David Bowie passed away on January 10. He has little to do with the Olympics. In fact, he turned down a request to perform at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 London Games. But like all great artists, he at times wrote and performed songs that tapped into the psyche and sometimes the soul of people the world over. So much elsewhere so much more eloquently has been written about Bowie’s unique connection to the “other”, the “outsider”, the “weird”.

But this is a blog about The Olympics. While Bowie’s song Heroes was the one that reverberated through Olympic Stadium when Team Great Britain ended the march of Olympians at the London Games, I suppose that “Under Pressure”, with Queen brings to fore the force that turns legs into jelly, or heroes into legends.

Pressure. To withstand it. To convert it into energy. To find within oneself a momentary act of creation unseen to that moment. That can be the difference maker. And the way athletes deal with pressure differs from person to person. Here’s a fascinating explanation provided by an anonymous Olympian, who wrote the book “Secret Olympian“.

I have this horrible feeling in my gut. A deep primal fear is swallowing me up – a desire to run, to be any where but here. For a minute I find myself envying Chimp. Having missed out he can sit at home and watch the racing. He isn’t being judged today. No burning physical pain for him. Next my envy turns to another British teammate who has a deep and unwavering Christian faith and believes that whatever happens it is God’s will. Whatever will be, will be. Must be immensely comforting to have the outcome in a higher power’s hands.

bowie and mercury
David Bowie and Freddie Mercury

To my left, Jamie reads his history book avidly. He prefers to distract himself until a few brief minutes before we start our physical warm-up. To my right, another teammate is plugged into his music and stares unseeing ahead of him. In his mind’s eye he is rehearsing the race. He doesn’t blink.

We are taking on the best in the world. They’re trained for thousands of hours in their secretive foreign systems. Some are physiological freaks, far off the chart from normal. Others are legends in the sport, world record holders, previous Olympic champions or up and coming World Junior Champions. But what is most disconcerting, having seen them all practicing, is that none of the competition looks scared in the least. They radiate confidence, focus and professionalism. I can smell no trace of fear on them. I hope I hid mine this past week.

Here is Under Pressure, but only the beautiful vocals of Bowie and Mercury.

Rudolf Abel
Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, actual (left) and as portrayed in the film, Bridge of Spies by Mark Rylance

I recently watched Steven Spielberg’s film, Bridge of Spies. At 2 hours and 20 minutes, Spielberg needed time to tell the complicated story of how an insurance lawyer from New York ended up representing an arrested English Soviet spy living in New York, and subsequently getting in the middle of a two-front prisoner exchange negotiation in Cold War Berlin between uncertain representatives of the Soviet Union and East Germany, whose own alliance seemed strained at best.

And yet the time of the film zipped by. Tom Hanks plied his Everyman shtick to perfection as the lawyer thrust into geo-political intrigue. Mark Rylance was absolutely riveting as the captured Soviet spy, and the famed Coen brothers helped craft a narrative that was clear, and at times, witty.

One particular scene, which apparently had no basis in fact and was done for dramatic effect (effectively), made me wonder. It was a scene where Tom Hanks’ character, James Donovan, is crossing from East to West Berlin over the wall, and witnesses in horror the shooting of a would-be escapee. What must have been the feelings of West and East German athletes at the Summer Games a few years after the wall went up, especially since they had to compete as one German team? Were they happy? Antagonistic? Were they so focused that they simply didn’t notice each other?

East Germany sent no athletes to the Helsinki Games in 1952. But at the 1956 Games in Melbourne, 37 East Germans joined West Germans on a unified German team. This unified German team was identified by the country code GER, was represented by a flag with black, red and yellow stripes, centered by five white Olympic rings, and was presented gold medals using the opening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.german olympic flag

When East Germany was expected to send around 140 athletes to the 1960 Summer Games in Rome, East and West decided that it was time for both German teams to live and train together. But 15 years of political rhetoric had created a cultural rift between the two sides. For example, as David Maraniss wrote in his book, Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World, “it was part of the daily rhetoric of East Germany to denounce West German leaders as former Nazis.” The victories of East German diver Ingrid Kramer were an inspiration to all Germans, but the rise of the Berlin Wall and geo-political tensions made a lie of the unified German team. Again, Maraniss writes,

