Ichiro Uchimura Hanyu Icho
Clockwise from upper left: Ichiro Suzuki, Kohei Uchimura, Kaori Icho, Yuzuru Hanyu

The 24-year old figure skater walked into a private room in Saitama Super Arena, the television to his left showing clips of the World Finals Figure Skating Championship that had just ended on the evening of March 23, 2019.

“I lost! I can’t believe it (“Maketa yo, kuyashii!),” said Yuzuru Hanyu. He glanced at the television set which showed his rival and winner of the world championship, American Nathan Chen. “How do I beat that?”

Despite Hanyu’s incredible free program and brief hold of first place, Chen’s was better.

“I really wanted to win when I was skating,” Hanyu stated. “I think I did my best, but the problem is that a figure skating competition consists of two days, and I lost both. It means that I simply do not have enough strength to win.”

Chen is a brilliant young skater, who has proven his metal by defending his world championship. But Hanyu will not go down without a fight.

Those who have followed Hanyu even a little know that he is not losing confidence. He may in fact be steeling himself for the greatest competition he has faced. Battling and overcoming an ongoing ligament injury to his right ankle, Hanyu won gold in PyeongChang last February, and the Cup of Russia in November. The flames of his competitive spirit have been fanned by Chen, and he’s out to take figure skating to the next level, which should surprise no one.

Hanyu is a living legend.

What’s incredible is that he is not alone here. We in Japan have been blessed, recent witnesses to once-in-a-century global talents in a wide variety of sports – four of them to be exact:

  • Yuzuru Hanyu (figure skating)
  • Ichiro Suzuki (baseball)
  • Kohei Uchimura (gymnastics)
  • Kaori Icho (wrestling)

Yuzuru Hanyu (figure skating): The Sendai native is a two-time world champion, has broken the world record in figure skating scores eighteen times, and is the first person since Dick Button did so in 1948 to win individual gold in two consecutive Olympiads. Can he do the unthinkable at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, and win an unprecedented third Olympic championship? I wouldn’t bet against him yet.

Ichiro Suzuki (baseball): After 28 years of professional baseball, the athlete known as Ichiro retired last week amidst adoring fans at the opening season matches between his Seattle Mariners and the Oakland A’s. No one has had more hits in professional baseball than Ichiro (4,367), and in the Major Leagues in America, he set the season hit record in 2004 with 262 hits, surpassing George Sisler’s record that stood for 84 years. His speed and defense made him a threat to steal a base as well as hits and runs in the field. There’s an overwhelming consensus that Ichiro will be the first player enshrined in the baseball hall of fames of both Japan and America. His love of the game, his training regimen and his flare for the dramatic will live on forever.

Kohei Uchimura (gymnastics): He is called King Kohei. The native of Nagasaki is the only gymnast to win all-around gold in every major title in a four-year Olympic cycle….twice. In other words, Uchimura won the world championship and Olympic gold from 2009 to 2016. You may as well tack on his silver medal in the all-arounds at the 2012 London Olympics, and call it a decade of dominance. Calling him the Greatest of All Time (GOAT), as many do, is not hyperbole. As Uchimura is 30, it is unlikely that his dominance will continue at Tokyo 2020.  But he might be there, giving us all still a chance to glimpse greatness.

Kaori Icho (wrestling): There is another Japanese GOAT – a woman from Japan named Kaori Icho. The freestyle wrestler from Aomori, Icho has won an unprecedented and incredible four straight Olympic championships since women’s wrestling became an Olympic sport at the 2004 Athens Summer Games. In fact, she’s the first female in any sport to win an individual gold in four straight Olympiads. Through that period, Icho had won 189 straight matches, a 13-year streak that ended in January, 2016 to a wrestler ten years her junior, only to re-start the streak and take her fourth gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. She is indeed the best female wrestler ever.

We in Japan have been most fortunate in recent years to live among living legends.

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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.

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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

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.

Fukushima-Stadiums-To-Host-Baseball-and-Softball-Games-At-Tokyo-Olympics
Azuma Stadium in Fukushima will host at least one baseball game and one softball game (Image: The Asahi Shimbun)

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics begin on July 24 next year.

But the first sporting event will take place two days earlier, in Fukushima, when preliminary matches of women’s softball begin  at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium.

Azuma Stadium is about 90 kilometers from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the site of Japan’s gravest nuclear disaster since World War II.

It was 8 years ago today when a 9.1 magnitude earthquake rattled the Pacific coast side of northern Japan (Tohoku), triggering enormous waves of water inland, both resulting in approximately 16,000 deaths, and leading to nuclear meltdowns in the Fukushima reactors as the tsunami overwhelmed the power plants. The nuclear fallout turned communities around Daiichi into ghost towns, and the prefecture into a national  pariah.

The decision by the organizers to bring sporting events to Tohoku during the Olympics was made with the intent to drive investment back to the area, and build a sense of hope to the region.

