Tokyo2020 taketh, and Tokyo2020 giveth. My prayers were answered.
On March 20, the Japanese government announced that it would strictly limit overseas spectators to Tokyo2020. The authorized ticket reseller, CoSport USA, immediately informed paid customers that they would refund all tickets.
All my Tokyo2020 Olympic tickets were purchased through CoSport. Even though I live in Japan, my tickets were suddenly gone, as I wrote earlier.
But then, on April 6, I woke up to this surprising email message from Co-Sport: “We have recently received confirmation from the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee that we can allow you to keep your tickets if you so choose.”
“Please note that we cannot be responsible for your travel to/from Japan as a result of the foreign spectator ban but we would also like to help accommodate your needs/plans based on your previous purchase(s).”
Well, I’m already in Tokyo. And I suppose there was feedback to Tokyo2020 of many others who were already in Japan, or who would be able to transfer them to people they know in Japan.
Then on April 9, I was informed by Tokyo2020 that the tickets I had won in the Paralympic ticket lottery would be delivered in late June.
Anything can happen. The 4th wave of the pandemic hitting the world, including Japan, could turn into a tsunami that alarms the most tunnel-visioned Olympians, and the Games could still end up cancelled.
But as of today, the political will to stage the Olympics and Paralympics is strong.
And I don’t mind.
I’ve got tickets. And if all is reasonably safe and sound, I will be there cheering (silently), smiling (behind a mask), and high fiving (the air).
The men’s and women’s 10,000 meter finals! The men’s 100 meter sprint finals! The women’s 100m hurdles final! The men’s long jump final! The men’s 4X100 relay sprint finals!
The debut of karate! The women’s basketball gold medal game! The men’s basketball gold medal game!
Volleyball! 3X3 basketball! Wrestling!
And tickets to the coveted Closing Ceremonies!
Despite Covid, Tokyo2020 was going to happen and I had tickets to some of the most anticipated moments of these Games.
And then, suddenly, I didn’t.
When the IOC and Tokyo2020 organizers announced on March 20 that overseas spectators would not be allowed to attend the Games, I was immediately saddened, of course for the parents and supporters of athletes who could not witness the accomplishments of their Olympians, but also because I might not be able to either.
I was unable to secure tickets to the Olympics during the lotteries held in Japan, but I was able to purchase them through the American authorized ticket reseller (ATR), Co-Sport. I held out hope that as a foreigner already living in Japan that I would be given the option to use my tickets.
But alas, that would not be possible. As I was informed this morning in an email from Co-Sport, my ticket order will be made invalid automatically. “Whether you choose to complete and submit the refund form, all ticket orders will be cancelled as a result of the international spectator ban imposed by the Japanese Government.”
To make matters worse, I likely won’t see a refund for many months, and I will not be reimbursed for the Co-Sport handling fees, which total about a thousand dollars in my case.
Any More Tickets?
So, I wondered, will any more tickets be sold to people living in Japan. At the Tokyo2020 lotteries in 2019, about 4.45 million tickets were sold to residents of Japan for the Olympiad, while an additional 600,000 were sold overseas through ATRs, which is how I got my tickets.
When Tokyo 2020 was postponed, residents in Japan were given the opportunity to ask for refunds, and 18% of tickets were cancelled as a result. Thus, there are now 3.6 million seats for the Olympics reserved for those in Japan.
As I understand it, organizers estimated a couple of years ago that approximately 7.8 million tickets would be made available for the Tokyo Olympics, although that could be closer to 9 million.
Based on those numbers, there should be another 3 to 4 million tickets that need to be accounted for. A chunk of that was likely targeted for sponsors, organizers, sports federations and other assorted affiliated support groups. But since now there is a mandate to limit the number of overseas visitors to people essential to the operations of the Games, many of those people will not be coming.
So what will happen to all those tickets? It’s not clear yet.
Under the current conditions of the pandemic in Japan, it is unlikely that spectators will be banned from the Olympic and Paralympic venues, but it is likely they will be limited. The organizers will probably want to avoid disappointing ticket holders in Japan as much as possible. Ideally, they honor all 3.6 million tickets already purchased in Japan, which is about 45% of the total number of tickets expected to be available.
Currently, Japan has a restriction of a maximum of 10,000 spectators for baseball games in the coming Nippon Professional Baseball season. Will organizers be willing to relax restrictions for the Olympics and allow upwards of 45% attendance?
If they don’t relax those restrictions, then the organizers will also have to cancel and refund a certain number of tickets, maybe millions of tickets if they need to get to 20 or 30% of venue capacity.
This is an educated guess, and not one I like to make, but it’s likely that new tickets will not be issued.
It was June 26, 2003 and Seiko Hashimoto, a junior member of Japan’s leading political party, was on a panel with then former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who said this, according to AP:
Welfare is supposed to take care of and reward those women who have lots of children. It is truly strange to say we have to use tax money to take care of women who don’t even give birth once, who grow old living their lives selfishly and singing the praises of freedom.
