Simone Biles_AP Photo/Ashley Landis

In 1964, freestyle Shunichi Kawano was banned from the Olympic Village. The head of Japanese wrestling okayed that act as Kawano showed “a lack of fighting spirit” in a match the day before. It didn’t help that the crown prince and princess were in the audience. His coach said his presence in the village would “adversely affect the morale of other athletes,” according to The Japan Times. He returned to the Village after shaving his head, although he said he did not agree with the assessment of his spirit.

For a few days after the Kawano incident, the press was filled with accounts of the mystery female Olympian who reportedly shaved her head bald in tears. It was finally reported that Soviet javelin thrower, Elvira Ozolina, had cut her shoulder-length chestnut hair completely off. Ozolina, who ended the javelin competition in fifth, was a favorite to win gold.

Various headlines from AP news wire stories on Ozolina

And then there was the poignant tale of Kokichi Tsuburaya, who ran a long 42 kilometers in the Tokyo Olympic marathon, entered the National Stadium to the roar of the crowd expecting their Japanese hero to win a silver medal in track, only to see UK’s Basil Heatley storm from behind, leaving Tsuburaya in third place. A disappointed Tsuburaya took accountability and said he would do better at the 1968. But injuries and a failed wedding engagement, both caused by a superior where he worked in the Japan Defense Forces, may have led to Tsuburaya’s decision to end his life in early 1968.

At all levels of competition, sports show us how people respond to pressure. At the Olympics, the pressure can be extreme. We expect Olympians who do not “win” to be grateful and graceful losers, but we also know that the drive and determination that got them to that point can also manifest itself in anger, frustration, fears and questions of self worth.

In this first week of Olympic competition, mental health is an emerging theme at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, journalists and spectators alike were less concerned about the psychological well being of athletes. But at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, there appears to be a more sophisticated understanding of these issues.

Naomi Osaka may have laid the groundwork for that understanding. After the French Open had started, she  announced she would not engage in press conferences in order to diminish what she said was battles with anxiety and depression. After some online parrying with organizers, she pulled out of the French Open. Then last week, she lost in the second round of the singles tennis Olympic competition, sparking questions of whether the stress of the constant attention had affected her.

On July 16, WNBA Las Vegas Aces star, Liz Cambage, announced she was leaving Australian national basketball team. Suffering from panic attacks, and unable to sleep, she admitted that she would be unable to perform to the best of her abilities.

“It’s no secret that in the past I’ve struggled with my mental health and recently I’ve been really worried about heading into a ‘bubble’ Olympics,” according to the Sydney Morning Herald. “No family. No friends. No fans. No support system outside of my team. It’s honestly terrifying for me.

Then on July 27, just after the start of the women’s gymnastics team competition, American gymnast Simone Biles suddenly announced she was no longer going to compete. The world media had already declared her Olympic champion years before the start of Tokyo 2020. She has been repeatedly called the GOAT (greatest of all time). But after a poor vault at the start of the competition, she realized that she had to put her mental health first. Here’s how she explained it to NPR:

It’s been really stressful, this Olympic Games. I think just as a whole, not having an audience, there are a lot of different variables going into it. It’s been a long week, it’s been a long Olympic process, it’s been a long year. So just a lot of different variables, and I think we’re just a little bit too stressed out. But we should be out here having fun, and sometimes that’s not the case.

In the judo competition, Team Japan has had unprecedented success – out of 14 possible gold medals, they grabbed 9, as well as a silver and bronze.

Judoka Hisayoshi Harasawa lost to two-time Olympic champion Teddy Riner of France in the bronze medal round, one of the few not to medal for Japan. Amidst Japan’s amazing gold rush in judo, Harasawa was devastated, speechless and in tears, struggling to find any words in a painful post-match interview.

But in 2021, at least, we are finding the words to talk about mental health in sports.

Japan’s Mima Ito and Jun Mizutani won Japan’s first-ever gold medal in table tennis, in the debut of the mixed doubles tournament at the Olympics on July 26.

It was an upset and a fantastic comeback as well. Liu Shiwen and Xu Xin of China had swept through their three matches to get to the finals, dropping only 1 set, their first one against their first foe, Canada. In the finals against Japan, Liu and Xu continued with their streak, winning the first two sets, before Japan came storming back for their historic victory.

