Odaiba Beach

We were shocked when we read about the levels of water pollution in Guanabara Bay that sailors and rowers competed in, and saw the waters of the diving pool turn a sickly green during the 2016 Rio Olympics.

And yet, here we are a year later, and we learn of the significantly polluted waters of Tokyo Bay, the intended site for triathletes and open-water swimmers.

According to Inside the Games, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government conducted a water quality test in Tokyo Bay over a 21-day period, which is a sample size as long as the actual Games themselves. The results, which were shared at an October gathering of the IOC Coordination Commission in Tokyo, showed “levels of E. Coli up to 20 times above the accepted limit and faecal coliform bacteria seven times higher than the permitted levels.

This Asahi News article quoted organizers as saying that “an inflow of raw sewage caused below-standard water quality in more than half of tests conducted.” Officials explained that “heavy rain caused overcapacity at sewage processing plants, and some of the untreated sewage flowed into Tokyo Bay,” and that “they are considering such measures as installing triple layers of a screen that can block the flow of coli bacillus.

 

warning signs odaiba marine park-odaiba-tokyo-bay-tokyo-japan-fncd4y
Sign at Tokyo Bay’s Odaiba Marine Park listing prohibitions, including one against swimming.

 

Is there any consideration to move the venue for the triathlon and the open-water swimming events?

Sports Director of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, Koji Murofushi, shut that idea down, stating that “measures will be taken so that we can provide an excellent environment for the sports.”

The truth of the matter is, there have been signs in the area planned for the Olympic events for years warning people not to swim in the bay. Will the organizers figure out to clean up this act? We’re a little more than a thousand days away. Tick tock.

PyeongChang gold medal
The gold medal
At 586 grams (nearly 1.3 pounds), the gold medal to be awarded at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics will be the heaviest medal ever created for an Olympic Games.

The previous heavyweight champion of Olympic medals was the Vancouver medal of 2010 that tipped the scales at 576 grams, according to this article.

But more importantly, at least to me, the simplicity of the Korean medal design is striking. There is very little to disturb the surface, much of the text blends inconspicuously in the design, including use of native Korean alphabet letters that in its entirety spell out the words “PyeongChang Winter Olympics.”

PyeongChang Olympic medals held by hands

Textured like the bark of a tree, the surface of the medal complements the actual weight to give the athlete a sense of solidity. This may be top of mind for Olympians who have heard about the flimsiness of the medals awarded at the 2016 Rio Olympics. The intent, of course, is to make the association of the medal design with Korean society, according to the Korea Herald.

“Hangeul is the foundation and the soul of Korean culture,” PyeongChang’s organizing committee said. “Hangeul is considered the seed that eventually blossoms and bears fruit, which symbolize Korean culture. The trunk is the process of that development.”

Additionally, the ribbon that will allow the medal to hang from the neck of an Olympian will be made from a traditional Korean textile called “gapsa,” and the round wooden case for the medal is said to be inspired by traditional Korean architecture.

“I tried some new techniques and went through a lot of trials and errors,” medal designer Lee Suk-woo said. “I wanted the medals to represent the hard work and dedication of the athletes. And the finished products came out a lot better than I’d expected.”

PyeongChang Olympic gold medal and case

Hideko Maehata after winning gold in Berlin
Hideko Maehata waving to the crowd after winning gold in Berlin

It was a slight, perhaps. The first and most famous of films about the Olympics – Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary about the 1936 Berlin Olympics, entitled Olympia, did not include the winner of the women’s 200-meter breast stroke. That’s because the winner was a Japanese, Hideko Maehata, who beat out a German named Martha Genenger.

But that’s OK. When Maehata returned to Japan after her gold-medal winning performance in Berlin, she was a national celebrity. Eight other Japanese won gold medals at the Berlin Games, but they may not have gotten the media attention that Maehata did. As Robin Kietlinski explains in her seminal book, Japanese Women and Sport, national radio was bringing the world to all of Japan, led by Nihon Hoso Kyokai, or NHK. Established in 1924, Maehata’s race was one of the first events to be covered live, broadcasted to Japan via satellite.

And according to Kietlinski, they had the man who brought the excitement of the moment alive for Japanese listeners – Kasai Sansei – whose shrieks of excitement and shouts of “Maehata ganbare” brought the swimming stadium of the Imperial Sports Field in Berlin to the homes of people all across Japan. In this NHK documentary, Maehata’s cousin, Tomizo Hase, was asked about his recollections of listening to that famous radio broadcast:

We were all nervous, out palms sweating. We said to each other, we really hope she wins. There were about 10 people inside and many more outside. What a heavenly feeling it was. Some of us cried in joy, saying she’s done great.