“This is a great opportunity to bring the spirit of the Olympic Games to this region, which was affected by the tsunami in 2011,” IOC leader Thomas Bach told a press conference in Pyeongchang, South Korea when this was announced on March 17, 2017. “It is also an expression of solidarity of the Olympic movement with the people in this region who are suffering from the consequences of this disaster.”

Baseball infielder, Akinori Iwamura, who played many years for the Yakult Swallows as well as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, was a member of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles when the earthquake and tsunami hit, continuing to play for a minor league squad called the Fukushima Hopes through 2016. His hope too was that the region would be revitalized, and Iwamura was a vocal cheerleader, according to this New York Times article.

“I call myself a missionary,” Iwamura said. “Even though it’s a negative way many people know the name of Fukushima, we have to change it into a positive way.”

Iwamura believed that hosting softball games during the Olympics at Azuma Stadium, where his Fukushima Hopes play, would build the area’s image and attract tourism. “When they go back to their country, they can tell their impression to the local people of their countries so it will bring more people to come for tourism,” he said.

Azuma to Daiichi map

However, there are those who not only consider such thoughts wishful thinking, they consider it a cover up, as this article from The Independent points out.

Immediately after the announcement in March that Fukushima would host baseball, anti-nuclear activists denounced the move. They argued that it created a false impression that Fukushima had returned to normal and glossed over the remaining hardships faced by an estimated 120,000 residents who still cannot – and may never – return to their homes.

Kazuko Nihei has two daughters, and she fled her home in Fukushima City in 2011, and has sworn never to return. The government has provide financial assistance to people evacuated from the terribly affected areas, particularly those in the area where nuclear radiation fears are greatest. The government ended that assistance for people like Nihei, and so she struggles to make ends meet, according to Channel News Asia.

“I have to work with every ounce of energy,” said Nihei, who works seven days a week to help keep the family afloat.

Why won’t she return with her family to Fukushima? The Japanese government has worked hard to decontaminate the area so that families can return. But the fears of radiation in the environment remain.

…the programme has not swayed everyone, with a poll conducted in February by the Asahi Shimbun daily and Fukushima local broadcaster KFB finding that 60 per cent of Fukushima region residents still felt anxious about radiation.

Nihei worries about “various health risks for children, not only thyroid (cancer) but others including damage to their genes. If there was a comprehensive annual health check, I might consider it, but what they are offering now is not enough, it only concentrates on thyroid cancer,” she told AFP.

Then there is the contaminated water used as a coolant in the nuclear reactors – a million tons of water that contain radioactive elements. Processing the contaminated water, as well as the ongoing dismantling of the nuclear plants, are long,  difficult and costly tasks – the New York Times states it would take 40 years and cost nearly USD200 billion.

Additionally, there is a risk to keeping the radioactive water in the thousand or so water tanks on land, near the power plants – the number will rise and the space to store the water is limited. And the tanks could crack, particularly if another major earthquake hits Tohoku.

fukushima water tanks

The Japanese government hopes to purify that water to the point where the water can be disposed of in the Pacific Ocean. But, as one can imagine, that idea doesn’t sit well with people who live there, particularly those in the fishing industry.

“That would destroy what we’ve been building over the past eight years,” said Tetsu Nozaki, head of the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Co-operative Associations. Last year’s catch was just 15 percent of pre-crisis levels, partly because of consumer reluctance to eat fish caught off Fukushima.

The Olympics will come and go. But the disturbing legacy of 3.11 in Fukushima will linger on.

United Korean Team enters together
United Korean Team enters together

February 9, 2018 was the first day of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, and I have so many memories of my 10 days in Korea.

I remember….

.…how cold it was – minus 10 degrees centigrade with a wind chill of “can’t-feel-my-face” degrees. And yet, as if cooperating with the Gods of Olympia, no snow fell, no winds blew, and no need for all the heat packs I brought with me to the stadium.

…how astounded I was when Pita Taufatofua the shirtless Tongan and his oil-slick torso came striding in with his nation’s flag…apparently too hot to notice the cold.

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Pita Taufatofua, shirtless in Rio and in PyeongChang, the taekwando-cum-cross country skiier.

…how Trump made an appearance and the Olympics great again.

Trump in the House
Fake Kim Jong Un and Fake Trump walk right by my seat.

…how confusing it was, in those early days when the bus operators were moving the bus stops and changing the times, making me 100 minutes late for a ski jump competition despite leaving 90 minutes early.

Guides
Getting directions from electronic and human volunteers alike was often confusing.

…how nice it was to grab a burger at USA House and McDonalds, which was taking a bow at its last Olympics as a sponsor.

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…how surprised I was to note that Korea had to import zamboni drivers.

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…how enthusiastic the North Korea cheering squad were – their synchronized movements, the sameness of their uniforms and faces, their enthusiastic cheers and singing – they were the must-take photo op of the event.

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…how young Koreans clamored for unification with song and dance while old Koreans clamored for a nuclear strike on North Korea.

