The Olympians has been a labor of love for exactly two years. It is my sketchbook as I prepare for the mural masterpiece, a book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
While my book’s focus is on the XVIII Tokyo Olympiad, I use my blog as an excuse to write about anything even remotely related to these areas: the Tokyo Olympics, the Olympics overall, Japan, and sports in general. In other words, I think of my blog as therapy for a restlessly curious mind.
How else could I go 730 straight days without missing a post?
It’s been exactly two years since I started my journey to understand the context, the organization and the stories of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. My father was at those games as a news producer for NBC, and I turned one years old on Opening Day.
I moved to Tokyo for a third time in January, 2014, excited by Tokyo’s selection as the host city for the 2020 Summer Games. Surprised to find not a single book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in English, I endeavored to write the definitive record. On May 1, 2015, I started my blog, The Olympians is in many ways, the first draft of my book.
All, thank you for your wonderful comments and support!
“I’m tall, so I played volleyball. It was never a dream or a passion.”
It’s not what you’d expect to hear from an Olympian. But that’s how Yuko Mitsuya, member of the Japan woman’s volleyball team that took bronze at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, started off her speech at a charity event on February 23, 2016.
“I didn’t really like how tall I was. Volleyball was the only way to deal with this.”
One imagines someone who succeeds at the highest levels would be filled with passion for their accomplishment. But the 177 cm tall woman from Katsuyama, Fukui, was ever humble in a talk that was inspirational. Mitsuya was speaking at an event called “The Next Big Pivot Charity Dinner 2017” in Tokyo, raising funds to provide young Japanese women with an opportunity to learn about leadership in the sports industry. Last year, five women went to New York City to participate in a program called Future Frontwomen, which gave them in-depth exposure to how the NBA is run and how sports can be managed as business.
Those five women were present to hear Mitsuya explain that the path to success is not just fueled by passion, it is one of hard work, persistence and learning. Mitsuya, currently the chairperson of the Japan Basketball Association and the former CEO of a lingerie manufacturer, explained that she made the team because she was tall, but in her early junior high school days, she wasn’t very good. She worked at it, got better, and was able to contribute.
I wasn’t that good. I was really a problem to the team. I hated it, but this was all I could do. Over time I got better, and more confident. I realized that becoming good at something was not a matter of whether I liked it or not. It mattered whether I practiced. And I practiced every day, and learned. I tried very hard and eventually got recognized as the best junior high school women’s volleyball player in Fukui.
Her one big lesson for young women in Japan (and perhaps for anybody who desires to achieve) is that no matter how good you are, there’s always another level up. She succeeded as a volleyball player in junior high school in Fukui, but when she moved to Tokyo for high school, she realized that she still had a lot to learn.
I thought I was good, until I got to this next level. And I lost confidence. But my friends supported me and helped me recover my confidence as I improved. And that’s what’s important – always stepping up, going another level up. There is always an opportunity to rise up further. You do well and you get to the top, and you realize, there’s another level to climb. As I got used to achieving and stepping up, I could always improve. For women, young women, I believe there are lots of chances to step up. You shouldn’t let your pride get in the way, worrying whether you will achieve or not. You need to understand that getting to a certain level means re-setting your mindset and your goals, so that you climb to the next level.
Prior to Mitsuya’s retirement, the only life she had known was volleyball. But she took it to the next level by transitioning to teaching at the high school and university level. Three years after participating in CSR activities with the leadership of a lingerie company called Ten Arrows, she was named CEO of that company. That was a big step up.
When I became a company CEO, a lot of people said I was hired just because I’m a well-known person. But I want young women to realize that specialization in one area does not mean that you cannot do something else. You need to challenge yourself and try different things because there are common skills you can use in other types of work. Based on my experience in volleyball, I learned how to motivate people (which is important for company leaders). I learned another important lesson from sports, which is also important in companies: resilience. I encourage people to challenge themselves because you need the experience of overcoming issues. And if you fail, well, through failure you grow. More importantly, if you do not challenge yourself, you may regret not making the attempt.
Mie Kajikawa understands this. Kajikawa was first a basketball player at Nagoya University. She worked in sales for the Japan Travel Bureau in Nagoya, studied French in France for a month, spent a few years doing secretarial work for executives in foreign financial services firms in Tokyo until she realized what she wanted to do – study sports management in the United States. During her master’s program at Ohio University, she had a career-defining experience – an internship with the Detroit Pistons.
From that point on, the doors to NBA officials or relevant sports industry players, as well as sports associations in Japan opened up. Kajikawa went on to participate in Tokyo’s bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics (which eventually went to Rio), and founded the company, Cheer Blossom, Inc., which provides consultation in CSR to Japan’s professional basketball league – B. League. And when she established the non-profit organization, Next Big Pivot, she became a significant player not only in promoting the empowerment of women in sports business, but also advocating for the development of basketball in Japan.
