I was with the USA Climbing team in Tokyo a couple of weeks ago and talking with team coach, Josh Larson, and I couldn’t help but notice his hands.
They were ugly.
Fat. Dry. In desperate need of a manicure.
For climbers, the fingers carry a significant chunk of the freight, and as a result, get really fat. After years of sustaining one’s body weight on one’s fingertips, sliding them into the slimmest of crevices, and slipping off the tiniest of edges, fingers get swollen and calloused over time. The result – really ugly fingers.
But in the world of sports, sometimes ugliness is the price of admission.
The climbing wall looms high over the green at MoriPark Outdoor Village in Akishima, Japan, a yoga class finding serenity in the quiet strength of the monolith.
It’s a sunny Sunday morning on April 21, 2019, and the USA Climbing Team has just arrived and huddled on the grass to confirm their routine for the day. After training intensively most of the week indoors, it was time to get some work done outdoors.
MoriPark Outdoor Village, which is on the western edge of Tokyo, is a compact shopping center, with tenants which sell only outdoor gear and wear, or provide health and sporting services. For Team USA, the village’s climbing walls served as the venue for their day’s training.
Across the street from the rope-climbing wall was the speed climbing wall, used for one of the three climbing disciplines that will determine a medal for climbers at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. At the base of the 15-meter wall, the young men and women of Team USA (the oldest member was 22) began their stretching and prepping routine.
Five days later, the team would be competing for glory at the International Federation of Sports Climbing (IFSC) Worldcup in Chongqing, China. For now, it was a day for low intensity training.
Members of the team, including USA Climbing coach, Josh Larson, first got their senses sharpened with a round of hacky sack. Others stretched in their own AirPod-induced sensory isolation. And a couple pulled out their favorite distraction – the kendama.
A simply constructed wooden plaything out of Japan’s traditional past, the kendama is a wooden ball connected by string to a hammer-like handle that allows the player to catch the ball on a spike or on one of two cups. According to climber, Nathaniel Coleman of Salt Lake City, kendama became an addiction among slacklining athletes, which spread to the climbing world.
Eventually, the climbers had their opportunities scrambling up the wall like frantic Spider-men, hitting the metal plate at the top of the wall stopping the clock in 7 to 8 seconds. A medal for sport climbing will be up for grabs for those athletes who can compile the best combined scores for three types of climbing: lead climbing, bouldering, and speed climbing.
Lead climbing is about creativity and endurance. Bouldering is about puzzle solving, getting introduced to a new pattern of hand and footholds, and figuring out the best path. Speed climbing is about practicing the same exact pattern of hand and footholds on a wall that has existed for 10 years, a pattern which is solidly entrenched in the muscle memory of the fastest climbers.
Many climbers love the chess match of the other disciplines – lead and bouldering – but broadcasters love the clear-cut simplicity of speed climbing. In fact, the fastest event in the Olympics will be speed climbing, where the world record is an incredible 5.48 seconds.
And like any young sport, there are those who wonder if sports climbing is being sold out to the broadcasters who cater to the lowest common denominator. Kyra Condie of Minnesota is ranked 8th in the world in bouldering, and she learned her skills in the climbing gyms that nurtured climbers, and encouraged support and fun. “I worry,” she said “that climbing will become too competitive,” and lose the fun part of the climbing culture.
But the competitive nature of climbers are also stoked by sport climbing’s debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games. John Brosler of Dallas, Texas started climbing when he was 10, when his parents sent him to summer camp where he got hooked on the wall. John loves the competition of climbing and is “really psyched” to see the best.
“I got to see this sport grow from a niche when climbing gyms were few and far between,” said the 22-year old. “It’s really cool to see it gain traction and become an Olympic sport.”
But sports climbing is a global sport, and Team USA has some catching up to do.
In the three climbing disciplines of lead, bouldering and speed, Team USA is ranked 8th, 8th and 12th respectively. European nations like Slovenia, France, the Czech Republic and Russia, as well as Japan are proven teams that look to medal in 2020.