In her book, Kietlinski provides a transcript in English of that broadcast. To listen in Japanese and get the sense of excitement Japanese felt in 1936, go to the 25 second mark of the video below.

Maehata and Genenger are side by side. Ah, Maehata pulls ahead! She’s in the lead! She’s a little bit ahead. Fifty meters down. 100 meters down. Fifty meters left to go. Maehata is a little bit ahead! Ah, Genenger is coming. Come on, come on! Maehata is in danger, she’s in danger! Go for it! Maehata go for it!

They turned, the swimmers just now turned and Maehata holds onto a slight lead. C’mon Maehata. Go for it! (Repeated four more times) Forty meters left to go. (Repeated four times) Maehata is ahead! Maehata is ahead! Genenger is coming. It’s just a very small lead by Maehata. Go for it Maehata! (Repeated four times) Twenty-five meters left to go! Maehata’s lead is small, it’s very small! Maehata! Go for it Maehata! (Repeated eleven times)

Maehata is in the lead! (Repeated six times) Five meters left to go! Four meters left! Three meters, two meters. Maehata is ahead! Maehata has won! (Repeated eighteen times) By a small margin Maehata is the champion! Thank you Ms Maehata, the Japanese flag will fly today. Thank you! For the first time in the history of women’s swimming the Japanese flag will fly.

Hideko Maehata on the Podium with Martha Genenger
Hideko Maehata (center) on the Podium with Martha Genenger (right) and Inge Sorensen of Denmark (left)

Hideko Maehata swam 10,000 meters a day. So taking the two-week boat trip from Japan to the West Coast of the United States was a piece of cake for the native of Wakayama, Japan. It was the last 200 meters, in the pool, that were going to be painful.

After winning her heat in the 200-meter breaststroke by nearly 3 seconds, she lined up for the finals. And in a tough-fought nail biter, a 16-year old Australian named Clare Dennis set an Olympic record and edged out Maehata by a tenth of a second.

According to Robin Japanese Women and Sport, in her book Japanese Women and Sport, Maehata was welcomed back home in Japan as a hero, but the 18-year-old, while proud was disappointed. Was it worth training so hard again, and trying again for gold in 1936, or should she put an end to the long hours in the water and get married as society at the time required. Kietlinski explained that Maehata received letters from her fans making both sides of the argument.

According to this NHK mini-documentary of Maehata’s life, it was the Mayor of Tokyo at that time, Hidejiro Nagata. Nagata, proud of Japan’s incredible accomplishments at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, was putting together his plan for Tokyo to host the 1940 Olympics, met the returning Maehata and insisted that she go for it again in Berlin.

If only you had won that gold medal. It’s so frustrating. Don’t forget the bitter taste of defeat. Let it drive you to do better four years from now at the Berlin Olympics.

 

And so, Maehata decided to aim for gold and glory at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She doubled her regimen, swimming 20 kilometers a day, the water hiding the tears of pain. She noted that her victory in LA was denied by such a tiny margin that perfecting her start was essential. She worked on her launch from the starting block by practicing 100 starts a day, her toes bleeding from the wear and tear.

The training was so grueling I cried as I swam. But at those times, I reminded myself that if I failed to overcome the pain, and fall short in Berlin, I would be the laughing stock of Japan.

And so, despite being cheered on by thousands as she boarded the ship for Europe and ultimately Berlin in 1936, she did so with considerable anxiety. In fact, as the NHK video explains, based I believe on what she described in her own autobiography, she found herself alone on the deck of the ship, looking over the waves, thinking that if she did not win, she would jump into the ocean on the return trip and kill herself.

This was the first Olympics in Berlin, otherwise known as the Nazi Olympics as it was presided over by der Führer, Adolph Hitler. The home field advantage for the German athletes was significant, and Maehata’s biggest competitor in the 200-meter breast stroke was a 20-year-old from Krefeld, Germany, Martha Genenger.

Genenger sent the first warning shot, winning her first round heat in 3:02.9 seconds, setting an Olympic record. Maehata fired back in her first round heat with a time one second better, re-setting the Olympic record. In the semi-finals, no records were set, but no other competitor came anywhere close to Genenger’s or Maehata’s times. The finals were to be a showdown between the German and the Japanese.

Hideko Maehata in high schoolIt was 4pm on August 11, 1936. Maehata was in lane 6. Genenger was in lane 7. Even in the early part of the race, Maehata pulled ahead. And for the remainder of the 150 meters, Maehata clung to the lead. When her hand touched the wall, she was not sure who had won.

When I reached the finish line I l gasped for breath and looked across at the next lane and saw that Genenger was already there. And I thought I had lost.

