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Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba and IOC President Thomas Bach seal the deal

China is sports mad. And when one of the biggest emerging markets in the world wants something, the eye may pop. For example, soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo was offered over USD100 million per year to play for a Chinese Super League Club, with an additional USD300 million to go to Real Madrid for the transfer.

While Ronaldo turned the Chinese down, others are turning their thumbs up.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, in mid-January, 2017, the International Olympic Committee announced the addition of Chinese e-commerce giant, Alibaba, to the IOC’s exclusive group of global sponsors known as TOP Sponsors. Alibaba is one of the biggest e-commerce businesses in the world, and joins such firms as Coca Cola, Toyota, Visa, McDonalds, Bridgestone, Samsung and GE granted rights to the marketing of the famed five rings.

This deal is huge: USD 800 million over 12 years or 6 summer and winter Olympiads. In addition to payment, Alibaba will also build a global shopping platform for the IOC, as well an Olympic-related digital TV channel in China, which will help build the IOC’s reach within this highly valued market. Considering that the 2022 Winter Olympics will be held in Beijing, Alibaba becomes a significantly powerful and possibly pathbreaking partner for the IOC in building stronger relations within Chinese business and government circles.

As Alibaba founder and CEO said, “We are proud to support Olympic Agenda 2020, using our innovations and technologies to help evolve the Olympic Games for the digital era.”

According to sports marketing consultant, Michael Payne, who was intimately involved in the early days of the IOC’s TOP program, “This is so much more than about marketing or sponsorship. It is potentially the single biggest, groundbreaking partnership the IOC has done to date.”

A pedestrian walks past Alibaba.com adve

Alibaba is a powerhouse in China, particularly with its e-commerce businesses T-Mall and Taobao. But these services are not as well-known as sites like Amazon, and those who know them may be wary of their reputation for selling counterfeit goods. Thus major brands and buyers…beware.

According to the IOC, building the e-commerce platform for the IOC will give Alibaba greater incentive to figure out how to uncover the counterfeit goods from flooding the market.

Additionally, its growing cloud services business is weak overseas. Jack Ma wants to increase global revenue ex-China to fifty percent. Cloud services is already an area where Alibaba is gaining global traction. Being a TOP sponsor will give Alibaba overseas exposure of the likes they would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere, particularly in their home region of Asia, where the next three Olympics will be held (PyeongChang, Tokyo and Beijing).

According to Bloomberg, Alibaba had to fight for this sponsorship. IOC TOP sponsors are given exclusive rights to market their products and services within their industry. Alibaba is the official “Cloud Services” and “E-Commerce Platform Services” and it is assumed that big cloud service providers (Amazon? Microsoft) were also in the mix.

 

Usain Bolt and the Holy Redeemer

    Usain Bolt and the Holy Redeemer

The bigger picture at the Rio Olympics:

Cambridge Bolt and Brommel

Neymar nails the final penalty kick to win gold
Brazil captain Neymar broke down in tears after scoring the penalty that earned his country’s first ever football gold medal (Photo: Getty Images)

Brazil had so much to be proud of at the 2016 Rio Olympics:

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Players who did not travel on the fatal flight paid tribute to their teammates at the club’s stadium in Chapecó. Photograph: Douglas Magno/AFP/Getty Images

“We ask for permission to approach, we have a fuel problem!”

“Nine thousand feet! “Vectors! Vectors!”

Those were, according to this article, reported to be the last words of the pilot who, on November 29, suddenly lost control of a plane carrying 77 people, including members of the Chaepecoense soccer team. The Chapecoense team was travelling from Sao Paulo, Brazil to Medellin, Colombia when their Avro RJ85 jet crashed, killing all but 6 fortunate passengers, three of them members of the team of 22.

Up to that moment, Chapecoense was living large, playing the role of lovable upstart, making the finals of the Copa Sudamericana, a major soccer tournament in South America. From a small town called Chapeco in Western Brazil, the Chapecoense Warriors were playing well against the rich teams since the end of the Rio Olympics in August, strong teams like Argentina’s Independiente and San Lorenzo. But tragedy struck unexpectedly and football fans across South America mourned, but none more so painfully than the hometown fans. Here’s how The Guardian described it:

Among townspeople, there is a sense that the loss of most of their plucky team of giantkillers wasn’t just a local tragedy, but something bigger: the loss of a tight, well-organised, and competent unit that stood out for its unexpected success in a country that has lost its way.

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This is a deeply divided nation which in the past year has been roiled by a debilitating recession, a gargantuan corruption scandal and the divisive impeachment of an unpopular leftwing president. At times it has seemed that Brazil is no longer sure how to manage itself; Chapecoense was a small team that knew exactly what it was doing.

