On Saturday, June 22, children of all ages gathered at the world-class gymnasium at Funabashi Municipal High School in Chiba to meet the Americans. They jumped and rolled and stretched to the instructions of essentially the men’s gymnastics team and the coaches who will compete in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Eight members of the team arrived a week ago to practice, get familiar with Japan and its facilities, and to inspire. Great efforts are being made by Japanese municipalities to attract sports teams from the two hundred plus countries expected to compete at Tokyo 2020 for look-and-see practice tours.
In this case, the city of Funabashi, Chiba has been the host sponsor of the USA men’s gymnastics team for the past two years, covering costs of accomodations and logistics while they are in Japan.
The gymnastics demonstration was in conjunction with the US Embassy’s Go for Gold program, which is an effort to engage students in Japanese schools with American athletes and diplomats.
“This is a great way for USA Gymnastics to give back to the people of Funabashi and thank them for being such gracious hosts during this training camp stay,” said Jon Omori, special liaison and advisor for the United States Olympic Committee.
To get an idea of the engaging way the members of the men’s team worked the crowd, watch this video.
I felt terrible. Crestfallen. Could not really focus on work when I got the email from Tokyo2020.
Thank you for your interest in purchasing Tokyo 2020 tickets.
The demand for tickets was incredibly high, and unfortunately, you were not awarded any of the tickets you requested in the lottery.
As a resident of Japan, I was able to register for a lottery that gave me a chance to buy tickets to events of my choice…an opportunity that up to 85 million other people in Japan also took up.
In an interview with the hosts of the podcast Olympic Fever, Ken Hanscom, the chief operating officer of TicketManager in the United States, explained why I was left brooding all day June 20.
This lottery has been extremely successful. At the close of the lottery, seven and a half million registered for what is really a total of 7.8 million tickets in its entirety. So Tokyo 2020 is already super popular.
The way I look at Tokyo is, it will be in my opinion the highest demand Olympics of all time. It could be the highest demand event of all time.
Of course, that is fantastic news for Japan (and the IOC) – Tokyo 2020 will be a hit! But I was still left wondering if the only way I’m going to see the Tokyo Olympics is from my living room a few kilometers away from the Olympic venues.
But later in the podcast, Hanscom provided some additional context on the lottery in Japan that ran from May 9 to 28, which gave me hope.
We’re talking about requests for 85 million tickets when there is only 3.5 million that are going to be granted as a part of this lottery process. Roughly 90% of people making requests are not going to receive any tickets, assuming everything is similar to London. So they’re only making a sub-set of these tickets available.
In other words, a relatively small percentage of the overall ticket numbers were made available in this lottery in Japan. This is just the beginning of the ticket sales process, which he said will continue in earnest in the opening months of 2020. And more significantly to me, Hanscom said that 75% of all tickets are made available to those in Japan.
For those outside of Japan, Hanscom explained that most other countries will have their own official re-seller and that there were about 8 to 10 authorized sellers of Olympic tickets around the world, including such companies as Kingdom Sports, CoSport, and Cartan.
Hanscom explained that that each country gets an allotment of tickets based on historical allotment numbers and number of participating athletes, for example, and that those tickets can be purchased only through the authorized seller for their country. The exception is in Europe, where a person living in France, for example, can buy tickets in France, or in Germany or in any other country that is under the European directive.
If tickets are not selling in certain countries, Tokyo 2020 has the right to take back those unsold tickets and re-sell them, or sell them on behalf of that country. But as Hanscom pointed out, this is unlikely for Tokyo2020, which is going to be a must-see Games.
Scalping will be illegal, as Japan enacted a ticket scalping law ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. So for those in Japan, Tokyo 2020 will make a re-sale site available for those people who are not able to use their tickets, in order to offer their tickets to the public at face value.
Hanscom tells those of us who did not land tickets in the lottery to stay positive, that there will be other opportunities.
Tickets are released in blocs over time, so if you miss out on one or two of these opportunities, you’re going to continue to have opportunities next year if you are very diligent, and you put a lot of hard work in. You are going to be able to get a lot of the tickets you want from the market.
Looking dashing in suit and tie, Rui Hachimura stepped up to the stage with a bright smile, greeting the legendary basketball player, Julius Erving. Erving had just announced that Hachimura had won the 2019 Julius Erving Small Forward of the Year Award, and was asked by the ESPN announcer how it felt to shake Erving’s hand.
Hachimura replied without missing a beat – “His hand is very big.”
The announcer laughed. The audience laughed. And Hachimura beamed as he looked at the award in front of him.
