I was with the USA Climbing team in Tokyo a couple of weeks ago and talking with team coach, Josh Larson, and I couldn’t help but notice his hands.
They were ugly.
Fat. Dry. In desperate need of a manicure.
For climbers, the fingers carry a significant chunk of the freight, and as a result, get really fat. After years of sustaining one’s body weight on one’s fingertips, sliding them into the slimmest of crevices, and slipping off the tiniest of edges, fingers get swollen and calloused over time. The result – really ugly fingers.
But in the world of sports, sometimes ugliness is the price of admission.
The 24-year old figure skater walked into a private room in Saitama Super Arena, the television to his left showing clips of the World Finals Figure Skating Championship that had just ended on the evening of March 23, 2019.
“I lost! I can’t believe it (“Maketa yo, kuyashii!),” said Yuzuru Hanyu. He glanced at the television set which showed his rival and winner of the world championship, American Nathan Chen. “How do I beat that?”
Despite Hanyu’s incredible free program and brief hold of first place, Chen’s was better.
“I really wanted to win when I was skating,” Hanyu stated. “I think I did my best, but the problem is that a figure skating competition consists of two days, and I lost both. It means that I simply do not have enough strength to win.”
Chen is a brilliant young skater, who has proven his metal by defending his world championship. But Hanyu will not go down without a fight.
Those who have followed Hanyu even a little know that he is not losing confidence. He may in fact be steeling himself for the greatest competition he has faced. Battling and overcoming an ongoing ligament injury to his right ankle, Hanyu won gold in PyeongChang last February, and the Cup of Russia in November. The flames of his competitive spirit have been fanned by Chen, and he’s out to take figure skating to the next level, which should surprise no one.
Hanyu is a living legend.
What’s incredible is that he is not alone here. We in Japan have been blessed, recent witnesses to once-in-a-century global talents in a wide variety of sports – four of them to be exact:
Yuzuru Hanyu (figure skating)
Ichiro Suzuki (baseball)
Kohei Uchimura (gymnastics)
Kaori Icho (wrestling)
Yuzuru Hanyu (figure skating):The Sendai native is a two-time world champion, has broken the world record in figure skating scores eighteen times, and is the first person since Dick Button did so in 1948 to win individual gold in two consecutive Olympiads. Can he do the unthinkable at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, and win an unprecedented third Olympic championship? I wouldn’t bet against him yet.
Ichiro Suzuki (baseball): After 28 years of professional baseball, the athlete known as Ichiro retired last week amidst adoring fans at the opening season matches between his Seattle Mariners and the Oakland A’s. No one has had more hits in professional baseball than Ichiro (4,367), and in the Major Leagues in America, he set the season hit record in 2004 with 262 hits, surpassing George Sisler’s record that stood for 84 years. His speed and defense made him a threat to steal a base as well as hits and runs in the field. There’s an overwhelming consensus that Ichiro will be the first player enshrined in the baseball hall of fames of both Japan and America. His love of the game, his training regimen and his flare for the dramatic will live on forever.
Kohei Uchimura (gymnastics):He is called King Kohei. The native of Nagasaki is the only gymnast to win all-around gold in every major title in a four-year Olympic cycle….twice. In other words, Uchimura won the world championship and Olympic gold from 2009 to 2016. You may as well tack on his silver medal in the all-arounds at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and call it a decade of dominance. Calling him the Greatest of All Time (GOAT), as many do, is not hyperbole. As Uchimura is 30, it is unlikely that his dominance will continue at Tokyo 2020. But he might be there, giving us all still a chance to glimpse greatness.
Kaori Icho (wrestling):There is another Japanese GOAT – a woman from Japan named Kaori Icho. The freestyle wrestler from Aomori, Icho has won an unprecedented and incredible four straight Olympic championships since women’s wrestling became an Olympic sport at the 2004 Athens Summer Games. In fact, she’s the first female in any sport to win an individual gold in four straight Olympiads. Through that period, Icho had won 189 straight matches, a 13-year streak that ended in January, 2016 to a wrestler ten years her junior, only to re-start the streak and take her fourth gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. She is indeed the best female wrestler ever.
