Chinese Cultural Minister Luo Shugang Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and South Korean Culture, Sports, and Tourism Minister Do Jong-hwan
Chinese Cultural Minister Luo Shugang Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and South Korean Culture, Sports, and Tourism Minister Do Jong-hwan

Think about it. The next three Olympic Games will be held in Asia:

  • 2018 Winter Olympics: PyeongChang, South Korea
  • 2020 Summer Olympics: Tokyo, Japan
  • 2022 Winter Olympics: Beijing, China

In the history of the modern Olympiad, the majority of host cities selected for both Summer and Olympic Games have been in Europe. In the period of 1896 to 1952, only three of the first 20 Olympiads were held outside Europe, the others in the USA. From 1956 to 2016, the diversity of host cities improved, with only 50% of the Olympiads held in Europe.

But for the first time, three Olympiads in a row will be held in Asia. In the world of diplomacy, that smells like opportunity. So when the culture ministers of Japan, China and South Korea met in Kyoto for their annual meeting of minds in August, 2017, they announced that they will organize joint events to spread the depth and beauty of East Asian culture within the three countries in connection to the upcoming Olympiads in Asia.

While the specifics of the plan are to be determined by an “experts’ body” to be set up, it was agreed that five cities in each of the three countries would be identified as locales for these cultural exhibitions and exchanges. In fact, according to this Japan Today article, this is an expansion of an initiative called the Culture Cities of East Asia Program, that had started in 2014. China’s Changsha and South Korea’s Daegu are already hosting such events. Next year, Japan’s Kanazawa will be host.

Other areas of partnership cited in The Japan Times include:

  • Efforts to strengthen copyright protections for cultural products
  • Continued trilateral dialogue on preserving the intangible cultural heritage of all three countries.
  • Support of UNESCO’s International Research Center for Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Asia-Pacific Region, which works to protect, preserve and promote intangible culture such as traditional music, dance, performing arts and craftsmanship.

Examples of “intangible cultural heritage” in Japan would be noh, washoku (traditional Japanese food), and washi (traditional hand-made paper).

With so much geo-political tension in the region, exacerbated by the sabre-rattling of North Korea, there is a belief that diplomacy, through the promotion of the respective nations’ cultural heritage, can promote the cause of peace, according to Kyoto mayor, Daisaku Kadokawa.

The East Asian region shares a long history of exchanges. Here in Kyoto, you can see and feel the cultural elements of the region. The power of culture can help bring the region together, and lead to peace.

Isn’t it pretty to think so?

Opening Ceremony Rio 2016 Olympic Games
Carlos Nuzman and Thomas Bach (back) at the Rio Olympics Opening Ceremony

They raided the home of the president of the Brazilian National Olympic Committee, Carlos Nuzman, and took away his passport.

Two investigations, one in France and the other in Brazil, have come together to uncover evidence which indicate attempts to influence the candidate city bidding process for the 2016 Summer Olympics and the 2020 Summer Olympics, and led to the investigation of Guzman, who was a member of the Brazilian volleyball team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and presided over the 2016 Rio Olympics last August as head of the Brazilian NOC.

Operation Car Wash (Operação Lava Jato) is an ever-expanding investigation within the Brazilian government that has uncovered a massive system of bribes to government officials in exchange for decisions favorable to contractors, particularly in the construction business. Brazilian authorities also saw similar patterns of corruption in Brazil’s bid to make Rio de Janeiro the host city for the 2016 Summer Olympics, and worked closely with French authorities, who are holding former IAAF president and influential IOC member, Lamine Diack, who may be providing detailed information on the hidden, somewhat unseemly world of bribes to influence candidate city selection.

According to Inside The Games, “Nuzman, President of both the Bid and Organising Committee for Rio 2016, is accused of involvement in a scheme in which $1.5 million (£1.2 million/€1.4 million) was used as an attempt to solicit the votes of International Olympic Committee (IOC) members in return for supporting the Brazilian bid which was awarded the Games in 2009 in Copenhagen.”

