In Japan, you can emphasize ownership over something by placing the English phrase “my” in front of it. Thus when people dream of expensive purchases, they dream about buying “My car,” or “My home.” This summer, I dreamed about buying “My torch.”
And so I got one.
Photograph by Kevin Ing
“My torch” is from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Scars of spent fuel are wrapped in ribbons around the silver cylinder of “My torch,” which protrudes from a black aluminum holder, also sporting stains of fiery remains. “My torch” is a handsome reminder that someone in Japan proudly held the Olympic flame aloft with this torch, while running amidst spectators cheering along the sides of some small town road.
“My torch” was the amalgamation of two Japanese businesses: Showa Kaseihin and the acclaimed designer, Sori Yanagi.
The Cylinder: The gauntlet was thrown down the by the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee: create a torch that would “absolutely not go out, even in the rain.” The job to develop the cylinder and the fuel to sustain a fire was given to defense contractor, Showa Kaseihin in early 1964. The cylinder, from the tip of which flames would fly, is 55 centimeters long, 3 centimeters in diameter, and 54 grams in weight. Inside the stainless steel cylinder, Showa Kaseihin (which is now called Nippon Koki) packed a chemical amalgam into the cylinder of red phosphorus, manganese dioxide and magnesium. The flare-like flame that emerged when the amalgam was lit would last up to 14 minutes come rain or shine, while creating a billowy trail of smoke that can be seen from afar.
The Holder:Sori Yanagi is one of Japan’s most famous industrial designers of the 20th century, who helped put Japan on the map with his globally recognized furniture and kitchenware. (Maybe you’ve seen his famous butterfly or elephant stools in a MOMA exhibit.) His father, Soetsu Yanagi started the Japanese folk craft movement, passed the torch to his son, Sori. In a case of symbolic justice, Sori Yanagi was asked to create the receptacle for the cylinder of the Olympic torch. Crafted from a metal alloy composed primarily of aluminum, the holder is simple and elegant, with a clean black finish. The words “XVIII OLYMPIAD TOKYO 1964” are etched into the surface of the holder’s face, along with the Olympic rings.
The product of this collaboration is an Olympic torch which fits nicely in one’s palm, its heft equal to its gravitas, its lines simple and striking. This is a torch that spread the word throughout Asia that the world was coming to Japan, and brought hundreds if not thousands running to see the flame, born of the sun in Greece, destined for Tokyo and the commencement of the Olympics, and a new chapter in Japanese history.
The photographer’s eye was keen, often captured by the person at work.
The woman shining shoes in front of a bank.
The man patching up the entrance of an old lady’s abode.
A man on his bike after making deliveries.
The proprietors of a tea house.
Men and women of the office entering a busy train station after a day’s work.
Dick Lyon was in Japan for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and bought a Bronica camera. In his quiet walks around the Olympic Village, he was drawn to the working person, which might not come as a surprise to those who knew him.
“For work ethic, no one topped Dick, ever,” said Kent Mitchell, two-time Olympian, who won gold with Ed Ferry and Conn Findlay in the coxed pair at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. “Meticulous in everything was his mantra. For years I have kept a copy of Dick’s daily handwritten workout logs in my briefcase wherever I go. I don’t know why I carry it around. It exhausts me even to read it. I can’t imagine what Dick and Larry went through to do all those things day after day.”
Mitchell recalled that Lyon and his partner in the coxless pairs, Larry Hough, would get in shape for the 1972 Munich Olympics by running up and down stadium steps. “In 1972, he and his pair partner, Larry Hough, in their run up to the 1972 Munich Olympics in a two-man boat, both set records for running up and down ten sets of 88 stairs in Stanford’s Football Stadium. Their record still stands.”
“Pound for pound toughest oarsman I know,” said Ed Ferry, who won gold with Conn Findlay in the coxed pair at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
“I spent hundreds of hours looking at the back of Dick’s head,” said Mittet. “His perfect rowing form was like his life…always striving, always gentle, always on center and always reliable.”