The Berlin border closing during the Olympics had gone largely unnoticed by German athletes in Rome, but months later it took on an unavoidable physical reality when the Berlin Wall went up. Kraemer called the construction of the wall “a huge surprise…It was very cruel for many, especially the finality of it. We were all shocked, as nothing had hinted to its erection before it happened.” The wall, and the cold war tensions that followed, made a sham of Avery Brundage’s insistence that the Germans bring another unified team to the Olympics in 1964. West German sports officials refused to have anything to do with their East German counterparts after the wall went up, and fielded a combined team in Tokyo in name only, barely able to “maintain the façade of being unified,” in the words of historian Heather L. Dicther.

Read a relevant post I wrote previously, Escape from East Berlin in October 1964: A Love Story.

Irish_Whales_team in 1904

They were tall and big. They were voracious eaters. They were cops. And they were Olympians.

The Irish Whales. You wouldn’t call them that to their faces because they were almost all over 6 feet tall, ranging in weight from 250 to 300 pounds…and they didn’t like the name. But they were achievers, winning well over 20 medals in Olympics between 1900 and 1924, dominating in the hammer throw, the discus throw, the shot put and what was common then, the 56lb weight throw.

Abel Kiviat 1912
Abel Kiviat in 1912

Abel Kiviat was a member of the Irish-American Club even though he wasn’t Irish, nor a very large person. He was a runner, winning gold for the US in the Team 3000 meter race, and silver in the 1500 meters race at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912. He wrote about his Irish-American teammates in the book “Tales of Gold An Oral History of the Summer Olympic Games Told by America’s Gold Medal Winners“.

The best-known members of the Irish-American Club were the so-called New York Whales. They were all Irish cops. I remember Pat McDonald. He weighed 350 pounds and won the shot put at Stockholm. For 30 years he was the traffic cop at 43rd Street and Broadway, right at Times Square. Matt McGrath was another of the Whales. He won the hammer throw in 1912 after coming in second in London in 1908. Ralph Rose was another but he was from out west someplace.

He was the biggest one of them all – six feet, seven inches or so. He won the shot put in 1908 and the two-handed shot put in 1912. He was the flag bearer in 1908 who refused to dip the flag in the opening ceremony when he passed by the British king. Rose weighed 365 pounds, a pound for each day. You know, those big Irishmen protected me, the only Jew in the Irish-American Club. I remember I had a little run-in with the discus thrower, Jim Duncan, on the boat going over to Stockholm. He was a fresh mutt, about 225 pounds and ugly looking. He started calling me names and annoying me, so Matt McGrath and Pat McDonald grabbed ahold of him and dragged him to a porthole and threatened to push him through if he called me any more names. And then they made me track captain.

Pat McDonald and Matt McGrath of the Irish Whales

According to Arthur Daly in a June 12, 1942 New York Times article, this team got their moniker because they were prodigious eaters.

It was on the Olympic trip of 1912 that the “whale” nickname took hold. Dan Ferris, then a cherubic little boy, recalls it with relish. “Those big fellows,” he related, “all sat at the same table and their waiter was a small chap. Before we reached Stockholm he had lost twenty pounds, worn down by bringing them food. Once as he passed me he muttered under his breath, ‘It’s whales they are, not men.’ They used to take five plates of soup as a starter and then gulp down three or four steaks with trimmings.

The Irish-American Club and the famous group of individuals known as the “Irish Whales” or “The New York Whales” were in some ways the story of America in the 19th and early 20th century. The Irish left Ireland for America and a better life, one in which they could break class and economic shackles and have an opportunity to achieve. Here is a historical description of the Irish Whales from TheIrishHistory.com.