Lamine Diack
Lamine Diack

Sports Intern editor, Rich Perelman, quoted Brazilian prosecutors as stating, “Nuzman was the agent responsible for bringing together interested parties, making contacts and oiling relationships to organise the mechanisms for transferring Cabral’s bribes directly to African members of the International Olympic Committee, which was effectively done by way of Arthur Soares.”

Perelman went on to note that Soares “paid as much as $10 million in bribes to Sergio Cabral, governor of Rio de Janeiro from 2007-14, and that in 2009, some $2 million of that money was funneled to Lamine Diack just three days before the Host City selection in Copenhagen.”

Still, somewhat under the radar is an investigation into the bidding process for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. The UK newspaper, The Guardian, has reported on a USD1.5 million payment made to a Singapore-based company called Black Tidings, which appears to have contacts to Papa Massata Diack, the son of Lamine Diack. The bank transfer payment was labeled, perhaps naively, “Tokyo 2020 Olympic Game Bid,” and was made only weeks before Tokyo won the host city bid.

Nooses are tightening as the Brazilian and French investigations dig deeper. As Perelman wrote, “These are nervous, unhappy times for people who have been in the spotlight of the Olympic Movement over the past decade.”

Kiryu
Yoshihide Kiryu breaking the 100-meter speed record for Japan, on Saturday, September 9, 2017
A Japanese finally did it! Yoshihide Kiryu, a senior at Toyo University, ran a 9.98 100 meters in an inter-collegiate track meet in Fukui, Japan on Saturday, September 9, 2017. No Japanese had ever run a sub-10-second 100 meters until that day.

No doubt, this will be a big boost to sprinters in Japan looking to find glory on home turf at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Without a single top individual sprinter in the finals of the 100-meter sprints at the 2016 Rio Olympics, the Japanese men’s team still came away with silver in the 100-meter relays. Kiryu ran the third leg, before handing off to Asuka Cambridge, who clung to Usain Bolt‘s shoulder for the dramatic finish.

In the history of the men’s 100 meter sprint, 10 seconds was a barrier which seemed more psychological than physical, much like the 4-minute mile was before Roger Bannister showed that it was possible.

The first person said to break the 10-second barrier was Bob Hayes, who a year before the Tokyo Olympics ran the 100-meters in 9.9. At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, he did it again in the semi-finals, although both sub-10-second finishes were run during illegal tailwinds.

Four years later, a few months prior to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, American sprinters Jim Hines, Ronnie Ray Smith and Charlie Greene were all credited with times of 9.9 seconds at the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. Hines would record 9.9 seconds at the 100-meter finals in Mexico City that year, the first non-wind assisted electronic sub-10 second 100-meter spring. And yet, Mexico City was a high-altitude location, a quality that is said to have been advantageous to speedsters (as opposed to distance runners.)

In 1977, the way official times for sprinting was measured changed, from hand timing to fully automatic timing (FAT). After the rule change, only Hines’ times in 1968 were held up as the only ones to be considered under 10 seconds. It finally took American Carl Lewis at the 1984 World Championships in Modesto, California to record a time of 9.97, the first sub-10 second finish at low altitude and with fully automated timing.

Of course, a lot has happened since 1977, and Lewis’ time in 1984 doesn’t even merit a top 25 all-time fastest 100-meters. In fact, the slowest of the top 25 fastest 100-meter sprints is 9.88 seconds, a full second better than Kiryu’s Japan record. Additionally, it’s still way off Christian Coleman’s time of 9.81 seconds in June, 2017, and way, way off of the incredible 9.56 seconds posted by all-time great, Usain Bolt, way back in 2009.

And yet, when Kiryu realized he broke the 10-second barrier, he had broken a psychological dam in Japan. I would not be surprised to see Japanese sprinters break 10 seconds many times in the coming three years leading up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Yoshihide Kiryu breaking Japan record

C Kunalan in Tokyo_2
Kunalan at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremonies

It was the summer of 1964 and Singapore was in crisis.