In fact, Maehata had persevered by a mere sixth tenths of a second. She had fulfilled the command of the Mayor of Tokyo. She had realized the dreams of an entire nation.

And she could get on with her life. In 1937, Maehata married a doctor, retiring from swimming. She raised two children, and when she greater flexibility after her children grew up, she started a swimming school in 1967. She saw that after the war, the Japanese were weak in swimming. She felt that she could contribute by focusing on mothers, teaching them the joys of swimming. If mothers understand and enjoy swimming, she believed, so will their children.

Maehata suffered a stroke while teaching, at 68. She was told she would never walk again, which was fuel for her competitive fire. So she pushed herself. “I still have the drive inside,” she said in the NHK documentary. “When I have a tough day, I recall my days as a competitive swimmer, and it’s like someone is yelling at me that I have to be stronger. The fact that I am still alive and active today is thanks to that inner strength.” Amazingly, a year later, Maehata returned to the pool and resumed her coaching duties.

In 1995, at the age of 80, Maehata, one of the most famous sports figures of the early 20th century in Japan, passed away.

Hideko Maehata getting married
Hideko Maehata getting married
Sammy Lee and Vicki Manalo Draves
Sammy Lee and Vicki Manalo Draves

Before there was Pat McCormick, Ingrid Engel-Kramer or Fu Mingxia, there was Vicki Manalo Draves.

At the 1948 London Olympics, the first summer games held since 1936, an abeyance caused by the Second World War, Manalo Draves became the first American woman to win two gold medals in an Olympic Games, as well as the first American woman to win both the springboard and platform diving finals at the Olympics.

Manalo Draves was also the first Asian American woman to win a medal in the Olympics. Born to a mother from England and a father from the Philippines, Manalo Draves grew up in the South-of-Market district of San Francisco. Her mother was a maid at a hotel and he father was a chef and musician on ships and a houseboy for an army colonel in the Presidio, doing all they could just to make ends meet. Certainly there was no money left over for swimming or diving lessons.

But somehow, Manalo Draves was spotted, and asked if she wanted to learn how to dive. And fortunately, she was in California, rich in swimming and diving coaches at the time. So learn she did, from one coach after another. Although not her coach, one of America’s best divers in 1944, Sammy Lee, saw Manalo Draves’ form, and introduced himself. Lee then introduced the young diver to a friend and diving coach, Lyle Draves. Not only did Lyle become Vicki’s coach, he became her life partner, married for over 60 years.

But wife or not, the husband worked the wife hard in training. As explained in this Central City article, she worked during the day as a secretary in San Francisco, and took a train across the bay to the Athens Athletic Club in Oakland where she trained every evening from 7pm to 10pm, making 50 to 100 dives a night. With victories at the US National Championships from 1946 – 48 in platform, as well as a championship in 1948 in springboard, Manalo Draves was building up to be a favorite for a medal in the 1948 London Olympics.

In 1948, Manalo Draves was battling teammate, Zoe Ann Olsen, in the springboard. Going into her last dive, having fallen behind Olsen, Manalo Draves could not talk to her coach, as coaches were forbidden to enter the competition space. Feeling she was unable to perform to her best, and worried that she was not going to nail her last dive – a back one-and-a-half layout – she went up to the only friendly face on the deck – teammate, Sammy Lee. As she wrote in the book, “Tales of Gold,” Lee told her what she needed to hear:

Newlyweds Victoria and Lyle Draves_1946
Newlyweds Victoria and Lyle Draves, 1946, from the book Tales of Gold

I was very worried about the last dive, which was a back one-and-a-half layout, because I had not been hitting it at all in practice. I said to him, “Oh Sam, what am I going to do? This is the dive I have to get.” He told me, “Come on. You didn’t come all this way just to say, “I can’t do it.’ You’ve got to get up there and hit it.”

Hit it she did. And as Manalo Draves won the platform competition going away, she earned two gold medals in London. As for Sammy Lee, he won gold in the platform and bronze in the springboard competition. The first Asian Americans to medal in the Olympics dominated the diving competition at the 1948 London Games. Lee, who would become Dr Sammy Lee, serving in the US Army Medical Corps in South Korea during the Korean War, would be a coach and a friend to some of the greatest divers of the 20th century.

In the case of Manalo Draves, Lee not only introduced Manalo Draves to her husband, he was the one who gave Manalo Draves away at her wedding, as her father had already passed away.

Manalo Draves went on to a career as a swimming entertainer, performing with Buster Crabbe and Esther Williams. And then she stopped, disappearing from the American consciousness for decades.

Ichinomiya Chiba Open
Ichinomiya Chiba Open

When surfing was selected as a new Olympic sport for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, enthusiasts wondered how organizers were going to keep score.

