BCCJ Paralympics Event 1
British Chamber of Commerce Japan panel discussion: “What About the Paralympics”.

Rina Akiyama is totally blind in both eyes, but that didn’t stop her from learning how to swim and eventually becoming a champion swimmer.

Hisano Tezuka is deaf, but that didn’t stop her from becoming a skiier, determined to compete at the highest levels in the Deaflympics.

Daisuke Uehara does not have the use of his legs, and was turned off by people encouraging him to take up wheelchair basketball, and gladly took up the sport of ice sledge hockey, helping Japan to Paralympic silver at the Vancouver Games in 2010.

On March 25, I had the honor of listening to the stories and views of these retired athletes, who were asked by the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan to join a panel discussion entitled, “What About the Paralympics”, an event with the aim of raising awareness of Paralympic sports in Japan. In my research on the Olympics, I have spent little time on the Paralympics, an event that started with a competition for war veterans with spinal cord injuries at the same time as the 1948 London Games. The first official Paralympic Games were held in conjunction with the Rome Summer Games in 1960, and have continued ever since, growing consistently in popularity and significance.

Rina Akiyama
Rina Akiyama, gold medal winner of the 100-meter backstroke at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London_Getty Images

What I learned is that the Paralympic Games is not about disabled athletes, but about athletes with tremendous ability. If Japan (or any society) values diversity and strives to be more inclusive, then a mind shift needs to take place. The BCCJ, like elements in the public sector, the private sector and NPOs, believe people need to stop making the so-called disability of a person the number one characteristic of a person, and need to start understanding the abilities of that person that allow growth and avenues for that person to achieve his or her potential.

In the case of Paralympic participants, these people are athletes, some of them as intense and brilliant as their so-called able-bodied colleagues.

Akiyama began swimming at 3. At 10, she read a book about the Paralympics, and from

Sidd Finch
From April 1, 1985 issue of Sports Illustrated

I was vulnerable.

My favorite team in sports, The New York Mets, were actually up and coming, after 13 years of supreme suckiness. Hope springs eternal, but it was especially true for Mets fans in April of 1985.

And when Sports Illustrated came out with the story, “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch”, I was ecstatic. Really, the Mets have a prospect who can throw a fastball 168 mph (270 kmh)? He wore one shoe, he played the French horn – well these eccentricities were proof that it had to be true. After all, there were pictures of him, and his locker was between those of George Foster and Darryl Strawberry. After 13 years in the wasteland, our savior had come!

George Plimpton wrote the piece that set off a media firestorm. TV news crews were sent to Florida to interview the mystery pitcher on the Mets. But no one could find him. And then two weeks later (remember, this is pre-social media), New York Mets fans woke up.

April Fools.

Writing an April Fools story is walking a fine line between incredulity and credulity. It’s got to be believable enough, and yet outlandish enough to make you go, “Say what?” Here are a few April Fools’ stories regarding the Olympics.

On April 1, 2014, this video was released announcing that skateboarding would be an Olympic sport in 2016. A day later, it was revealed to be a prank. Of course, as we know now, skateboarding is actually one of the five new sports that Tokyo 2020 is recommending for the 2020 Games.

Last year, twelve-time Olympic medalist over five Olympic Games, Dana Torres, announced she was coming out of retirement to compete at the Rio Games. Yes, she was 47. But yes, she was a swimming legend and still in fantastic shape.

Dana Torres Twitter

In April 2008, the UK Telegraph placed their April Fools story so far in the past it had to be true – that the 1900 Olympics in Paris featured a poodle-clipping competition. This story

C K Yang
Subject: Yang Chuan-Kwang. 1960 Olympics. Rome, Italy. Photographer- George Silk Time Life Staff merlin-1140594

They called him the Asian Iron Man, a title befitting the only Asian ever to set a world record in the decathlon, the ten-event, two-day athletic event that is as grueling an athletic competition there is.

As the first non-Westerner to set a world record for the decathlon in 1963, experts pegged C. K. Yang as a heavy favorite to win gold in Tokyo in 1964, and prompted this profile in the August, 1964 edition of the popular magazine, Boy’s Life. In this article, they wrote about Yang’s humble origins, a small, sickly boy. Not mentioned in the article was that he was born in the poorest, most isolated part of mainland Taiwan – Taidong.

So when the arguably greatest athlete in Asian history provides his list of key behaviors for training for championship performance, the readers of Boy’s Life might have taken note:

  • Determination.
  • Discipline yourself.
  • Practice with a purpose.
  • Don’t just run and run, and then go home.
  • Watch people running.
  • Appreciate what your coaches are doing for you.

