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

1964

The Greatest Year in the History of Japan

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

Final Book Cover-LOCK

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Roy at the Ancestral Home 1
Roy at his ancestral home by the sea – Murakami, Odaka-ku, Fukushima, 20 kilometers north of Fukushima Dai Ichi Nuclear Power Plant.
日本語は英語の後に続きます。

I see myself running, carrying a torch.

I see myself, two weeks ago, running past untended rice fields in Odaka-ku, Fukushima, other rice fields covered with solar panels, piles of black bags stacked with radioactive soil, and 20-meter high barriers to protect the land from the massive power of the sea – legacies of 3.11.

Solar Panels Over Rice Fields 7
Solar panels growing on rice fields near my ancestral home in Fukushima.

I see myself, 30 years ago in the hot August sun running past the Shiga Barber Shop in Odaka-machi, vast swaths of verdant rice fields, the tombstones of my ancestors on my right and the Pacific Ocean just meters away, when I first discover the land of my ancestors.

Tomizawa Plot2
The tombstones of the Tomizawas in 1989 in Murakami, Odaka, Fukushima, being tended to Takashi Shiga, the grandson of Kiyo Tomizawa.

I see myself, 130 years ago, running past the old Tomizawa home in Murakami, Soma-gun, Seiga Tomizawa, showing a young Kiyoshi Tomizawa, my grandfather, how to ride a horse, while holding a bow and shooting an arrow true.

*****

As thousands will carry a torch throughout Japan in the Olympic torch relay from March 26 to July 24 as a run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, I hope to carry one as well. I hope to carry a torch on the first day of the nationwide relay which starts in Naraha, Fukushima before ending the day in Minami Soma, Fukushima.

In between Naraha and Minami Soma, about 13 kilometers south of the relay’s end point for the day is my ancestral home of Odaka, where I’d like to run, and carry a torch. Just as the Olympic torch is ignited in Athens Greece to symbolize the Olympic flame’s connection to its ancestral roots, I want my Olympic torch to be ignited in Fukushima to symbolize the connection to my ancestral roots.

If not for my grandfather, Kiyoshi Tomizawa, the dozens of descendants of the Tomizawa’s in America would not exist.

My grandfather was born into a samurai family. His grandfather had the imposing name of Tomizawa Hachirozaemon Minamoto no Takakiyo. My grandfather’s father was the Soma Clan minister of religion. But after the Meiji Restoration, when the Emperor was restored as the symbolic center of power in Japan, the Meiji rulers centralized control over the domains previously ruled by the samurai daimyos.

The Tomizawas from Seiga to Kiyoshi

As I understand it from my Aunt Hiroko (whom I knew as Auntie Grace), the Tomizawa’s no longer had the financial stability they had enjoyed under the Tokugawa Shogunate. So in 1890, the Tomizawa patriarch at the time, Seiga Tomizawa, decided to send two of his three children off for adoption: my grandfather Kiyoshi off to the Kataoka family, and his younger sister, Kiyo, off to the Miura family. (Kiyo would go on to marry Chozo Shiga, who established the oldest barber shop in Odaka.)

Chozo and Kiyo
Chozo and Kiyo Shiga, who opened the first barber shop in Odaka. Kiyo was my grandfather’s younger sister.

According to my aunt, Kiyoshi was unhappy in the Kataoka household, and she remembered being told that, after a while, Kiyoshi was no longer living with the Kataoka’s, and that his brother would leave food and clothes for Kiyoshi wherever he was staying. The records show that Kiyoshi formally returned to the Tomizawa household in 1897.

A year later, Kiyoshi enrolled at Tohoku Gakuin University in Sendai, where he met a man named Dr. John Mott, who was on a two-year world tour as a part of an organization he co-founded in 1895 called the World Student Christian Federation. Sometime during that two-year trip, Dr. Mott was in Japan and visited Tohoku Gakuin University.

Dr. Mott, who would go on to become the 1946 Nobel Peace Prize winner for his work with the YMCA, clearly inspired my grandfather. Kiyoshi decided to move to the United States, first studying English at the Seisoku English Language School in Tokyo, and then borrowing money from his uncle so he could take a long boat ride to America.

Kiyoshi and Fumi_1960s maybe
My grandparents, Kiyoshi and Fumi, in the early 1960s.

My grandfather established residence in San Francisco in 1903. After working odd jobs and building his English capability, he enrolled in Miami University of Ohio, graduating in 1912. Six years later, he became the first executive director of the Japanese YMCA in San Francisco.