Like Mitchell, Lyon was a graduate of Stanford, who double majored in electrical and mechanical engineering. At the US Olympic trials in 1964, he rigged a double-steering mechanism so that both the stroke and the bow could steer if necessary…because he could. In his life outside of rowing, Lyon worked in the burgeoning IT world of Silicon Valley, many years in Hewlett Packard.
“I have many very smart friends, but Dick’s mind was unique among them,” said Mittet.
Richard Avery “Dick” Lyon died on July 8, 2019. After decades winning boatloads of medals in Masters rowing competitions, he was taking it easy on a sailboat on Huntington Lake with his wife, Marilyn. The boat flipped, and in the course of pulling the boat back to shore, Lyon had a heart attack and passed away soon after.
Mittet was close to Lyon, and appreciated his intellect and his empathy. “He was always objectively focused, soft spoken and an engaged listener without the appearance of effort.”
You can see the desire to tell the story of the everyday person in his pictures. He wrote to me a few years ago about how he enjoyed watching the Olympics on television because he knew the effort and challenges Olympians – famous or not – had to overcome just to get to the Games. And he appreciated them all for that.
The truth, of course, reveals that every elite athlete has a story, full of obstacles they have found their way around or over on the way to their goal. When you train and compete as an athlete at the highest levels, even if you don’t come out the winner, you are forced to learn more about who you are deep down. I have often thought of this as I watch Olympic Games on TV. The commentator goes into depth about a number of particular Olympians, but how much could so many untold stories reveal?
It certainly was disappointing to see Tokyo2020 postponed to 2021. But my fingers are crossed that the world will still come to Japan in July 2021 for the Olympics, and August, 2021 for the Paralympics.
If the world is able to come to Tokyo next July without concern for their health, leaders will be able to speak out proudly about the resilience of the human spirit, and many will likely agree. On top of the natural celebration of sport and achievement, there will be stories of how individuals, teams and nations overcame the pandemic that will further inspire.
David sent me a list of over 330 words, phrases and names to confirm. Suddenly, I realized that the world of reading was different from the world of listening.
When you read 10.54 seconds, do you say “ten point five four seconds,” or “ten and fifty four one hundredth seconds”? When you read the year 2020, do you say “twenty twenty, or ” “two thousand and twenty”?
The writer of a book leaves the pronunciation to you. The reader of an audio book does not have that luxury. When asked how to actually say names and words like Kurfürstendamm Strasse, Anton Geesink, Boris Shakhlin, or Ranatunge Koralage Jayasekara Karunananda, I must admit – I had to guess. I assumed I was worldly enough to get pronunciations right or close enough, particularly the Japanese ones.
Thankfully, David looked into the pronunciations as well, thanked me for providing my feedback, but also indicating very clearly that my pronunciation was incorrect on “a few”. It was more than a few, and David showed me his research on why a particular name or word was pronounced in a certain way. He even corrected my pronunciation on a Japanese word.
After receiving that feedback, my confidence level in David went through the roof! David is a professional in his craft, as an actor, a narrator of documentaries and as a reader of audio books. He has appeared in a wide variety of American television and film productions, as you can see below.
But when my audio publisher, Tantor Audio, asked me to consider David, I saw that he had read for a book I really like: Strangers from a Different Shore, by Ronald Takaki, which tells the stunning history and stories of Asians emigrating to America. David’s reading of Takaki’s book brought the experience of my grandfather alive for me, and so I very quickly said yes to Tantor’s recommendation of David.
David, like me, is Asian American, but unlike me, he grew up in an area where there were not so many Asians. I was raised in New York City, the ultimate melting pot. We both grew up identifying more as Americans, than Asian Americans, but for different reasons.
In a place like New York, you are surrounded by so many different ethnicities that you quickly realize you have more friends outside your own particular ethnic “brand” than inside. The way you affiliate with your friends are through your neighborhood, your school or your sports teams. It wasn’t until I left the US for Japan in 1986 that I began to identify with my Japanese side. I was 23 years old and I finally learned how to pronounce my own family name, the first of many revelations about my family culture.