Singapore’s leader, Lee Kuan Yew, had brokered a deal with the British Government and the leadership of Malaya to be included in a nation called Malaysia, established in 1963. This was not a match made in heaven. Racial tensions were part and parcel of the daily lives in the region between Singapore, which was a mixture of Indian, Malay and Chinese, but had a predominant population of ethnic Chinese, and the rest of the Malaya Federation, which was primarily Bumiputra and Islamic.

In July and September, Singapore felt the political tension born of the delicate balancing act that brought Singapore and Malaya together, and at times, the tension boiled over. Race riots broke out where shophouses were burned down, police and military were called out to restore order and enforce curfews, and people were beaten and killed.

This is the atmosphere in which athletes in Malaysia and Singapore were preparing for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Canagsabai Kunalan was a promising 21-year-old sprinter, talent spotted only a year before by the Malaysia track coach, Tan Eng Yoon. After a successful sprinting debut in 1963, Tan believed Kunalan was ready for the Tokyo Olympics, and recommended him for the 4X100 relay team, along with Mazland Hamzah, John Daukom, and Mani Jegathesan.

Tan Eng Yoon and Stan Wright with Malaysia team
3 weeks prior to Tokyo – standing: Tan Eng Yoon and Stan Wright; sitting (L to R): Kunalan, Wong Fey Wan, Kuda Ditta, M Jegathesan, and Dilbagh Singh

But the make-up of the 4X100 relay team did not sit well with Wong Fey Wan. Another talented sprinter, Wong defended his record, and called out Kunalan publicly in the press:

I beat Kunalan in the 100 m finals in the national championships in which I finished second to Jegathesan, and I beat him again in the Government Services Meet in the 100 m final on Saturday in which I finished third…. I am willing to race against Kunalan again to prove I am the better man over 100 m. If I am wrong I will quit athletics.

Coach Tan did favor Kunalan, perhaps for his work ethic, perhaps for the belief that Kunalan was stronger around the curves and a better choice as back up for the relays. Maybe Wong did not have the political support as he was self-taught and did not have the benefit of a coach lobbying his case as Tan did for Kunalan. Maybe race was influential. As explained through Kunalan’s state of mind at the time in the biography, “C. Kunalan – Singapore’s Greatest Track and Field Athlete”, Kunalan was unhappy.

Whatever the true reason for Wong’s exclusion – be it sporting or political, this incident affected Kunalan, who regarded this as “one of the saddest moments” of his running career. He never knew for sure whether he had been chosen on the basis of merit, but he wished that Wong had been chosen instead, knowing how much Wong had been looking forward to competing at the Olympic Games.

It was Kunalan instead who went to Tokyo. Just three days before his 22nd birthday, the Malaysian 4×100 team finished last in their round one heat, and that was that.

While Kunalan had no control over the make-up of the 4×100 Malaysian relay team, during a period of racial and political strife in his country, he did indeed have control over more important, personal decisions – with whom he would marry.

Kunalan and Roy 2
Kunalan and me

Teammates in track, Kunalan first met Chong Yoong Yin, captain of the Raffles Girls School track team, and a member of the Malaysia national track team. They had track in common, but to their parents, little else. Kunalan was ethnic Indian and was brought up in the Hindu religion. When Kunalan had returned from the Tokyo Olympics and his parents realized that his relationship with the ethnic Chinese woman, Yoong Yin, was still intact, they gave their son an ultimatum: “leave that Chinese girl or never return home again.”

Kunalan walked out.

Yoong Yin received the same ultimatum from her father and her uncle. And she too left home, joining her mother, who was estranged from her father.

Distraught after being shunned by their own families, they struggled momentarily, wondering what would happen. But Kunalan in the end was resolved. “We’ll have our own friends who will accept us.”

Wedding Day

Engaged in October 1965, with a wedding date set for October 1966, the parents of Kunalan and Yoong Yin eventually saw that there was no fighting the bond between the two. Kunalan’s father surprised his son with a visit, and said he would bless the union, but only if Yoong Yin would take on an Indian name and convert to Hinduism. Fortunately, that was not a problem for Yoong Yin, and the two sprinters were married in a Hindi ceremony. Subsequently a Chinese wedding dinner was held by Yoong Yin’s mother.

