyclists could see their breath in the hills of Hachioji, the runners in the Stadium had to run through rain and sometimes muddy conditions on certain days.

Atomic Bomb Japan Times_Oct 17 1964

And smack dab in the middle of the Tokyo Olympics, everybody in Japan were deeply concerned about radiation poisoning. Communist China decided to detonate its first atomic bomb as a test, on October 16, 1964.  The only nation to have an atomic bomb dropped on its soil, organizers and citizens alike were concerned about radiation fallout blown on the winds over the waters that separated the two countries.

Predicting the unpredictable – it’s cool if you can do it. I wouldn’t bet on it.

So for those who are sure what the weather will be like in Tokyo from July 24 to August 9 – here’s hoping you had nothing great planned outdoors today.

Yuukan Fuji_March 6 2019
“2020 Tokyo Gorin – Saiaku no Shinario,” (Tokyo 2020 Worst Case Scenario), by Robert Whiting, Yuukan Fuji, March 5, 2019 – The text inside the blue box is where I am quoted.

What could go wrong at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?

I was asked that question by best-selling author, Bob Whiting, for a weekly column he writes for the Japanese  newspaper, Yūkan Fuji. My answer to him?

Anything.

And we don’t have to go too far back in time for a prime example.

It was less than three years ago when the organizers of the 2016 Rio Olympics had to endure an endless number of threats to the reputation of Brazil and the Olympics:

  • The Brazilian economy had tanked. Police and firemen protested at the airports they were not getting paid, warning people to stay away. There was even significant speculation that the  organizers would cut air conditioning in the Olympic Village to save costs.

Police on strike in Brazil airport

  • The largest scandal in Brazilian history filled the headlines in 2016, one that involved state-run oil company, Petrobras, in which officials received kickbacks in return for selection of specific suppliers, kickbacks that totaled some USD3 to 5 billion.
  • The question of whether the president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, would be impeached and removed hung over the Games like a cloud. (She was removed from office 10 days after the end of the Rio Olympics.)
  • The threat of catching the Zika Virus, a mosquito-borne threat to pregnant women and newborns, kept tourists and Olympians away from the Rio Olympics.
  • The site of the triathlon and sailing competition, Guanabara Bay, was so contaminated with human waste that it threatened the health of athletes who would compete in those waters.
Garbage on the shore of Guanabara Bay_1June 2015 In this June 1, 2015 file photo, a discarded sofa litters the shore of Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo, File)

It’s impossible for Olympic officials to control the media’s thirst for issues and scandal, but the circumstances of Brazil at the time made it easy for the press to generate negative storylines.

Will that be the case in Tokyo, when the Olympics come to town in July and August of 2020? What are the headlines that could shake Olympic officials or encourage the naysayers?

  • North Korea Boycotts the Olympics: The Korean teams marched together at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in 2018, and even brought together North and South Koreans on the women’s ice hockey team. But if pressure mounts due to lack of progress in US-North Korea talks to denuclearize North Korea, who knows whether the Olympics will become an opportunity to raise the rhetoric and make North Korea’s participation a bargaining chip?

Is there precedent? Yes. The North Koreans abruptly boycotted the 1964 Tokyo Olympics the day before the opening ceremony.

  • Magnitude 8.0 Earthquake Hits Tokyo – Olympics Disrupted: The timing of an earthquake just prior or during the Olympics are highly unlikely. And yet, the fear of the big one in Tokyo is in the back of the minds of many in Japan since there hasn’t been one since the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Last year provided multiple reminders of Japan’s vulnerability to mother nature. In an annual vote of the kanji character that bests represent the year of 2018, the symbol for “disaster” was selected. After all, in 2018, 200 people were killed in flood waters across 23 prefectures, dozens perished in a 6.6 magnitude earthquake in Hokkaido, and there were at least 11 fatalities when Typhoon Jebi swept through the Kansai region.

Is there precedent? Yes. The 1989 World Series, when a magnitude 6.9 earthquake struck San Francisco just prior to the start of Game 3 match between two Bay City teams, the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants.

  • Officials Deny Bribery Allegations in Black Tidings Affair: A dark cloud in the distance appears to be approaching. The former president of the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), and longtime IOC member, Lamine Diack, has been held by authorities in France since November, 2015. One of the allegations under investigation is whether Diack and his son Papa Massata Diack, were responsible for payments of USD2 million made from officials in Japan to Papa Diack through a company in Singapore called Black Tidings. It is alleged that these payments, made in July 2013, were connected to bribes that would “help the Japanese capital secure the hosting rights for the Olympic and Paralympic Games,” according to the French newspaper, Le monde. The current president of the Japan Olympic Committee, and member of the IOC, Tsunekazu Takeda, is under investigation for corruption, and may end up retiring from the Japan Olympic Committee in June or July.