While climbing teams in Europe and other parts of the world have been better funded, and training together more formally for a longer time, Team USA has just been unifying its resources in the past year, according to Larson. The Boston native was hired as the team’s first coach in 2018. He was hired by the new CEO of USA Climbing, Marc Norman, who asked his team’s officials to move to Salt Lake City in order to make it easier to coordinate Team USA’s activities.
“It was only a few years ago when I’d go to a tournament in Europe, on my own, without a coach, and find out who else was on the team when I’d see them arrive,” Larson said.
In Tokyo, Team USA is together, benefiting from the camaraderie that comes from training together, and the aggregate knowledge that comes from their shared experience. Team USA’s time together has been short, but sport climbing rise to Olympic levels has also been quick. Not everything about the strategy and tactics of how to win a combined climbing event is known.
In other words, gold, silver and bronze in climbing is for the taking.
In my view, the streets in Barcelona are not suffocating with traffic. I was only in Barcelona for a few days in April, but the roads in the business districts are amazingly wide, and we were never slowed in our travels. When I walked the narrow paths of Gracia, a cozy neighborhood in the middle of Barcelona, I never felt squeezed by cars. I lived in Bangkok for 11 years. I know what bad traffic looks like.
But of course it is all relative. While Barcelona is no where near as hot, congested or polluted as Bangkok, for citizens of Barcelona, conditions are not as good as they should be. According to this VOX article by David Roberts of the University of Pennsylvania, Barcelona is the fourth-most population-dense city in Europe, is well under the World Health Organization’s recommendation for 9 square meters of green space per resident at 2.7 square meters, suffers from urban heat island effect at 3 to 8 degrees Celsius warmer than the region around it, and is considered one of the noisiest in the world.
One of the reasons for this poorer quality of life is due to decades of negligence by former totalitarian leader, Francisco Franco, After the generalissimo passed away in 1975, development in Barcelona began again, peaking with financing sparked by the Olympics, which may be another reason for the state of Barcelona today.
According to Samuel Rosenthal and his article, Olympic Cities and the Legacy of Infrastructure: Barcelona 1992 and Athens 2004, the planners for Barcelona were essentially taking advantage of global trends, including the desire for large cities to invest in urban renewal, and to also brand Barcelona as an exciting destination for tourists and global financing. In fact, Rosenthal explained that planners shifted attention from “publicly planned, small-scale infrastructural improvements to larger schemes funded by private investors.”
This is not unique to Barcelona. The organizers leveraged the Olympics to realize long-held plans for the development of Barcelona as would any other city. But as I wrote previously, these Games were so successful economically that it is often held up as the gold standard for an organization of an Olympiad, cited as The Barcelona Model. But one can argue that the Olympics triggered inflows of private capital that brought both benefits and detriments to Barcelona, as Rosenthal explains.
…this largely positive appraisal of the Barcelona Olympics belies the negative consequences of its planning strategy that have become evident in succeeding years. The regeneration of the waterfront, while touted as a positive outcome of the Games, has increased housing prices across the city, forcing many longtime residents to leave. Additionally, following the Barcelona Games, inflation in the city increased and unemployment rose. And on a larger scale the city branding approaches used for the Barcelona Olympics have increasingly placed control of the city in the hands of private agents. Generally, post-Olympic city planning in Barcelona has become less focused on the improvement of the lives of the city’s residents, and more attuned to strategies that seek to maximize the attraction of capital.
Part of the woes of urbanization and increased emphasis on development is a diminished prioritization of the working class. Economist Andrew Zimbalist, author of the fascinating book, Circus Maximus – The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, quoted Josep Maria Montaner, an architectural critic, in explaining how old housing and factories, landmarks of a different age, were demolished, and new development lacked any environmental or sustainability standards. Zimbalist then went on to explain how inflows of private capital led to gentrification.