Fifty-two years later, Kunalan and Yoong Yin are still happily married. And Kunalan proudly proclaims that diversity and the need to be inclusive of all races and nationalities is vital to world peace. “I am not nationalistic,” he told a Singaporean magazine. “I am more of an internationalist.”

His children, a blend of Indian and Chinese DNA and heritage, have lived their parents’ creed, marrying members of other nationalities. Kunalan is proud of to be an inter-racial grandparent.

He remembers 1964. He recalls seeing the worst in the race riots of Singapore, and the best in the gathering of the world’s best athletes in Tokyo. And he believes that we are capable, through sports, to co-exist in peace and love.

Canagasabai Kunalan is living proof.

The International Family

A Teaching Moment at the Singapore Sports Museum
A Teaching Moment at the Singapore Sports Museum

Canagasabai Kunalan strolled through the Singapore Sports Museum, walking his guest through Singapore’s greatest sporting achievements, explaining the history with enthusiasm, with the skills honed over decades as a teacher.

But C. Kunalan was more than just a teacher. As we walked through the corridors, passers-by would recognize the fit, elderly gentleman as the man who held the title, Singapore’s fastest, for decades. In fact, Kunalan had held at different points the fastest marks in the 100 meters, 200 meters and 400 meters in Singapore track history.

It was 1968 at the Mexico City Olympics, when Kunalan set the Singapore record for 100 meters, a mark that stood for 33 years.

Jim Hines set the world record in the 100-meters in Mexico City with a time of 9.95, considerably faster than Kunalan’s 10.38. But when you think about it purely from a statistical perspective, Singapore had a tiny talent pool. The population of Singapore in 1968 was 2 million, only 1% of the entire US population, and roughly the same population of Hines’ state of Arkansas that year.

C Kunalan in Mexico City_2
Kunalan finishing third (719) in a 100-meter heat to advance. Eventual gold winner Jim Hines strolls into the finish.

Kunalan defied the odds, advancing beyond the first round at the Mexico City Games to be recognized as one of the top 32 fastest men in the world. And if you know the history of Southeast Asia in the 1960s, you know that in 1968, Singapore was only in its third year as a sovereign nation. It wasn’t clear until the last days before departing Singapore whether Kunalan had the funds to even travel to Mexico.

In the end, Kunalan made it to Mexico City, and he was there to compete. But he knew, as a sprinter, he and his teammates were significantly behind those in the advanced industrial economies, or in the nations under the flag or influence of the Soviet Union. In his biography, C. Kunalan – Singapore’s Greatest Track and Field Athlete, written by Steven Quek, a one-time colleague of his in the National Institute of Education, Quek explains how support and role modeling by others contributed to his development.

At the Mexico City Olympics Kunalan recalled simple but powerful gestures: USA Assistant Track Coach Stan Wright offering Kunalan the use of Team USA’s masseurs for a pre-competition rub down, or Bahaman sprinter Tom Robinson coming up to Kunalan to suggest that the Singaporean be aware that he was exerting too much effort into the first 20 meters of his sprint, when he should in fact be conscious of staying relaxed. “Tom, a world-class athlete, was willingly sharing advice with an unknown from Asia. Kunalan never forgot this.”

After Kunalan’s competitions ended, he was then able to watch the very best athletes in the world demonstrate the highest levels of physical achievement:

Ever the teacher, Kunalan understood that for Singapore athletes to succeed internationally, to reach the world-class levels on display at the Olympics, their training must improve, as he explained in a letter to his wife:

We must get very serious about training. There are about 6 short men all doing 10 or 10.1. Why? Arms and legs big!! Mine only 1/2. You know darling! If I can get their strength, I will be doing 10 sec too.

C Kunalan in Mexico City_1
C, Kunalan in Mexico City

Kunalan would retire from track in 1970, but would go on to become one of Singapore’s most successful primary and secondary school teachers, twice being recognized as “Teacher of the Year”. He currently works for the Singapore Sports Council, in offices near the Singapore Sports Museum.