With a dream to build a permanent home for the Japanese YMCA, Kiyoshi travailed through 12 years of anguish raising funds in Japan and America, during the Great Depression, to build a stand-alone and wholly owned YMCA building for Japanese in San Francisco. And Kiyoshi prevailed. The Japanese Y was finally opened on January 12, 1936. That YMCA, one of my grandfather’s legacies, is now called the Buchanan YMCA, and still contributes to the J-Town community in San Francisco.

Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Japanese YMCA was taken over by the American government, and the process of incarcerating over 100,000 Japanese into internment camps began. My grandfather, a Japanese is-sei thoroughly investigated by the FBI, was offered, quite fortunately, the opportunity to serve as a Japanese instructor for the Naval School of Oriental Languages in Boulder, Colorado, where such famous translators as Edward Seidensticker and Donald Keene studied during the war. My grandfather wisely took the offer and taught officers Japanese writing. The alternative was imprisonment in an internment camp for the entire family.

Class at Naval Oriental Language School_Kiyoshi center
Class at Naval Oriental Language School_Kiyoshi Tomizawa third person standing from the left

Thanks to the work ethic of my grandparents, my father, Thomas, who attended Boulder High School, went on to get his Masters in Journalism at Northwestern University, wrote for the American military paper, the Pacific Stars and Stripes, in Tokyo from 1957-58, and eventually joined NBC News, where he was on the news team that broadcasted the 1964 Tokyo Olympics back to the US. On October 10, 1964, when I turned 1 in New York City, my father was in Tokyo helping to broadcast the opening ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympics. My father went on to become a three-time Emmy Award winning news producer with NBC.

Same Mud #2 Frank McGee and Daddy
My father, Thomas, with NBC reporter, Frank McGee, in Vietnam during filming of 1967 documentary entitled, Same Mud, Same Blood.

Fifty-five years later, I am, in some small way through my book, hoping to honor the legacy of my lineage, which goes all the way back to Fukushima in the Edo Period.

On March 26, 2020, I hope to honor that legacy again.

I see myself running, carrying a torch, across the land of my ancestors…

…for my family

…for the ties that bind my homes, the United States and Japan, and

…for Japan and the resilience and values of its people.

Roy with 1964 Tokyo Olympic Torch
Roy with 1964 Tokyo Olympic Torch

 

福島でオリンピック聖火を掲げて走るという夢:私の一族が残した遺産を讃える旅

 

聖火を掲げて走る私が見える。

 1か月前、3.11が遺した福島県小高区の荒れた水田、ソーラーパネルで覆われた水田、放射能汚染土が詰まった黒い袋が積み上げられた水田、海の巨大な力からこの地を守る高さ20メートルの防波堤の横を走る私が見える。

 30年前8月の暑い太陽のもと、小高町の志賀理髪店、青々とした広い水田の横を走る私が見える。右手には先祖の墓が、ほんの20メートル先には太平洋が見える。この時初めて私は先祖たちがいた土地を見つけたのだ。

 130年前、相馬郡村上の冨沢家の古い屋敷の横を走り抜ける私が見える。冨沢清賀が私の祖父である若き冨沢清に、馬上で弓をつがえ的に命中させる術を教えている。

*****

3月26日から7月24日にかけて2020年東京オリンピックの聖火リレーが行われ、数千人もの人が聖火を掲げて日本の地を走ります。私もぜひこれに参加し、全国を巡るリレーの初日、福島県楢葉町からスタートし同県南相馬市までを走る初日に聖火を運びたいと思います。

First book copy_1
An advance copy in my hands.

It looks great.

It feels great.

What was once, four-and-a-half years ago, only a spasmodic interaction of neurons – an idea, a dream – is now, to me, a weighty tome, a freshly printed book of off-white pages that flip crisply at the touch.

1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes is now a reality.

A sample chapter is available now – please download a copy here. The initial reviews are very good.

But you be the judge. The book launches on July 8, 2019. I can’t wait for you to read it.

First book copy_2
A picture of my father in the Preface – my inspiration for this book.

Final Book Cover-LOCK

They were called the Innocent Olympics, and the Happy Games.

But the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, a true turning point in Japan’s history, was not taking place in a vacuum. The world did not stop. In fact, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was held in the midst of global turmoil so significant you may not believe what was happening as summer turned to autumn that year, particularly during those Olympic Games.

Read about those amazing events in the introductory chapter of my book – 1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – which I am offering at this link.

After four-and-a-half years of research and writing, my book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics will finally be published. The target date is July 8, 2019.