Barcelona’s new urban zones were redeveloped with improved public services and, in some cases, direct access to the sea. These parts of the city became gentrified, and hand in hand with gentrification came higher prices. Higher prices meant that lower-income people had to relocate, and, more generally, plans for public housing were underfulfilled. One study noted the following impacts:
Strong increases in the prices of housing for rent and for sale (from 1986 to 1993 the cumulative increase was 139% for home sale prices and nearly 145% in home rentals)
A drastic decrease in the availability of public housing (from 1986 to 1992 there was a cumulative decrease of 5.9%)
A gradual decrease in the availability of private houses for rent (from 1981 to 1991 the cumulative decrease was 23.7%)11 Thus, like the experience with mega-events elsewhere, hosting the games in Barcelona was accompanied by a redistribution of living standards to the detriment of lower-income groups.
One can argue that the decrease in supply is being driven by a Silicon Valley start up called Airbnb, which is highly popular in Spain. For those who don’t know, Airbnb is a service that connects you with people who are offering accommodations in their own properties. The original premise of Airbnb was that you could rent out a person’s room, and you could spend time with the owner. Today, people and companies run businesses renting out apartments and houses to people who are looking for alternatives to hotels.
I spent a week in Madrid and Barcelona in April. In Madrid, I stayed in a room the owner lived in. He was out of town, but a guest occupied another room. It was a great experience as we got along well with the other occupant. In contrast, our Airbnb accommodation in Barcelona was owned by a couple who managed three properties, none of which they lived in. Overall, both experiences were great for us. But while Airbnb is a boon for tourists, it is to the detriment of local residents, as explained in this New Yorker article.
Nearly half the Airbnb properties in Barcelona are entire houses or apartments. The conceit of friendly locals renting out spare rooms has been supplanted by a more mercenary model, in which centuries-old apartment buildings are hollowed out with ersatz hotel rooms. Many properties have been bought specifically as short-term-rental investments, managed by agencies that have dozens of such properties. Especially in coveted areas, Airbnb can drive up rents, as longtime residents sell their apartments to people eager to use them as profit engines.
Caballé liked that Mercury, contrary to appearances, sold his voice instead of his image. “When he sat down at the piano to improvise, I realized that a true musician was before me,” she said. He made such a good impression that she agreed to meet him again at his house in London to record a demo.
Thus began a creative collaboration that resulted in an album called “Barcelona”, with three tracks sung by Mercury and Caballe, including the title track “Barcelona”. When the song came out in 1987, it hit #8 in the UK Singles Chart, peaking at #2 after Mercury passed away in 1991.
In the run-up to the 1992 Summer Olympics, Mercury was priming the world for the PR explosion to come for Barcelona, a city of sun and fun that was gearing up for its global coming-out party. Today, Barcelona is one of the most popular destinations in a country that is the third most visited in the world. And while city after city reject initiatives to bring the Olympics to their neighborhood, the 1992 Barcelona Olympics is often held up as one of the most successful Olympics ever.
Starved of investment by Spain’s autocratic leader, Francisco Franco, Barcelona was a congested and polluted city by the sea, whose aging manufacturing infrastructure crumbled during the poor economy of the 1970s and physically blocked the city’s denizens passage to the nearby Mediterranean Sea. Thanks to city plans accelerated by the requirements for the Olympics, investments into Barcelona’s transportation and communications infrastructure were made. According to Samuel Rosenthal and his article, “Olympic Cities and the Legacy of Infrastructure: Barcelona 1992 and Athens 2004,”
Barcelona renovated an existing stadium and created four Olympic areas with 4,500 apartments and 5,000 hotel rooms. In terms of infrastructure outside the immediate realm of the Games, the city constructed a new Ring Road to connect venues, two communication towers, new cultural centers and museums, expansions to the airport and the metro system, and five kilometers of new beaches.