In the history of aviation disasters involving sports teams, soccer squads have had more than their fair share of tragedies. As listed in this article, there was the crash in Turin Italy in 1949 that claimed the lives of 22 members of the Tornio soccer club. Nine years later, 8 members of Manchester United were among 23 deaths in a crash outside Munich airport in Germany. And in 1987, a plane carrying members of Alianza Lima crashed in the Pacific Ocean, killing 16 players and the team coach.

Olympic teams have not been spared. The United States ice figure skating team lost its entire 18-member team when it’s plane to Prague, Czechoslovakia crashed in Belgium. And then there was the US men’s boxing team, a group of 22 boxers aspiring to a shot at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, before the American government mandated a boycott of those Games. I wrote about that tragedy here.

The video below was taken just after their draw with San Lorenzo, which sent them to the Copa Sudaamericana finals, which was cancelled. Their elation only compounds the horrific sense of loss.

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Dr Katsuya Takasu and the 2016 Nigerian soccer team in Rio.

They were training in Atlanta since early July, and expected to fly into Rio de Janeiro a few days prior to the opening of the Olympic Games. But when it was time for the Nigerian soccer squad to leave, they learned that the Nigerian government had not paid for their tickets to Brazil. Days were ticking down to their opening match on August 4, and still tickets had not been secured. Perhaps an indication of financial issues, the Nigerian coach had actually gone unpaid the previous five months.

Finally, funds were transferred, tickets were purchased and the Nigerian “dream team” as their fans called them landed in the jungle city of Manaus, Brazil at 2:19 pm on Thursday afternoon. Their first game was to take place less than 7 hours later against Japan. Exhausted, tense from the monumental worry that they might not make it to the stadium in time for their opening match, the Nigerians took the field. And to add insult to injury, the organizers played the wrong national anthem for Nigeria.

I watched that game against Japan. I had no idea what the Nigerian team had been through. But I do recall a very fast and energetic match – four goals were scored in the first two minutes, two apiece by each team. One would think, based on what we now know, that Nigeria would have faded into the Brazilian night. But in the second half, Nigeria continued to attack, tacking on three more goals to lead 5-2. Japan would indeed take advantage of Nigeria’s tired legs towards the end to pull within one, but Nigeria emerged victorious 5-4.

Enter Dr. Katsuya Takasu.

Takasu is a cosmetic surgeon who runs Takasu Clinic. For those of us who live in Japan, you can’t help but see his commercials, the latest one of him flying in a helicopter in Dubai, interacting with foreigners, punctuated at the end with him smiling into the camera saying his trademark “Yes! Takasu Clinic!”

He’s a cosmetic surgeon, so maybe you can forgive him for creating these somewhat solipsistic commercials. But no doubt, he’s an interesting person. Putting his money where his mouth is, he invested in surgery in his own face to demonstrate how dramatically younger he could make you look. In fact, he recorded his transformation and showed the world how he did it. It’s not a video for the weak of heart.

Of course, doctors are known to play golf. Takasu took that to an incredible level by setting a Guinness World Record for a pair of golfers – completing 261 holes in 12 hours (with the aid of a golf cart).

But more seriously, Takasu is generous with his money, and has developed a reputation as a philanthropist. In 1995, Takasu organized cosmetic surgeons in the aftermath of the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake in Japan, which killed over 6,000 people. He arranged for free plastic and reconstructive surgery to victims of the earthquake.

When Takasu heard about the plight of the Nigerian Dream Team, he launched into action. He went to the Nigerian Embassy in Tokyo with the intent of asking their help in sending the team USD200,000, with incentive bonuses if they medaled. He realized that it would be better if he hand delivered the contribution, so he promised to fly to Brazil and root them on to victory.

2016 Rio Olympics - Men's First Round - Group B Nigeria v Japan
Nigeria beats Japan in soccer in Rio.

As it turns out, Nigeria went on to defeat Sweden to make it to the quarterfinals, and then Denmark to make it to the semifinals. They finally lost to Germany, but then defeated Honduras to earn a bronze medal. Takasu arrived to award the Nigerian team a magnanimous sum of USD390,000.

The outpouring of gratitude from Nigerians was overwhelming. Oma Akatuba, a German-based Nigerian journalist, said this in his video.

This video is specially dedicated to a man who is not a Nigerian, to a man who is not an African, but saw something good in Nigeria. He saw something good in Nigerian football at a time when the Nigerian team at the Olympic Games was completely abandoned by the Minister of Sports, the Nigerian Football Federation, and of course the Nigerian government. This man came into the picture and donated a heavy sum of money to the Dream Team of Nigeria, winning bronze at the just-concluded Olympic Games in Brazil, Rio 2016. His name is Dr Katsuya Takasu.