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…how thrilling short track skating is.

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…how cool it is to meet some of the legends of Olympic history.

Valeriy Borzov_WOA Olympians for LIfe
Valeriy Borzov, IOC member and fastest man in the world at the 1972 Munich Olympics

…how K-Pop girls can warm up a biathlon competition in freezing temperatures.

Biathlon 4

…how incredibly athletic figure skaters can be.

DSC_0067
Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot at the end of an exhausting spectacular gold-medal performance in pair figure skating.

…how much more amazing, I thought, it’s going to be in Tokyo for the 2020 Summer Olympics!

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Photo taken by author on January 6, 2019, from the fifth floor of a building.

It’s rising!

The New National Stadium, which will be the focal point for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, is about twice as high as it was a year since I last took pictures.

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Current view of inside the stadium, from Nippon Terebi.

The architect of this stadium, Kengo Kuma, is famous for working with wood, and you can now see long slats of light brown cedar wood lining the upper part of the stadium. While criticized heavily for dropping plans for a thoroughly different design by world-renown architect Zaha Hadid, the organizing committee did well in selecting Kuma. His design will certainly merge more harmoniously with the surroundings, particularly the wooded confines of Meiji Shrine. In fact, the New National Stadium is called The Mori no Stadium (杜のスタジアム), or the Shrine Forest Stadium.

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The cedar slats that line the stadium eaves.

As Kuma explained in this interview, he was anxious about whether the color of the wood, which was tinged a light white color, would blend well with the green of Meiji Shrine’s trees. “But when I saw the texture of the trees (as a backdrop to the stadium), I was relieved that it was okay.”

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An Oedo Line train station – Kokuritsu-kyogijo Eki – is right underneath the stadium.

November 30, 2019 is the targeted completion date for the New National Stadium.

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akihiro gunji of tokai university winner of 2019 hakone ekiden
Tokai University anchor Akihiro Gunji breaks the tape to give his school the victory in the Tokyo-Hakone ekiden on Wednesday in Otemachi. | KYODO

It’s a New Year’s tradition in Japan – settling into lazy days of eating and laying about in front of the TV with family on January 2nd and 3rd, watching a running competition that spans over 200 kilometers – the Hakone Ekiden.

Since 1920, the annual Hakone Ekiden has transfixed the nation as teams of ten long-distance runners from universities in the Kanto region compete to complete ten legs of about 20 kilometers each. They run the roads of Japan from downtown Otemachi to Hakone on day one, and then back to Otemachi on day two.

Thousands line the streets to cheer runners from their alma mater while tens of millions more watch on TV from 8 in the morning to about 1:30 in the afternoon. It’s Super Bowl Sunday in America – without the glitzy half-time show.

And when 2020 rolls around, its feasible that some of the Japanese distance runners with medal hopes for the Tokyo Olympics will be competing in the 100th anniversary of the Hakone Ekiden that January. In fact, that was the raison d’etre of the Hakone Ekiden – “to bring up runners to compete in the world.”

Those are the words of Shizo Kanakuri, who created the ekiden race. Kanakuri, along with sprinter Yahiko Mishima, were Japan’s first Olympians, competing at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. While Kanakuri was not able to finish the marathon in 1912, he represented Japan again at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, placing 16th and finishing with a time of 2:48:45.

With expanded knowledge of what  international competition was like, Kanakuri grasped an opportunity to raise greater awareness of long-distance running, and thus develop Japan’s next generation of international competitors.

It started with a celebration – an event to highlight the 50th anniversary of Tokyo becoming the nation’s capitol. In 1917, Yomiuri Shimbun organized a massive road race that spanned over 500 kilometers and ran from Kyoto (the former capitol) to Tokyo. The idea of creating long-distance relay exchanges along the way came from the Edo-period practice of transmitting messages from Kyoto to Tokyo and back via humans who ran from station to station with their important missives.

zensaku mogi_first ekiden
Zensaku Mogi

So impressed was Kanakuri with the idea of a long-distant relay race, he had a vision of America – that the same could be done traversing the United States from sea to shining sea. While that vision was, as it turned out, an impossible dream at the time, it inspired Kanakuri and his partners from Tokyo Koshi and Waseda universities to create an organization that would invite university students to participate in a local ekiden. In the end, four major universities in Tokyo – Waseda, Keio, Meiji and Tokyo Koshi – elected to compete in the first Hakone Ekiden.

On February 15, 1920, when Zensaku Mogi of Tokyo Koshi University broke the tape on his arrival in front of the Hochi Shimbun office of Yomiuri Group, helping his team to a total 2-day time of 15 hours, five minutes and 16 seconds, he ignited a tradition of hope in the youth and future of Japan that continues to this day.

Tokyo wins 2020 bid
Tokyo wins 2020 bid

573 days to Opening Day of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. On July 24, 2020, all the questions, all the angst, all the planning will end, and all that will matter are the athletes. For now, we can only speculate about what will be, and recall what has been.