Is there a precedent? Yes. A year after the end of the 2016 Rio Olympics, the head of the Rio de Janeiro Organizing Committee and member of the Brazilian men’s volleyball team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Carlos Nuzman, was arrested for soliciting votes ahead of the 2009 IOC session to select the host city for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Carlos Nuzman with Police Carlos Nuzman_Reuters

Make no mistake – prior to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, there will be a lot of noise, much of it negative. That’s just the reality of hosting a high budget big tent event like the Olympics.

But also, make no mistake – in the end, it is always about the athletes – their stories of struggle, fair play, excellence and achievement – that drive the headlines during the Games.  Those are the headlines that will inspire millions of young Japanese, and provide the motivation that propels a select few to future Olympiads.

By the way, the last two paragraphs are what Bob quoted me on at the end of his column – after all, you can’t end a story like this with such black tidings.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be great, and you won’t want to miss it!

2020 Tokyo Gorin – Saiaku Shinario_Robert Whiting YukanFuji March 5 2018 Olympics

500 days to go mascots

It’s March 12, 2019.

It’s now 500 days to July 24, 2020, and the Opening Ceremonies of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics!

The National Stadium is taking shape.

Volunteers have raised their hands.

Tickets are close to going on sale.

In only 16 more months, the world will come to Japan for the XXXII Olympiad. Which made me wonder. What was it like on May 29, 1963 – when it was 500 days to go for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics? I took a look at The Japan Times for a week from May 23 to 31 to see what was top of mind in the press with 500 days to go.

First thing I noticed – no big deal was made that there were 500 days to go. But I also noticed that in addition to the significant progress on Olympic-related infrastructure, geo-political issues that were brewing in May, 1963, would come to a head 500 days later.

The facilities were taking shape: It was reported at a government meeting that “80% of the National Stadium, 20% of the track and field course, 25% of the boat course at Toda, 50% of the shooting range at Asaka, 50% of the sports center at Komazawa, and 75% of yacht harbor at Enoshima inland are completed.”

Indonesia’s Participation Under Threat: The IOC was scheduled to expel the National Organizing Committee of Indonesia, which would mean that Indonesian athletes would not be allowed to participate at the Tokyo Olympics. President Sukarno arrived in Tokyo unofficially before taking off for his planned trip to Europe, with hopes of improving the tone of Olympic discussions. This was part of an ongoing dispute over the politicization of sports, and it did not end well for Indonesia. As you can read here, the Indonesians could not get what they wanted, and boycotted the Games.

Indonesia Withdraws From Tokyo Olympics
CARTOON: Indonesia Withdraws from Tokyo Olympics, Warta Bhakti- 10 October 1964, p1

JFK Thanks Hayato Ikeda for Congratulating JFK: Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda received a cable of thanks from US President John F. Kennedy, for the prime minister’s message of congratulations on the successful orbiting of an American spaceship, Faith 7, which circled the earth 22 times in mid May, piloted by a single astronaut. During the Tokyo Olympics, the Soviet Union would surprisingly top that by sending the world’s first spaceship with a crew of three – the Voskhod – during the Olympic Games.

USSR, USA and Cuba: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev threatened that things could get worse than the Cuban Missile crisis of the year before if the United States did not cease in interfering in Cuban affairs. Little did Khruschev know that he would be ousted from power a bit over 500 days later.

Khruschev Ousted_NYT_16Oct1964
New York Times, October 16, 1964

Nuclear Tests: The Japanese government decided in May of 1963 to cease its protests against American underground testing of nuclear explosives, after one such test took place in mid May in Nevada. The Japanese government finally realized that simply protesting the US government to change its behavior was not working. They didn’t realize that about 508 days later they would have to protest China’s decision to test its first atomic bomb, which they did on October 16, 1964, six days into the Tokyo Games.

Ralph Boston_Mexico 1968_from his collection
Ralph Boston jumping at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, from his collection.

I’ve researched the 1964 Tokyo Olympics for four years. I published an original blog post everyday for over a thousand days straight in the course of my research. And I finally completed the manuscript of my book, “1964:  The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise From the Ashes.” Here are a few of the articles I wrote in 2018 relevant to those Games in 1964:

Rich Stebbins_2016
Stebbins at the Northwest Express Track and Field Classic in Florida, June, 2016.
Fred Hansen on the medal podium
Fred Hansen on the medal podium.

 

Orinpikku_no_Minoshirokin_Ochiai and Shimazaki
Inspector Ochiai faces off with Shimazaki in the film, Olympic Ransom.

It’s October 10, 1964, past 2pm and 70,000 people who filled the National Stadium for the Opening Ceremony of the XVIII Olympiad in Tokyo are buzzing with excitement. Kunio Shimazaki, a student of the prestigious Tokyo University, has entered the stands, making his way towards the top of the east facing part of the stadium and the Olympic cauldron.