As so few examples of economically successful Olympics exist, this example from 1992 is often called “The Barcelona Model” – in general, a scenario where a city and a country are able to leverage the Olympic brand to accelerate existing plans to develop the host city’s physical and service infrastructure. Or as economist Andrew Zimbalist describes, “Barcelona used the Olympics; the Olympics didn’t use Barcelona.”
Zimbalist explains that there were four factors for Barcelona’s success. (The headings are my words.)
Barcelona cool: In his book, Circus Maximus, Zimbalist described Barcelona in the early 1980s as “a hidden jewel. Its location, climate, architecture, and history meant that the city had a tremendous potential for tourism and business that had been unexploited for decades.” In fact, Zimbalist cited stars like Freddie Mercury who would visit the Catalonian center for its cool factor, and who added to the city’s secret cache. Barcelona was quietly becoming a popular destination for tourism and conventions. As Zimbalist wrote, “with a new airport terminal and forty new hotels in the city, the number of passengers at Barcelona’s airport almost doubled, from 5.46 million in 1985 to 10.04 million in 1992. Barcelona’s ranking as a tourist and business meeting destination among European cities improved from eleventh in 1990 to fourth in 2009.”
Improving economy: Zimbalist wrote that business was so good in Barcelona that unemployment dropped from 18.4% to 9.6% between the period of November, 1986 to July, 1992. Annual GDP growth was stuck under 1% for well over a decade from 1974 to 1985, which means that large infrastructure projects were few and far between. So when the Olympics rolled around, “the Barcelona economy was ready to receive and benefit from stimulus spending.” Unfortunately for Brazil and Greece, the opposite happened when their Olympics rolled around.
EU Membership: In 1986, Spain joined the European Economic Community (today called the European Union), which gave Spain access to broader opportunities in finance, trade and tourism across Europe.
The Olympics as Part of the Grander Plan: The most important reason that the Barcelona Olympics did not result in the hideous white elephants that we have seen recently in Sochi and Athens, among many others, is that “the Olympics were made to work for the plan. The plan was not created posthaste to work for the Olympics.” Most of the $11.5 billion budget 2000 dollars) was from private sources. Public funds were 40% of the entire budget, and most of the public spend were in projects already part of city plans that had existed for decades.
Part of grand plan of the city planners was to focus on four peripheral areas of Barcelona where investments for the Olympics would spur continued economic use. As Rosenthal explained, “It was also important that any infrastructure built specifically for the Games had a clear post-Olympic use,” so the planners chose four areas in the peripheries of the city where investment was needed: Montjuïc, Diagonal, Vall d’Hebron, and Poblenou.
The most dramatic and most praised of the changes took place in Poblenou, the eastern seaside part of Barcelona that was opened to the sea, and boasted two gleaming towers that initially housed the athletes as a central part of the Olympic Village, and then went on to become residences for the citizens of Barcelona. As Rosenthal wrote, “Newspapers lauded the ‘gleaming new Olympic village and beachfront’ which had replaced the ‘grimy industrial area that had blocked access to the sea for decades.'”
In 1992, Spaniards saw the Olympics as a symbol of progress and global integration. But it was also a chance to show off Barcelona cool, and help make the Capital of Catalonia a must-see destination. And nothing symbolized that more than the memorable cauldron lighting of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
At the end of the opening ceremony, held in the refurbished Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys in the newly improved Montjuïc area, archer Antonio Rebollo pulled back on the arrow, feeling the tension in the bow, and the heat of the flame that flickered in the wind from his arrow’s tip. Rebollo could barely see the reflection of the silver cauldron beyond the wall of the stadium, but once he was oriented and certain of his angle, he released the bow string sending the flaming arrow into the summer night. The arrow travelled 230 feet up into the air and over the cauldron, setting the fumes alight.
They call it one of the greatest Olympic torch lightings ever, for what is also called one of the greatest Olympics ever.
I celebrate the fourth anniversary of my blog, The Olympians, by announcing that my book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics is coming out in July.
