There are only two people, both male, who have won individual gold medals in a single event four Olympic Games in a row: Al Oerter in the discus throw from 1956~1968, and Carl Lewis in the long jump from 1984~1996.
At the Rio Olympics in August, we may bear witness to a historical achievement by a Japanese wrestler, not once, but twice.
Both Saori Yoshida (吉田 沙保里,) and Kaori Icho(伊調馨) have won consecutive gold medals in wrestling at the Olympic Summer Games in Athens (2004), Beijing (2008) and London (2012). And they won their respective weight classes at the Japan national championships in June last year to get their tickets punched to Rio. In fact, they both won their 13th straight national championship.
Yoshida of Mie Prefecture and Icho of Aomori are quite simply the two most dominant wrestlers on the planet. They are both referred to as the “legends of the unbeaten streak” (不敗神話). Ito has won 172 straight times since May, 2003, and Yoshida has lost only twice in her career, most recently in May, 2012. But they are both perfect at Olympiads.
There was a brief time when both Yoshida and Icho competed in the same weight class, but fortunately, Icho moved up to the next heavier weight class, setting up this year, a historic opportunity.
For some reason, Yoshida has become more the face of Japanese wrestling, as the front person for the Japanese security company, Alsok. But they are both supported by Alsok, as you can see in the commercial below.
But come August, we will be hearing a lot about both of these two wrestling legends.
I lie against this narrow strip of unknown land, looking up, until I comprehend: it is a landing field for extraterrestrial vessels. No! A takeoff field: the clouds give it direction – a limitless runway into heaven. It is definitely not man-made, nor of any use to us humans. So uncertain is its length – call it height – and so alien its design, the dreaded word has now infiltrated my heart: Impossible! Impossible! Impossible! it pounds. I can no longer breathe. (From the book, To Reach the Clouds)
The Frenchman looked straight up and knew he had no choice – he had to lay a wire across the two towers of the World Trade Center, and walk into the void.
Philippe Petit is not an Olympian, but he is an athlete nonpareil. The wooden balance beam that a female gymnast leaps and flips on is four inches (10 cm) wide. The steel cable that Petit walks is steel braided cable 5/8″ in diameter – essentially a toe or two wide. A woman on the balance beam would stand four feet (1.24 meters) above the floor. Petit danced on his wire 1,368 feet (417 meters) above ground. He crossed the 138 feet (42 meters) expanse between the two towers, not once, not twice, but 8 times. Petit traipsed, bowed, stood one legged, spun 180 degrees on this very highwire on that August 7 morning in 1972….for 49 minutes.
The “Coup”, as Petit has called this act of defiance and triumph, has a degree of difficulty unthinkable in any competition at the highest levels.
The Walk, as a movie, was a technical masterpiece. It is the first time in my mind that 3D and IMAX have come together with narrative and directorial vision to produce a story telling event of such visceral impact that you feel suspended a quarter mile high. (Yes, in the scenes depicting “the Coup”, my palms were sweating, and the nerves in my rear were tingling.)
Petit is an inspiration. People can say “Do the impossible”. But Petit did.
It starts, as it does with all incredible achievers, with a dream.
You need dreams to live. It is as essential as a road to walk on and as bread to eat. I would have felt myself dying if this dream had been taken away from me. The dream was as big as the towers. There was no way it could be taken away from me by authority, by reason, by destiny.
Japan’s economy is not terrible. Nor is it robust. Generally speaking, the Japanese economy has been pushing hard against the weight of deflation with little result. GDP has dropped, and so have average wages. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, through his mixture of fiscal stimulus, monetary easing and structural reforms, so-called Abenomics, is striving to get momentum rolling the other way, driving inflation and wages up, and getting people consuming and the economy pumping.
In the early 1960s, the economy was booming. And while inflation didn’t appear to be getting out of hand, at least according to the numbers, people like Machiko Hasegawa felt it. She wrote about it in her comic strip, Sazae-san. In the strip above, from the book, The Best of Sazae-san – The Olympic Years“, Hasegawa-san is able to reflect the average citizen’s perception that the price of everything is going up.
And in the strip below about people commuting on a bus, Hasegawa-san is showing that everybody was feeling the pinch.
And yet, it wasn’t by no means a desperate time for Japan. It was indeed a time of optimism and hope. After all, the Olympics were in Japan.