If not for their dramatic victory over Germany in the quarter-finals, holding off match point after match point, there would be no smiles and tears of joy for Ito and Mizutani.

 

Anatomy of a Comeback Against Team Germany

On Sunday, July 25, Japan was up against Germany’s Petrissa Solja and Patrick Franziska. 2nd-seed Japan was favored over 7th-seed Germany, but they battled evenly back and forth. When Japan won the sixth set, the seventh one would determine who moves on to the semi-finals.

Germany started off strong – very strong –  going up 5-0. They extended their lead to 9-2, going up by 7 points. It was the highest point differential in the entire match, and a seemingly insurmountable mountain to climb for Japan.   And when Germany flicked a winner wide to get to 10-6, they had 4 match points, and were on the verge of advancing.

Then something clicked inside Mizutani. The 32-year old 4-time Olympian shot a winner and then fired tight top spin forehands that the Germans sent into the net or wide. Somehow, Japan had staved off 4 match points.

Germany served and Japan sent it wide, leading to Germany’s 5th match point at 11-10. But Ito’s serve was quickly returned into the net, and the score was deadlocked at 11-11. Germany served, and Japan sent it out, so Germany again were at match point, now for the sixth time!

Even if you are casual watcher of table tennis, you could not help but feel all tense inside. The small racquet and tiny ball on a small table with two people requires constant and intense concentration, instantaneous reflexes and explosive power. It’s exhausting to watch, particularly in a tight match.

Japan tied it at 12-12 with Germany returning into the net. Japan won the next point, and suddenly they had their first match point, but on the next point, Mizutani was caught off balance and mis-shot, sending it to 13-13. Back and forth it went as the teams knotted it again at 14-14.Franziska serves, Ito returns, Solja returns and Mizutani sends a heavy top-spin cross court which Franziska sends out. Japan has its second match point.

Ito, at her first Olympics, a childhood friend of Mizutani’s, had her moment of moments. Her spin serves usually end up in the mid court of her opponent’s side, but this one went deep to the forehand of Solja who simply could not catch up to it. Her return was fired wide and the Ito Mizutani team won. While Mizutani was all smiles, Ito collapsed in tears of exhaustion.

11-8, 5-11, 3-11, 11-3, 9-11, 11-8, 16-14.

For Solja and Franziska, nothing but the thousand-mile stares of disbelief.

For Ito and Mizutani, the right to fight another day.

Sport is universal. But since many sports either originated in the United States or are big enough businesses to ensure lucrative tournament income, many go to the United States to train.

In these early days of the Olympics, I’ve noticed several stars who were born in Japan, but made in America.

Jay Litherland: Kevin, Mick and Jay were born triplets in Osaka, Japan. Born of a father, Andrew, from New Zealand and a mother, Chizuko, from Japan, Jay came in third on their birthday. But at the 2020 Olympics, Jay came in 2nd to win gold in the grueling 400-meter individual medley swimming finals.

The brothers have done everything together. They all graduated from Chattahoochee High School in Georgia, trained at the Dynamo Swim Club in Atlanta, and swam competitively for the University of Georgia. They all raced with Chase Kalisz, who beat out Jay to win gold in the 400-meter IM.

But Jay, a citizen of both Japan and America, was the only one to make it to Japan. Fluent in Japanese and eager to enjoy his favorite foods around town, he will have to wait till conditions improve in Japan to really celebrate. For now, he has a silver medal and a chance for more.

 

Yuto Horigome: The son of a taxi driver in Tokyo, who used to skateboard, Yuto Horigomo would go the park and skateboard with his dad. Somehow the son became a phenom, who was shuttled to California in 2016 to learn from the best.

Today, Horigomo is considered a favorite to win gold. In fact, he recently defeated another favorite, American Nyjah Huston, at the 2021 Street Skateboarding World Championship held in Rome in June.

As Dew Tour, a sponsor of American tournaments, put it, “Yuto’s skating is a shocking combination of massive rails and gaps and hyper-balanced flip-in, flip-out ledge wizardry. If that weren’t enough, he’s got vert skills, as well—including padless McTwists. Yuto is the definition of an all-terrain vehicle.”