Eighteen years later, Mori made another derogatory statement about women, but this time it led to his reluctant resignation from the presidency of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee.
His successor is Seiko Hashimoto.
An independent succession committee made up primarily of former Japanese Olympians and Paralympians and led by the well-respected chairman and CEO of Canon, Fujio Mitarai honed very quickly on one candidate – the Olympic speedskater and cyclist from Hayakita, Hokkaido. It’s hard to argue that anyone else in Japan has had more Olympic experience or embodies the Olympic spirit than Hashimoto.
Born on October 5, 1964, 5 days before the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Hashimoto was given the name Seiko, a play on the Japanese characters for the word “seika,” or Olympic flame. Hashimoto started her Olympic career at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, and competed as a speed skater in the 1988, 1992 and 1994 Winter Games, winning a bronze medal in the 1500 meter speedskating finals in Albertville. More incredibly, Hashimoto competed as a cyclist at the 1988, 1992 and 1996 Summer Olympics.
That’s 7 Olympiads in 12 years! If there is one reason the Japanese press have started calling her the Iron Lady, it was her ability to persistently and intensely train at high performance levels. Her Olympic run is unprecedented and frankly, astounding.
Hashimoto would go on to become the head of the Japanese Olympic team delegation, or the chef de mission at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics, and then the first female to lead a Japan delegation at a Summer Olympics when she was appointed chef de mission at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
There is no rest in Hashimoto. Following her appearance in the 1994 Albertville Olympics, bronze medal in hand, she competed for a seat in the upper house of the Japanese Parliament in 1995, and won. While learning the ropes as a rookie politician, every day she trained for her final Olympics from 3am and worked at the Diet building from 8am. She was likely the only elected official competing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and certainly a first such double-hatter for Japan.
When Hashimoto gave birth to a daughter in 2000, she was first upper house legislator in Japan to give birth to a child while in office. As Hashimoto would have to rely on staff to watch over her daughter, she saw that others had a similar need, and would go on to establish a child care facility in the basement of a then newly built Second House of the House of Representatives. Not only lawmakers and staff could use the facilities, but also residents in the neighborhood of Nagatacho’s newest nursery.
Upon accepting the request of the selection committee to assume the role of President of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, Hashimoto resigned from her cabinet level position as Minister of State for Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. She had to resign from her government role for legal as well as ethical reasons. But there will likely be whispers of undue influence by the former president of the committee, Yoshiro Mori.
Mori, who was Japan’s prime minister from April 2000 to April 2001, has been for a long time a mentor and supporter of Hashimoto’s political career. Hashimoto has often publicly referred to Mori as “father,” and likewise, Mori has referred to Hashimoto as “daughter.”
Additionally, Hashimoto has been, ironically, accused of sexual harassment, primarily due to a public incident where Hashimoto may have had too much to drink at a celebration one evening at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and where, on camera, Hashimoto repeatedly kissed Japan figure skater Daisuke Takahashi.
But clearly, the biggest challenge is leading the organization that is expected to successfully run the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics, amidst the uncertainty of a global pandemic, with only 5 months to go. The day before Hashimoto assumed leadership, the governor of Shimane prefecture, explained with emotion in his voice about the frustration with the response to the COVID-19 crisis by the Japanese central government as well as the Tokyo2020 organizers. He even expressed the possibility of cancelling the Shimane portion of the Olympic torch relay, scheduled for mid May.
“It’s difficult to cooperate with the holding of the Tokyo Olympics and the torch relay,” said governor Tatsuya Maruyama. “I want to make the decision (to cancel the torch relay) based on whether or not the response of the central government and the Tokyo government to the coronavirus improves.”
So Hashimoto has a mountain to climb. But if anyone has the energy and determination needed, the Iron Lady from Hokkaido does.
On February 12, 2021, the president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, Yoshiro Mori, announced his resignation, after making sexist comments during a board meeting of the Japan Olympic Committee. Since that day, the press has been speculating about who the best successor would be. After Mori attempted to appoint Saburo Kawabuchi, a man similar in age and temperament to the post, the criticism was immediate. The CEO of Tokyo 2020 quickly announced that the president of the organizing committee had not been selected, and that a selection committee would be formed to pick the best person.
The television news shows have had a field day throwing out names, based on such criteria as gender, age, Olympic experience, sports administration experience, political savvy or even business savvy. Here is a list of candidates compiled from news programs from two Japanese television stations: TBS and TV Asahi.
Shizuka Arakawa: Thanks to Shizuka Arakawa, all of Japan knows what an “Ina Bauer” is, a signature form that Arakawa displayed in the free program that led to her winning the gold medal in the Ladies’ Singles figure skating competition at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics. The TV Asahi remarked that she has a sharp sports mind, has strong recognition overseas, and has no connections to Japanese politics. Young and female, Arakawa represents the opposite of Mori and Kawabuchi.