Maybe you’ll be lucky to see him there, get a tour like I did, and learn from a man who has literally lived the history of Singapore sports.

Ichinomiya Chiba Open
Ichinomiya Chiba Open

When surfing was selected as a new Olympic sport for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, enthusiasts wondered how organizers were going to keep score.

One of the challenges when organizing surfing competitions is to create the perception that everyone has a chance at similar size and types of waves. After all we can’t control the moon and the tides they create on the vast ocean waters. And so very quickly enthusiasts wondered whether the Olympics were going to introduce wave pools to the competition, large mechanical pools that create waves. In that manner, you can pretty much guarantee that competitors will get the same level of difficulty every time.

As it turns out, surfing at the Tokyo Olympics will be held out in the wild, on the waves of Tsurigasaki Beach in Chiba, Japan. Perhaps it’s because wave pools have not yet become a part of top-flight surfing competitions, that from a technological or even a surfing culture perspective, competitors are not yet ready for wave pools. But the president of the International Surfing Association (ISA), Fernando Aquerre, gave another, economic reason in this interview with Surfer.com:

The IOC does not want to build more “white elephants” – structures that have no use after the Olympics are over. The Olympics organizers want to focus on legacy, on building things that can be used by host cities after the games. As of now, there is no commercially sustainable wave pool. You can build a wave pool like Snowdonia, but nobody knows if that will be commercially sustainable over a period of time.

Snowdonia wave pool
Snowdonia wave pool

So how will the surfing competition be run in 2020?

  • First, there will be a total of 40 surfers allowed to compete, 20 men and 20 women.
  • Second, the event will be shortboarding only – no longboards or bodyboards.
  • Third, Aguerre said that they will be patient over the two-week Olympic competition to find the right two-day period to hold the surfing competition.

That last point is interesting because television will probably demand that surfing establish a set time in advance. But then again, the Olympics are also about putting “athletes first”.

“We’ll try to start it at the front end of the games, but we can wait to run it if the waves look better at the end,” Aguerre said. “We have ten years of wave history and wind conditions data to rely on. We’re very confident, and so are Tokyo and the IOC, that we’ll have reasonable waves of good quality.”

Additionally, Aguerre wants to make sure that the venue at Tsurigasaki Beach has the right vibe. “The IOC has asked us to to create a full-on beach scene at Chiba that will last the whole length of the Olympics,” he said. “It will include the surf events of course, but also organic food, yoga in the morning—it will be a place where you want to hang out. There might be a skate ramp — maybe it will be like what you see at the U.S. Open. It’s never been done before at the Olympics.”

morteza-mehrzadselakjani-against-bosnia-herzegovina
Mehrzad spiking his team to victory in the Rio Paralympics sitting volleyball finals.

The athletes who participate in the Paralympics challenge our perceptions about what a “normal” person looks like or is capable of. When people like me – someone who does not interact frequently with people who have so-called disabilities – watch the para-athletes in action, we are amazed. The British broadcaster of the 2012 Paralympics in London, Channel 4, emphasized that point by creating the fantastic promotional video called “Meet the Superhumans.”

By the time Rio rolled around in 2016, running from September 7 to 16, the mindset towards the Paralympics was shifting – that athletes were not superhuman, but they were people like the rest of us who could develop their talents, sometimes up to world-class levels. Channel 4 captured that sentiment in a promotional video called “Yes, I can!

If you watched the Rio Paralympics, you were likely amazed by people who appear relatively disabled because they can’t see or hear, are missing a limb or two, or are paralyzed in parts of their bodies, for example. But amazing is becoming the new normal. By the time Tokyo 2020 rolls around, perhaps we won’t be amazed at the overcoming of disability – we will be amazed at the athleticism and competitiveness.

For now, here are stories from the 2016 Rio Paralympics, which frankly, amazed me.

jefinho-scoring-against-china
Jefinho celebrates his equalising goal against China (Photo: Marcio Rodrigues/MPIX/CPB)