On this 31st day of October, aka Halloween, here are three legitimately scary moments in Olympic history. These images are not for the faint of heart.
Samir Ait Said, gymnast for France, broke his leg in a vault qualifier at the 2016 Rio Olympics, the snap of the bone so loud that people in the stands could hear it.
Armenian weightlifter, Andranik Karapetyan, dislocated his left elbow attempting a lift in the clean and jerk competition at the 2016 Rio Olympics
At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, diver Greg Louganis was performing a reverse somersault dive in the preliminaris of the 3-meter springboard competition when the back of his head slammed into the board full force. Despite the concussion and five stitches he received after that dive, he still went on to win the gold medal.
Oh there were a bunch of dignitaries there. A Governor. Organizing Committee Head. Olympians. Celebrities. There were proclamations. Couldn’t see it. It was rainy. And I was too late to get to a good spot.
But it was still cool, on October 28, 2017, to celebrate 1,000 Days to the Opening Ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in the Ginza.
At the moment the photo above was snapped, there was 1,000 days and over 4 hours to the start of the Tokyo Olympiad – in other words, 8pm on Friday, July 24, 2020.
We got to see demonstrations of a few of the new events to debut in 2020, like 3-on-3 basketball and sports climbing.
In the case of 3-on-3 basketball, basketball players slipped on the rain-slicked asphalt, but still put on a show. Afterwards, renown kabuki actor Ebizo Ichikawa and Olympic weightlifter Hiromi Miyake showed off their shooting prowess.
This event at the Ginza, still one of the world’s swankiest shopping areas, was an opportunity for Tokyo 2020 local sponsors to promote their linkage to the Olympics.
Here, I put my origami skills to the test to fold a paper crane. I failed…but I still put my heart into it.
On November 29, it will be 1,000 days to the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
The first medals won at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics were in weightlifting, held in the first few days of the Games. On October 11, Aleksey Vakhonin of the Soviet Union won the bantamweight (56kg) title, lifting his left leg stork-like in his final lift, putting an exclamation mark in a thrilling finish.
But it was the eight-place finisher who may have lifted, figuratively, way above his weight. Martin Dias was the sole representative of his country, British Guiana, at that time, still a colony of Great Britain. As journalist, Roy Moor of the Daily Mail wrote in an article entitled “The One-Man Team,” Dias had to overcome significant obstacles in his home country and in Tokyo to get to eighth place.
In the early 1960s, British Guiana (today known as Guyana) was in the throes of socio-economic chaos – race riots, worker strikes – that created challenges for all citizens, as Moore explained, let alone those who were entertaining trifling thoughts of joining the Olympics.
They were anxious days in British Guiana in the months before the opening of the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Internal political differences had led to wide-spread sniping in the country, and athletes training to win places in their national Olympic team risked coming under fire if they ventured out on fitness runs. These were not ideal conditions for building world beaters for Tokyo-nor, for that matter, for raising funds to send athletes half-way across the world in search of Olympic glory. But the brave little British Guiana Olympic Committee were determined not to let the internal upset stop their country from being represented in the Games. With the aid of a few sports socials, jumble sales and collecting boxes, they managed to raise sufficient money to send one competitor to Tokyo.
Dias was that one man. Known as the Mighty Midget, bantamweight weightlifter Dias won bronze at the 1962 Commonwealth Games, gold at the Central American and Pan American Games in 1963, and so was an easy choice amidst the number of world-class sportsmen able to train, let alone compete, during those challenging times in British Guiana.
According to this site, Dias was not arriving in Tokyo under ideal conditions. While most athletes would arrive at least a week in advance, giving themselves a chance to overcome jetlag, get accustomed to their surroundings and train in prep, Dias arrived on the day of the opening ceremonies after a series of flights that took him from NY, to San Francisco, to Honolulu and Tokyo, marched in the parade of athletes, and then had to get ready for his competition the next day.