This is the confidence of a young man who is about to become the first Japanese to be selected in the first round of the NBA draft on June 20, 2019.
Only three years earlier, that confidence was not so apparent.
Born of a mother from Japan and a father from Benin, a nation in West Africa, Hachimura grew up in Toyama, a relatively lightly populated part of Western Japan. In a culture where the phrase, the “nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” is often thought or heard, Hachimura, due to his size, his skin color and his hair, stuck out.
“My family was the only blacks in our prefecture,” Hachimura said in this CBS article. “A lot of people looked at me weird. They’d never seen black people before.”
Although baseball is Hachimura’s first love, he found that basketball and its constant movement and flow allowed him to leverage his boundless energy and athleticism. A star on the Meisei High School team in Sendai, Hachimura took his team to three straight All Japan high school tournament titles. At an appearance at the 2014 FIBA U17 in Dubai, the then 16-year-old Hachimura caught the eye of basketball scouts, including the assistant coach at Gonzaga University, Tommy Lloyd.
“Moved well, really good hands, could dribble the ball, had a normal follow-through, strength and explosion,” Lloyd said in The Spokesman-Review. “A lot of great tools.”
Major college programs wanted Hachimura – Arizona, LSU, Vanderbilt and my hometown team St. John’s. But in the end, Lloyd helped convinced Hachimura to come to Gonzaga, which houses a powerful NCAA Division 1 basketball team made up in good part by players outside of America.
“I like that this program has teammates and coaches who are like family,” Hachimura said in The Gonzaga Bulletin. “I knew there were a lot of international players playing here and they know the process of developing international players.”
The 18-year old moved to Washington State in America in early 2016 and he had significant challenges. Hachimura had never lived overseas. He had been to the US only once. He spoke very little English. His first task was to become eligible to even enter Gonzaga as his acceptance was dependent on passing the SAT test, the most common aptitude test used by universities and colleges in America. After several attempts, Hachimura scored well enough to satisfy Gonzaga in May, 2016, and announced that he would move to the United States to enter Gonzaga’s English Language Center that month, according to the Japan Times.
With hopes of playing as a freshman in the 2016-2017 season, Hachimura had to improve his English so he could at least understand instructions from coaches and talk to teammates. As a result, he had to miss 50% of the team’s practices so he could attend Gonzaga’s English language program.
In the early stages, it didn’t appear the language lessons were working, as explained in late 2017 by Coach Mark Few in The Gonzaga Bullettin.
He’s a professional at nodding and acting like he knows. Then when you pin him down he has no idea. So I’ve been trying to pin him down a lot to make sure, because we have to make sure. But he’s getting better inch by inch.
Hachimura was also adjusting to the faster, more aggressive level of play in America, according to Few.
He’s pretty laid back. At his size, he needs to be a physical entity… that’s tough to match up with and tough to block out… he’s just got to get a little more intense.
Today, Hachimura is definitely playing like Tarzan, and will become not only a potential piece in an NBA team’s success in 2019, but a potential marketing bonanza for Hachimura, particularly in his native Japan. Kyodo News reporter Akiko Yamawaki said that Hachimura’s impending draft selection is big news in Japan.
All of Japan finds it so exciting. Everybody thinks, everybody knows he’s going to change the culture of Japanese basketball. It would be really huge news. When Ichiro signed with Seattle, (Shohei) Ohtani signed with the Angels, I think it would be the same kind of news in Japan.
And after an NBA season under his belt, who knows what Hachimura can accomplish as a member of Team Japan at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
It was November 22, 2018 and Gonzaga was challenging #1 Duke for the Maui Invitational Title Game early in the 2018-2019 NCAA men’s basketball season.
Arguably the best young talent in basketball were Duke Blue Devils, the perennial powerhouse in the NCAA. In fact, two of the top three lottery draft picks in the upcoming NBA draft will likely be from Duke – freshmen Zion Williamson and R J Barrett.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs, which was number 3 in the nation at the time, stormed out to a 14-point lead at halftime. But Duke fought back coming to within 1 with 3 and a half minutes left. That’s when Japanese forward, Rui Hachimura, made big plays on both the offensive and defensive ends to hold the fort – driving and dishing. When Duke tied the game, Hachimura barreled his way to the basket past Barrett for his 20th point to reclaim the lead 89-87 with only 1 minute and 13 seconds left in the game.
Duke desperately tried to tie the game, driving the lane. But the Bulldog defense was stalwart, with Hachimura adding a lunging block of a Barrett jumper with the game clock ticking away. Despite four missed free throws, Gonzaga’s defense held stiff. When Hachimura grabbed the final rebound, Gonzaga had topped the mighty Duke.