Let ‘s look at a couple in detail:

Determination. “Want to do it, know that you can do it, then DO IT!”

Yang came up with Nike’s famous marketing phrase years before the company was created…but he knew from experience that being determined is a good part of the battle. When he made the cut to represent Taiwan in the Asian Games in 1954, he was probably going to compete in the broad jump or the high jump. When he went to his country’s training camp in preparation of the Asian Games, he began fiddling with other disciplines. Yang hurldle UCLAHe explained this in detail in this Sports Illustrated article:

Yang’s curiosity and competitive drive moved him to experiment with other events, hitherto strange to him. He set up a bicycle and used it as an impromptu hurdle. He read a Japanese book on hurdling – Yang speaks and reads Japanese fluently because of his schooling under the Japanese occupation – and studied its illustration. “I tried to bring the whole thing together in my mind,” he said, but his coach became irritated because Yang was not concentrating on his jumping. Yang said, “I told him I just can’t jump every day. If I practice hurdling today, maybe tomorrow I can jump more higher.” And I did. I jumped 2 or 3 inches higher.

And as the article continues, Yang did the same for javelin, the discus and the shotput, excelling in this new events to the point where the coach had to say, “How’d you like to try decathlon?”

Appreciate what your coaches are doing for you. Appreciate the fine equipment you have to work with, and then give your best. I came all the way to this country to take advantage of the coaching and equipment available here. Through track I have received an education, and because of this, I have given track everything I have.

Drake and Yang
Yang, and his coach at UCLA, Ducky Drake, to his right

In the Sports Illustrated article, Yang tells this touching story about how people need to have empathy for others who try so hard. He explained to the author of the article, Robert Creamer, that people made fun of him when he was about 15, and he suddenly grew. He was so tall and thin compared to his friends that people derisively nicknamed him “Bamboo”, and laughed at him, which Yang was understandably sensitive to. He told this story about how his baseball coach helped him gain his confidence.

In practice when I throw the ball I was – so funny form, you know? I couldn’t throw hard. The athletes start laughing at me. I was so happy to join them, and I was so embarrassed when they laugh at me. The coach was mad. He bawled them out who laughed, and he said, “if you laugh at people someday he will be much better than you are. You better not laugh at people. You never know. He have a long way to go, and maybe he can learn faster than you and someday laugh at you. Put yourself in that position. Suppose people laugh at you. How do you respond to them? How do you feel?” Said, “think about it.” And they didn’t laugh at me anymore.

C K Yang Sports Illustrated Cover
World’s Best Athlete – C. K. Yang December 23, 1963 X 9612 (X 9456) credit: Mark Kauffman – contract (BG Eric Schaal)

Before there was Jeremy Lin or Yao Ming, Tiger Woods or Se Ri Park, Nomo or Ichiro, or even Bruce Lee for that matter, there was C. K. Yang.

Iconic Asian athletes are far and few between, but Yang Chuang-Kwang, or C. K. Yang as he was popularly known, was called The Greatest Athlete in the World several times in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Competing in three Olympics as a decathlete – Melbourne in 1956, Rome in 1960 and Tokyo in 1964, Yang of Taiwan set an indoor record for the pole vault in 1963, set the world record in the decathlon later that year, and still is the only Asian to ever hold the world record in that category. And in an epic, down-to-the-wire finish, Yang lost the gold medal to his best friend and biggest competitor, Rafer Johnson of the United States, at the Rome Summer Games.

He did not win the championship, but he made an entire nation, and quite possibly, an entire race proud. And there was one person in particular who was immensely proud – Mr S. S. Kwan.

Yang sat down with Robert Creamer of Sports Illustrated for a lengthy interview, and in this article, Yang expressed his keen gratefulness to Kwan, who was a successful architect and businessman who supported Yang’s development. In fact, Kwan, who was the president of the China National Amateur Athletic Federation in Taiwan, personally financed Yang’s travel and living expenses when Yang visited the United States to get experience in AAU meets.

Ducky Drake
Ducky Drake

Eventually, it was recommended that Yang stay in the US, where he enrolled at UCLA to train under the renowned coach, Ducky Drake, and become teammates with rising star, Rafer Johnson. Kwan supported it all.