The battle of the bantamweight weightlifting competition was really between Vakhonin, Imre Foldi of Hungary, and Shiro Ichinoseki of Japan, but Dias held his own, but not without drama. As Moor explained, Dias weighed in a half-pound overweight, so just before going into competition, he had to sit in a sauna to work off that weight. Drained somewhat from the rush to lose weight, generally uncomfortable in the cold of Tokyo compared to the heat of British Guiana, Dias still represented his nation well. Of 24 competitors, Dias ended up in 8th place. And Moor wrote that he could have finished as high as sixth, if not for some in-competition controversy, and a severe lack of funds.
Had it not been for an unfortunate experience at the start of the press series, Dias might well have finished in the top six. Judges refused his first press of 221 lbs. and coach Ronald Blackman wanted to protest, but had not the thousand Yen (£ 1 sterling) needed to make an official protest, and he could not find an interpreter in time to help him get the money. This so upset Dias that he was not at his best for the next attempt, and failed. But he succeeded with the lift at the third attempt – only to have it turned down again by the judges. This time coach Blackman had the money ready for an immediate protest. And the protest was upheld. The success of the appeal so heartened Dias that he went on the equal his personal best for the snatch with 225 lbs. and exceed his best jerk with 292 lbs.
It would take two more years before British Guiana would gain its independence, another 16 years before Guyana would celebrate its first and only Olympic medal – a bronze medal for Michael Anthony in boxing. But in 1964, according to Moor, Dias “had won the hearts of many sports lovers in Japan, and proved to the world how worth-while it is to send even a one-man team to the world’s greatest sporting festival-the Olympic Games.”
Eri Yamamoto-MacDonald navigates the world in a wheelchair. No matter how fast this para-athlete swims, or how many goals she scores as an ice sledge hockey competitor, or how many kilograms she pushes into the air as a competitive powerlifter, when people see her, they see someone who needs help.
At an American Chamber of Commerce Japan event on June 2, 2017, Yamamoto-MacDonald of The Nippon Foundation told a fairly typical story, for her, of going to a store to buy rice. When she got to the cashier to pay for a 5kg bag of rice, the person working there took notice of her wheelchair and asked her, “are you able to carry that bag of rice?” She understood the person was not acting mean, but she was frustrated that as a power weightlifter, who lifts 50 kilograms in competition, is seen as so helpless that she can’t lift 5. “They are not seeing me as an athlete. They are seeing me as a disabled person.”
For joint speakers, Yamamoto-MacDonald, as well as Yasushi Yamawaki, also of the Nippon Foundation and president of the Japan Paralympic Committee, it is their mission to change the perceptions of people regarding individuals with impairments. “It’s not about disability, it’s about ability,” said Yamawaki. “We take the word ‘impossible’, and add an apostrophe between the ‘I’ and the ‘m’, because we like to say ‘I’m possible’. To us, nothing is impossible.”
Yamamoto-MacDonald, who has not had the use of her legs since birth, has been working in the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center with a goal of bringing social change to Japan. It’s important to change the tangibles, she said, designing infrastructure and venues to make it easier for people with impairments to navigate and take advantage of their surroundings. But it’s more important to deal with the intangibles. “Changing peoples’ minds is more important. Having them watch high performance para-athletes can change people’s perceptions towards people with disabilities.”
Nippon Foundation produces an Education Toolkit, called “I’m Possible”, which they distribute to schools throughout the country. So far they have handed out 23,000 toolkits nationwide. Nippon Foundation has organized visits by para-athletes to over 100 elementary, junior high and high schools last year. The plan is to visit 250 schools in 2017 and 1,000 by 2020.
The education is important because it is often the social environment that highlights the disability of an individual, as Yamamoto-MacDonald explained. If the work environment of a person with an impairment allows that person to move about and do the things he or she wants or needs to do, the so-called disability can be rendered unnoticeable. But if the physical environment caters to so-called able-bodied people only, and the surrounding individuals consciously or unconsciously behave or speak in a way that ignores or demeans those with impairments, then as Yamamoto-MacDonald observed, the social environment creates the disability.
She explained that at her workplace in the Nippon Foundation, everyone works to chip away at both the tangible and intangible barriers people with impairments face. However, while her workplace allows her to live a relatively normal life, she finds Japanese society less accommodating. “Japanese people are very polite. But in public, they are not. If I’m traveling by train, I need to use the elevators. But people who have the option of stairs and escalators push their way in front of me to get into the elevators.” She said that in contrast, while London still needed to make improvements to infrastructure, they had a better mindset, even back in 2012.
