Philippe Petit doing the impossible.
Philippe Petit doing the impossible.

This is the movie I want to see this year. Even more than the first of the J. J. Abrams Star Wars trilogy. I want to see the Robert Zemeckis film – The Walk.

On the morning of Tuesday, August 6, 1974, a Frenchman named Philippe Petit stepped out onto a wire that was suspended between the rooftops of World Trade Center Towers, and took a walk…a quarter of a mile in the air. He didn’t tip toe for a few seconds, or steady himself with shifts and drops against the winds that plied the space between the towers. No, he walked back and forth, for a total of 40 minutes, most certainly defying death. And he did it with joy. He danced, he jumped, he reclined and stared peacefully at the sky on his back on a steel wire about an inch in diameter.

He was happy.

We all aspire to something great, or at least something better than we currently experience. Olympic athletes are high-performance beasts who understand the power of visualizing achievement and victory, and using that as motivation to greater heights. But rarely would they be in a situation so off-the-charts unimaginable, so high in difficulty level, as the idea of walking on a tightrope between two towers so high they would often get lost in the clouds.

This act, or as Petit calls it, Le Coup, is so beyond the understanding of even the greatest of thrill seekers that the New York Times wrote an article describing it as art. The article quotes Colum McCann who wrote a novel called “let the Great World Spin” based on this act, and claimed that Petit “has the commitment and consciousness of an important artist.” His work “takes place primarily in the brain. The body follows the brain. He outthinks his body. And he takes over new spaces. He reappropriates public space. He turns our public spaces into things that we have to think about again.”

Was Petit’s Coup a piece of performance art? Was it an act of incredible athleticism? It doesn’t matter as it must inspire all who walk this planet.

From the book, Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Agency
From the book, Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Agency”

When American Olympians prepared for departure to Tokyo for the 1964 Summer Games, they were feted at Disneyland in Los Angeles, where they undoubtedly saw the first daily operating monorail in the Western Hemisphere. It opened in 1959 as an attraction in Tomorrowland.

So while many Americans were amazed to see this high-tech transportation system high above the ground, they must have been doubly amazed to see it in Tokyo when they arrived at Haneda Airport. Although almost all Olympians were shuttled to the Olympic Village by bus (escorted by police cars and motorcycles), they likely did see the gleaming train flowing by at 60 miles per hour along Tokyo Bay.

What originally took about an hour traveling by car on the congested roads of the most populous city in the world at that time, took about 15 minutes via the monorail, built by Hitachi under license of Alweg. The monorail has proved to be a safe and efficient way of moving people from the airport into the city, and its longevity and success may have been due to the fact that a Shinto priest blessed this feat of engineering a day before it opened, according to a UPI story from September 16, 1964.

Monorail receiving blessings from shinto priest, from the book "Games of the XVIII Olympiad, Tokyo 1964", Shinchousha
Monorail receiving blessings from shinto priest, from the book “Games of the XVIII Olympiad, Tokyo 1964”, Shinchousha

Here’s an American newsreel announcing the opening of the Tokyo monorail.

meiji park aerial view

Peter Snell was an Olympic champion at the Rome Summer Games in 1960, and the New Zealand runner came to Tokyo in 1964 with high expectations to repeat. Like all high performance athletes in a new environment, he quickly wanted to establish a training routine that would create a comfort level and allow him to maintain conditioning. He found his routine in a park just outside the Olympic Village in Tokyo – Meiji Park.

But first, Snell had to deal with the police. He tells his story in his autobiography, No Bugles No Drums.

We reached the village in the late afternoon and were smartly into T-shirts and shorts and off on an exploratory run through the village. After a circuit of the track and a prowl around the various facilities, we went out one of the back gates and, led by Jeff Julian, ran into a wooded area with a maze of fine metal and clay tracks. This was Meiji Park, which has a shrine in the middle of it, and it looked perfect for training.

No Bugles No DrumsBut we encountered an early difficulty. At the entrance, we were halted and gesticulated at by a policeman who eventually made it known to us that in this park we could walk but we could not run. Realising we might be offending some religious belief, we decided as guests of the nation to handle the situation diplomatically – so we walked until we were out of the policeman’s sight before breaking into a run again.

The winding paths of the park gave us an excellent 10-minute circuit and it was obvious that it could play a vital part in our Games preparation as we wanted to run for at least half an hour every morning before breakfast. And, despite the policeman, we succeeded in doing it. Actually, as more and more teams arrived, more and more athletes began running about and I think the Japanese eventually decided it would be preferable to let us run thought the park than add our numbers to the already heavy road traffic.