The book, 1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes, is the product of the thousand-plus posts from my blog, The Olympians, which I started on May 1, 2014. It is also the product of interviews of over 70 Olympians from those 1964 Games, people whose memories and insights are lifeblood to the book.
I’ve had the honor for some of those Olympians, as well as writers and academics read the manuscript. Here are their advanced referrals for my book. Take a look!
Look for details going forward on the book here on my blog, The Olympians!
Tomorrow, May 1, 2019, begins the era of Reiwa in Japan.
Today, April 30, 2019, Emperor Akihito, the son of Emperor Hirohito, will abdicate the throne and be succeeded by his son, the Crown Prince Naruhito.
In Japan, every period of an Emperor’s rule is given a name, and the Japanese commonly used the era name to mark time. Hirohito’s was Showa, and I was born in the year of Showa 38 (or 1963). Akihito’s was Heisei, and I was married in the year of Heisei 2 (or 1990).
Akihito (age 85) is the first emperor in 200 years to step down from the throne, and he does so in order for he and his wife, Empress Michiko (age 84), to live out the remainder of their lives in a more leisurely fashion, without the daily duties of the royal house. After all, Akihito and Michiko, showed Japan throughout their courtship and marriage that they too had to grow and change with the times.
They first met on a tennis court in Karuizawa one day in August 1957. According to The Daily News, Michiko was partnered with an American named Bobby Doyle, and the Japan-US duo defeated Akihito in his partner over a two-hour two setter. It is said Akihito took a picture of Michiko and quietly had a friend deliver it to her. He also invited Michiko to join another tennis match, with the Shah of Iran.
Thus began the famous tennis romance, that blossomed not only for the couple, but for the entire nation. Not only did the royal couple spark a tennis boom in Japan, there was a boom in interest in the royal family. For Michiko was not of royal blood – a commoner who won the heart of the future Emperor, and “Mit-chi” as Michiko was affectionately called, was highly popular. Their eventual marriage on April 10, 1959, complete with a 8.8 kilometer procession through Tokyo in horse-drawn carriage, was viewed by half-a-million people who lined the course, and tens or million more on newly purchased televisions.
In another break from tradition, Akihito and Michiko decided that they would raise their own children instead of the practice of leaving the rearing of the children to tutors.
Thanks to the newly-founded powers of television to bring images instantly and up close to the average person, the crown prince and princess became celebrities of sorts. People were happy to catch a glimpse of them on a tennis court in Karuizawa or at a pizza restaurant in Roppongi. The members of a preparatory committee who hoped to bring the Stoke Mandeville Games to Tokyo also hoped to leverage the star power of the royal couple.
As related in a previous post, Yoshiyuki Kasai, who led the preparatory committee to bring what would become the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, arranged for Akihito and Michiko to meet the first Japanese to compete in the Stoke Mandeville Games in London, and tell the couple of their experience competing in a foreign land. Photos of the popular prince and princess with the disabled athletes ignited the preparatory committee’s ability to gain support more broadly within public and private circles.
As a result, not only did Akihito and Michiko help make the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics a reality, they were present during much of the 5-day Tokyo Paralympics, not just sitting in the audience, but interacting with the athletes on camera. They single-handedly brought significant national attention to the disabled, and raised the profile of this new international event despite the fact that Japan had just experienced it’s greatest international event, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, only weeks before.
The reign of Heisei is ending. But the legacies of Akihito and Michiko, including those in the world of sports, will last forever.
Over 80% of the citizens supported it. Some 80% of the infrastructure was in place. It was September, 2013 and Spaniards were feeling good about their third bid for the Summer Olympics.
The organizers of the bid campaign for Madrid, Spain had come in third for the 2012 Olympics, and then finished an excruciating second to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics. But this time around, three was going to be the charm.
Unfortunately, three was their fate.