The Irish Whales dominated the track and field, particularly throwing events, at the Olympics between 1896 and 1924 and their story touches on many issues that affected Irish-Americans in the late 19th and early 20th century; emigration, assimilation, national identity, antipathy towards England and Irish nationalism.

As Irish immigrants arrived in North America in the mid and late nineteenth century they brought with them a love of sport. Sports such as fishing, hunting and shooting were popular among the landed gentry but for the vast majority of Irish people athletic meetings at county fairs, fields and rural roads were the sporting activities of choice and attracted huge crowds and interest. Success in the sporting world was one way that immigrants could gain acceptance in the United States and by the end of the nineteenth century Irish Americans were dominating the sports of boxing and baseball. Victory in the sporting arena also meant socioeconomic advancement which was a powerful motivator for poor immigrants.

These are Emma Lazarus’ words etched on The Statue of Liberty in New York

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, he homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

They meant something powerful then. They still mean something today.

Tokyo 64 Cigarettes
Magazine ad for Tokyo64 Cigarettes.

Ah, the Olympics – an international event that celebrates Man’s desire to achieve new heights, to hone the body and mind to a point close to perfection, for the simple love of competition and achievement.

And yet, what was one of the most successful product promotions related to the Olympics? That’s right. Cigarettes.

The Olympic Games, including the logo and its five interlocking rings, have been one of the powerful brands in the history of marketing. After all, what company or organization would not want to be affiliated with words like world peace, excellence, doing your best, comradery, teamwork, fair play. But it really wasn’t until the 1980s when the International Olympic Committee began taking control of its brand.Olympia cigarettes

Michael Payne is the author of a fascinating book on the marketing of the Olympics, called “Olympic Turnaround“. He wrote how cigarettes, game shows and hygiene products for example were being marketed via the Olympic brand, which created tension in the IOC as it was felt such products did not appropriately represent Olympic values. One of the more remarkable examples Payne cites is from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

The tension between the Olympic values and commercial interests is long standing. One of the most successful licensed Olympic products ever produced, for example, was “Olympias”, a brand of cigarette. Produced from a mixture of Turkish and Greek tobacco, it was designed to generate funds to support the organization of the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Olympias generated over $1 million in revenues for the Organizing Committee.

Payne went on to provide another example in 1964, a clever promotion using the Olympic brand to further increase the spread of cigarette consumption.

The marriage between cigarettes and the Olympics was a popular promotional theme at the 1964 Games. A popular Japanese cigarette brand, “Peace”, ran a promotion where each package was sold with a numbered premium ticket. This entitled anyone drawing a winning ticket to claim a prize of a further 365 packs. Even back in the 1960s, marketers realized that the Olympic rings could draw consumers’ attention to a product. Every packet of “Peace” cigarettes, carried the Olympic emblem.

Peace Cigarettes

Did these campaigns have an impact? Below is a chart showing smoking prevalence among Japanese men and women. Look at the mid 1960s and you can see leaps in consumption between 1963 and 1965. In fact, it appears that smoking reached its highest rates, almost Olympian heights, around those times. And now the Japanese are paying for it as mortality rates due to lung cancer have peaked in the past 20 years. Fortunately, smoking consumption among women has stayed flat over the decades, and thus so has their risk to lung cancer.

cigarette consumption and lung cancer mortality rates
Age-standardized lung cancer mortality and smoking prevalence, Japan, 1950-2010. Source: World Health Organization

No gold medals here.

Airbnb Japan screenshot
Screen capture from the Airbnb Japan website

Nearly 20 million foreign tourists visited Japan in 2015, already approaching the 2020 goal. This 47% year-on-year increase has been a revelation to Japan, making citizens and business owners keenly aware that Japan needs to gear up for continued growth, particularly as we get closer to the opening ceremonies of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

According to this article, the ability for Tokyo to accommodate this sudden influx of foreign tourists has been strained by the supply of hotel rooms. The room shortage is compounded by the weak yen, which results in more Japanese taking vacations within Japan as opposed to overseas. Occupancy rates at hotels in Tokyo and Osaka are routinely over 80%, and sometimes over 90%.