 Japan react to their suprise victory over South Africa in their opening game of the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

Japan react to their suprise victory over South Africa in their opening game of the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

All I know is that rugby will be an Olympic sport in Rio for the first time. But they’re calling Japan’s last-minute upset of South Africa at the Rugby World Cup in England as the greatest Rugby World Cup shocker ever. Here is how The Guardian saw it.

Japan beats Argentina with Coach Cramer on the right in black, from the book "Tokyo Olympiad 1964, Kyodo News Agency"
Japan beats Argentina with Coach Cramer on the right in black, from the book “Tokyo Olympiad 1964, Kyodo News Agency”

He is second from right, in the black coat, running onto the field to celebrate with his team – Japan’s victory over Argentina in a preliminary soccer match at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games.

Like so many sports, Japan was playing catch up. In the case of soccer, the then President of the Japan Football Association, Yuzuru Nozu, thought that Dettmar Cramer was the man to coach the national Japan team. So the West German coach worked with the Japan team for four years, and in their very first match, they defeat Argentina 3-2 in what was considered an upset.

Japan beats Argentina 2

Cramer would go on to be an advisor to the Japan team that went to Mexico City, and incredibly, Japan won the bronze medal. As he is quoted in this Japan Times article, striker Ryuichi Sugiyama said Cramer was a true inspiration. “Before the bronze medal (match) he told us ‘show me your yamato damashii (Japanese fighting spirit)’. As a trainer, he was fantastic but he was also engaging as a human being.”

Cramer passed away on Thursday, September 17 at the age of 90. His life was dedicated to soccer, leading Bayern Munich to victory in the European Champions Cup in 1975 and 1976. In Japan,

Wearable Devices_GPSports

In Major League Baseball today, entire stadiums are decked out with sensors so that the movement and speed of the baseball can be tracked real time the moment it leaves the pitcher’s hand, and the moment it comes into contact with the bat, to the moment it lands in a fielder’s glove or in the stands. (Click on link below for examples.)

Measuring health indicators are becoming the routine for health conscious people who wear consumer devices like Fitbit or UP. When I first wore my Microsoft Band, I appreciated learning about my heart rate while exercising but was surprised to learn how many calories I used while sleeping. (Around 350 to 400!)

At the organizational sports level, teams are using companies like GPSports, Catapult and Adidas to track the movements of their soccer, ice hockey or rugby players, primarily with an aim to understand the correlation of movement and injury. According to this New York Times article, the wearable devices for athletes, which is commonly a tracking device placed at the top of the back held in place by a compression shirt, provide data on the exact movements and conditions of a player. Presumably that data can be correlated to moments of injury, which is explained in greater depth in this Sports Illustrated article on how this data is used in ice hockey.

In the Age of Enlightenment, Europeans learned to better control their environment, and got a better picture of how much Man, not God, controlled one’s destiny. Of course, the scientific mind can get carried away with measurement. Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, developed machinery that could measure the degree to which a meeting was boring by counting the number of times a person fidgeted (perhaps an idea before its time!)

Frederick Winslow Taylor, credited with developing Scientific Management over 100 years Frederick-Winslow-Taylorago, would divide female party-goers into two sets (attractive and unattractive), and use his stopwatch to make sure he spent equal time with both.

Based on such dweebish behavior, it’s understandable people are ambiguous when faced with number-crunchers, particularly those calculating what might be considered incalculable – like a person’s morale, one’s decision-making ability, quality of service, or the return on investment of a training program.

But if truth be told,

Jason GatlinWhen Justin Gatlin lost to Usain Bolt in the 100-meter finals at the IAAF Track and Field Championships, the twitterverse was definitely rooting for Bolt to retain his championship. Gatlin’s history with doping turned this match into a morality play – Unblemished Bolt vs. Tainted Gatlin.

There were some who came to Gatlin’s defense – he tested positive for a banned substance in 2001, was subsequently banned for competition for two years, which was later reduced to one year. In other words, he served time for the crime, as it were.

What I learned recently is how aggressive drug testing is today. According to this article by Nick Zaccardi, who writes a blog on the Olympics for NBC, Gatlin has already been tested 62 times in 2015 – that’s once every four days!

On the surface, I agree with his agent, Renaldo Nehemiah, that “It’s ridiculous.” But then again, it’s a high-stakes world where considerable amounts of money is poured into finding the edge that brings the slimmest of improvements in competitive sports.

Gatlin’s not alone. In 2014 Gatlin was the second most tested track and field competitor, but Michael Phelps was tested even more.

Thus the cat and mouse game between chemists and regulators continues…. probably forever.