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.
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.
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.
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.
The coach of gold-medal winning wrestler, Helen Maroulis, recommends push ups, the dumbbell row and the pause squat in Maroulis’ training regimen.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
In 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.
“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.”
In 1932, George Roth won the gold medal in India Club Swinging.
I had no idea what that was, but if my imagination were allowed to run wild, my first thought would not have been sport.
Back to the Olympics.
Roth, who won his gold medal at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932, and was so poor he could not afford to travel to across the city to get to the LA Coliseum and receive his gold medal in the award ceremony. He had to hitch a ride three times, and I suppose at that time, only the wealthy had cars, because of his impromptu taxi drivers was the famed entertainer, Jimmy Durante.
Indian Club swinging in 1932 was experiencing its death throes as a competitive sport. Popular really only in North America, Indian Clubs had its last major competition in 1953. Today, a few health gurus market Indian Clubs as an excellent way to build lung capacity, strengthen shoulder joints, and build general upper body strength.
OK, so what is Indian Club Swinging? Here’s how Roth describes it in the book, Tales of Gold:
Indian clubs look a little like bowling pins, but they are skinny and have long necks with a small, round knob at the top end. What you do is twirl them around your body – in front, in back, and on the sides – without letting them touch each other or yourself. The routines lasted for four minutes, and you couldn’t stop or hesitate or repeat any pattern that you already had done.
Below is a video showing the basic movements for Indian Club swinging.
So why do we call this sport, Indian Club Swinging? Back in the day, when the sun never set on the British Empire, and the Kings and Queens of England were the rulers of India. Europe, particularly London, was experiencing the nastiest effects of the Industrial Revolution – overcrowded, polluted, disease-ridden cities. At the same time, men of
He chats with me with a casual ease, talking about his life growing up in his home town of Oura, Gunma, while overlooking the training of high school wrestlers. Suddenly, his eyes sharpen, he shouts out words of encouragement, and then returns to the reminiscing.
Yojiro Uetake Obata, bantamweight freestyle gold medalist at the 1964 and 1968 Olympics, has returned to his hometown to coach at Tatebayashi High School in Gunma. This is where he tried to find his way with judo, but was believed to be too light to compete against competitors of all weights. Wrestling, which divides competitors into weight classes, allowed Uetake to find his life sport. Before long, Uetake was a national high school wrestling champion. Little did he know that wrestling would take him to a far off land called Stillwater.
While teenage Uetake was dreaming of going to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the commissioner of the Japanese Wrestling Federation, Ichiro Hatta, was working on fulfilling a promise to Myron Roderick, American Olympian at the 1956 Melbourne Games and in the 1960s, and head coach of the Oklahoma State University wrestling team that would dominate NCAA wrestling in the United States throughout the remainder of the 20th century. After sending a strong Japanese wrestler to the United States in order to compete for Roderick at OSU, the wrestler went to Brigham Young University instead after being heavily recruited. According to the OSU sports magazine, Posse, “It made Mr. Hatta mad and he told Myron not to worry, that he would send him a better wrestler; that’s when Yojiro showed up.”
Yojiro, or Yojo, as the Americans called him did not really want to move to the US. After all, he couldn’t speak English at all. But at least Stillwater, Oklahoma had the small town feel he was familiar with in Gunma – people were friendly. And he liked the food – particular hamburger steaks and gravy, fried chicken and ice cream!
Fortunately, Uetake know how to control his weight so he could compete for the Oklahoma State University Cowboys. And compete he did, like no other Cowboy in its hallowed history. Yojiro Uetake never lost a match, winning three straight individual Big 8 and NCAA wrestling championships from 1963-1965, going an incredible 58 – 0 in collegiate competition. In between, he also picked up a gold medal for Japan at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
What was the secret to his success?
Uetake had a great relationship with his coach, Myron Roderick. “He was a very strong wrestler,” Uetake told me. “He was passionate, strong in fundamentals and technique, and I really liked his focus on getting take downs. ‘Take ’em down and let ’em go’, he would say about how to get two points quickly.” The admiration was mutual. Roderick’s wife Jo Ann was quoted as saying, “Myron always said that Yojiro had natural talent, and was by far the best wrestler he ever saw or coached.”