So into the breach steps Airbnb, a peer-to-peer business that connects travelers with individuals who want to open their homes, or a room in their home for rent. Airbnb has exploded worldwide as travelers seek greater choice of accommodations, as well as the possible added experience of personalized service and comfort by the owner. It was once thought that Japan, and its particular sensitivity to privacy, would be a bad fit for an Airbnb model. But Airbnb Japan’s business has grown 529% since last year, while the number of listings in this country has also jumped year on year 373%.

airbnb logo

And this is for a business that is essentially illegal, as Japan’s Hotel Business Law includes taxation of officially recognized accommodations, as well as various regulations around hygiene and safety, all of which Airbnb hosts have ignored.

But now, Ota Ward, one of the 23 districts that make up Tokyo, is hoping to legitimize the model, opening the door to individuals and families who need the income, want the business, and perhaps enjoy the experience of hosting strangers in their homes. Along with Osaka, the Japanese government will be looking closely at Ota Ward, with the hopes of expanding this model over the coming years.

Here’s how Nikkei Asian Review explains it:

In an attempt to eliminate such problems, Ota Ward has published rules and screening criteria. They include a requirement that neighbors who live within 10 meters of a rented property be notified in writing before an application is made. The local fire department must also be advised beforehand. Under the ward’s rules, minimum stays are set at six nights and seven days. Guest information such as names, contact numbers and passport numbers must be kept for at least three years. A host must also set up a window to accept complaints from neighbors and be ready to respond in foreign languages in emergencies.

What’s special about Ota Ward? It houses Haneda Airport, the expanding gateway to Asia and the world. Between 1978 and 2010, Haneda was, for all intents and purposes, the airport for domestic flights. But since 2010, it has taken on significant capacity as a port of call for international flights. Haneda is now the third busiest airport in Asia, and fourth in the world.

And let me tell you, as someone who has flown primarily into Narita International Airport, which requires at least another two to three hours of waiting and travel time to just get into downtown Tokyo, I much prefer to fly into Haneda. Tourists will as well. And wouldn’t it be nice to hop into a short taxi ride to your Airbnb accommodation about 10 to 15 minutes away.

Tokyo International Airport at Haneda
Haneda Airport in 1964, the entry point for Olympians from overseas.
Krumins 1
From the October 30, 1964 edition of the magazine, Asahi Graf. The title reads “The Giant Under the Rim: The Soviet Union’s Janis Krumins”

He averaged 8 pts a game during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. But against the Japanese team, admittedly, not a strong one at the time, this gentle giant poured in a team-high 20 points. So you can imagine the fascination the Japanese had with Janis Krumins. At 218 cm (7ft 2in) and 141 kg (311 lbs), the center on the Soviet basketball team was generally the center of attention wherever he went.

The photos are from the October 30, 1964 edition of the magazine, Asahi Graf (The Asahi Picture News Magazine) in an article entitled “The Giant Under the Rim”.

Krumins 3
The caption for the second picture reads “At 2 meters 18 centimeters and 135 kilos, he makes this fairly tall referee look like a kid.”

At 218 cm tall, even compared to the other basketball players, he’s as they say, a head above the others. And if he jumps a bit, he can extend his hand about three and a half meters above the rim of the basket. He doesn’t really shoot the ball as much as he is placing a lid on a pot.

When he gives up a basket to the opponent, he hangs his head and rubs his nose, his face appearing sad. But he doesn’t really show that much emotion, or raise his voice. And while the other nine players are running all over the court, only one, Krumins, is running slowly. He is the lonely giant.

At the age of 14, Krumins was already 2 meters tall, and thus recruited for a wide variety of sports, including wrestling, boxing and athletics before he found his way on the basketball court. As explained in Wikipedia, Krumins had a reputation for being a soft player. “Seeing a 220 cm giant, most defenders did not hesitate to step on his toes, push or punch him. Krumins patiently took all abuses and when once asked why he didn’t fight back, replied that he was afraid he might accidentally kill someone.