 

Rui Hachimura: Hachimura went to NCAA basketball powerhouse, Gonzaga University from 2016 to 2019, and then was selected 9th in the NBA draft by the Washington Wizards. Gonzaga was famed for its international recruiting, but the coaches were surprised at how little English Hachimura spoke.

Well, that’s par for the course for Japanese. Hachimura is born and raised in Toyama, an out-of-the-way sea-side prefecture, and one of the least populated in Japan. He played basketball through high school in Japan.

His biracial features, a product of a Japanese mother and a father from Benin, make him stick out of the everyday Japanese crowd. But from his respectful nods and his soft-spoken nature, his mannerisms are Japanese.

In Japan’s own nod to the growing importance of being seen as diverse, Hachimura was given the honor of Japan’s flag bearer in the parade of athletes, a very tall, biracial representative of Japan.

 

Naomi Osaka: Born in the city of her last name, Osaka is ranked #2 in the world in women’s tennis. Due to a high level of self awareness and ability to align her values to the times, and communicate them in an authentic and humble manner, Osaka has become one of the most marketable brands today.

The child of a Japanese mother, Tamaki Osaka, and a Haitian father, Leonard Francois, Osaka and her older sister were taken to New York to live with her father’s parents. Francois was impressed by the rise of the Williams sisters in tennis, and sought to emulate Venus and Serena’s father, Richard Williams, and train his own daughters to become a powerful tennis tandem.

Osaka trained primarily in America, but her parents thought it best for Naomi to represent Japan. But in many ways, Osaka’s aura crosses boundaries, and is a global fan favorite. As if to bookend Hachimura’s symbolic role in representing Japan at the opening ceremony, Osaka represented the world by lighting the cauldron with the Olympic flame.

 

Kanoa Igarashi: Kanoa Igarashi, a handsome flashy surfer for Japan, technically, was conceived in Japan. He was actually born in Huntington Beach, California. When Igarashi’s mother, Misa learned she was with child, she and her husband, Tsutomu, decided to move the family to the United States with dreams of creating a star in Surf City.

Like the father of Tiger Woods, who choreographed the golfing great’s career from Tiger’s childhood, Tsutomu envisioned a future champion in his baby’s face. From the age of 3, Tsutomu would take Kanoa to the beaches of California in the early mornings, shaping the habits that would earn Kanoa his first championship at the age of 7.

In 2018, anticipating the benefits of competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Igarashi changed his nationality from USA to Japan, to become the face of Japanese surfing.

As surfing writer, Daniel Duane wrote, Igarashi is “a smooth-muscled, 22-year-old pro surfer with peroxide-blond hair and the youthful beauty of a boy-band teen idol in a comic book about young rock stars who become space warriors to save the galaxy.”

Photograph by Roy Tomizawa

The protests were never huge, but they seemed to be omnipresent. Groups of placard holders could be seen in front of train stations, at torch relay events, wherever there were crowds.

 

Their protests are symbolic of the seriousness with which people in Japan are taking the COVID-19 virus and its variants.

 

The climbing infection rates in Tokyo on the eve of the Games are like darkening clouds over the city. After a visit on Thursday, July 22, to the Tokyo Bay Ariake area where so many of the Olympic arenas are located, you might think the Games had already ended, there were so few people, and so little energy.

Photograph by Roy Tomizawa

 

However, if on the afternoon of Friday, July 23 you visited Harajuku, minutes away from the National Stadium, you would have heard the constant buzz of a beehive in anticipation. Around 12:45 pm, thousands of people congested the intersection in front of Meiji Shrine, waiting in the hot sun for the roar of jet engines.

 

Blue Impulse over Tokyo_Photograph by Roy Tomizawa

And suddenly, they were rewarded as the Air Self Defense Force air acrobat team called the Blue Impulse roared overhead. Cameras and phone pointed skyward as the jets formed the Olympic rings in the sky, an act harking back to the Opening Ceremonies of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

 

Photograph by Roy Tomizawa

 

A 15-minute walk takes you to the National Olympic Stadium, where crowds line the street. It’s only 1pm and it may be too early for the arrival of the athletes, but Japanese were happy to see the National Stadium in full regalia, albeit behind fences to keep us out.

Photograph by Roy Tomizawa

And when you get to the Olympic rings in front of the Olympic Museum and across the street from the National Stadium, the need to socially distance was totally forgotten. Anything to get a picture in front of the rings.