In the sixth game of his junior year, Rui Hachimura, the native of Toyama, Japan, showed that he could put his team on his shoulders. Hachimura went on to average 20 points and 7 rebounds per game in leading Gonzaga to an undefeated conference season and to the Elite Eight in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, losing to a very strong Texas Tech.
A week after the tournament, Hachimura made a historic decision – to skip his senior year at Gonzaga and enter the NBA draft, with the very high possibility of a vaunted first round pick when the NBA holds the draft on June 20, 2019.
Prognosticators have the 2.05 meter tall forward going as high as number 4, behind Duke’s Williamson (#1) and Barrett (#3), to somewhere in the mid teens. Either way, Hachimura will be the first Japanese to be drafted in the first round. Hachimura is an athletic, physical player who scouts say will create challenging match ups for opponents as he can play either small or power forward, as explained on NBA.com.
Play him at small forward and he can take his man to the block and spin-off him with masterful footwork for a layup. Play him at power forward and let him work on slower players in space where he can either blow by with a lightning-quick first step or create room with a side step to showcase his silky mid-range jump shot. Utilize him off the ball and he can punish sleeping help defender with intelligent cuts resulting in uncontested dunks.
Hachimura has shown great growth, particularly in his outside shooting. While he consistently hit over 50% of his field goals, he more than doubled his accuracy in 3-point shooting, improving from 19.2% to 41.7% from his sophomore to his junior year. Still critics find the sample size small and wonder if he can continue to get open and convert in the pros where the 3-point shot is about half a meter further out, and the defense on the perimeter is more aggressive.
Hachimura has won fans with his transition games, his rugged protection of the rim and his bursts to the basket with authoritative dunks, as well as his bright smile and humble demeanor. On June 20, he will be crowned as Japan’s greatest basketball player with selection into the NBA as a first-round pick.
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.”
“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.
It’s a bright airy arena – the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza in Chofu, Tokyo. I attended the NHK Cup on Sunday, May 19, a national championships for artistic gymnastics in Japan, and it was exciting to watch the very best male gymnasts in Japan, and in the world.
Now, if only I could understand what Was going on.
I’m not a deep fan of gymnastics. I knew that Kohei Uchimura, the winner of the previous 9 NHK Cups, was unable to qualify this time around. I knew that one of the most promising young gymnasts, Kenzo Shirai, did poorly to qualify for the NHK Cup, so was not in good shape to win. But I had my guide book and was ready to watch a great competition.
The problem is, the arena – this new arena that opened up in November of 2017 – was so poorly outfitted electronically that it was impossible to know what was going on…unless you were really familiar with gymnastics and could recognize faces and names from a far.
As you can see in the photo at the top of this post, there was only a single large screen to my left. That screen basically provided an NHK feed of the tournament, except without any critical information, like the name of the gymnast being displayed.
In fact, spectators at this new 10,000-seat facility, which will house Olympic badminton, pentathlon fencing and Paralympic wheelchair basketball, were bereft of any basic information about what was happening before them, except for small digital signs at each event site on the floor.
It’s true, that artistic gymnastics, where six different disciplines are happening at the same time, can be hard for the casual fan to follow. But if the idea is to attract as many fans as possible, particularly casual fans, then providing basic information to the spectator is critical. At the most average arena in the United States, one would expect to see a jumbotron hanging from the ceiling over center court, where the most basic information about scores, player information and video replays can be provided.
But the experience at Musashino Forest Sports Plaza was frustrating at best for the casual observer. You give up to the fact that you have no idea which person is doing what, where and when.
From the sponsors’ perspective, one would hope that their company name and logo is highly visible. But the main arena in Musashino Forest Sports Plaza has no such electronic signage. Instead, small placards hung awkwardly off the edge of the first and second level stands.
If you believe that stadium and arenas should be designed for the spectator (as well as sponsors), then you will have issues with many sports venues in Japan. Most of the stadium and arena in Japan are owned by government authorities, and that they view these venues as cost centers, not profit centers. In other words, if there is a soccer stadium in some town somewhere in Japan, it will be very hard for a person with an idea to do anything other than soccer in that stadium, this despite the fact that concerts, obstacle sports racing, eSports and other such activities could attract many more and different people.
To change the conservative nature of stadium and arena administrators in Japan, the Japanese government through the Sports Agency have been pushing a plan to triple sports business revenue in Japan from JPY5.5 trillion yen in 2015 to JPY15 trillion yen in 2025. The Sports Agency want stadium and arenas to transform so that they can help contribute to those greater revenues.