Seiko Hashimoto: An Olympian’s Olympian, Seiko Hashimoto appeared in 7 Olympiads, both Winter and Summer, as a speed skater and cyclist, from 1988 to 1996. That alone is a WOW! The native from Hokkaido, Hashimoto entered the world of politics when she was elected to the House of Councillors of Japan’s National Diet in 1995. She now serves in the cabinet of the current prime minister, Suga Yoshihide, as Minister of State for Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. Can she leverage her compelling credentials as an Olympian, a woman in her prime, and as a politician to succeed Mori?
Mikako Kotani: Mikako Kotani took home two bronze medals in synchronized swimming at the 1988 Summer Olympics. Since then she has served on the Japanese Olympic Committee, and the IOC Athletes’ Commission, as well as the Association of the National Olympic Committees, among several local and international committees related to the Olympics. Kotani was Japan’s first female flag bearer at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Can you she become the first female head of the Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee?
Koji Murofushi: His mother was a Romanian javelin champion. His father was an Olympic hammer thrower for Japan. His sister competed in the discus and hammer as well. Koji Murofushi is from a family of powerful athletes, and won gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics, as well as bronze at the 2012 London Olympics in the hammer throw. He currently has one of the most challenging roles in the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee: Sports Director. He is also the current commission of the Japan Sports Agency. He’s got the build of Thor and the experience of Oden. Is he ready to step up?
Daichi Suzuki : Coming from behind in the final strokes, Daichi Suzuki won the gold medal in the 100 meter backstroke and became a legend in Japan sports swimming. Suzuki would go on to become a sports administrator, leading the Japan Swimming Federation before becoming the first commissioner of a new national sports government organization, called Japan Sports Agency. Suzuki was famous for swimming 20 or 30 meters underwater before breaking the water’s surface with his powerful backstrokes. Will he emerge from this vast talent pool as the winner of the Mori Sweepstakes?
Yasuhiro Yamashita: After tearing his right calf muscle in a semifinal judo match at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Yasuhiro Yamashita went on to win the gold medal in dramatic fashion, after being denied the opportunity when Japan chose to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Yamashita was appointed chairman of the Japanese Olympic Committee, replacing Tsunekazu Takeda, who became ensnarled in an alleged bribery scandal related to Tokyo’s winning bid for 2020. Will history repeat and Yamashita replace another leader embroiled in controversy?
Shinzo Abe: He appeared at the 2016 Rio Olympics dressed as one of the Mario Brothers. The two-time prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, left the leadership of Japan in August 2020, citing the need to recover from a recurring illness. If the role is more figure head than operations head, is it reasonable for one prime minister to succeed Yoshiro Mori, another former prime minister?
Tamayo Marukawa: Tamayo Marukawa is a former announcer for TV Asahi who started her political life after being elected to the House of Councillors of the Japanese National Diet in 2007. She served at the cabinet level as Minister in charge of the Toyo Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2016.
Hisako, Princess Takamado: She is the widow of Prince Takamado of Mikasa, who is the son of Prince Mikasa, the youngest of Emperor Taisho’s four sons. As members of the Japanese Royal Family, Prince Mikasa and Princess Takamado travelled the world extensively. They represented the government of Japan at the opening ceremony and games of the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea-Japan, which was the first time members of the Japanese Imperial Family set foot in South Korea since the Second World War. Princess Takamado has been a tireless supporter of sports organizations. Will she become the ultimate supporter of the ultimate sports organization in Japan?
Akio Toyoda: Akio Toyoda is the president of Toyota, one of the world’s biggest car companies and most famous brands. The grandson of Kiichiro Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Motors, Toyoda is perceived as an excellent communicator and resilient leader. Toyota is also one of the IOC’s biggest global sponsors, so he certainly understands the internal workings and governance of the Olympic and Paralympic eco-system. Will Toyoda take the driver’s seat in this lumbering sports vehicle lurching to the finish line?
February 12 Update: Less than 24 hours after the news of Saburo Kawabuchi’s expected succession to president of the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee, it was announced that no successor had been identified. According to the Japan Times, “Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto said during a news conference Friday evening that a ‘gender project team’ as well as a selection committee to pick Mori’s successor will be formed, though it’s unclear when a selection will be made. ‘We need to select a replacement as quickly as possible,’ Muto said.”
At an online meeting of the Japan Olympic Committee, Mori made a sexist comment in regards to the goal of increasing the JOC’s board directors to 40%. According to Asahi Shimbun, Mori said
A meeting of an executive board that includes many women would take time. Women are competitive. When someone raises his or her hand and speaks, they probably think they should speak, too. That is why they all end up making comments.
The protest was immediate and global. A former prime minister of Japan, Mori was criticized in the twitterverse for being out of step, too old, too domineering. A former member of the JOC called him the “don” of the Japan sports world because what he says, goes. So one might expect that Mori’s successor would appear markedly different.