For more enthusiasm from Nigeria, watch this rather entertaining video report from Adeola Fayehun, who begins her broadcast with a joyful “Praise him! Praise him!” in reference to Takasu.

What can you say, except “Katsuya Takasu – Yes!”

 

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Jefinho celebrates his equalising goal against China (Photo: Marcio Rodrigues/MPIX/CPB)

Neymar delivered for Brazil at the 2016 Olympic Games. Now it’s time for “Paralympic Pele”.

That moniker feels a bit patronizing…until you see Brazil football sensation, Jeferson da Conceicao Goncalve, aka Jefinho, weave through a crowd with the ball in total control before blasting it by the goal keeper. It’s amazing to watch under any circumstances, but when you realize that the football players on the pitch are blind, you realize you’re watching something outer worldly.jefinho-portrait

If not for Jefinho, Brazil would not have made it to the finals against Iran in five-aside football at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. Brazil won 1-0, to take gold for their fourth straight Paralympics since the sports debut at the 2004 Athens Games.

“I always thought about this moment: listening to our national anthem in a packed stadium at home with a Paralympic gold medal around my neck,” he said in this article from paralympic.org. “We are used to winning, but doing it in our country is different and beautiful.”

In the semi-finals against China, with Brazil behind 1-0, Jefinho took control and scored two spectacular goals. Imagine playing five-on-five soccer with blindfolds on. You can hear the sound of the ball as they are designed with small objects inside that rattle around and indicate audibly where the ball is for the players. They can hear the directions of their coach and other players, as well as their goal keeper, who under the rules, can be fully sighted.

That’s why it’s so important for the spectators to keep it quiet so that the players can perform. And yet, this is Brazil, where they like to get loud, and it’s soccer, which is religion in Brazil.

“It’s so difficult. We’re trying but we really want to shout,” said Sonia Lima, in this Reuters article. “When they get near the goal I just want to scream: ‘Take a shot dammit.'”

Fortunately, Jefinho did. Watch the video below in amazement!

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Far left, China’s Fu Yuanhui, bronze medalist in the 100-meter backstroke
When you think of Brazil, you think of samba, you think of Carnivàle, you think of joy. And the Rio Olympics had its share of joyful moments.

Here are a few of my favorite examples:

Fu Yuanhui: The Chinese may have had an off-par Olympics in terms of medal haul, at least to them, but Chinese swimmer, Fu Yuanhui, became an overnight sensation. While the Chinese expect gold from every one of their athletes, the Chinese and the rest of the world fell in love with the 20-year-old bronze medalist in the 100-meter backstroke. There were few more expressive, more unfiltered, more joyful than the young woman from Hangzhou. Watch the clip for a few examples of why Fu Yuanhui lit up the Twitterverse with delight.

Justin Rose: The golfer on Team GB was outspoken in his criticism of other professional golfers foregoing the Olympic re-boot of golf after over a century. Justin Rose won gold in men’s golf, stating “It’s right up there with anything I’ve achieved in the game.” Rose won on skill and determination. But on the 189-yard par-3 fourth hole in the first round of the tournament, Rose walked into a bit of luck with his 7-iron, nailing the first ever Olympic hole in one. Watch the video to see Rose’s pleasant surprise.

David Katoatau: If you have never heard of the Republic of Kiribati, you may be excused. This nation of 33 atolls and reef islands spread out over 3.5 million square kilometers lies on the equator in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. On one of those islands resides David Katoatau, who came in 15th at the 2008 Beijing Games in the 85kg weight class, and 17th at the 2012 London Olympic Games in the 94kg weight class. At the Rio Olympics, Katoatau managed only 14th in the 105kg weight class, but came in first in the Olympic dance competition. In his last failed attempt in Rio, Katoatau fell over, rolled on his back, flipped himself up, hugged the weights, and started the most joyful funky dance you’d ever see from a weightlifter.

Monica Puig: If you weren’t following tennis in the Olympics closely and tuned on the television for the women’s finals, you would be wondering, Who is Monica Puig? Even casual fans of tennis would likely have recognized Australian Open champion, Angelique Kerber, but you could be excused if you didn’t know the unseeded Puig. 

However, every time Puig won, her home country of Puerto Rico began to rumble and roar. In an economic mess, Puerto Ricans have had little to cheer about in recent months. But as Puig continued her march to the medal round, an entire country stopped to watch. With monumental expectations on her shoulders, Puig did the unthinkable – she upset Kerber. Her medal was gold, her tears were of joy.

Monica Puig's tears of joy
Monica Puig cries tears of joy.
Brazil’s Soccer Team: When Neymar sent the winning penalty kick at the finals of the Olympic soccer championships, not only did Neymar collapse in tears of joy, the entire country of Brazil exploded in celebration.