We in Japan have been most fortunate in recent years to live among living legends.
Stanley Clark Cole was a three-time Olympian who competed as a member of the United States water polo team. The Dover, Delaware native was a dominant scorer on the UCLA Bruins team, and went to his first Olympics in Tokyo in 1964. Cole went on to the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, scoring six of his 11 Olympic goals on the team that won bronze at the Munich Games. Serving as an officer in the US Navy, Cole was on the ship that picked up the famed astronauts of Apollo 13. Cole passed away on July 26, 2018, at the age of 72.
Valentina Rastvorova was a three-time Olympic fencer on the Soviet Union team, competing in Melbourne, Rome and Tokyo from 1956 to 1964. The Odessa native won gold in team foil, as well as silver in individual foil in 1960, as well as silver in team foil in 1964. She was married to a water polo player on the 1964 Soviet Union team, Boris Grishin, which won bronze in Tokyo. Their son, Yevgeny Grishin, won gold in Moscow and bronze in Seoul as a member of the Soviet water polo team. Rastvorova died on August 24, 2018 at the ate of 85.
Helmudt was an engineer shipbuilder after his rowing career. He passed away at the age of 74 on September 7, 2018.
Ganpatrao Andalkar represented India in two different wrestling disciplines at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics: as a middleweight in Greco-Roman and as a heavyweight in Freestyle competition.
Prior to Tokyo, Andalkar had captured gold and silver medals at the Jakarta Asian Games in 1962. Andalkar passed away on September 16, 2018 in Pune, India.
A four-time Olympian, fencer Győző Kulcsár of Hungary passed away on September 19, 2018. He was 77. The native of Budapest competed in the individual and team épée events at the 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976 Olympics, garnering a total of six medals, including four golds.
Kulcsár would go on to become the Secretary General of the Hungarian Fencing Association in 1979, as well as the head coach of the Hungarian fencing team from 1980 to 1988.
Sailing on the Dragon Boat, Serendipity, Joseph MacBrien, 39, teamed up with fellow Canadians Ed Botterell and Lynn Watters to compete at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in the waters of Enoshima. A Toronto native, MacBrien served in the Royal Canadian Navy as an Officer Cadet, as well as on British and Australian warships in WWII. As a pilot, he also flew 66 combat missions for the US Navy in the Korean War, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross. MacBrien passed away on November 18, 2018 at the age of 94.
Kaori Icho is arguably one of the strongest women in Japan physically. And after the 2016 Rio Olympics, she is arguably the best ever women’s wrestler, capturing her fourth straight Olympic title since wrestling became an Olympic sport at the 2004 Athens Games.
And yet, even the strongest are susceptible to power harassment. In April of 2018, after a thorough review of an independent panel, Kazuhito Sakae was fired from his position as head of top athlete development in the Japan Wrestling Federation, and then in June, fired as head coach of the Shigakkan University wrestling team, for harassment of two Olympians.
As the #MeToo movement hit the shores of Japan, the story of Icho and Sakae played out in the Japanese press, revealing, as Mainichi put it, “an outmoded relationship of master and disciple.” The bulk of the harassment took place in the period around 2010, after Icho had won her 2nd gold medal in individual freestyle wrestling at the Beijing Olympics, and as she was preparing for the 2012 London Olympics.
According to the independent panel, formed at the request of the Japan Wrestling Federation, there were four clear cases of power harassment suffered by not only Icho, but her coach and former Olympian and bronze medalist in men’s freestyle wrestling, Chikara Tanabe.
In 2010 Icho moved to Tokyo from Aichi Prefecture where she was attending Chukyo Women’s University (which is now called Shigakkan University), in an effort to remove herself from the direct influence of Sakae who was the head coach there. When Icho participated in a training session for the Japan national team, which Sakae was overseeing, Sakae said to Icho, “you have the nerve to wrestle in front of me.”