In tandem with the news of Mori’s resignation, it was revealed that his successor would be Saburo Kawabuchi.
Kawabuchi is indeed a legend in the world of Japan sports. The Osaka native and Waseda University graduate, Kawabuchi, played football at Furukawa Electric from 1965 to 1970 in the early days of the Japan Soccer League. He was a member of the national soccer team representing Japan at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, where he scored the go-ahead goal that led to the defeat of Argentina at Komazawa Stadium, and advanced Team Japan to the quarter finals.
He went on to become the head coach of the Japan national football team in 1980. But more significantly, he established the Japan Soccer League, aka J-League, Japan’s first professional soccer league, and was the first chairman of the league, where he served until 2002.
And when FIBA, the international governing board of basketball, expressed great displeasure that the two basketball leagues in Japan, the National Basketball League and the BJ-League, were at each other’s throats and refused to come together, they called on Kawabuchi to head the taskforce that would lead to the creation of a single league – the B. League.
In other words, Kawabuchi was the leader at the birth of not one, but two professional sports leagues in Japan.
It’s hard to argue with his qualifications to run the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee. It’s the optics that may be a bit concerning.
Kawabuchi is 84, a year older than Mori. And Kawabuchi’s leadership style may appear to be similar to Mori’s – autocratic.
When FIBA barred Japan’s basketball governing association, the Japan Basketball Association, from allowing its team to participate in any international competition in November, 2014, there was great concern that Japan would not be able to get its act together so that a national team could compete at the Tokyo2020 Olympics, even with a free pass as the host country.
Kawabuchi entered the scene and essentially manhandled the relevant parties into an agreement to merge and create the B. League. As this 2015 Japan Times article explained, Kawabuchi doesn’t mind that telling people it’s my way or the highway.
Kawabuchi is often described as an autocrat for arbitrarily making decisions for the J. League and JFA, but he doesn’t care. He does what he believes is right.
“I’m fine being called that,” Kawabuchi said with a grin. “If I’m called an autocrat, I tell them I am. I’m like, ‘What’s wrong with that? Tell me if I’ve done anything wrong being an autocrat.’ ”
To Kawabuchi, an autocracy is equivalent to strong leadership, and Japanese sports needs more of that. He added that proposals supported by the majority tend to be accepted as the best ideas in Japan, but he strongly disagrees with this viewpoint.
“If you think you’ll have the best idea by gathering more opinions, that’s a big mistake. That’s not my way,” Kawabuchi said. “Regarding (Japan’s basketball reform), if they say that Kawabuchi set the vision by himself, let them say so.”
To be fair, it is unclear what Kawabuchi’s attitude is towards women. And as the head of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, he certainly has a challenge in front of him, with only a little over 5 months to go before the opening ceremonies on July 23.
But people will be watching him, perhaps unfairly, with a cynical eye.
Meet the new boss. Hopefully, not the same as the old boss.
Organizers of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, scheduled to commence on July 23 and August 24, 2021 respectively, are working, not under the question of “whether,” but “how” the Olympics will take place.
There are four basic scenarios:
The Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics are cancelled because the pandemic continues to create unsafe conditions for athletes and organizers alike.
Tokyo2020 takes place without spectators so that the Games can be broadcasted globally.
Tokyo2020 takes place with spectators in limited numbers.
Tokyo2020 takes place to capacity crowds.
In a recent survey by Kyodo News, 80% of people in Japan believe the first scenario is the likeliest, responding that the Olympics and Paralympics should be postponed again or cancelled.
In contrast, 60% of Japanese firms in an NHK survey showed support for holding the Tokyo Olympics. They believe that the Games can help the Japanese economy recover from the devastating effects of COVID-19.
The IOC and IPC are also betting on the Games. And their plans are taking into account the second and third scenarios.
If testing is considered reliable, then athletes who test negative will be allowed to come to Japan, and at a bare minimum, the Olympics and Paralympics can be broadcasted around the world. As a result, billions of dollars in global broadcasting rights will be paid to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which in turn will financially support the Olympic ecosystem of national Olympic committees and international sports federations.
Money makes the world go round. With so much investment already sunk, not just by the IOC, the Japanese government and businesses but also athletes, the political will to hold Tokyo2020 is immensely strong.
“We will do whatever is needed to organize a safe Olympic Games,” said Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee.
“We definitely should push forward as that is the only option for us,” said Yoshiro Mori, president of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee.
Former IOC Vice President, Dick Pound, recently said “nobody can guarantee the Olympics will open on July 23. But I think there’s a very, very, good chance that they can, and that they will.” While Pound said that the Games will likely happen, having fans in the stands is a choice. “The question is — is this a `must-have’ or `nice-to-have.’ It’s nice to have spectators. But it’s not a must-have,” Pound said.
