The high school girl in Japan is as iconic an image of Japanese popular culture as the ninja, Mt Fuji and Hello Kitty.

For whatever pop psychology reason you want to imagine, the teenage girl in a uniform, particularly those that echo the naval uniforms of Europe in the 19th century, is a constant in Japan’s mainstream (and not so mainstream) culture. More interestingly, the fighting high school girl is a uniquely popular phenomenon in Japan – case in point, the iconic characters of Sukeban Deka and Sailor Moon.

1989 High School Sumo Kanazawa Tournament
1989 High School Sumo Kanazawa Tournament

In promotion of the 101st High School Sumo Kanazawa Tournament, to be held on Sunday, May 21, 2017, a video called “Sumo Girls Eighty Two Techniques” was released. The Japan pop culture site, SoraNews24, provides details on these 82 techniques.

Most people, however, are likely more interested in the visuals.

 

Sumo Girls 2

Sumo Girls 1

Roy with 1964 Tokyo Olympic Torch
Roy with 1964 Tokyo Olympic Torch
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?

Enjoy!

Japan 1964

 

Tokyo 2020

 

Random Rambles

 

Olympia ancient greece_artist's rendition
Artist’s rendition of the site of the ancient Olympia Games

 

Today, the modern-day Olympics are held over a two-week period, or 16 days because it covers three full weekends.

But back in the day, way way back in the day – say over 2500 years ago – The Olympia Games were a five-day affair, as is explained in the book, The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, by David Goldblatt.

Opening Day: Today, an athlete a judge or official and a coach take an oath symbolically for all athletes, judges and coaches at the opening ceremonies of an Olympiad, promising to uphold the spirit of sportsmanship. Here is the athlete’s oath, for example: “In the name of all competitors, I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules that govern them, committing ourselves to a sport without doping and without drugs, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honour of our teams.”

In the 5th century BC, athletes, trainers and their families took an oath “that they would be guilty of no foul play and that they would be fair and not accept bribes.” But as we find inconsistency at times between what athletes promise to do and what they actually do, we find human behavior hasn’t changed much over the millennia. According to Goldblatt, “there was plenty of cheating and plenty of bribery.” He went on to say that the many statues of Zeus that adorned the area of the sporting grounds were paid by with fined for rule breakers.

boxing in ancient greece
Greek boxer surrendering by raising of index finger

Day Two: According to Alan Carter’s book, The Olympic Glory That Was Greece, the second day was devoted to competitions for boys. The morning saw heats after heats of foot races as the qualifiers are shrunk down to the finalists. The victor receives a palm leaf, and his family and home town are honored by his grand accomplishment. The afternoon sees competitions in wrestling and boxing for the boys, as well as what could be considered a mixed-martial art called the pankration. Carter described it as “training for warriors who would be engaging in hand to hand confrontation with the enemy and Sparta was particularly associated with the sport.” In the pankration, you could bite or gouge eyes.

Day Three: On the third day, according to Carter, spectators enjoyed chariot races at the hippodrome. There were some six variants of chariot races – two and four-horse competitions, two mules, or foals as well – and they ran anywhere from 3,500 to 14,000 meters long. Below is a clip from the 1959 film Ben Hur, which is supposedly Rome in AD 26, over 680 years after the establishment of the four-horse chariot race. If the chariot races in Olympia were anything like this, I could see why this was a must-see event!

Day Four: Goldblatt wrote that day four was the day for generalists, when the pentathlon was held. The pentathlon then was made up of five events: the discus throw, the long jump, the javelin throw, a foot race and wrestling. According to Goldblatt, the competitors faced off in a footrace, the discus, the javelin and a jump that may have included weights. The winner was often determined after these four events. In the a winner could not be decided, wrestling was the tie breaker. The order and the way the winner was decided apparently is unclear and still debated.

Again, due to the sketchiness of the historical accounts, there is debate as to what happened on the fourth day. According to Carter, Day Four was a festive days, starting with the slaughter of 100 oxen in honor of Zeus. This was followed by the premier events, the stadion (200 yard foot race), the diaulos (400-yard foot race), followed by wrestling, boxing and pankration.

Day Five: Goldblatt wrote that day five is running, wrestling, boxing and “pankrating” (if I can turn that into a gerund). But Carter wrote that it is about pomp and circumstance, focusing on awarding the victors at the Temple of Zeus. The winners are announced with trumpets and declarations of their names and hometowns. They are given a palm leaf to hold and a wild olive branch to wear as a crown. After that, its feasting and partying into the night.

If you want to be the best, you need to train like the best. Here is a link to a great self-help article on the strength and flexibility exercises that Olympians use. In trying to understand these exercises, I did an image search so that you can see what the article is trying to describe.

olympian-exercises-1
Recommended by Carrie Gaerte

Carrie Gaerte is a physical therapist and athletic trainer for USA Gymnastics, and she recommends the seated spinal stretch, the reclined half-pigeon and the achilles extension.

olympian-exercises-2
Exercises recommended by Team USA water polo athletes

Water polo athletes, Kami Craig, Courtney Mathewson and KK Clark build their strength and endurance with these routines: the leveled plank, the dumbbell step up, and the step jump.

olympian-exercises-3
Exercises recommended by coach of gold medal-winning wrestler Helen Maroulis

The coach of gold-medal winning wrestler, Helen Maroulis, recommends push ups, the dumbbell row and the pause squat in Maroulis’ training regimen.