Tokyo, Japan won going away, defeating Istanbul, Turkey by 60 votes to 36 at the 125th IOC Session in Buenos Aires, Argentina on September 7, 2013. In the first round of voting, Japan scored 42 votes from IOC members, while Madrid and Istanbul tied at 26, resulting in a run-off match to compete against Tokyo. In the run-off, Madrid was out-counted by the narrow margin of 49 to 45.
Guti (former Real Madrid player): “This is terribly sad, a huge blow, not just for Madrid, but for Spain as a whole.”
Javier Gómez Noya (Triathlete and Olympic silver medalist): “It’s a real shame, because everyone was very optimistic. But another city has got it and all athletes need to keep working hard and prepare for the Games in the same way. It will still be the Olympic Games, even though it’s a pity it will not be in Madrid.”
Jennifer Pareja (Waterpolo player): “We are lost for words, we didn’t expect to draw (with Turkey). It was the worst thing that could have happened. We hadn’t envisaged this, we were full of optimism. We are stunned. We don’t know what to say – everything could have changed and now it’s not going to happen. It’s a shame after all the efforts everyone has made.”
Tokyo, Japan was the oft-described “safe pair of hands,” an economically solvent economy with a reputation for dependability and quality. Yes, Japanese slowly warmed to the idea of hosting a second Summer Olympics as only a little over half of Tokyo citizens supporting a bid for the 2016 Olympics, although that number got into the 70’s as the bid for 2020 rolled around. More significantly, the vote for 2020 came only two-and-a-half years after the disastrous earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, and fears of radiation poisoning lingered in the minds of IOC members.
Istanbul, Turkey was an intriguing candidate, bidding to the be first Islamic nation to host an Olympics, an idea that appealed to the globalists of the IOC. Just four months prior to the IOC vote, protests erupted in Istanbul as people protested government plans to re-develop Gezi Park by barricading the streets and starting bonfires. Police battled protestors in the streets, where thousands were injured a few were killed. The domestic unrest was on top of Turkey’s growing involvement in the Syrian Civil war at their border. Only 11 months prior to the IOC vote, a Turkish fighter was shot down from the sky by Syrian forces in October, 2012.
One might think that if Spain were competing against a nation whose citizens were possibly under threat of radiation poisoning, and another nation which appeared on the brink of war, they should have a distinct advantage.
Alas, Madrid’s bid was seeming more like an impossible dream.
In 2013, Spain’s economy had racked up nine straight quarters of negative growth, and was so in debt that the government had to accept a bailout of 41 billion euros by European banks to get by. The country, in such financial distress, was the last letter in a slew of European nations under economic stress: Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain – with the unfortunate acronym PIIGS.
On top of that, the Spanish newspapers in 2013 were filled by stories of a trial about Operacion Puerto, a sting operation by the Spanish police that started in 2006, revealing the existence of widespread doping by Spanish cyclists, football and tennis players.
After losing the bid for 2020, the Madrid bid organizers called it a day, and declared they would not bid for the 2024 Games.
To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
Even for the Madrid team, it was time to stop tilting at windmills.
The 24-year old figure skater walked into a private room in Saitama Super Arena, the television to his left showing clips of the World Finals Figure Skating Championship that had just ended on the evening of March 23, 2019.
“I lost! I can’t believe it (“Maketa yo, kuyashii!),” said Yuzuru Hanyu. He glanced at the television set which showed his rival and winner of the world championship, American Nathan Chen. “How do I beat that?”
Despite Hanyu’s incredible free program and brief hold of first place, Chen’s was better.
“I really wanted to win when I was skating,” Hanyu stated. “I think I did my best, but the problem is that a figure skating competition consists of two days, and I lost both. It means that I simply do not have enough strength to win.”
Chen is a brilliant young skater, who has proven his metal by defending his world championship. But Hanyu will not go down without a fight.