And yet, even if the conditions of the pandemic around the world remain the same, and especially if the vaccine has an impact on the spread of COVID-19, I believe the likelihood of spectators in the stands is high.
Orgy of Evidence
In what may have seemed surreal to many, we saw images of 4,000 people – without masks – packing a stadium in Adelaide, Australia on January 29 to watch exhibition tennis matches with Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal, a week prior to the start of the Australian Open.
But the truth of the matter is, sports is big business around the world, and we have seen seasons and championships take place across the biggest professional leagues last year.
In the midst of the pandemic in 2020, Europe crowned football champions in the Bundesliga, La Liga, Premier League, and Serie A. In tennis, Naomi Osaka won the US Open and Rafael Nadal won the French Open, while in golf, Dustin Johnson won the Masters. The Los Angeles Lakers were crowned NBA champions while the Tampa Bay Lightning won the NHL Stanley Cup.
And little by little, fans have been allowed to watch events in person in America, the country with the world’s highest coronavirus infection numbers.
Thousands of spectators watched the Los Angeles Dodgers win the 2020 World Series in Texas. American football fans were allowed into the stadiums of 19 NFL teams, including an average of around 15,000 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars, while the Dallas Cowboys hosted an average of 28,000 fans every home game. There will be over 20,000 fans attending the Super Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on February 7. And a limited number of fans have been able to attend the games of 8 NBA teams this season.
At the end of November, 2020 in Japan, nearly 70,000 fans watched in person the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks defeat the Yomiuri Giants to win the Japan Series over four games, averaging over 17,000 fans per game.
And on November 8, Japan held an international competition at Yoyogi National Stadium. Gymnasts from four nations competed, including Japan, the US, China and Russia. The 30 gymnasts were joined by 2000 spectators, and the day went without incident. This was the first experiment with a mini-bubble for an international competition in Japan, as athletes were isolated on different floors in hotels.
The above is some of the orgy of evidence regarding the ability of sports organizations to hold events safely despite the ravages of the coronavirus. These cases and many others are providing mountains of data of how and how not to organize a live sporting event, data that will be used to create the protocols and processes to ensure a safe environment for Tokyo2020.
And with the hope and promise of the vaccines, the path to a safe Olympics and Paralympics becomes clearer.
Learning to Live with Coronavirus in Japan
It was Saturday, January 30. It was a beautiful day in Tokyo – blue skies, crisp air and loads of people out and about. In my walk through Rinshi no Mori Park that day, hundreds of parents and kids, all wearing masks, were enjoying the day, kids running soccer or baseball drills, parents throwing or kicking balls with their children, and many others running and strolling.
And they were also going to the movie theaters. I was surprised to learn last year that an animated film called “Demon Slayer,” broke the box office record for films in Japan. I hadn’t realized that movie theaters were letting people in. In fact, theaters were filled to capacity to see this film. Even as the popularity of the film begins to fade, I went online to see if people were still buying tickets for this film. I looked at the ticket purchase page for the movie theater near me: 109 Cinemas in Futago Tamagawa.
And as you can see in the image of theater seating, where the gray indicates a seat sold, Demon Slayer was still filling seats. In fact, there were several films that were showing good ticket sales that Saturday morning. Attendees must wear masks, but they are allowed to sit elbow to elbow with others. And if you’re on a date, that’s ideal. As you can see, the January 30, 2:45 PM showing of the film “Hanabata Mitai na Koi o Shita,” a story of young romance featuring two popular actors, was nearly filled 3 hours before the start of the film.
Despite the constant talk of concern about the virus in Japan, the Japanese themselves are learning to live with it. Many may not think that the Olympics and Paralympics should be held now, but as we approach the summer, and the inevitability sinks in, and the stories of the Japanese athletes preparing for the Games become more frequent, a buzz of excitement will build.
When coronavirus body slammed the world, the IOC and the government of Japan postponed the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics as the global economy stood punch drunk in the corner, tagged with constant jabs and body blows.
As we approach the end of the year, as infection rates continue to soar, a ray of hope has appeared in the form of newly developed vaccines. Will that ray of hope grow into that light at the end of the tunnel IOC president Thomas Bach desperately wants to see?
I hope so.
As a footnote, my own 2020 was not a total bust – the Japanese version of my book was published, and I appeared in A&E History Channel’s documentary, Tokyo Legacy, which is about the history of Tokyo from 1945 to 2020. While I was not so prolific this year in my blog, I did write a number of original articles I am proud of.
An Olympic legacy is commonly thought of as the tangible benefits of having hosted an Olympiad—the new sporting venues or transportation systems, the organizing know-how and the practical technology. But it is also the intangible benefits—the inspiration of an entire generation who see the very best athletes in the world strive to their utmost. And on occasion, citizens of the host nation get to see their own athletes and teams take their country on a thrilling ride to victory. These moments can jolt children and young adults, sparking them to dream, to believe that “anything is possible, even for me!”