Go on. Get crackin’!

fidel-castro-in-1964
Fidel Castro, southpaw, throwing a pitch in 1964

Fidel Castro has passed away. But his legacy for the love of sport continues.

Cuba has the 65th largest GDP in the world today. It has the 78th largest population in the world at 11.2 million people. And yet, in the Americas, only America and Canada have garnered more total Olympic medals than the small island nation of Cuba. Incredibly, in the period from the 1976 Olympics in Montreal to the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Cuba finished in the top 11 medal count. At the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, only the United Team (the former Soviet bloc), the United States, Germany and China got more than Cuba’s 31 total medals.

Clearly, this Caribbean nation has punched way above its weight class, and not just in boxing where Cuba is most famous. In 20 Olympic Games, Cuba has won 79 gold medals, 67 silver medals and 70 bronze medals in judo, athletics, wrestling and of course baseball. By comparison, India, which has a population over a hundred times larger, and the fifth largest GDP in the world, has competed in four more Olympics than Cuba, and yet has totaled only 28 medals.

And according to articles after President Castro passed away on November 25, 2016, Castro had a hand in turning Cuba into a sports power – and it doesn’t appear to be via state-sponsored doping systems. According to this article, sports became a social phenomenon due to state-sponsored institutions.

After Castro entered Havana on Jan. 1, 1959, the revolutionary government approved and implemented a nationwide plan to improve the nation’s sports practice, resulting in free and universal access to sports schools for every citizen.

In 1961, Cuba created the National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation which was placed in charge of promoting sports for children, adults and even the elderly on the island. The state-run program was also charged with improving the quality of service in its sports facilities, manufacturing its own equipment and conducting research in sports science.

fidel-castro-at-basketball-clinic

But Cuba’s biggest sports cheerleader was, according to the New York Times, was el presidente himself.

“I think Fidel Castro legitimately liked sports,” said David Wallechinsky, the president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. “One got the sense with East Germany, for example, that it really was a question of propaganda and that government officials didn’t have that obsession with sport itself that Fidel Castro did.” Whatever hardships they endured, Cubans could take pride in their sports stars.

But of course, during Cuba’s hey day in the 1970s and 1980s, in the heat of the cold war, Castro could not help but use Cuba’s great sporting achievements as a tool in the battle for geo-political mindshare. Of course, as the Times points out, propaganda is often just propaganda, a smokescreen behind which you hide the uglier shades of truth.

Yet it was primarily baseball, along with boxing and other Olympic sports, that came to symbolize both the strength and vulnerability of Cuban socialism. Successes in those sports allowed Mr. Castro to taunt and defy the United States on the diamond and in the ring and to infuse Cuban citizens with a sense of national pride. At the same time, international isolation and difficult financial realities led to the rampant defection of top baseball stars, the decrepit condition of stadiums and a shortage of equipment.

fidel-castro-and-teofilo-stevenson-in-1984
Fidel Castro boxing great, Teofilo Stevenson in 1984

So for every great sporting star who remained in Cuba, like three-time Olympic heavyweight champion,Teófilo Stevenson, or Javier Sotomayor, still the world record holder in the high jump, there have been many who defected, often to their neighbor to the north, the United States.

What does the future bring? Will the recent thawing of relations initiated by presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama continue to allow greater travel and expanded opportunities for cross-border business and cultural exchange? Or will President-elect Donald Trump reverse the thaw? Will that have any impact on sports in Cuba?

kaori-icho-four-time-gold-medalist

When you win 189 matches in a row, mathematically, the odds against you increase. So it was on that cold Siberian day in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, that Kaori Icho, the legendary women’s wrestler from Japan, lost. Falling to a Mongolian student named Orkhon Purevdorj 10 years younger, the 31-year-old Icho experienced the end to an undefeated streak that lasted 13 years, 9 World championships and 3 Olympic championships.

“There’s enough time to put things right,” said Japan national team director Kazuhito Sakae. “I’m relieved it wasn’t the Olympics. I believe she can win her fourth-straight Olympic title.”

Icho rewarded Sakae’s belief and resumed her winning ways, culminating in four straight victories in Rio. She earned that last victory, coming from behind in the remaining seconds in her bout with Russian Valeria Koblova. And as a result, Icho secured gold in her fourth consecutive Olympiad. No other woman in any individual sport has done that.

kaori-icho-and-flag-in-rio

In fact, Icho has been reigning Olympic champion in wrestling since the women’s wrestling category was established at the 2004 Athens Olympics. You could say, she is the face of women’s wrestling, although she is less known than her teammate, Saori Yoshida, who like Icho, went into Rio with hopes of claiming a fourth championship in a row. But it was Icho alone who emerged from the Games with a perfect record intact.