Those who have followed Hanyu even a little know that he is not losing confidence. He may in fact be steeling himself for the greatest competition he has faced. Battling and overcoming an ongoing ligament injury to his right ankle, Hanyu won gold in PyeongChang last February, and the Cup of Russia in November. The flames of his competitive spirit have been fanned by Chen, and he’s out to take figure skating to the next level, which should surprise no one.
Hanyu is a living legend.
What’s incredible is that he is not alone here. We in Japan have been blessed, recent witnesses to once-in-a-century global talents in a wide variety of sports – four of them to be exact:
Yuzuru Hanyu (figure skating)
Ichiro Suzuki (baseball)
Kohei Uchimura (gymnastics)
Kaori Icho (wrestling)
Yuzuru Hanyu (figure skating):The Sendai native is a two-time world champion, has broken the world record in figure skating scores eighteen times, and is the first person since Dick Button did so in 1948 to win individual gold in two consecutive Olympiads. Can he do the unthinkable at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, and win an unprecedented third Olympic championship? I wouldn’t bet against him yet.
Ichiro Suzuki (baseball): After 28 years of professional baseball, the athlete known as Ichiro retired last week amidst adoring fans at the opening season matches between his Seattle Mariners and the Oakland A’s. No one has had more hits in professional baseball than Ichiro (4,367), and in the Major Leagues in America, he set the season hit record in 2004 with 262 hits, surpassing George Sisler’s record that stood for 84 years. His speed and defense made him a threat to steal a base as well as hits and runs in the field. There’s an overwhelming consensus that Ichiro will be the first player enshrined in the baseball hall of fames of both Japan and America. His love of the game, his training regimen and his flare for the dramatic will live on forever.
Kohei Uchimura (gymnastics):He is called King Kohei. The native of Nagasaki is the only gymnast to win all-around gold in every major title in a four-year Olympic cycle….twice. In other words, Uchimura won the world championship and Olympic gold from 2009 to 2016. You may as well tack on his silver medal in the all-arounds at the 2012 London Olympics, and call it a decade of dominance. Calling him the Greatest of All Time (GOAT), as many do, is not hyperbole. As Uchimura is 30, it is unlikely that his dominance will continue at Tokyo 2020. But he might be there, giving us all still a chance to glimpse greatness.
Kaori Icho (wrestling):There is another Japanese GOAT – a woman from Japan named Kaori Icho. The freestyle wrestler from Aomori, Icho has won an unprecedented and incredible four straight Olympic championships since women’s wrestling became an Olympic sport at the 2004 Athens Summer Games. In fact, she’s the first female in any sport to win an individual gold in four straight Olympiads. Through that period, Icho had won 189 straight matches, a 13-year streak that ended in January, 2016 to a wrestler ten years her junior, only to re-start the streak and take her fourth gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. She is indeed the best female wrestler ever.
We in Japan have been most fortunate in recent years to live among living legends.
On March 20, 2019, just as cherry blossom buds were beginning to reveal their delicate pink petals in Tokyo, the organizers of Tokyo2020 revealed their own beautiful blossom – the Olympic torch.
On March 20, 2020, torch bearers will commence the torch relay and carry this 71-centimeter, 1.2 kilogram aluminum torch from Miyagi in Northern Japan, to Okinawa at the archipelago’s western-most tip, and then back to Tokyo in time for the opening ceremonies on July 24, 2020.
As cherry blossoms bloom and fall in March next year, torch bearers will hold aloft a torch gleaming in gold with a hint of pink – a color dubbed “sakura gold” – fashioned in the shape of the iconic Japanese cherry blossom. Fire will arise from the cylinders of the five petals to form a single flame.
Tokuijin Yoshioka, the torch’s designer, was not only inspired by the Olympic rings, but also by schoolchildren at an elementary school in Fukushima he visited, whom he said drew beautiful renditions of cherry blossoms. “I was very impressed with the powerful expression in the cherry blossoms drawn by kids in this area,” Yoshioka said in the Asahi Shimbun. “They are trying to overcome challenges and trying to move forward. I wanted to share that with the world.”