My publisher, Lioncrest Publishing, has designed a wonderful cover, which I have debuted here. I hope it conveys to you the excitement of those times, a moment when all of Japan hit the pause button for two weeks on their relentless drive to improve their nation and their lives, so they could reflect how far they had come, and still how far they hoped to go.

1964 was in fact only 19 years after Japan lay devastated and demoralized after losing the Pacific War. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics symbolized redemption, confidence regained, and a profound gratefulness that the world would come to them with open arms. And the world were pleasantly surprised to be welcomed too with a hearty embrace.

If you want to know what some 1964 Olympians, academics and writers thought of my book, here are some advanced referrals.

Thank you for joining me on this journey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labor Shortage and Overwork

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

 

Consequences

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

 

Lack of Worker Rights

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

 

Foreign Migrant Workers in Particular at a Disadvantage

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

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

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

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

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

Marathon turning point
A turn at the halfway point int he marathon shows Ethiopia’s Demissie Wolde leading Japan’s Kokichi Tsuburaya, the eventual third-place finisher. Wolde would fade to 10th. From the book, The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad, p48

It’s nestled in a nook in the sidewalk in Tobitakyu, Chofu, a town in Western Tokyo – a dove with massive wings perched on a pillar.

The dove generally signifies the peaceful intentions of the Olympic Games, but this dove in particular signifies the turning point of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Marathon competition. Today, the statue is hidden and nondescript, a footnote for a busy suburban area where there’s  a busy road, a major stadium (Ajinomoto Stadium, home of J League’s FC Tokyo soccer team) as well as a major arena (Musashino Forest Sports Plaza where Olympic and Paralympic events will be held) nearby.

Marathon turning point 4

But on October 21, 1964, it was a quiet residential area that drew the attention of the world. Nearly 55 years before, Abebe Bikila, the barefoot champion from Ethiopia arrived at the point near that dove statue, made the turn around a very large cone that read “ori-kaeshi-ten,” (or turning point) and headed back into central Tokyo continuing to build a lead so insurmountable that he ended up breaking the world record and winning gold handily for the second Olympics in a row.

Unlike the legendary marathon of the ancient Olympic Games, as well as at the 2004 Athens Games, when the marathon was a point-to-point race from a town called Marathon to Athens, most other Summer Olympics have designed marathon routes where the start and finish are the same point – at the main stadium. This was the case in 1964, and the organizers chose a route of straightforward simplicity – out of the National Stadium in Yoyogi  and then due West, through Shinjuku 3-chome and onto the Koshu-kaido (Koshu Highway).

1964 marathon route_google maps
The route from the National Olympic Stadium to Tobitakyu in Chofu.

The marathon was very popular. NHK rolled out the latest technology with a mobile relay van complete with vibration-proof cameras, helicopters with cameras, as well as UHF antennas sprinkled throughout the course which enabled for the first time in history the live broadcast of the entire marathon race, in color, to millions, according to the final report issued by the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee. For approximately 1,200,000 people who lined the route, twice the size of any previous marathon in Japan, watching the athletes run by you trumped the latest in broadcast technology.

Marathon turning point 3
The road sign indicating that this point on the Koshu Highway is where the marathoners turned around and headed back into town.

The marathon was an event for the people, who did not need a ticket to line the road from early in the morning to settle in to catch a glimpse of their heroes, Kokichi Tsuburaya, Kenji Kimihara and Toru Terasawa, as well as one of the most famous athletes of that time – Abebe Bikila. The turning point at Tobitakyu is celebrated as the turning point of the marathon, in an Olympics that was a turning point for Japan.

Marathon turning point_Abebe
Abebe Bekila at the halfway point of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic marathon.
Barcelona Olympic Village 1
The author on site at former Olympic Village of the 1992 Barcelona Summer Games, April 29, 2019.

A journey is coming to an end.

I celebrate the fourth anniversary of my blog, The Olympians, by announcing that my book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics is coming out in July.

The book, 1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes, is the product of the thousand-plus posts from my blog, The Olympians, which I started on May 1, 2014. It is also the product of interviews of over 70 Olympians from those 1964 Games, people whose memories and insights are lifeblood to the book.

I’ve had the honor for some of those Olympians, as well as writers and academics read the manuscript. Here are their advanced referrals for my book. Take a look!

Look for details going forward on the book here on my blog, The Olympians!

The author at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics stadium.
Yoshioka Nomura and sakura gold torch
Tokujin Yoshioka and judoka Tadahiro Nomura

The 1964 Olympic torch was utilitarian.