If you are interested in learning more about Next Big Pivot and Kajikawa’s plans, click here.
One of the biggest cosmetics brands in Japan is Kanebo. But its corporate origins were in textiles. Established in 1887 as the Tokyo Cotton Trading Company, a few years later the name was changed to the Kanegafuchi Spinning company, or Kanebo. As you can see in the above ad, printed in the Tokyo Olympics Official Souvenir book from 1964, Kanebo was primarily a major exporter of cotton, silk, wool and non-natural textiles.
The cotton and silk spinning industry, born of the age of industrialization that hit Japan in the late 19th century and early 20th century, was a huge employer of young women, most of them teenagers. As industry was transforming the state of the family, companies wanted to reassure parents that their daughters were well cared for. The textile companies would provide educational and social opportunities for their employees, as well as in sports so that they could stay physically fit.
Sport and recreation activities developed alongside key educational initiatives as a way not only of keeping young girls busy and occupied during non-working hours within factory residential compounds but also as a way of promoting the physical health of workers. The sport of volleyball was introduced by textile companies as it offered the chance to encourage team work amongst young female workers, required minimal equipment and could be played both indoors and outdoors. Over time the increased popularity and indeed strength of these female corporate teams from the large Japanese textile companies became notable, and developed into an investment beyond mere recreation.
In the 1950s, women’s volleyball had become a highly popular sport in Japan, resulting in the first national volleyball tournament in 1951. According to Macnaughtan, six teams were from Kanebo, one of the earliest adopters of volleyball in textile factories, and five from Nichibo. In 1960, Japan sent a male and female volleyball teams to the world championships held in Brazil. The women’s team took second place, which was a surprise. It happened to be a team completely from the Kaizuka factory of the Nichibo Company, the logic being that instead of trying to put a team of all stars together very quickly, they should probably send one of their best teams. This team, buoyed by the success in Brazil, was then funded to compete in Europe, where they won 24 straight matches.
At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the first female team competition was debuting – women’s volleyball. Nichibo’s team from Kaizuka was now considered one of the best in the world, if not the best. Ten of the twelve members of the Japanese women’s Olympic team were selected from that Nichibo team, with two coming from other corporate volleyball teams.
And on the last day of competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, all of Japan exploded in joy when Japan beat the Soviet Union in three straight matches. How did the Japanese achieve this monumental victory? You just need to pull the thread that leads you back 100 years ago, at the emergence of the age of industrialization in Japan.
At nearly 2.5 meters tall, there are very, very few people in the world taller than Mr Morteza “Mehrzad” Mehrzadselakjani of Iran. And as it turned out, this giant of a man led his Iranian volleyball team to Paralympic gold in Rio last month. In the finals against Bosnia Herzegovina, Iran outspiked their opponents 59-42, and Mehrzad, as he is popularly known , slammed home 26 of those spikes.
That is to be expected in the sport of Paralympic volleyball, where athletes are all sitting. These paralympic athletes play by normal volleyball rules, except that the net is only 1.15 meters high. Mehrzad, even when he is sitting, has a reach of over 6 meters. So it’s no wonder that this Persian paralympian can dominate a match.
One would think that being so tall would be a wonderful advantage. But in fact, Mehrzad fractured his pelvis in a bicycle accident when he was 16, which somehow stunted the growth of his right leg, which is now about 15 centimeters shorter than the left. Because of that, and the fact that he suffers from a rare condition known as acromegaly that results in abnormal growth, he has not had an easy life.
Relegated to a wheelchair and crutches due to his legs, and insecure due to his appearance, Mehrzad suffered from depression. But then one day, five years ago, a coach saw Mehrzad on television and believed that he could be a great paralympic athlete. “I was alone, I was depressed,” he told Iranian TV about his life growing up. “But my life has changed from playing sitting volleyball and being a Paralympian.”
The Debutante Ball is over. And Brazil is looking very good.
Despite all the issues that have arisen in Brazil in the run-up to August 5 – the impeachment of its President on corruption charges, the collapse of its economy, the constant news of the polluted Guanabara Bay, the shocking news of the impact of the zika virus, rumbles of possible riots by the underclass – the opening ceremonies at Maracanã Stadium went off pretty much without a hitch.