This aspect of that first Tokyo Olympics carries great significance today as Japan gears up for its second hosting of the Games in 2020. Once again, the country is seeking to create a symbol of resilience, hope, and forward-looking energy as it faces a future encumbered by events of the recent past.
After the collapse of the financial bubble in the early nineties, the Japanese economy fell into protracted doldrums, a period which came to be known as the “Lost Decades.” Markets and corporate profits (with some notable exceptions) languished. Japan was superseded by China as the world’s second largest GDP. Overall, Japan’s presence on the world stage seemed to have dimmed.
In addition to economic and demographic issues (declining birthrate, rapid aging, the emptying out of rural areas), Japan has been beset by a series of natural disasters: torrential rains, floods, and mudslides that have claimed hundreds of lives and demolished whole communities in the western part of the country; the major earthquake in Kumamoto, Kyushu, in 2016; and most devastating of all, the earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan and triggered a nuclear disaster, on March 11, 2011. Recovery from that disaster, complicated by radioactive debris and contamination, is still far from complete.
Understanding the power of context, the Tokyo 2020 Bid Committee was wise to select a relatively unknown Paralympian named Mami Sato from the March 11 disaster area to kick off their presentation to the International Olympic Committee in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2013. Sato, a two-time Paralympian long jumper, thirty-one at the time, spent long hours of preparation on the speech she had to make in English, a task for which she had almost no background. But her honest and unaffected delivery of a very moving story created an emotional swell of support that helped propel Japan to the winning bid.
I was nineteen when my life changed. I was a runner. I was a swimmer. I was even a cheerleader. Then, just weeks after I first felt pains in my ankle, I lost my leg to cancer. Of course, it was hard. I was in despair. Until I returned to university and took up athletics.
For Sato, the simple idea in sports of having a goal and working to reach and surpass it became a passion, the loss of her leg serving as a catalyst to a sporting life as a long jumper. Sato competed at the Paralympics in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008. “I felt privileged to have been touched by the power of sport,” she said. “And I was looking forward to London 2012.”
Then disaster struck.
The tsunami hit my hometown. For six days I did not know if my family were still alive. And, when I did find them, my personal happiness was nothing compared to the sadness of the nation.
Like so many other survivors of the earthquake and tsunami in Northern Japan, Mami Sato helped others—forwarding messages, talking to victims, delivering food, and even organizing sporting events to take children’s minds off the daily worries of the aftermath.
Only then did I see the true power of sport…to create new dreams and smiles. To give hope. To bring people together.
(Go to the 5 minute 25 second mark of the video below to see Mami Sato’s moving speech.)
Mami Sato has spent her recent years passing on that power to others—among them a young woman named Saki Takakuwa from Saitama. When Saki was in sixth grade, she loved playing tennis and running in track. One day she felt pain in her left leg after practicing hurdles, a pain that would not go away. It turned out to be a tumor below her knee, and at first the doctor couldn’t tell if it was malignant or benign. But after enduring four surgeries, including amputation, chemotherapy, hair loss, and the constant reliance on others for assistance, Takakuwa was despondent, wondering if she would ever walk again.
Her mother, Yoko, was determined to help her daughter turn her mindset around. She received a book from a friend called Lucky Girl, by Mami Sato. The mother scanned the book, looking for similarities in experience and stories that might make her daughter feel hopeful for the future. Those stories worked.
It was inspiring to read such a positive story by someone who’d gone through something similar to me. Her book made me realize there were opportunities out there and that I didn’t necessarily have to give up on sport. At a real dark time in my life, it gave me encouragement, but that doesn’t mean I suddenly decided to become a Paralympian. At that point I wasn’t really thinking about my future at all. It was just about getting through each day.
Even better, a doctor gave mother and daughter a sense of hope they simply had not imagined.
Once [Saki] becomes accustomed to the prosthetic, she will be able to go to school again. She will be able to go to senior high school and university. She will also be able to find a job and get married.
Buoyed by Sato’s example and the doctor’s new prognosis, Saki discovered that with practice, she could get around on her prosthetic leg. She could indeed walk again. And then she learned something even more powerful. By focusing on her thigh muscles and using them to maintain balance, Saki found she could run again, run straight, run hard.
At that time, I did not know what my own limitations were. But I was just happy to be able to do the same thing as everyone else, so I tried various challenges. I gave it my all in everything I did. I want to continue running while never forgetting that feeling.
Inspired, Takakuwa went on to compete in both the 2012 London Paralympics and the 2016 Rio Paralympics. At the age of twenty-eight, 2020 in Tokyo should be in her sights, with hopes of inspiring others.
Speaking of her own devastated hometown area, Mami Sato told the IOC delegates in Buenos Aires that athletes and their expression of Olympic values, can inspire:
More than 200 athletes, Japanese and international, making almost 1,000 visits to the affected area are inspiring more than 50,000 children. What we have seen is the impact of the Olympic values as never before in Japan. And what the country has witnessed is that those precious values, excellence, friendship, and respect, can be so much more than just words.