 

Yesterday, in my walk through Ariake, I was worried for the patient. But today, as I walked through the heart of the Tokyo Olympics, I felt a pulse.

 

Doctor, the patient is alive.

Photograph by Roy Tomizawa

The crowds were out on Omotesando to see a repeat of history. Photo by Roy Tomizawa

When Japan Air Self-Defence Force’s acrobat jet team, The Blue Impulse, flew across that beautiful blue sky on October 10, 1964, Japan ooh-ed and ah-ed.

It was a spectacular moment on a spectacular day as Japan welcomed the world to a country, not bowed and backward, but proud and modern.

Victor Warren, a member of the Canadian field hockey team, was on the filed during the 1964 Opening Ceremonies. “I’ll never forget,” he said. “It stuck in my mind –  five jets in the air which drew the Olympic rings. It was magic. It was terrific. It was a beautiful start to a beautiful day.”

On July 23rd, a little bit before 1 pm, the organizers hoped to capture that magic again. I made my way to Harajuku, near the entrance to Meiji Shrine. As I got close to the intersection in front of the main train station, the sidewalk got more congested.

Blue Impulse about to ring the sky. Photo by Roy Tomizawa

The place was packed. People filled the overpasses and the sidewalks, looking upwards, hoping to pick up telltale sounds of approaching jet engines. And then suddenly, there they appeared from the north, five jets in formation. Way up high amidst puffy white clouds and a light blue sky, the jets made a couple of passes. Their third time through, they flew in individually, spewing colored smoke.

In 1964, you could see the rings and their colors clearly. But the clouds seemed to get in the way in the 2021 version. People ooh-ed and ah-ed, but in an uncertain way. I could see the rings formed partially, but I never saw five fully formed rings in the sky.

The crowd applauded, politely.

More importantly, there was a crowd. And they were excited to connect to the spirit and energy of 1964.

Just watch this clip from the movie, “Always – Sunset on Third Street ’64.” This scene captures that moment in Japan perfectly.

As the protagonist in the film clip says, “and now, finally, it’s the Olympics!”

(For better pictures of the 2020 sky writing, go here.)

From the monorail entering into Ariake

It was Thursday, July 22. I was walking around Ariake in Koto ward, the land-filled man-made part of Tokyo Bay right off of Shinagawa.

 

I had an appointment at the Villa Fontaine Grande Tokyo Ariake Hotel, so afterwards, I took a walk.

Ariake Urban Sports Park – If you stand inside the Ariake Tennis no Mori Station, you can probably watch BMX racing for free!

Around me were the Ariake Arena where volleyball will be featured, the Ariake Gymnastics Center, the Ariake Urban Sports Park for BMX and skateboarding competitions, and the Ariake Tennis Park.

 

I was right in the middle of a huge concentration of Olympic arenas. It was the day before the Opening Ceremonies of the XXXII Olympiad. And it felt like I was walking around a ghost town.

Ariake Gymnastics Center

Oh, you could see people walking here and there. But under normal circumstances, I imagine I should have been surrounded by thousands on this day, a public holiday to boot.

 

Tourists, volunteers, staffers, officials, journalists and athletes from Olympics past should have been wandering around sipping cold Coca Colas, trading pins, and taking selfies.

 

Sponsors should have had booths or centers to educate, entertain and give out prizes to giggling kids and adults alike. But not during these Olympics. Most sponsors have toned down their affiliation to the Games. Toyota announced only a few days ago that they would not run Tokyo2020-related TV commercials.

No one looking at this great signage….

I passed by the Panasonic Center, a place for tourists to learn about future Panasonic products and ideas. It’s in a prime spot, right on the corner of a park near so much of the action, selected probably just for these Olympic Games.

 

Except for a picture of Naomi Osaka, you wouldn’t have known that Panasonic was a Global TOP Sponsor of the Olympics and Paralympics.

Panasonic Center – great location, timing however….

Next to the Panasonic Center, floral versions of Miraitowa and Someity, the mascots of the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics, stood behind fences, looking a little worse for wear these days.

 

Aren’t we all.

 

Miraitowa and Someity behind bars.