Designed by committee, Toyota’s Japan Taxi becomes an expensive Olympic symbol.
That’s a damning headline, one that Olympic-haters love to see. News editors like it because they know readership will want to read and moan about the waste that the Olympics and other big-tent events incur. That’s why so many news channels picked up this May 22 Reuters story.
Toyota built a taxi that sticks out on the Tokyo roads – a black high-roofed automobile that boasts the Olympic and Paralympic logos – and they’re called “Japan Taxi”.
The Reuters article leads with the premise that the Japan Taxi has become a “high-priced icon of Tokyo’s budget-busting 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.” It goes on to state that the taxi was designed to answer too many stakeholder needs, including an air purifying conditioner, wheelchair ramp, liquefied petroleum and gas-hybrid engine – in other words, a Frankenstein-sort of taxi had been created. As a result, the car ended up retailing for over USD30,000, some USD7 to 8,000 more than the Toyota Crown that are gradually being replaced as taxis in Tokyo.
That is indeed a high price and Toyota admits to finding few interested buyers outside Tokyo and Japan. Toyota admits they are losing money on this, manufacturing only 1,000 of these cars a month.
According to the article, taxi drivers have expressed discontent, although reasons beyond an unwieldy rarely-deployed wheelchair ramp are not provided. Additionally, taxi operators are concerned subsidies from the city and federal governments will disappear after the Olympics, although it is unclear in the article how big that overall cost is.
But what does the number one stakeholder think – the ones who are transported in Japan Taxi?
I’ll start with a highly unscientific study of one – myself. I LOVE these taxis! And I suspect I’m not alone. They’re easy to enter and they’re spacious – a business-class taxi with economy fares. You can cart your luggage in with ease. They’re classic looking, harking back to the design of the big old London taxis. And those who are wheelchair bound appear to have found an easier option.
The video report on this Reuters story (below) quotes Josh Grisdale, a wheelchair resident of Japan, who commented on the fact that before Japan Taxi you had to rely on specialized vans. Now he says you see Japan Taxi on the street all the time. “The most important thing is to have something available when you need it,” said Grisdale, the Head of Accessible Japan. “Up till now, you’ve had to book way in advance to book a taxi, and that’s very difficult for people who are not from Japan.
All the way at the end of the article, Reuters admits that taxi distributors actually like their Japan Taxis because “they consume half the fuel of older vehicles and their anti-collision sensors have reduced accidents by 10%,” and that “Toyota made other tweaks when it addressed the wheelchair ramp problem. It also made the automatic sliding passenger door close 1.5 seconds faster, reduced rear windscreen wiper noise with an intermittent setting and lowered the money tray on the driver’s seat to reduce shoulder strain.”
If a news agency comes out with a story on Japan Taxi about significant taxpayer money being wasted on something that taxpayers don’t like, then fine. But my guess is that if you had a line of people waiting for taxis and the next two cars on the queue were a Japan Taxi and an older Toyota Crown (a perfectly fine car), the person first on line will likely be happy he’s not second.
On May 9, 2019, Tokyo2020 began a registration process that allows people living in Japan to select tickets to events with an intent to purchase. This registration ends on May 28.
If you are a resident of Japan – meaning you have an address and telephone number in Japan – you can participate in a lottery for tickets to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. However, it is likely you will have to wait. Last night on the first day of registration, wait times were an hour or so. More frustratingly for some was navigating the closing process.
I waited for about 60 minutes, started the process, and somehow lost the connection. When I tried to re-establish the process, I ended up re-starting the count. Another 60 minutes to kill. According to this article, “180,000 applicants were simultaneously in a waiting line.”
The second time around, I selected tickets for opening and closing ceremonies, men’s basketball finals and a day of a bunch of track finals, which took me about 30 minutes to do. After pushing the complete button, I had to give final verification by calling a number, and I had about 2 minutes to do so, according to the site. Unfortunately, I got about 3 minutes worth of busy tone after dialing the number over ten times.
Somehow, I was able to figure out how to re-start the phone verification process, and in the end, persistence prevailed. At 11pm that night, I secured my place in the lottery. And so too, can you, if you live in Japan. According to the above-cited article, residents in Japan not only get first dibs, they get tickets that will be less expensive than those sold outside Japan, as ticket re-sellers tack on a handling charge of 20%. For a JPY300,000 ticket to the Opening Ceremony, that’s a hefty charge increase.