“He (Kwan) was like a father, you know,” Yang told Creamer. “And then at Rome, I got second place, Mr. Kwan was so happy. I never saw him so happy as he was at Rome. He said, ‘Ahh! Now I have

 

rikidozan unleashed

Rikidozan was one of the most well-known people in Japan in the 1950s. Starting out as a sumo wrestler, Rikidozan made his mark taking on American wrestlers, and defeating them. This time is only a few years removed from the end of the American occupation, a psychologically disorienting time as Japanese swung from superior overlords in Asia to beaten and despairing at the end of the Pacific War. Taking on the Americans in the ring and knocking them into submission (even if they were to script), built up the morale of the Japanese, and made Rikidozan a national hero of unparalleled stature.

The picture below is a testament to Rikidozan’s pulling power. In the 1950s in Japan, black and white televisions were available, but were still too expensive for the common person. Movie theaters were booming, but they could not show live broadcasts. So when there was a major event broadcast live, the major Japanese networks like NHK and NTV would set up televisions at train stations, temples, shrines and parks and invite people to watch free of charge. And no one pulled in the crowds like Rikidozan.

street corner tv 3
AP Photo/Max Desfor

One December evening in 1963, Rikidozan was at a night club called The New Latin Quarter in downtown Tokyo when he apparently bumped into another person as he was leaving the rest room. Rikidozan apparently demanded that the other person, a gangster named Katsushi Murata, to apologize. Murata did not, Rikidozan wrestled Murata to the ground, and Murata sent a knife blade into the wrestler’s abdomen. Rikidozan died a week later.

Ten months later, on October 23, on the second-to-last day of the Tokyo Olympics, Japan was again reminded of Rikidozan when they read the news that Murata had been sentenced to 8 years in prison.

The Tokyo Olympics lifted the spirits of Japanese throughout the country in those magical two weeks in October, 1964. Rikidozan, the Father of Japanese Pro Wrestling, had already been doing that for years.

Ibitihaj Muhammad
Ibitihaj Muhammad

Ibitihaj Muhammad was invited to speak at South by Southwest (SXSW), the popular culture, media, technology conference in Austin, Texas. When she arrived to check into the conference, she was asked to remove her hijab so that a photo ID could be taken.

During the panel discussion entitled, “The New Church: Sport as Currency of American Life”, Muhammad said “I had a crappy experience checking in. Someone asked me to remove my hijab isn’t out of the norm for me. Do I hope it changes soon? Yes, every day.”

Muhammad is the first Muslim woman to join Team USA and represent America in the Olympics. She is a sabre fencer who got into fencing when she noticed as a young teenager that fencers have to cover their entire body from head to toe. In other words, she can wear her hijab and compete without any concern for what people will think or feel.

But fencing may be one of those uncommon sports where one can wear something on your head without a rule being invoked or disapproving stares cast your way.

In August 2014, officials of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) at an international basketball tournament in China insisted that two Sikh players representing the India team play without their turbans. Why? Because FIBA rules state that “Players shall not wear equipment (objects) that may cause injury to other players”, which apparently includes hijabs, turbans and yarmulkes.

Despite the fact that the opposing players in that game did not mind that the Indian players wore turbans, and that the coach of the Indian team, Scott Flemming had apparently already attained approval from FIBA for his players to wear turbans, FIBA officials at the game still decided that the rules were the rules.

I know that US bureaucracy has a few rules for headshots for passports and driving licenses, and I know they don’t allow you to wear anything on your head. But as it turns out, the US government realizes that while rules are rules, you do need to be flexible in maintaining other rules (e.g.: the first amendment of the US constitution). The US State Department clearly states that there is an exception for headgear used “for religious purposes” are allowed, as long as the face is fully visible.

US Passport Photo Rules Headgear
US State Department passport photo rules

Hijabs, turbans and yarmulkes in various sports like basketball and soccer have not proven to be a safety risk, any more than any other piece of clothing worn during a competition. And yet, the fact that Muhammad is in the news because she is wearing a hijab in addition to the fact that she is a gifted athlete, and that I am writing this blog post indicates that the hijab and the turban are less about safety and more about a conflict of values.

There is power in being the first. It would be wonderful for Muhammad to do well at the Rio Olympics, to show a whole generation of Muslim women in America (and perhaps in other countries) that values and attitudes can change, and that new possibilities for them are opening up.

Moon Tae Jong of South Korea (L) passes
Moon Tae Jong of South Korea (L) passes a ball as Amjyot Singh of India (R) defends during their preliminary round match between South Korea and India at the 26th Asian Basketball Championships in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province on September 17, 2011. South Korea won 84-53. AFP PHOTO / LIU JIN (Photo credit should read LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images)