Icho, who effectively stopped taking any coaching from Sakae, asked Tanabe, the coach of the national men’s freestyle team, to coach her. Sakae then demanded that Tanabe to cease any coaching activities of Icho. When Tanabe refused he found himself harassed by other members of the wrestling team, as directed by Sakae, according to the independent panel.
Quite inexplicably, the world’s best female wrestler in her weightclass, Icho, was left off the women’s freestyle wrestling team for the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China. The committee that left Icho off the team was headed by Sakae.
In 2015, Sakae was seen harassing Tanabe to leave a national team training session, screaming, “You are an eyesore! Get out!”
Those were the four specific proofpoints of power harassment that the independent committee described. And while one may suspect there was more, this was enough for the Japanese public to nod their head and think, yes, I’ve seen that too.
According to a survey conducted in 2017 by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry in Japan, one out of every three workers had experienced power harassment over the previous three years. This was up from one out of every four when the survey had been conducted five years earlier in 2012. Additionally, 7,8% said they were harassed “many times”, while 17.8% were harassed “occasionally.”
Of those harassed, 41% took no action, citing the belief that nothing would come of it. According to this Deutsche Welle article, only 4% of the cases of sexual violence against women are reported, and that only one of every three rape cases reach the Japanese courts.
“Not speaking out is rooted in Japanese culture. Traditionally, people here are not accustomed to revealing details about themselves or sharing personal issues in public,” Makoto Watanabe, an associate professor of communications and media at Hokkaido Bunkyo University, told DW. “And society looks down on people who do break that unwritten rule.”
Supporting the tendency in Japan not to report, Icho said in a statement that she was not “involved in any way” in lodging the complaint, according to Inside the Games. Thankfully, three Olympians did send an official complaint to the Chief Cabinet Secretary of the Japanese Government.
On June 14, Sakae finally apologized. “I would like to express my deepest apologies to Icho and her coach (Chikara) Tanabe,” Sakae said. “I will treat people with respect at all times so I never make the same mistake again,” he said as he bowed his head in apology in a news conference.
Despite the swirl of controversy, there is still hope that Icho will commit to an attempt at an unprecedented fifth straight Olympic title in 2020, under the warm gaze of a home crowd. Now 34, she has refrained from competition since the Rio Olympics. If she does, she has said that she will resume her training in 2019.
Icho in 2020.
Imagine what she could do without being harassed by the head of the national wresting team.
Outside of Title IX in America, one of the most powerful levers for gender equality in sports have been the IOC. As I mentioned in this post, the IOC has added new sports categories and re-shuffled events so that Tokyo 2020 will have a female-male participation rate of 48.8 to 52.2%. That’s up from a 44.2% female participation rate at the 2012 London Olympics.in this post
Interestingly, there are a handful of events that are gender-specific. In other words, there are still events that only men can compete in, and some that only women can compete in. In part one of this series, I will look at the men-only events, and part two will feature the women-only events.
No Women Allowed
Greco-Roman Wrestling: There has never been an Olympic competition in Greco-Roman wrestling at the Olympics, and there are currently no international tournaments devoted to women in that sport. It is unclear to me why Greco-Roman wrestling, which disallows grabbing of legs and kicking of legs compared to freestlye wrestling, is not encouraged for women. One of most significant physical differences between men and women is muscle mass, particularly in the upper body, but no one is saying that men and women should compete against each other in Greco-Roman wrestling. While the IOC has pressured the United World Wrestling Federation to improve gender representation in their tournaments, Greco-Roman, for whatever reason, has not had a high female participation rate historically. The biggest challenge for the wrestling federation, as I understand it, is to increase the popularity of Greco-Roman wrestling for women so that they can put together a competitive enough field. This may take until after Tokyo 2020 to hit critical mass and allow for gender equality in Olympic wrestling.