 

 

When he arrived in Tokyo on May 1, 2021, he felt fine – ready to compete in the race of his life, to determine whether he was coming back to Tokyo for the Olympics in July. And since his times in the single sculls were good to enough qualify, he felt he had a shot to do well at this Asia and Oceania rowing qualifier, to become the first rower from Saudi Arabia to compete in the Olympics.

But on May 2, he felt a slight pain. “It’s a sore ab,” thought Husein Alireza, so not a worry. But then it was May 5, time to race, and Alireza was in significant pain. The doctor there told him he had a stress fracture of the rib, and he probably shouldn’t race. To Alireza, there was no question – he raced.

And then Husein went back to the UK, where scans revealed his left lung had collapsed during the race and needed to have surgery, in fact fairly invasive lung surgery in early June, with painful post-op recovery. Then began the negotiation with the doctor, who told him he had to rest for two months. Not being able to train for two months would mean no trip to Tokyo, so doctor and patient got it down to 2 weeks.

Husein’s dream to compete in Tokyo was still alive.

As for the question of qualification, he had to wait. Olympic qualification in rowing is a complex process predominantly dependent on the qualifier results, as well as on the boat selection of other nations. The process took about two weeks. Two nail-biting weeks.

Husein’s coach Bill Barry is a veteran rowing coach, a member of the Great Britain coxless four rowing team that took silver at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Qualification for Tokyo 2020 would mean Barry would be the first person ever to attend the Olympics in the same city as an athlete and a coach.

Alireza would be the first Olympic rower in his nation – a critical step to increasing the popularity of rowing in not only Saudi Arabia, but across the Middle East where rowing is an unknown sport. After all, the Arabian Desert, 2.3 million square miles of sand, covers almost the entirety of Saudi Arabia. There is plenty of space to play football, but not to row.

So, when the final rankings were confirmed and the phone call came in late May that Alireza had qualified and was going to the Olympics, he realized he was no longer in injury recovery mode, but in training mode.

Bill Barry and Husein Alireza

Every effort had to be made so that he could perform his best at the Olympics. But with the injury, the surgery and the reduced lung capacity, Husein realized that he wouldn’t be able to do his best.  He could, however, overcome the challenges and represent, not just to bring meaning to his seemingly endless and exhaustive training, but also to his family and his country.

“Competing at the Olympics would be historic for my country while also honoring my family who’ve done so much for me,” Alireza told me. “It means the world. There is no greater honor than to represent your country on the biggest spectacle of all. It’s a moment I wish I could’ve shared with my late mother, Salma.”

“It’s very exciting being at the forefront of a new sport in the Kingdom,” he continued. “When I went back home last year, we organized an indoor rowing championship. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of youngsters in both genders asking so many questions and showing interest.”

As if to emphasize the impact Husein is having, he recently learned he would be the flag bearer for Team Saudi Arabia during the opening ceremonies of the Tokyo2020 Olympics.

Alireza realizes he has an opportunity to grow a sport not just in Saudi but in the Middle East Region. He knows he must raise funds, which means he has to educate people in the Saudi Olympic Committee and other relevant agencies. The funds are needed firstly to create a place where people can train in Saudi Arabia.

Fortunately, the Saudi Rowing Federation found a narrow strip of water located in a housing development in the northern part of the city Jeddah and is getting approval for its use as a rowing facility. “It’s close to the city, it is a perfect 2k rowing course, and that’s where the center of Saudi rowing will be.”

But first things first. Alireza has to get ready for the Olympics.

Barry said, “you need to understand that rowing is the toughest of all sports. It requires the most training to get aerobic conditioning and strength. People on the rowing team train 11 months of the year, 3 times a day, at least 4 days a week. A typical day might be sculling 16k in a boat, 16k on the rowing machine, one and half hours on weights. That’s a typical day. Scientifically, rowers breathe more oxygen in one minute than in any other sport.”

Alireza broke down how much effort went into that one race – a 2-kilometer sprint which takes a little over 7 minutes. “I rowed 30,000 kilometers,” said Alireza. “Eight hours of training went into every one second of my qualification race, which equals 15 kilometers for every 1 meter. In other words, the race was rehearsed 15,000 times.”

And when you row in a single scull for a country that has no rowing tradition, it is not just painful, it’s lonely, and Alireza wants to make sure that future generations of Saudi rowers feel strength in numbers.