The Japanese government announced it will award Icho from Aomori Japan the People’s Honor Award, the 24th awardee of this particular honor since the government established it in 1977. The first to win it was Sadaharu Oh of the Yomiuri Giants, the man who ended his career hitting more home runs than Henry Aaron. Icho found her glory closer to the ground. Like the gold medal, once in her grasp, it’s very hard to get her to let go.

Here is video of Icho’s come-from-behind victory taken by ring-side Japanese, along with their exciting chants and cheers.

Wrestling - Women's Freestyle 53 kg Gold Medal
2016 Rio Olympics – Wrestling – Final – Women’s Freestyle 53 kg Gold Medal – Carioca Arena 2 – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – 18/08/2016. Helen Maroulis (USA) of USA celebrates with her coach winning the gold medal after her victory against Saori Yoshida (JPN) of Japan. REUTERS/Toru Hanai .

The match started off according to the script.

In round one, Saori Yoshida of Japan takes a one point lead thanks to the passivity of her opponent, Helen Maroulis of the United States.  Yoshida is a living legend – she has won 13 straight world titles and the past 3 Olympic gold medals in freestyle wrestling. As the captain of the entire Japan Olympic team, she is expected to cap a tremendous team effort in Rio – Japanese women have already taken gold in the other three weight classes.

Going into the second half, Yoshida is still up 1-0 on Maroulis, who had never beaten Yoshida. In fact, in their first match in the past, Yoshida defeated the American in 69 seconds. Maroulis has studied Yoshida’s techniques over the past three years, in fact getting an opportunity to train with the master. But still, early in the second half, Yoshida’s victory is preordained. After all, her teammate, Kaori Icho, had already accomplished the unprecedented feat of taking gold in freestyle wrestling in four consecutive Olympics.

Wrestling - Women's Freestyle 53 kg Gold Medal
2016 Rio Olympics – Wrestling – Final – Women’s Freestyle 53 kg Gold Medal – Carioca Arena 2 – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – 18/08/2016. Saori Yoshida (JPN) of Japan reacts after the match against Helen Maroulis (USA) of USA. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

In the second half, Maroulis fights off an attempt by Yoshida to drag her down, and instead manages to pull Yoshida down with her right arm, and get behind Yoshida for two points and a 2-1 lead. Like Icho, who won her Rio gold medal with points in the waning seconds, Yoshida’s supporters in the stands, and in Japan were anticipating a similar spectacular comeback. But with a scant 60 seconds left, Maroulis forced Yoshida out of bounds to take 4-1 lead. That turned out to be an insurmountable lead

For Japanese fans, the impossible happened. She lost.

For Yoshida, tears of anguish streamed down her face. She had not just lost a match, as far as she was concerned – she let down her team, her country and her family. “I am sorry to finish with a silver medal despite all the cheers from so many people,” Yoshida said through tears. “As the Japanese captain, I should have gotten the gold medal. I kept thinking that I would be able to win in the end, but it got to the point where I could no longer come back. I’m sorry I couldn’t exert all my strength.”

Yoshida Saori cryingIn Japanese, Yoshida repeatedly said, “gomen nasai” (“I’m sorry”) as if she had burned down a house, or lost a company a million dollars, or lied to the press about being held up at gun point. Japanese apologize for everything, as a matter of everyday politeness, even when they haven’t done anything wrong. But in this instance, you could see the pain in her face and hear it in her voice – she believed she had failed Japan.

But as Masanori Sudoh of Nikkan Sports put it, Yoshida indeed had the weight of the world on her, far more than any mere mortal deserves.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t get the gold,” she said. Seeing Saori Yoshida cry and apologize like that pained me in my heart. At the 2004 Athens Olympics, carefree and full of smiles at the age of 22 upon winning an Olympic finals, she breezily stated “the gold medal was the only thing I didn’t have. But now I have all the medals!” Twelve years ago, the medals were her reward. But somehow, at some point, the medals became Japan’s reward. And in Rio, the burden of expectation was particularly great. Continuing to win is far more difficult than just winning once. You have to keep up with rivals who are studying your every move. You have to continually evolve. And she did, through 16 straight victories in the Olympics. To us, she was all powerful. But in truth, I believe Yoshida was always in a state of uncertainty, desperately figuring out how to stay ahead. And the more she won, the stronger she appeared…to the point where winning was a given. No one expected Saori Yoshida to lose.

And yet, lose she did. And an entire nation cried.

After the final match, Yoshida made her way to her mother, who watched from the stands. They embraced in tears as her mother said, “You lost, but you have this magnificent silver medal. I am so proud of my daughter. You gave it your very best. You are my treasure.”

Interviewed later in the day, Yoshida-san’s mother, Yukiyo Yoshida, reflected on the fact that this was the first Olympics where she was not accompanied by her husband, Eikatsu Yoshida, a former national champion and wrestling coach who passed away two years ago. Yukiyo explained to the press that her daughter told her, “Father will be angry with me.” But Yukiyo replied as all good mothers do, “No he won’t. It’s all right. You did your very best.”

Yoshida Saori and mother
Saori Yoshida comforted by her mother, Yukiyo Yoshida, and her brother Hidetoshi.