The legacy of the Olympics is the children and young men and women bearing witness to feats of peak performance, honest humility, exhaustive effort, and a perseverance beyond belief. It is also the respect the athletes have for one another, an appreciation on the part of all concerned of cultural differences and strengths, and a chance for the host country to display resilience, competence, goodwill, and hospitality to the rest of the world. Tokyo took full advantage of this opportunity in 1964. By all indications, it appears determined to surpass that performance in 2020.
After overcoming the fright of a false positive corona virus test, Kohei Uchimura re-tested negative enough times he could compete at the first major international gymnastics competition since the pandemic began wreaking world havoc. When two-time Olympic champion Uchimura landed the dismount after a very strong horizontal bar routine, the announcer was vocal:
The gymnastics world dares to dream! King Kohei – massive work from one of the finest of all time. Oh we’ve waited for that one!
At the age of 31, Uchimura has suffered shoulder injuries and has given up the pursuit of a third all around Olympic championship, but is gunning for gold in the horizontal bar at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. His performance was hopefully a sign of things to come.
The International Gymnastic Federation (FIG) certainly hopes so. They brought 30 men and women gymnasts from China, Japan, Russia and the USA together on Sunday, November 8, 2020 to participate in Tokyo at the Friendship and Solidarity Competition.
One of the first major international sporting events, this competition held at the Yoyogi National Gymnasium is a test of readiness – a chance to understand what it takes to hold a sporting event with spectators and participants from multiple countries, data that will be used to develop operational plans for Tokyo 2020, which was postponed to the summer of 2021.
“One goal is to prove that staging a high-profile event in Tokyo is possible in the current context of the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to FIG, which organized this event.
Another goal is to send a message to athletes around the world who are hoping to make their Olympic teams, and make it to Tokyo for the Summer Olympics.
“I’m so happy we can hold this competition with spectators,” said Uchimura, who opened up the competition with a nifty opening vault. “I know this has been tough. But even with the restrictions due to COVID, we can still hold these events, and as athletes we can follow our dreams even with these hardships. For next year’s Olympics, it’s important that we, as athletes, are still able to pursue our dreams.”
Jon Omori, special liaison and advisor for the United States Olympic Committee, was present at the competition and noted that the crowd was sparse and social distancing was thus an easy objective. Yoyogi National Gymnasium, which was host to the swimming and diving events at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, can accommodate upwards of 13,000 spectators – and yet only 2,000 tickets were sold.
He said all people entering the arena were given a registration form that reminded them that
They had to wear their masks at all times.
If they were not feeling well they should contact the nearest staff person.
They can find the disinfectants at the entrances, and apply to their hands.
And as you move in and out of the arena, ensure you maintain social distance with others.
The form has a QR code which takes them to a LINE survey, in which they are asked such questions as
“Is your body temperature above 37.5 degrees?”
“Are you showing any cold symptoms, like coughing or scratchy throat?”
“Have you had any close contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19?”
“Are you aware of any cases of family members or close friends who have been suspected of infection?”
While not all gymnastic teams are taking the precautions that the Chinese gymnastics team have (as you can see in the picture), athletes at the Friendship and Solidarity Competition, in general, seem to be taking fundamental measures of care.
Kyodo News says that gymnasts entering Japan had to take PCR tests 72 hours prior to departing their countries, and flew to Japan in chartered planes. They have also been taking daily tests while in Japan. The gymnasts are staying on a floor dedicated to their own team, watched over by security guards. Omori said that the hotels have also dedicated specific entrances and exits for the athletes, to ensure minimal contact with other people.
Omori also noted that there were no fixed exits and entrances, or pathways delineated to control traffic flows in Yoyogi National Gymnasium, but that everyone was wearing masks. “Coaches are all wearing masks,” said Omori, “and athletes are too, but take them off before they compete.”
In the end, Team Solidarity defeated Team Friendship. 423.6 to 421.3.
The real winners? The gymnasts and athletes around the world who get a strong whiff of hope that Tokyo 2020 will be a reality in 2021.
“I was supposed to be in Tokyo today, rehearsing my opening speech,” said Andrew Parsons wistfully.
It was a little after 8pm on Monday, August 24, 2020 Japan time. Parsons, the President of the International Paralympics Committee (IPC), was addressing members of 20 foreign chambers of commerce in Japan in a Zoom meeting. The event marked one year to go for the Tokyo2020 Paralympics.
The Paralympics would have kicked off in Japan on Tuesday, August 25, 2020 if not for the devastating and global impact of COVID-19 virus. It was March 24, 2020 when the fateful decision was made to postpone both the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics for a year. “That decision was not taken lightly, but it was the right one,” said Parsons. “Had the games been tomorrow, there’s no chance they would have happened.”