As David explained to me via email, he grew up in “a small Midwestern town with little diversity and very few Asians. I found myself trying to blend in and felt very disconnected from that part of my identity.”
I used to think of myself as an American just like everyone else I grew up with. I considered myself an actor, not an Asian American actor. But at that time, the type of roles that were available to Asian actors were extremely limited and tended to be very stereotypical: restaurant delivery boy, deli owner, doctor, tourist, etc.
There were virtually no Asians on TV or in movies, and the ones that you saw were frequently humiliating caricatures, like Long Duk Dong from “Sixteen Candles” not to mention all the Asian roles that were played by White actors. There wasn’t much to look up to. Suddenly, I was confronted with being an Asian American actor and what that meant. At first, it felt very limiting and was difficult to embrace. But things started changing over time, and slowly more and more roles became available to Asian actors that would not have been when I started.
David is not a sports fan, but I’m glad he enjoyed reading my book. He cited the stories about the underdogs and overcoming adversity – the Sri Lankan runner who came in dead last in the 10,000 meter race, or the American swimmer Dick Roth who avoided the surgeon’s knife to win the individual medley, or the story Hungarian canoeist, Andras Toro, who had to make the life-changing decision to defect to America or not.
I think this plurality of stories is what I really loved about this book. For me, the Olympics aren’t simply about competitions between nations to see who’s the best. It’s a moment where a remarkably diverse group of people with vastly different backgrounds, experiences and circumstances come together to find the best in themselves. Sometimes it’s found on the field of competition and sometimes it’s found off the field. Even Japan itself, rose to the occasion and found just what it was capable of both as a nation and as a people.
I am proud to have David read my book. His resonant actor’s voice gave me chills when I first heard him read my words.
I hope you agree.
David Shih is a New York based actor. His theater credits include The Great Wave (Berkeley Rep); Henry VI: Shakespeare’s Trilogy in Two Parts, Awake and Sing!, [veil widow conspiracy] (NAATCO); KPOP (Ars Nova); Somebody’s Daughter (Second Stage); Tiger Style! (La Jolla Playhouse); Bike America (Ma-Yi Theatre Co.); Crane Story (The Playwrights Realm). His television credits include “Hunters,” “Billions,” “City on a Hill,” “Iron Fist,” “The Path,” “Blindspot,” “Elementary,” “Madam Secretary,” “The Blacklist,” “Blue Bloods,” “Mozart in the Jungle,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” And his film credits include All the Little Things We Kill, Mr. Sushi, Eighth Grade, Fan Girl, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Saving Face. He narrated the History Channel documentary China’s First Emperor and the Discovery Networks series Royal Inquest, voiced the character of Eddie Toh in the hit video game Grand Theft Auto V (Rockstar Games), and is a critically acclaimed audiobook narrator. He also works with Only Make Believe performing for children in hospitals and care facilities.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics, scheduled for July 24 to August 9 of this year, were postponed to next year. The question that will be answered in the coming weeks, if not coming days by the IOC, will be when the Games will be held in 2021.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will likely be held in late July to early August – more specifically: Friday, July 23 to August 8, 2021. Here’s why, as we break down the pros and cons of Spring, Fall and Summer.
Spring:Imagine the Tokyo Olympics in April, after the Masters in Augusta takes place in April 8-11, Tiger Woods winning a Green Jacket and then playing for gold at the Kasumigaseki Golf Country Club with cherry blossoms scattering in the gentle spring breeze. Also imagine a marathon in Tokyo as the runners run in a most temperate clime, not the hot-and-humid they would experience in July and August.
But then there’s the uncertainty: will the coronavirus be rearing its ugly head again in the winter of 2021, and will a treatment or cure be available to ease our anxiety about the sneezing and coughing of those around us in the late winter, early spring? Additionally, there is the logistics of re-starting the operations of the Olympic Games. According to this article, Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics organizing committee President Yoshiro Mori said that there would not be enough time to secure volunteers and ensure execution of qualifying events. “It’s better for preparation time to be kept as long as possible,” he said.