The 2020 Olympic torch will be exquisite.

On March 20, 2019, just as cherry blossom buds were  beginning to reveal their delicate pink petals in Tokyo, the organizers of Tokyo2020 revealed their own beautiful blossom – the Olympic torch.

On March 20, 2020, torch bearers will commence the torch relay and carry this 71-centimeter, 1.2 kilogram aluminum torch from Miyagi in Northern Japan, to Okinawa at the archipelago’s western-most tip, and then back to Tokyo in time for the opening ceremonies on July 24, 2020.

As cherry blossoms bloom and fall in March next year, torch bearers will hold aloft a torch gleaming in gold with a hint of pink – a color dubbed “sakura gold” – fashioned in the shape of the iconic Japanese cherry blossom. Fire will arise from the cylinders of the five petals to form a single flame.

Tokuijin Yoshioka, the torch’s designer, was not only inspired by the Olympic rings, but also by schoolchildren at an elementary school in Fukushima he visited, whom he said drew beautiful renditions of cherry blossoms. “I was very impressed with the powerful expression in the cherry blossoms drawn by kids in this area,” Yoshioka said in the Asahi Shimbun. “They are trying to overcome challenges and trying to move forward. I wanted to share that with the world.”

Three-time gold medalist judoka, Tadahiro Nomura, stood on stage with Yoshioka at the unveiling, and was breathless. “To actually be holding this superb work, is frankly giving me shivers,” he said in this Kyodo article. “I can only imagine the joy on the faces of people lining the route of the relay when they see it.”

Tadahiro Nomura and sakura gold torch

Each of the torches to be produced will be made primarily of aluminum, 30% of which has been recycled from the temporary housing provided to those left homeless in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, in the wake of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant meltdowns that stunned Japan on March 11, 2011.

After the flame is ignited in Greece on March 12, 2020, the flame will be transferred to the sakura torch eight days later when the torch relay will begin in northern Japan, making its way through 47 prefectures.

Ten thousand torches will be made, which is probably close to how many people will be needed to cross the nation in the four months prior to the opening ceremonies.

I want to be one of that ten thousand.

Sakura torch side and top views

Sports Symbols 1964 and 2020
Can you guess which symbols represent which sports from 1964? Go to the end for answers.

A picture, they say, tells a thousand words. You could also say, it tells it in a thousand languages as well.

In 1964, as organizers were preparing for the arrival of tens of thousands of foreigners for the Tokyo Olympics, the Japanese were concerned with how to direct people to the right places and the right events with the least amount of error, particularly in a country where foreign language proficiency was poor.

The decision was to use symbols to show people where various places were, like the toilets, the water fountain, first aid and the phone. Symbols were also used to identify the 20+ sporting events on the schedule for the Tokyo Olympics. Due to this particular cultural concern, the 18th Olympiad in Japan was the first time that pictograms were specifically designed for the Games.

Over 50 years later, the symbols have become de rigeur for presentation in Olympic collaterols and signage.

Karate symbol_asahi shimbun Karate competitor Kiyou Shimizu poses in a similar manner as the karate kata pictogram in Tokyo’s Koto Ward on March 12. (Takuya Isayama)

On March 12, 2019, the day when officials announced that there were only 500 days to go to the commemcementof the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, they introduced the pictograms designed for the 2020 Games.

“I was thrilled with being able to participate in the history of Olympics,” said Masaaki Hiromura in this Asahi Shimbun article, a Tokyo graphic designer who designed the pictograms for the 2020 Games. “I was able to make them in which we can be proud of as the country of origin that first made pictograms for the Games.”

At the top of the post is a comparison of the symbols designed by Yoshiro Yamashita in 1964 (in gray), and the symbols designed by Himomura (in blue).

For 2020, as you can see below, there are far more sporting events…which means far more tickets. Those tickets go on sale in April.

Tokyo 2020 pictograms 2019-03-12-pictograms-tokyo-thumbnail
Masaaki Hiromura: Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games pictograms

Answers to caption question: 1 – athletics; 2 – fencing; 3 – wrestling; 4 – volleyball; 5 – canoeing; 6 – soccer; 7 – aquatics; 8 – weightlifting; 9 – artistic gymnastics; 10 – modern pentathlon; 11 – sailing; 12 – boxing; 13 – basketball; 14 – equestrian; 15 – rowing; 16 – hockey; 17 – archery; 18 – cycling; 19 – judo; 20 – shooting

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