Finn – One Person Dinghy: This sailing discipline is apparently the greatest sailing test for an individual. According to sailor Zach Railey in this article, “It is well documented that overall people throughout the world are getting bigger, stronger and fitter, and the Finn is really a true test of power, endurance, and mental strength. Anyone who has sailed a Finn in steep chop and 20 knots can tell you just how physically hard the boat is to sail.” So strength again emerges as a differentiator. And perhaps as a result, the number or women who compete in Finn has not reached critical mass. The question is, with the strength requirements for the Finn, is it too dangerous for the fairer sex? Who knows.
50km Race-Walking: I can’t find any decent explanation for why the 50-km race walk is male only in the Olympics. Both men and women can compete in the 20-km race walk as Olympians. And women appear to have raced competitively in the 50k race walk in IAAF competitions through much of the 21st century. Who knows?
Pommel Horse:Hmmm….the pommel horse discipline in gymnastics appears to be a less popular discipline for men than say, the floor exercise, the rings or the parallel bar for example. This article explains that the pommel horse “caters to a different body type. Having long arms helps, giving the gymnast greater separation from the horse, and in turn, room for his hips and legs to swivel underneath him. And the basic motion – going around and around on a horizontal plane – is the opposite from the up-and-down motion of the bars, rings and vaults.” And yet, I can’t find any explanation as to why women have not traditionally competed except for the reason it’s true for the rings – greater requirements for upper body strength have discouraged women from training on the horse, and so a critical mass of women fit for competition may have never emerged. Again, who knows?
The IOC sought to inject youth and improve gender diversity into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics by adding events, while keeping the total number of invited athletes the same. In addition to the five new sports added in August, 2016 (baseball/softball, karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing), the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced the addition of 15 new events to existing sports.
And yet, to keep to a limit of 11,090 total athletes at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, cuts had to be made. The IOC made decisions that resulted in the elimination of 285 quota slots for various sports. Much of this was driven by a need to improve gender ratios, particularly in sports like cycling, judo, rowing, sailing, shooting, swimming and water polo.
But the biggest losers? Wrestling with 56 cuts, weightlifting with 64 and athletics with 105 cuts.
Perhaps messages are being sent.
Wrestling was actually dropped from the Olympic menu of core sports in February, 2013 because the rules were considered vague. Wrestling’s scoring system was too difficult to understand, which in turn made it difficult to engage the average television viewer. Somehow, through significant lobbying efforts, wrestling was reinstated as a non-core sport for the 2020 Games, but the latest decision to cull the wrestling numbers may be a reminder that wrestling has to work at its game.
Athletics, with its high profile events and global track stars, also suffers from a deep and dark history of doping. Most recently, the IAAF banned the entire Russian track and field team from the 2016 Rio Olympics. All of this may have made it easier for the IOC to prioritize cuts in athletics.
As for weightlifting, the dark clouds of doping have hung over this sport for decades. The IOC dropped an entire men’s weight class on its way to eliminating 64 quota slots for Tokyo 2020. Said Japan Weightlifting Association President Yoshiyuki Miyake in this Mainichi Daily News article, It’s a shame. I’m confused why they would make this kind of decision without any discussion.”
In the men’s 94-kilogram class at the 2012 London Games, Poland’s Tomasz Zielinski finished ninth. A disappointment, to be sure, but Zielinski was eventually awarded the bronze medal after six of the lifters ahead of him failed drug tests.
Wonderful story, right? Not so much. Zielinski, who obviously didn’t win a medal for his ability to learn from other’s mistakes, was kicked out of the 2016 Rio Games when one of his own tests came back positive.
IOC president has been explicit that he is sending messages, according to that same article:
Bach called weight lifting’s punishment in Friday’s reordering of the Games “a strong signal” to the sport. Good for him. Standing up to cheaters, and meting out real punishment, is common sense. If one sport’s athletes can’t follow the rules, other athletes from other sports should get a chance.
Imagine you have a sport growing in popularity, growing so quickly that it takes roots in countries all over the world, developing at different speeds, with slightly different rules depending on where it was played. When judo first began holding international competitions, a rift occurred between the rules that dictate judo in its birthplace, Japan, and the rest of the world.