But with an increase in skills and his overwhelming presence in the paint, the Soviet coaches had to have him on the national team. Krumins competed on three silver-medal winning teams, the Soviet Union failing to break the United States supremacy in basketball in 1956 in Melbourne, 1960 in Rome and 1964 in Tokyo.

Krumins 2
Krumins taking on Mexico under the basket.


As Jerry West of the champion American squad in 1960 explained in this video, you knew when Krumins was behind you.

Jan Krumins – he was like 7ft 6. He was a giant! We were playing a very competitive, very physical….dirty. It was dirty. The game got out of hand in our favor and they put in Jan Krumins. The great thing about him – he wasn’t a very efficient runner. You could tell when he was creeping up on you. Bang. Bang. Bang. You could hear him coming up the floor.

Jerry Shipp, who was the leading scorer on the championship American basketball team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, played against Krumins several times, including in the Soviet Union in the early 1960s. Here’s what he had to say about Krumins.

I never heard him say a word, only grunts the many times I played against him, both in Russia and here in the States. He was not much of a scorer, but he could set very good picks for Gennadi Volnov.  He also spent most of his time back and forth across the center circle rather than making it under his goal when the Russians were on offense and under our goal when he was on defense.

Once while we were riding the train to Stalingrad they gave us sack lunches to eat and I saw Krumins take an apple out of his lunch sack and put the whole thing in his mouth, And that was the last i saw of the apple! 


It is not a pretty sight – a newly born child with an unusually small head and brain damage. The working theory is that these abnormalities are caused by a virus, known as the Zika Virus, delivered by a certain strain of mosquito. It is believed that millions of people in the Americas, particularly South America, are infected, but that for the most part, “the infection causes no symptoms and leads to no lasting harm.” (See the New York Times article “Short Answers to Hard Questions About Zika Virus.)

And as the New York Times emphasized in another article, the connection between Zika and abnormalities in newborns is still unproven: “…the big question is whether Zika is responsible for the huge increase in birth defects reported by doctors, hospitals and other medical officials in Brazil over the last few months. That connection has still not been proved.”

And yet, it is the fear Zika creates that is of most concern to people in the Americas, particularly in Brazil, where the Olympic and Paralympic Games will be held in August and September this year. Millions of people from all over the world will visit, and while transmission of the Zika virus is unclear, the fear of the spread of the disease has increased. Will people who get bit in Rio de Janeiro become infected, and can they spread the virus in their own country via mosquitos locally? Will pregnant women be at significant risk?

In fact, The Center for Disease Control in the United States has issued a warning against travel for pregnant women and women trying to become pregnant to over 20 countries, primarily in the Caribbean, Central and South America, including Brazil. And the World Health Organization has declared Zika an “international health emergency.”

In the run-up to the London Olympics in 2012, there were fears of a flu pandemic. The Chinese government publicized the fact that thousands of additional hospital beds would be kept open in case of an outbreak of SARS. Fortunately, those particular fears never became an issue, and ultimately, those epidemics never emerged. Will Zika be different? One concern is the unknown nature of the Zika virus. The American Psychological Association explained the impact of the fear of the unknown disease in this article.

Research has shown that different threats push different psychological buttons. Novel, exotic threats like Ebola or avian flu raise anxiety levels higher than more familiar threats do. This reaction may have to do with our amygdala, which research suggests plays a role in detecting novelty as well as processing fear. In one recent study, for example, Nicholas Balderston and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee found that activity in the amygdala increased when participants looked at unfamiliar flowers right after seeing pictures of snakes (PLOS ONE, 2013).

And, at the same time, people often under-react to familiar threats. For example, influenza sickens as much as 20 percent of the population a year, and kills thousands. Yet because most people have had the flu and survived, or know someone who has, people may feel less urgency toward getting a seasonal flu vaccine. This may help explain why the U.S. vaccination rate for the 2013–14 flu season was only 46.2 percent.

I feel for the organizers of the Rio Olympics. As I had described in a previous post, one