Additionally, in the US market, the Olympics would have significant competition with the NBA playoffs, which take place from the middle of April to the middle of June, as does the NHL playoffs. NBC is in the middle of a US$12 billion contract to cover all Olympic Games, summer and winter, from 2014 to 2032. The reason the American television network paid so much was because the Olympics help them dominate the ratings and sell profitable ad space. Suddenly competing for eyeballs against the NBA playoffs as well as the NHL playoffs, which is also broadcast on NBC, would not be what the network signed up for.
This is true for Europe and the football broadcasters, according to this article from The Sports Examiner. “…it’s worth noting that the European soccer league schedules run into the middle or end of May (as does the UEFA Champions League). That means that European broadcasters are not going to be interested in having an Olympic Games start any earlier than the middle of June and that might be pushing it.”
Fall: The 1964 Tokyo Olympics took place in October, in order to avoid the heat and typhoons of summer. It’s true, they did not get heat and typhoons; they got rainy and cold instead. While NBC was the American broadcaster then, the business of sports broadcasting was not so large that concern about competing against the World Series or the start of the professional and college football and basketball seasons was non-existent. That is not true today, as both the World Series and American football are highly popular sports, and would eat heavily into NBC’s ratings and ad revenue. Yes, this schedule conflict is a significant part of the decision making matrix for the IOC, according to veteran Mainichi Shinbun sports writer, Takashi Takiguchi.
As the provider of the highest payments for Olympic broadcast rights, the US media giant NBC is most averse to changes in its timing. The games are well known for scheduling events to meet NBC demands. Autumn is the peak season for baseball, basketball, and American football in the North American market, ensuring that NBC will not sign off on holding the Olympics then. And in Europe, where paid satellite broadcasting is common, soccer leagues are in full swing at that time.
Summer: Mori as well as John Coates, who is the main liaison between the IOC and the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Organizing Committee, have already stated that the likeliest schedule for 2021 will be in late July, early August, according to the New York Times. In fact, NHK has already reported that Friday, July 23, 2021 is the most likely date for the opening ceremony for Tokyo 2020.
NHK sources say the option of opening the Olympics in July of next year is gaining support at the committee, considering the time needed to contain the virus, make preparations, and select athletes.
One of the biggest challenges for figuring out when to schedule the Olympics in 2021 is the fact that there are already so many sports events scheduled, some of which have been re-scheduled from 2020. (You can see a schedule from AIPS Media here.) Takiguchi of Mainichi wrote, “the sporting calendar is so packed that any change in schedule for the Olympics will have knock-on effects. These inevitably deal heavy blows to the sports business, which is always bound by contracts.”
In the case that Tokyo2020 is moved to late July, early August, a couple of major world championships have to be re-scheduled if they do not want to be overshadowed by the Olympics:
the FINA World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, from July 16 to August 1, and
the World Athletics Championships in Oregon, American, from August 6 to 15.
In fact, the head of World Athletics, Sebastian Coe, already said in the NYT article that he is open to moving the dates of championship in Oregon, citing the benefits of moving the event to 2022. “You may have world championships in consecutive years where we wouldn’t normally have had that,” he said. “But for athletics, it’s not such a bad thing. To go from 2021 Olympic Games into two editions of the world championships, ’22 — possibly ’22 — ’23 we’re in Budapest, and then into the Olympic Games in Paris in ’24. It would offer athletics center stage at a very public point of the year.”
So the smart money for the commencement of the 32nd Olympiad is on Friday, July 23, 2021 – maybe a couple of seats for the Opening Ceremony will open up by then.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
The design of the tickets for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympics were released, and have been put on display. You can see them on the first floor of the Nihonbashi Mitsui Tower in Tokyo for free until January 29.
There are 59 different ticket designs for the Olympics and another 25 for Paralympic events. If you are fortunate enough to have bought a ticket, deliveries will start in May.
According to Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the design is based on two concepts:
The three rectangular shapes that make up the Tokyo2020 emblems, and
Kasane no irome, which is the color scheme used in the creation of fabrics used for kimono during the Japanese Heian Period (794-1185).