“When I travel to an international race,” he told me. “In front of me I can see the Thai team, or the Japan team, having a great time together. Team spirit and camaraderie is a powerful thing, while I do my warm ups alone in silence envisioning coming back with a Saudi team one day.”

Barry, who is making history himself by being one of the very few to be credentialed for the two Olympics in the same host city (1964 and 2020), understands the importance of Husein Alireza.

“Husein is putting rowing on the map in Saudi Arabia.”

The XXXII Olympiad’s opening ceremony is the evening of Friday, July 23 in Tokyo.

 

But the Tokyo Olympics actually begin on the morning of Wednesday, July 21, in Fukushima. It’s the women who kick off the Games, when Japan takes on Australia in softball from 9 am (JST)  at Azuma Baseball Stadium. In fact, there will be three opening round softball matches in Fukushima on July 21, as well as three more on July 22.

 

Women’s soccer will also debut on the two days prior to the Opening Ceremonies, with  Great Britain taking on Chile in Sapporo, Hokkaido, China battling Brazil in Miyagi,  Sweden against the US in Tokyo, and a second match in Hokkaido in the evening, pitting Team Japan against Team Canada.

 

As Tokyo and neighboring prefectures Chiba, Saitama, Kanagawa, as well as Osaka and Okinawa are under varying forms of a State of Emergency, spectators have been banned from Olympic events in those areas.

 

Fukushima and Hokkaido prefectures are not in a State of Emergency, but officials there chose to also ban spectators from the softball matches at Azuma Stadium, as well as soccer matches at Sapporo Dome.

 

As of this writing, however, a limited number of fans will be allowed to attend the football matches in Miyagi Stadium, which is in Rifu, Miyagi. The governor of Miyagi, Yoshihiro Murai, has held steadfast in his desire to have fans in the stands.

 

The governor cites the fact that on July 24, the women from China and Zambia compete in a soccer match at Miyagi Stadium, while on the same day there will be a warm up match for Team Japan’s men’s baseball team at Rakuten Seimei Park in nearby Sendai, Miyagi, which is scheduled to have about 13,000 fans. (Professional baseball in Japan has allowed limited number of spectators throughout the year.)

Spectators, as of this writing, appear also to be allowed for soccer matches in Ibaragi and cycling events at Izu Velodrome in Shizuoka.

So, if you want to attend a live Olympic event, try to get a ticket to soccer matches at Miyagi Stadium on July 21, 24, 27, 28, 30, or 31, or at Ibaragi Kashima Stadium on July 22, 25, 27, 30, 31, August 2, 3 or 5. Cycling at Izu Velodrome will be from August 2-8.

Here’s the full schedule for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Japan supporters at a public viewing site in Tokyo celebrate after Kenki Fukuoka scored a try. Photo: Kyodo

Remember those maskless days of yesteryear?

 

Remember 2019?

 

Japan was an electric place to be in 2019. The 20-nation Rugby World Cup kicked off on September 20, as Japan defeated Russia handily.

 

But when Japan’s Brave Blossoms triumphed over Scotland a few weeks later, Japan exploded in celebration. Japan made it to the top 8 for the first time. Television ratings were huge at 53.7%. And the public viewing sites were very loud displays of unabashed joy.

 

We all thought – what a party Tokyo2020 is going to be!

 

When a rugby team can carry the nation on its broad shoulders, what would it be like in Japan during the Olympics, when Japanese stars go for gold in track, tennis, gymnastics, badminton, wrestling, baseball, swimming and many other sports?

 

In 2019, we were months away from witnessing the greatest Olympics in history.

 

Tokyo2020 tickets were the hottest in the world. The ticket lottery in Japan was way oversubscribed. As I wrote in December, 2019, “in the latest round of the lottery for Tokyo 2020 Olympic tickets for residents in Japan, there were 23 million requests for tickets….chasing 1 million tickets.”

 

Volunteer registrations too were oversubscribed. More than 200,000 people applied to be volunteers for Tokyo2020, well over the target of 80,000.

 

In January of 2020, the Japan Tourism Agency announced that Japan had 31.9 million visitors from overseas in 2019, establishing new record for the 7th year in a row. The government was seeing such explosive growth in foreign tourists that they doubled their 2020 target from 20 million to 40 million in 2016.