I often thought, world-class athletes – they aren’t like you and me. Defying pain, building up super-human endurance, reaching world-class levels – is that trainable?
I posed that question to Roger Jackson, three-time Olympian, and gold medal rower in the coxless pairs at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Jackson was the CEO of Own the Podium, an NPO tasked with enabling Canada’s athletes to develop into Olympic champions. The only two times Canada had ever hosted the Olympics – 1976 in Montreal and 1988 in Calgary – no one from Canada won a gold medal. Own the Podium had a mission – help Canada achieve the highest medal haul in the 2010 Winter Games, to be held on home turf in Vancouver, Canada. While Team Canada did not come out on top in the medal count, Canada did win the highest number of gold medals, 14, which also happened to be the most total gold medals ever won by a country in a Winter Games.
“We had always been fifth in the world,” Jackson told me. “I was asked by the Canadian government and the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee to build a program to win the most medals in Vancouver. I had five years. I hired strong leadership. And I insisted on 100% commitment from our athletes. If you were willing to be disciplined and committed to the world-class training regimen we created, we would fund you. We worked with the athletes on plans, assessed the performance of the plan three times a year, identifying issues and upgrading the plans as we needed.”
Jackson emphasized that Olympians who want to be champions have to have this attitude – no compromise. “Family, school, wife – they cannot compromise your training. You need to sleep, rest and work your ass off. That’s the tone of the very best.”
Jackson said that’s why the Canadian rowing teams were traditionally strong, and why all Canadian teams had a chance, even the unknown Roger Jackson / George Hungerford coxless pair team. Canadian rowers trained hard and did not compromise.
“In the University of British Columbia Rowing program, we were told to do something, and we had to do it,” said Jackson. “Maybe we couldn’t believe we could do it, but we’d have to try. We would row three or four miles every morning and again every evening. And because there were so few teams to compete with us as other competitive teams were so far away from us, the coach had all the different teams compete against each other. At the end of each morning workout, we would row a 2000 m race against our other crews. The slowest boats would start, being the pairs and seconds later the fours would start and later the eights would start, all converging on the finish line at about the same time. And to win, you would never give up.”
“We would get to the finish line totally exhausted, dry retching, heaving. And, on occasion, the coach would say, ‘not good enough. Do it again.’ And so we raced 2000 m again. And if it wasn’t good enough, he’d tell us to do it again. I was eating 8,000 calories a day and still losing weight, but I knew that no one else had this incredible work ethic. That was the attitude that made us do things we didn’t think we could do. So when we got to the starting line in Tokyo, I knew we had done everything we could do to prepare ourselves to win.”
Do it again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Sound familiar?
Here is a famous scene from the film, Miracle, about the 1980 USA Ice Hockey Team that won gold at the Lake Placid Olympics. Coach Herb Brooks has taken his team to play the Norwegian national team and the game ends in a tie. Brooks isn’t happy with the team’s dedication and commitment, and makes them skate sprints over and over and over….until finally, the team’s captain, exhausted beyond reason, has an epiphany.
First things first. Novelist and futurist, Isaac Asimov had a caveat. If the world is destroyed by a thermonuclear war, his predictions would be meaningless. Got it.
Since there has been no nuclear war of significance, here are a few of the predictions Asimov made in the New York Times in August, 1964. Asimov visited the huge, big-tent event in the world that year that was not the Tokyo Olympics – the World’s Fair in New York, which happened to be in my backyard of Flushing, Queens.
There is an underground house at the fair which is a sign of the future. Suburban houses underground, with easily controlled temperature, free from the vicissitudes of weather, with air cleaned and light controlled, should be fairly common. The reason Asimov gives for this idea is Man’s urge to control its environment, as well as expand the amount of land to grown more food to feed a growing world population. But another reason will be the Mega-city Trend, the continued massive migration to big cities that puts tremendous pressure on the infrastructure. Singapore, where I lived for a few years, has a population of 5.5 million people on a land mass of 710 square km, a country half the size of Los Angeles. The Red Dot, as it is affectionately called, will be considerably more dense as the government predicts the population to grow to 7 million in the near future. Singapore has built upwards with its skyscrapers, and outwards with land-fill areas, but is now planning underground working facilities on a scale not commonly seen. Designs for the 300,000 square-meter Underground Science City will be 30 to 80 meters below the surface, with plans to hold a working population of over 4,000.
Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence. The I.B.M. exhibit at the present fair has no robots but it is dedicated to computers, which are shown in all their amazing complexity, notably in the task of translating Russian into English. It will be such computers, much miniaturized, that will serve as the “brains” of robots. The way Asimov describes robotics, and I suppose, artificial intelligence is far less aggressive than his imagination in his novels. I haven’t read that many Asimov works, but I do know that he was one of the most significant minds behind a philosophical framework or set of rules regarding the relationship between Man and Robot: The Three Laws of Robotics. Additionally, I recall his brilliant character, Hari Seldon in Asimov’s Foundation Series, a man who developed psychohistory, a precursor, to me, of what we now call Big Data.
If you want to watch something historic, as well as geeks geeking out, here’s an incredible video of IBM’s Watson beating two humans at Jeopardy. The two humans are Jeopardy champions.
Much effort will be put into the designing of vehicles with “Robot-brains” vehicles that can be set for particular destinations and that will then proceed there without interference by the slow reflexes of a human driver. I suspect one of the major attractions of the 2014 fair will be rides on small roboticized cars which will maneuver in crowds at the two-foot level, neatly and automatically avoiding each other. Two obvious parallels to today’s technology: self-driving cars, which are all the rage, as well as maglev technology. By 2020, there are some who claim that Japan will have significant driverless transportation on the roads when the Olympians arrive.
The maglev train, which is already operational in Shanghai, will connect Tokyo to Osaka in an hour, achieving a speed of 500 kph, although it won’t be in operation until 2027.
If you don’t speak Japanese, travelling in Japan is a challenge. You’re in a train, you pull into a station, you peer through the window as the train decelerates desperately trying to figure out what station you’re at, scanning for English, any English at all.
The next best thing to words are symbols. The signs for men and women’s toilets come in a gazillion varieties, but they are most often a variation of a theme. Symbols, if done right, can cut to the chase.
With a continued increase in foreign tourists to Japan, and a spike in international guests in Tokyo during the 2020 Olympics expected, the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan (GSI) released a new set of map symbols which they believe will be more intuitively understood by visitors. The old map symbols included an “X”. In the West, “X” may mark the spot of treasure, but in Japan, it meant police station. The old map represented a temple with a swastika, which is too much of an emotional jolt to many with its strong association with Nazism, despite its far longer association with Hinduism and Buddhism.
Fortunately, the GSI decided not to replace the symbol for onsen. The three wavy steamy lines bathing in an oval is a personal favorite.
The pictograms of today were born out of the pictograms of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. These Games were the first to be held in Asia, and Japan realized they had a language problem. In addition to translation, designers figured that use of symbols would be a powerful and efficient way to get foreigners to the right place. In fact, the Tokyo Olympics proved to be filled with design opportunities for the best in the country as the ’64 Games were essentially the first time an Olympic Games systematically used pictograms to represent each of the sporting events, or direct people to places.
As this blog post states, “…for such a huge national event, needless to say the design side of things was very important too and it engaged the talents of the industry heavyweights at the time.” One of the heavyweights was Yoshiro Yamashita, who designed these event symbols.
The symbols that represented facilities were said to have been created by a team of ten designers.
I really didn’t expect to see such a dark scene in a Sazae-san comic strip. But there it was.
Sazae-san notices a sad student walking out of the school grounds where exam results were posted. Sazae-san is so concerned that she follows the student, and is relieved to see her return safely home. What was Sazae-san worrying about? Maybe this young woman would be so distraught she would try to do harm to herself.
In Japan, these exam results determine whether you get into the school you want: Tokyo University, Kyoto University, Keio University or Waseda University, for example. Graduating from those prestigious schools will likely determine your short-term career, as well as your long-term life prospects. Parents, grandparents and the children themselves realize that a lot is riding on their chances to pass these university exams.
Japan has always had relatively high suicide rates, as you can see in the chart below. These days, Japan’s rate is about 60% higher than the global average. Back when Machiko Hasegawa was penning these Sazae-san cartoons, the suicide rate was significantly higher.
So suicides were a concern of the day. And while it is unclear whether there was a strong correlation between suicides and young people under tremendous academic pressure, it certainly was in the cultural conversation. Here are two more cartoon strips from the book The Best of Sazae-san – The Olympic Years“, illustrating the fear that one student has just trying to learn whether he passed a university exam or not, and another showing the level of deception that Sazae-san’s brother Katsuo is willing to go to in order to explain how he is doing in school to his father.