As Emperor Hirohito’s high-pitched voice declares the Olympic Games open, Shimazaki holds explosives in one hand and a lighter in the other, approaching the yet-to-be lit cauldron with deadly intent. The police surround Shimazaki, and up steps Inspector Masao Ochiai, his grip on his gun tightening.

olympic ransom book coverThis is a scene from the novel, Olympic Ransom (Orinppiku Minoshirokin) by Hideo Okuda, highlighting the national urgency of the time, to ensure that the 1964 Tokyo Olympics begin and end successfully, thus re-establishing Japan’s re-integration to the world community. A terrorist attack like the one Shimazaki hoped to carry out did not come to pass in the novel, but he, through the writing of Okuda, brought attention to the challenges of the Japanese economic miracle and the sacrifices made at the time.

While the Japanese economy was steaming ahead on the eve of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, GDP growing from 8.8% in1963 to an incredible 11.2% in 1964, there were sacrifices, and omissions of prosperity. In the novel, Shimazaki is from an impoverished town in the Northern part of Japan, Akita. Although he was able to break the cycle of poverty by gaining admission to the best university in the country, his older brother had to work long days on punishing schedules in Tokyo to help the city complete all of its infrastructure projects in time for the Olympic Games. And one day, his brother was dead, a result of an exhausting workload and a dependency on drugs.

Days before Inspector Ochiai stops would-be terrorist Shimazaki at the National Stadium, they meet at Tokyo University. In the film produced by Asahi Television in 2013 based on Okuda’s book, Shimazaki explains to the inspector why he is looking to make the authorities in Japan pay.

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.

As Bruce Suttmeier in his essay, “Held Hostage to History – Okuda Hideo’s Olympic Ransom” writes that Okuda’s re-imagining of history is “a thought experiment in narrative form”…with an intent to “expose political and social certainties to speculative inquiry.”

For example, Shimazaki explained in the encounter with Ochiai that his brother was sacrificed to help build an underpass under the National Stadium, and that it was not used despite the pain and labor that went into its construction. While such a tunnel was indeed constructed, the reality is the tunnel was actually used by athletes and officials alike during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, as noted in this previous post.

Regardless, the point being made in the novel is that economic progress made in the lead up to the 1964 Olympics, while impressive, was not necessarily true for all of Japan. The widening gap between haves and have nots was an uncomfortable social reality, and the 1963 Akira Kurosawa film, High and Low, projects the anxiety many felt at the time.

But it’s the head of security for the Tokyo Olympics, Shuichiro Suga, who explains to Ochiai that Shimazaki is not a hero of the people, but a terrorist.

Suga: The permission to shoot to kill Shimazaki Kunio has been issued. If you find Shimazaki this time around, shoot him without hesitation. Are you okay with the Olympics ending in failure due to your sentimentality? From the ashes of defeat , are you okay with wasting what the Japanese people have gritted their teeth over and rebuilt with great effort?

Ochiai: However, for those people struggling in poverty in rural regions, They have been rewarded with nothing.

Suga: Is there something wrong with Tokyo becoming enriched? First off, Tokyo, the center of the country, should prosper, and then the other regions will gradually become richer. Don’t forget. Shimazaki is a brutal criminal, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of people are still exposed by this crisis. In order to protect their lives you’ll have to pull the trigger too.

Shimazaki in the stadium
Shimazaki in the Olympic crowd on opening day.

In the end, Ochia does indeed pull the trigger, bringing Shimazaki down, with nary a soul outside the police knowing that a deadly threat was thwarted. And so, the novel ends as the actual 1964 Tokyo Olympic opening ceremony ends – without incident.

In the essay, Held Hostage to History: Okuda Hideo’s Olympic Ransom, the author, Bruce Suttmeier, explains that while Okuda’s book is a novel, the author may be suggesting that so many things of significance may have happened, but that in the end, historians, authorities and society may have selective memories.

After the unnoticed shooting in the stadium and the brisk removal of Shimazaki’s injured body, the story quickly returns in its final pages to a sanctioned historical narrative, free from the destabilizing presence of a past encumbered by contingency and potential and by the weight of epistemic uncertainty.

As Suttmeier writes, when the head of security, Suga, is asked by his son whether the threat is over, Suga replies “what bomber?” In other words, why worry the public, the overjoyed and proud public with such distractions. Let the Games be the glowing symbol of Japan’s resurrection and triumphant return to the international community.

Perhaps what Okuda is saying in a way – no great triumph comes without sacrifice, and that we should peer a bit deeper into our own understandings of the past.

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

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

USA House 24_Michelle Kwan
Michelle Kwan at USA House.

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

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

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

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