One of the challenges when organizing surfing competitions is to create the perception that everyone has a chance at similar size and types of waves. After all we can’t control the moon and the tides they create on the vast ocean waters. And so very quickly enthusiasts wondered whether the Olympics were going to introduce wave pools to the competition, large mechanical pools that create waves. In that manner, you can pretty much guarantee that competitors will get the same level of difficulty every time.

As it turns out, surfing at the Tokyo Olympics will be held out in the wild, on the waves of Tsurigasaki Beach in Chiba, Japan. Perhaps it’s because wave pools have not yet become a part of top-flight surfing competitions, that from a technological or even a surfing culture perspective, competitors are not yet ready for wave pools. But the president of the International Surfing Association (ISA), Fernando Aquerre, gave another, economic reason in this interview with Surfer.com:

The IOC does not want to build more “white elephants” – structures that have no use after the Olympics are over. The Olympics organizers want to focus on legacy, on building things that can be used by host cities after the games. As of now, there is no commercially sustainable wave pool. You can build a wave pool like Snowdonia, but nobody knows if that will be commercially sustainable over a period of time.

Snowdonia wave pool
Snowdonia wave pool

So how will the surfing competition be run in 2020?

  • First, there will be a total of 40 surfers allowed to compete, 20 men and 20 women.
  • Second, the event will be shortboarding only – no longboards or bodyboards.
  • Third, Aguerre said that they will be patient over the two-week Olympic competition to find the right two-day period to hold the surfing competition.

That last point is interesting because television will probably demand that surfing establish a set time in advance. But then again, the Olympics are also about putting “athletes first”.

“We’ll try to start it at the front end of the games, but we can wait to run it if the waves look better at the end,” Aguerre said. “We have ten years of wave history and wind conditions data to rely on. We’re very confident, and so are Tokyo and the IOC, that we’ll have reasonable waves of good quality.”

Additionally, Aguerre wants to make sure that the venue at Tsurigasaki Beach has the right vibe. “The IOC has asked us to to create a full-on beach scene at Chiba that will last the whole length of the Olympics,” he said. “It will include the surf events of course, but also organic food, yoga in the morning—it will be a place where you want to hang out. There might be a skate ramp — maybe it will be like what you see at the U.S. Open. It’s never been done before at the Olympics.”

Tsurigasaki Beach Aerial View
Aerial View of Tsurigasaki Beach

I’m not a surfer, but when I think of places to surf in Japan, I think of Shonan Beach in Kanagawa Prefecture, or the islands of Okinawa. After all, it was the American soldiers based in those areas since the Japanese occupation of the late 1940s and early 1950s who introduced surfing to the Japanese, sparking a fascination for Hawaii, the American beach culture, and how to ride the waves with a board.

But when the Olympics return to Tokyo in 2020, all surfing eyes will turn to Chiba. Last year, surfing was voted in as a new Olympic sport for 2020, and Tsurigasaki Beach in Chiba was selected as the venue. Located about 90 minutes east from Tokyo in the city of Ichinomiya, Tsurigasaki Beach has become the go-to place to catch waves in the Kanto region.

In this survey of the best surf spots in Japan, JapanSurf.com ranked Chiba as having the best quality waves in the country. “Consistent, powerful beach breaks and thundering reefs make this area a mecca among surfers in Japan.” The Mainichi Daily News explained that surfers enjoy a “consistent flow of waves toward the shore from three different directions, namely northeast, east and southeast.”

Ichinomiya surfing alamy

Even more interestingly, the Mainichi article states that surfing has been responsible for a phenomenon unseen for decades in Japan – a small town that is actually growing in population.

Ever since the 1980s, people wanting to surf all year round have been moving to the town, and since the 2000s, numerous surfing shops, restaurants and new homes have emerged along prefectural Route 30, which runs parallel to the Pacific coast. As a result, the area has taken on an atmosphere of a “tropical island” bustling with youngsters, attracting what is believed to be about 600,000 visitors a year.

According to the article, the town of Ichinomiya has grown to 12,400 at the beginning of 2017, in a country where both the rapidly aging population and the desire of the youth to work in the big cities has shrunk the populations of cities and towns that are not named Tokyo or Osaka.

The Japanese love for surfing has revitalized Ichinomiya. And as planning continues to bring the biggest beach party in the world to Tsurigasaki Beach, ambitions climb. “We want to spread the name and culture of Ichinomiya across the world,” said Ichinomiya mayor, Masaya Mabuchi.

Map to Ichinomiya Tsurigasaki Beach
Map to Ichinomiya Tsurigasaki Beach