At the London Paralympics, I worked at the Japan House to build awareness for the Tokyo 2020 bid. To get to the venue I had to take public transpiration. I got off at a station where there were no elevators. The officers told me that I had to get off at the station before this one. But they made sure I got to the venue. The people’s mindset is very important, even without all of the infrastructure. I got to where I needed to go in London. Tokyo doesn’t have that mindset. People need to care a little more. It would be better to have more accessibility, but it is accessibility in the heart that is more important.
Yamamoto-MacDonald talked about how important it is for companies to expose themselves more to people with impairments, and to understand that engaging with a wider variety of people is an opportunity. In fact, she said that CSR, which stands for Corporate Social Responsibility, should really be re-labeled CSO, or Corporate Social Opportunity. It’s an opportunity for corporations and wider society to understand the power of diversity and inclusion. But it is also a way to expand opportunities for people like her. This is key for two reasons: to motivate those with impairments who feel different and isolated, as well as to unlock the potential abilities in the disabled.
I never got asked about my hobbies, or what sports I like. When I was 9, I was so shy. I couldn’t say “thank you”. Why is it only me who has to say “thank you” all the time, I thought. I couldn’t say “thank you” back because I felt I couldn’t help anyone. But when I began swimming, I gained confidence. I swam faster, faster than even able-bodied swimmers. That’s when I started saying “thank you”. As I grew more confident, I began to dream of being a Paralympian, going to the Paralympics. Since I began having that dream, it has become my identity.
An injury at 16 made it difficult for Yamamoto-MacDonald to continue her swimming career. She went to Canada and became proficient at ice sledge hockey, but she also understood this kind of hockey was not yet a Paralympics event. When she returned to Japan, she did not have a specialization that could focus her training for 2020, until she stumbled upon powerlifting.
Last year, the Tokyo Metropolitan government sponsored a special event – a power-lifting exhibition. I saw big guys lifting hundreds of kilograms. My boss told me to give it a try. I grabbed 20kg and it was light! It was fun! I saw other women stop at 20kg but I was able to lift 40 kg. Since then I have been powerlifting.
She explained we rarely see powerlifting on television or live. There are very few events and opportunities, and the opportunities for people with impairments to see para-athletes is very low. “You have to meet the right people for the right chance to come around.” And that is something Yamawaki explained is key to driving societal change – the need to create greater exposure of para-athletes to society to show what is possible.
Yamawaki ended the talk with a video from the International Paralympics Committee. As you can see in the video below, there is a strong push to bring sports opportunities to youth with impairments, that motivating them earlier in their lives will lead them to greater choices and fuller lives.
“It’s not about what people can’t do, it’s what they can do,” he said.
We gathered at the prestigious Singapore Cricket Club on May Day, and enjoyed fish and chips and beef Guinness pie reminiscing about 1964. I had the honor of having lunch with three Singaporean Olympians who went to the Tokyo Olympiad:
Canagasabai Kunalan, who held the fastest 100-meter time in Singapore for over 30 years, and competed under the Malaysian flag at the 1964 Olympics, as well as under the Singaporean flag in 1968,
Hamid Supaat, who competed in the grueling individual cycling road race in the chilly hills of Hachioji at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, as written about here, and
Anwarul Haque, who was a goalie on the 1964 Malaysian field hockey team, went on to become a lawyer, as well as serving eight years as president of the Singapore Cricket Club, where we ate and reminisced.
In 1964, Singapore was undergoing political upheaval, having gained independence from Britain in 1963, and joining a federation of states that became Malaysia. Previous to that, Singapore had been a colony since Stamford Raffles arrived on the tiny island in 1819 to claim it as a trading post for the East Indies Company and the British empire.
Before independence, Singapore was a bustling harbor town, its population growing quickly, but still relatively small at 1.5 to 1.8 million in the first half of the 1960s. So it’s quite understandable that in the sports history of Singapore, only 5 medals have been won by Singaporeans in the history of the Olympics, the first one – Singapore’s first silver – in 1960 and the last one – Singapore’s first gold – in 2016.