Uetake also had a great relationship with the OSU football team, taking health and physical education courses with them, including future Dallas Cowboy star fullback, Walt Garrison. “He was one of the greatest athletes I ever saw,” Garrison said in this article. And apparently Garrison and his teammates saw a lot of Uetake because the coach not only allowed him in the practices, he allowed him to practice with them. Uetake credits football training, like running inside ropes, hitting tackling dummies in quick succession, moving side to side, fast-paced push-ups and sit-ups. “Tackling from a squat is great for wrestling as we are in the same stance, where we need to be ready to attack, hit, and get back and get ready again,” Uetake told me.
Living in America had a profound effect on Uetake. Not only was he coached by Roderick, and taken under the wing of the OSU football team, he learned how to build his own style of training. At the time, the NCAA did not allow coaches to train their wrestlers during the summer season. Instead, Uetake had to work to supplement his meager funds. “I would go to the Delta and Grand Junction in the Colorado mountains, which was like a desert. I worked on building irrigation pipes. And to keep in shape, I’d come up with ways to train.” Uetake told me that he would have to lift very heavy hay, but he’d do it in a way to work on specific muscles. He also maintained his feel for combat by actually tackling trees.
If he was in Japan, Uetake Obata told me he would be wrestling all the time, and following the directions of his coach. And he would never have developed his own way of training, and never really learn how to best take advantage of their own body and physical gifts. “I did this myself,” he said. “Roderick taught me how to focus, but I learned a lot on my own.”
On Monday, August 3, 2015, Yojiro “Yojo” Uetake Obata was finally inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame. As he said in his acceptance speech, nothing gives him more pride. “I have always loved Oklahoma. Every time I come back to Oklahoma I look
Japan had high hopes for wrestling at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And in fact, Japanese wrestlers won five gold medals, becoming overnight heroes for Japan.
But one of the least well-known of the overnight heroes was Yojiro Uetake, who moved to the United States in 1963 and competed for Oklahoma State University. Uetake wasn’t asked to come back to Japan to compete for the Olympic team, so he paid his way back to Tokyo in the early summer of 1964. When he arrived at the training camp to select wrestlers to represent Japan in the Olympics, Uetake said he was an unknown and made others uncomfortable.
The selection process was to wrestle the seven wrestlers competing in the bantam weight division. And the competition was strong: Hiroshi Ikeda (1963 bantamweight world champion), Tomiaki Fukuda (1965 bantamweight world champion), Masaaki Kaneko (1966 featherweight world champion), Takeo Morita (1969 featherweight world champion). But the Japanese from Oklahoma swept through the competition and finished 6-0, sealing his selection to the 1964 Olympics.
At the start of the Tokyo Olympics, the wrestler from the Soviet Union, Aydin Ibrahimov, was considered a strong favorite to win gold in the bantamweight class of the freestyle wrestling competition in 1964. As it turned out, Uetake met Ibrahimov in the semi-finals of the bantamweight championships. In the heat of the battle, Uetake’s left shoulder popped out of its socket. His coach pressed hard on Uetake’s arm and popped his shoulder back in. “I didn’t feel anything,” Uetake told me, but he went on to tackle Ibrahimov twice to win 2-0. “When you are in the Olympics, tension is very high. I was simply so excited I don’t feel any pain. Of course, after it was all done, it hurt a lot!”
Uetake had plowed through the competition to this point. But to win the gold, Uetake had to defeat Huseyin Akbas of Turkey, the reigning 1962 World Wrestling Champion. And to that day, no Japanese had ever beat him. Uetake told me that he only needed a tie to win the gold medal, and in such cases, a wrestler could become passive.
Uetake wanted to take Akbas down by grabbing his left leg, but was cautious because Akbar was fast and was known for turning that attack to his advantage and flipping his opponent. It seemed to Uetake that Akbas was staying away while Uetake was trying to find the right opening. In the second round, the referee briefly stopped the fight to warn Uetake to attack, and gave Akbar a point. That was the only point Uetake gave up in his Tokyo Olympic competition.
“My mindset was to never lose a point,” Uetake told me. “I would never ever let an opponent touch my leg. I’d always be looking at the opponent’s eyes and prevent any