 

The 2019 Rugby World Cup showed the world how impactful sports tourism can be in Japan. This EY Report on the economic impact of RWC2019 explained that 242,000 inbound tourists purchased 28% (approx 490,000) of all tickets in a tournament of 48 matches, all of which were essentially sold out. And they loved their experience in Japan – 75% of visiting foreigners who came to watch rugby replied they “absolutely want to come again.”

 

In 2019, we were anticipating that Tokyo2020 was going to be the cherry on top, the opportunity for Japan to subtly and outlandishly boast how wonderful a destination Japan is. The organizers were going to have an opportunity to hold up Tokyo2020 as an example of a Games in the mould of 1964 Tokyo or 1992 Barcelona – an Olympics that served the economy, not an economy that served the Olympics.

 

But then, the Diamond Princess entered the port of Yokohama on February 3, 2020, a daily reality program that introduced Japan to the fear of the unknown virus. On March 11, the NBA season ended suddenly, and Tom Hanks announced he and his wife had COVID-19. And finally, a day after Team Canada and Team Australia announced on March 23 they would not go to Tokyo that July, the Games were postponed for a year.

 

COVID-19 has upended the lives of billions of people around the world. The angst of whether to hold, postpone or cancel the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics should never be put on level of the horrible loss so many have experienced during the pandemic.

 

And yet, I do at moments, quietly lament the current state of the Games.

 

Oh what could have been.

The email I got on the state of my tickets

 

The debut of Karate in the Budokan!  The 4X100 men’s relay finals at the new National Stadium! Men’s and Women’s gold medal round at Saitama Super Arena! I bought those tickets!

 

Alas and alack, my tickets to those events and many more, disappeared like sand castles in the rain.

 

On March 9, the Japanese government decided to exclude overseas spectators from attending the Games, but still holding out hope that the infection rates would drop low enough to allow for spectators already in Japan.

 

Those hopes were dashed on Thursday, July 8. The organizers of Tokyo2020 announced that spectators will not be allowed at Olympic events in Tokyo, after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced a fourth State of Emergency (SOE) from Jul 12 to August 22.

 

With the number of daily infections trending upwards, Suga said that “we must take stronger steps to prevent another nationwide outbreak.”

 

There will continue to be debate over the COVID impact of tens of thousands of athletes, support staff and administrators visiting from overseas for the Olympics, to be held from July 23 to August 8. But the Games will go on in empty stadiums and arenas.

 

Not what we imagined during the euphoria of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Twelve stadiums across Japan, from Sapporo to Shizuoka, from Osaka to Oita, were packed with enthusiastic fans from Japan and over 240,000 overseas visitors, who spent multiple days and weeks enjoying the 6-week party. Television ratings for the Japan-Scotland match that sent the Brave Blossoms into the Top 8 was an incredible 53.7%. And the news showed video of hundreds of screaming fans in public viewing sites across the country every day.

 

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will not be the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

 

But there is a new hope.

 

The State of Emergency ends on Sunday, August 22. The opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics is Tuesday, August 24.

 

No announcements have been made regarding spectators for the Paralympics. Before the pandemic began, demand for tickets to the 2020 Paralympics were unprecedented, with numbers far exceeding those of the successful 2012 London Paralympics.

 

As of today, about 29% of people in Japan have had at least one vaccination dose. That’s 57 million shots. If Japan continues an average of a million per day for another month, the numbers of fully vaccinated will shoot up from its current 19% of the population now.

 

The growing ratio of the vaccinated, combined with the state of emergency discouraging opportunities for super-spreader events, it’s possible the infection rates drop enough to ease the collective anxiety of Japanese society. it’s possible the mood in August will be different from July. It’s possible, that at the end of the current state of emergency, citizens, corporations and government alike will look for opportunities to take steps toward normalcy.

 

Who knows? The 2020 Tokyo Paralympics may be kicking off at just the right time. The Paralympics may be the opportunity that fans, both domestic and international, are allowed into the stadiums and arenas. Full capacity at venues may be a stretch, but seeing fans in the new National Stadium will be a welcome sight.

 

And I have tickets to the opening and closing ceremonies of the Tokyo Paralympics.

 

I have hope.