You have until May 28. Officials have emphasized and re-emphasized that the time you register and select events for the lottery is irrelevant. You have an equal chance of tickets whether you were the first or last person to register. First, get your ID, and then find a quiet time of the day (pre-dawn) to go to the site, and start picking events!
The climbing wall looms high over the green at MoriPark Outdoor Village in Akishima, Japan, a yoga class finding serenity in the quiet strength of the monolith.
It’s a sunny Sunday morning on April 21, 2019, and the USA Climbing Team has just arrived and huddled on the grass to confirm their routine for the day. After training intensively most of the week indoors, it was time to get some work done outdoors.
MoriPark Outdoor Village, which is on the western edge of Tokyo, is a compact shopping center, with tenants which sell only outdoor gear and wear, or provide health and sporting services. For Team USA, the village’s climbing walls served as the venue for their day’s training.
Across the street from the rope-climbing wall was the speed climbing wall, used for one of the three climbing disciplines that will determine a medal for climbers at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. At the base of the 15-meter wall, the young men and women of Team USA (the oldest member was 22) began their stretching and prepping routine.
Five days later, the team would be competing for glory at the International Federation of Sports Climbing (IFSC) Worldcup in Chongqing, China. For now, it was a day for low intensity training.
Members of the team, including USA Climbing coach, Josh Larson, first got their senses sharpened with a round of hacky sack. Others stretched in their own AirPod-induced sensory isolation. And a couple pulled out their favorite distraction – the kendama.
A simply constructed wooden plaything out of Japan’s traditional past, the kendama is a wooden ball connected by string to a hammer-like handle that allows the player to catch the ball on a spike or on one of two cups. According to climber, Nathaniel Coleman of Salt Lake City, kendama became an addiction among slacklining athletes, which spread to the climbing world.
Eventually, the climbers had their opportunities scrambling up the wall like frantic Spider-men, hitting the metal plate at the top of the wall stopping the clock in 7 to 8 seconds. A medal for sport climbing will be up for grabs for those athletes who can compile the best combined scores for three types of climbing: lead climbing, bouldering, and speed climbing.
Lead climbing is about creativity and endurance. Bouldering is about puzzle solving, getting introduced to a new pattern of hand and footholds, and figuring out the best path. Speed climbing is about practicing the same exact pattern of hand and footholds on a wall that has existed for 10 years, a pattern which is solidly entrenched in the muscle memory of the fastest climbers.
Many climbers love the chess match of the other disciplines – lead and bouldering – but broadcasters love the clear-cut simplicity of speed climbing. In fact, the fastest event in the Olympics will be speed climbing, where the world record is an incredible 5.48 seconds.
And like any young sport, there are those who wonder if sports climbing is being sold out to the broadcasters who cater to the lowest common denominator. Kyra Condie of Minnesota is ranked 8th in the world in bouldering, and she learned her skills in the climbing gyms that nurtured climbers, and encouraged support and fun. “I worry,” she said “that climbing will become too competitive,” and lose the fun part of the climbing culture.
But the competitive nature of climbers are also stoked by sport climbing’s debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games. John Brosler of Dallas, Texas started climbing when he was 10, when his parents sent him to summer camp where he got hooked on the wall. John loves the competition of climbing and is “really psyched” to see the best.
“I got to see this sport grow from a niche when climbing gyms were few and far between,” said the 22-year old. “It’s really cool to see it gain traction and become an Olympic sport.”
But sports climbing is a global sport, and Team USA has some catching up to do.
In the three climbing disciplines of lead, bouldering and speed, Team USA is ranked 8th, 8th and 12th respectively. European nations like Slovenia, France, the Czech Republic and Russia, as well as Japan are proven teams that look to medal in 2020.
While climbing teams in Europe and other parts of the world have been better funded, and training together more formally for a longer time, Team USA has just been unifying its resources in the past year, according to Larson. The Boston native was hired as the team’s first coach in 2018. He was hired by the new CEO of USA Climbing, Marc Norman, who asked his team’s officials to move to Salt Lake City in order to make it easier to coordinate Team USA’s activities.
“It was only a few years ago when I’d go to a tournament in Europe, on my own, without a coach, and find out who else was on the team when I’d see them arrive,” Larson said.
In Tokyo, Team USA is together, benefiting from the camaraderie that comes from training together, and the aggregate knowledge that comes from their shared experience. Team USA’s time together has been short, but sport climbing rise to Olympic levels has also been quick. Not everything about the strategy and tactics of how to win a combined climbing event is known.
In other words, gold, silver and bronze in climbing is for the taking.
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.