Putting the Puzzle Back Together
March 24 brought devastating news to the organizers in Japan. Yasushi Yamawaki, IPC Governing Board Member at Large and Tokyo 2020 Vice President said they were more than surprised.
“When the decision was made to postpone the games, most of the staff and partners, were very much shocked. They had spent seven years putting together the biggest and most complicated jigsaw puzzle. And with a few pieces to go, they were told to start over again.”
There are dozens of major sponsors, over 180 National Paralympic Committees, dozens of international sports federations, and thousands of athletes who had questions. But for the IPC, a huge question that had to be answered was how to ensure funding for Tokyo2020 in 2021. As Craig Spence, IPC Chief Brand & Communications Officer, explained, it was critical to re-do the contracts with the broadcasters first.
“From an IPC point of view, we had to review 300 contracts in the space of two weeks. We have TV contracts with 165 broadcasters. Each contract needed to be reviewed. And each contract impacted the cash flow of the IPC for 2020 because we were due money this year, but the TV contract was then moved to next year.”
And Parsons reminded everybody that this incredibly complex and urgent work had to be done in the challenging environment of a pandemic. “We had to manage our cash flow,” said Parsons. “But we also needed to work with our staff all over the world, many of whom were living away from their families during the most demanding period ever for the IPC.”
Parsons is hopeful, but he is realistic. He said that everything that can be done, that can be controlled, will be. Planning will continue through the end of September. The IPC will focus on countermeasures to COVID-19 in the last quarter of 2020, and then will enter operational readiness in the first quarter of 2021. After that, important decisions will have to be made.
“We still have one year to go. We will follow the development of the pandemic. Unfortunately, none of us have a crystal ball. We have to work as if the Games are going ahead. This is the tricky part – how to work towards something you don’t know 100% is going ahead or not. But at the moment we are working full speed ahead preparing for the Games as if they are happening.”
The postponement resulted in a re-planning process that prioritized two things: the safety and health of the athletes and an approach to budgeting only what is necessary, a sustainability mindset that can be applied to future Paralympics, something that Parsons calls the Principles. “In these principles, the safety of athletes Is the number 1 priority for us,” said Parsons. “Everything that is not fundamental for the Games will be downscaled or cut.”
No Question of the Tokyo2020 Legacy
The Paralympics were postponed for a year. But Tokyo2020 is already establishing a legacy in Japan. Yamawaki explained that Tokyo is one of the most accessible cities in the world for the disabled, and that the media showcases the capabilities and personalities of the Para athletes almost on a daily basis.
Spence shared comparative data showing the impact of the run-up to the Games.
“In the build up to London 2012 with 18 months to go, less than 1% of the British population could name a Paralympian, and everyone sees London as the benchmark. In Tokyo last year, 45% of the Japanese population could recognize Shingo Kunieda, the wheelchair tennis player. So that shows the real difference in interest. In terms of accessible transport, I think when Tokyo won the right to stage the Games, around 75% of the city’s metro stations were accessible. By the time the Games happen next year, that’s going to be at 99%. That would never have happened had it not been for the Paralympics coming to Tokyo. The legacies are going to be tremendous.”
Yamawaki oversees the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center, which is driving a groundbreaking education program in Japan’s school system. The IPC’s “I’mPossible” program – a toolkit of resources designed to engage 6-12 year old students about the Paralympic movement – is being pioneered in Japan with great success. Yamawaki said that this program has been delivered to 36,000 primary and secondary schools across Japan.
Children can learn from this unique learning opportunity,” said Yamawaki. “They will become future leaders in creating an inclusive society in this country after the Paralympics are over. It’s going to be one of the biggest legacies. Usually the parents teach the children, but in the I’mPossible program, kids teach the parents. This will increase parents’ awareness of the Paralympic Games and Paralympic sports. That’s the biggest impact we’re seeing.”
What You Can Do
Here are a few suggestions from IPC leaders on what we all can do to support the Paralympics broadly, and people with disabilities specifically.
Employ Persons with Disabilities:If your company does not employ persons with disabilities, it should. If your office is not set up to deal with people in wheelchairs, put in ramps. If you have a restaurant or a canteen, make your menus available in braille, or put your information on the internet so that people with disabilities can more easily access the information.
See the Opportunity: As Spence explained, before he joined the IPC, he didn’t realize people with disabilities are such great problem solvers.
“People with disabilities face challenges on a daily basis. They don’t tend to moan. They don’t just sit around thinking I can’t get around this. They always find innovative ways to get around and beat the challenge. They can bring a whole new creativity and new outlook to your business.”
Go See the Games:Seeing the Para athletes in action will change your attitude for life. Get as many people around you to see the Games.
“There’s very few people in the world who can run 100 meters in under 10.5 seconds,” said Spence. “Yet we have athletes with prosthetic legs and running blades who can do it in 10.4 seconds. It really does challenge perceptions towards disability.”