Judo-ka in Japan were traditionally not classified by weight classes, so you would have a 90 kg judoka face off against a 60 kg judoka. International bodies believed that fairness could be better achieved by having people of similar weight compete, as has been done with success in boxing.
Who makes the rules? Who decides who goes to a national or an international competition? In the case of the Olympics in the post-war years in America, when money began to be invested in the development of sportsmen and women, it was the Amateur Athletic Union, otherwise known as the AAU, which emerged as the national governing body for many sports disciplines, including track and field, gymnastics, wrestling, basketball and many others.
According to the book, “History of the United States Wrestling Federation / USA Wrestling” by Werner Holzer, the AAU had become a very powerful entity, frustrating coaches and athletes alike due to perceived lack of funding and support. This frustration was particular true in the “smaller” disciplines of wrestling and gymnastics where AAU mindshare appeared much greater in track and field.
Top of the list of complaints was the perceived AAU disregard for the views and expertise of the coaches to identify and select athletes for major competitions. Holzer explained that “the 1964 Olympic Games selection process personified the problem of the AAU being the ruling body for the sports of gymnastics. The AAU gymnastics chairman, George Gulack, selected the internationally inexperienced Vannie Edwards as the women’s 1964 Olympic Team coach. He appointed his wife, Fay Gulack, who was incapable and unknowledgeable about gymnastics, as the team manager. It was an arrangement destined for disaster!”
Ron Barak, a member of the 1964 men’s Olympic Gymnastics team, and today a practicing lawyer and novelist, first met George Gulack in 1962, when Barak was a sophomore at USC. Barak competed in that year’s National AAU Championships which served as the trials to select the U.S. men’s team that would represent the U.S. in the 1962 World Gymnastics Championships. Natural grade inflation in subjectively graded sports such as gymnastics, diving and figure skating favored the more established veterans in those sports. It’s just the way it was, according to Barak. This was Barak’s first appearance on the national scene, he told me, and he personally had no expectations of making the 1962 World Gymnastics Team and so he felt he was there to pay his dues and gain experience for what he was really after, a chance to make the 1964 Olympic Team.
But something strange happened over the three-day trials. For the first two days, Barak said he flew under the radar, largely unnoticed. He recalled that he was performing well and scoring well, and yet still felt more like a spectator than a competitor. However, after two days, he found himself in serious contention to make the 1962 World Games Team. He began to believe that all he had to do was perform at the same level on the last day and score at the same level, and he would make the World Games Team. Barak said he performed even better on the third day than on the first two days, but strangely, he told me, his scores plummeted, and he missed the team by a slim margin.
Barak said that Gulack came up to him after the competition was over and said “Don’t worry about it, Ron, your time will come. Just be patient.” Barak wasn’t sure what to make of Gulack’s words. Literally, they were nothing more than innocent words of encouragement. But Gulack, Barak said, presided over that three-day competition like it was his personal fiefdom and he was calling all the shots. Gulack was used to having his own way. He could occasionally be pleasant, Barak recalled, but more often he was a bully, if not an outright tyrant. Did Gulack’s words to Barak signify something more than their plain meaning? Lots of innuendo but no way to know.
Come 1964, Barak won the NCAA All Around Championships and finished high enough in the 1964 Olympic Trials to make the team . “Gulack continued to act as if he were making all the decisions, but the fact was that the seven U.S. gymnasts who made the U.S. men’s Olympic team in 1964 were the seven best male gymnasts in the country that year. No one made that team who didn’t earn it and no one not on that team deserved to be there.”
Barak suspected that because the male gymnasts on the whole were a veteran team, most of whom would not continue to compete much after 1964, Gulack had little to threaten them with even if he could.
According to others, Gulack appeared to exercise significant influence in the selection of the women’s gymnastics team. During the Olympic Games, several weeks after the official trials had ended in the United States and the women’s gymnastics team roster had been set, Gulack re-set the team roster in an unscheduled competition.
Members of the women’s team were rankled, and itching to push back. A rebellion was brewing and would come to a head in Tokyo in October of 1964.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.