And there were a few big moments. Let me focus on three:
Sex: Carlos Nuzman is the president of the Rio Organizing Committee, and former member of the International Olympic Committee. He and his teammates likely helped inspire generations of volleyball fans in 1964 when he was on the men’s Brazilian team in Tokyo, where the sport debuted as an Olympic event. There he was on his country’s biggest stage on Friday, bubbling with excitement, exorcising all of the repressed worries he told countless people in the press not to be concerned with.
We never give up, we never give up. Let’s stay together when differences challenge us.
But to add a bit of spice to the formality of the opening speeches, Nuzman made one of those slips of tongue that the head of the IOC will never forget. Nuzman was responsible for introducing Thomas Bach, and said it was his honor “to hand over to the president of the IOC, the Olympic champion Thomas Bach, who always believed in the sex…success of the Rio 2016 Games.”
OK, Bach will always cherish that moment I’m sure…and it’s what’s on the mind of half the athletes at the moment anyway. (It’s been heavily reported that 450,000 condoms have been made available in the Olympic and Paralympic villages.)
Beauty: I’m a Jets fan. I hate Tom Brady. That goes with the territory. While Brady is one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the NFL, an instant hall of famer, his wife is arguably even more famous globally. Super Model, Gisele Bündchen, who was born in in Southern Brazil, travelled to London at 17. She was plucked out of the crowd of wannabes to make it on the catwalk for designer Alexander McQueen. From that point, Bündchen was a star, becoming a mainstay on the cover of Vogue and the body of Victoria’s Secret.
And so, in a moment of exquisite simplicity, the organizers brought together Brazil’s most famous song and its most famous face. First the crowd heard the massively familiar bossa nova rhythm and melody of The Girl from Ipanema, performed by Daniel Jobin, the grandson of the music’s writer, Antonio Carlos Jobim. From the other end of the stadium emerged the super model, coming out of retirement to make her final catwalk. Probably her longest catwalk ever, Bündchen sashayed some 150 meters across the entire stadium floor to the roars (and photo flashes) of 78,000 ecstatic fans.
Glory Restored: It was the marathon event at the 2004 Olympics, in the birthplace of the race, Greece. Brazilian, Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima, of Cruzeiro de Oeste, was leading the marathon race with 7 kilometers to go when a strangely dressed spectator burst onto the road and just as suddenly pushed de Lima off the course. As I have described in a previous post, de Lima looked disgusted as he made his way back onto the course and continue on with the race. At the end of the 42-kilometer footrace, de Lima finished in third. There were attempts to give him a gold medal, but it is likely that since de Lima was still in first with a decent lead, the IOC decided to keep the results as is.
No doubt, this incredibly quirky incident was hard to forget for Brazilians, and particularly de Lima, who could have been on the top step of the awards podium, with a gold medal around his neck, listening to his national anthem. Instead, he listened to the Italian anthem, consoled with a medal of bronze.
Fast forward to 2016. The most famous athlete in Brazil, the legendary Pelé is rumored to be too ill to participate in the opening ceremonies. Up steps de Lima, who took the sacred flame from Brazilian basketball star, Hortência de Fátima Marcari, and carefully climbed the 28 steps to the Olympic cauldron. He raised the flame high with two hands to immense cheers, turned to the cauldron and ignited it, and the hearts of 78,000 people in the Stadium.
As the cauldron climbed into the night, to become the centerpiece of an incredible metal sculpture that turned the sacred flame into a swirling solar spectacle, de Lima was probably feeling the pride and joy he could’ve, should’ve, would’ve felt, if not for that crazy man in Greece in 2004. As the fireworks exploded around and above Maracanã Stadium, de Lima’s heart, I’m sure, was full.
Brazilian women are gunning for their third straight Olympic title, done only once before by women in the history of the Olympics. This after taking bronze, silver and silver the previous three Olympics. Brazilian men are hoping that three’s the charm, after finishing second to Russia and the US the last two Olympics, after taking gold in 2004.
But there are thin margins for error. In the men’s competition, Brazil is ranked number one in the world. But #2 Poland, #4 Italy and #5 USA (which defeated Brazil for gold at the 2008 Beijing Games) are considered strong contesters for gold. And then, there’s #3 Russia, which was reinstated by the IOC (and which defeated Brazil for gold in the 2012 London Games).
The Brazilian’s women’s team is ranked world number 2, but they won the World Volleyball Grand Prix in July, defeating #1 ranked USA in a five-set thriller. The Netherlands and Russia were also strong, although a favorite, #3 ranked China, did not finish well. All of those countries, including Japan, are in the hunt for gold in Rio.
But as they say, volleyball is Brazil’s national sport (because soccer is their religion). With the home crowd behind their teams, the noise deafening inside Maracanazinho Gymnasium, Brazil’s indoor volleyball teams, both men’s and women’s could possibly make it a home sweep.