Tan Howe Liang migrated with his family from southern China to Singapore and at an amusement park saw an exhibition of weightlifters and was hooked. He joined a weightlifting club, and soon became internationally competitive, finishing ninth in the lightweight category at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, and then gaining confidence by winning gold at the 1958 Commonwealth Games, the 1958 Asian Games and the 1959 SEAP Games. In Rome, Howe Liang brought glory to Singapore with a silver medal in the lightweight category.
Even earlier, at the 1948 London Olympics, Singapore had a representative as a part of British crown colonies. His name was Lloyd Oscar Valberg, and he competed in the high jump as Singapore’s sole athlete in the first Olympics after the Second World War. Valberg came in 14th. But he set the Singapore record for the high jump at the age of 17, and is a symbol of how far Singapore has come. Valberg’s nephew was Colin Schooling, and his son saw his famous relative as a role model.
Inspired by his grand uncle, Joseph Schooling went on to take gold in the 100-meter butterfly in one of the most dramatic races at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Schooling beat a very strong field, including his childhood idol, Michael Phelps to win Singapore’s first gold medal.
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 remember walking the streets of Dresden in then East Germany in 1985, noting how modern the city looked and felt compared to my previous destination of Prague. And yet, I was constantly reminded of the terrible toll World War II had on this city, as I strolled by buildings in elegant decay, reduced to skeletons by the incessant firebombing by the Allies some 40 years before.
One of the greatest female divers of the 20th century, Ingrid Engel-Krämer, was a little less than two years old when the sky rained fire on her home town.
When the 1960 Rome Olympics rolled around, East Germany was still in a tremulous existential state. Born of the ideological split between Allies at the end of the Second World War, the Potsdam Agreement dictated a “provisional border” that would separate Germany into East and West, the former to become The German Democratic Republic (GDR), and the latter the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG).
And yet, in 1960, tensions between the two Germanys, and their proxies in the global cold war battle, the Soviet Union and the United States, were still high. Author of the book, Rome 1960, David Maraniss quoted a US National Security Agency report stating that East Germany was “teetering on the brink of stability”, meaning that the possibility of East German government collapsing was diminishing rapidly. Of course, a year later, a wall was constructed on the East Berlin side, symbolizing in a very real way that East Germany was here to stay, making Germany, by default, the epicenter of Cold War hostility.
During the Rome Olympics, the GDR government declared that West German citizens would not be allowed to enter East Germany – this while over a 100,000 East Germans snuck through the border into West Germany. This ban was a reaction to an event in West Germany celebrating the return of World War II German POWs and their relatives. East Germany viewed this event as a celebration of Germany’s fascist past.
It was under this geo-political cloud that athletes around the world gathered in Rome for the 1960 Olympics. The condition by the International Olympic Committee for German athletes to compete was that they had to do so as a unified team, which meant competing under a specially created German Olympic flag. East and West German athletes on the whole got along as teammates on the field and in the Village. But, as Maraniss wrote, the press in each of the two Germanys turned Engel-Krämer’s stunning achievements in Rome into a proxy Cold War battle, not because Engel-Krämer, an East German, defeated an American, Paula Jean Myers-Pope, in the 10-meter platform dive, but because both East and West Germany claimed her as their own.
When Kraemer was competing to make the unified team, she felt that the West German press was very “unfriendly” to her; at least one journalist, but her account, cursed her because of politics. But now the West Germans were embracing her as a German first, one of their own. The Western newspapers covered her events with obvious national pride, as though there were no separation between East and West. Accounts in Die Welt and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung raised no questions about the judging and described the final dives in a way that left no doubt that Kraemer had again outperformed her competition. German fans, who dominated the Stadio del Nuoto audience during her events, cheered long and loud for her every effort.
Yet the warmth the West Germans showed Kraemer infuriated the East Germans, who thought the other side was trying to steal her show and diminish the ideological implications of her triumph. Kraemer’s victory was no accident, East Germany’s Neues Deutschland proclaimed. Rather, she owed her success to her “joyful life in the socialism of the German Democratic Republic.” The paper also complained that for all the copy Kraemer in the Western press, it was never mentioned that her father was an official of the SED and that the young diver herself was a member of the socialist mass youth organization.