Three-time gold medalist judoka, Tadahiro Nomura, stood on stage with Yoshioka at the unveiling, and was breathless. “To actually be holding this superb work, is frankly giving me shivers,” he said in this Kyodo article. “I can only imagine the joy on the faces of people lining the route of the relay when they see it.”
Each of the torches to be produced will be made primarily of aluminum, 30% of which has been recycled from the temporary housing provided to those left homeless in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, in the wake of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant meltdowns that stunned Japan on March 11, 2011.
After the flame is ignited in Greece on March 12, 2020, the flame will be transferred to the sakura torch eight days later when the torch relay will begin in northern Japan, making its way through 47 prefectures.
Ten thousand torches will be made, which is probably close to how many people will be needed to cross the nation in the four months prior to the opening ceremonies.
It was opening day for Major League Baseball, and the Seattle Mariners were taking on the Oakland Athletics in Japan at the Tokyo Dome.
The A’s were winning 5-4 in the top of the fourth, and Ichiro Suzuki was coming up to bat. The future first-ballot hall of famer extended his right arm, holding his bat straight up, and awaited the pitch.
Six people on the 2019 Oakland roster were not even born when Ichiro started his career as a rookie for the Orix BlueWave in 1992. The hair on his head and face was trimmed nearly to the skin, but even that couldn’t hide the gray of a grizzled 45-year-old veteran.
Ichiro took a first-pitch strike, worked it to a 3-2 count, hitting a ball off his leg twice, before ripping a ball foul down the right field line, electrifying the crowd, all of whom were essentially willing Ichiro to get a hit – one more to the 4,367 hits in his professional baseball career.
Ichiro walked, and then, as the Mariner’s took the field for the bottom of the fourth, Ichiro jogged back in, embraced teammates around third base and entered the dugout to the applause of the fans.
I was one of those 45,787 fans, wondering if we had seen the last appearance of Ichiro on the field. Joining an American Chamber of Commerce of Japan event, I got a unique behind-the-scenes look at Major League Baseball. Jim Small, Senior Vice President of International Business at Major League Baseball, took us on a tour of Tokyo Dome: the press room, the bullpen and the field to watch batting practice.
We watched Ichiro’s replacement in right field, Dan Vogelbach slash balls in the batting cage as Small pointed to the red patches in the green sea of artificial turf. He told us that two tons of clay on the mound and around the bases had been shipped in from the United States….by plane…after issues at the Panama Canal thwarted the forward progress of the freighter ship.
Getting the proper clay to Japan for two exhibition games and two official games was vital to Major League Baseball (MLB). With tens of millions of dollars of assets on the field in the form of professional baseball players, MLB didn’t want to have a repeat of what happened to Robin Ventura of the Mets, when they took on the Chicago Cubs in Japan in 2000, the first time any regular-season games had taken place outside North America. According to the New York Times, Ventura slipped twice in the batter’s box during a game, the Japanese clay being of a looser, drier consistency.
When we got into a meeting room for an Inside Baseball talk before the game, Small got down to business. Japan is a critical market, and a major source of revenue for MLB, whether it is media (e.g.: streaming of MLB games), sponsorships (e.g.: commercials or corporations that want to market themselves using the MLB logo or Japanese players in MLB uniforms), consumer products (e.g.: jerseys and caps), and events (e.g.: exhibition or regular-season games).
And MLB, like so many other businesses, want to grow smartly around the world. According to Small, investing in markets like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Latin America is a no brainer – baseball is a popular part of the culture and so the fandom and infrastructure are in place for MLB to plug and play. That’s why MLB is holding 2019 regular season games not only in Japan, but also in Mexico.
MLB is also looking at emerging markets, those with strong economies and perceived to have the potential to grow the sport. Thus, games between teams in one of the fiercest and famed rivalries in baseball – The New York Yankees and The Boston Red Sox – will take place in London, England on June 29-30.
It’s unclear whether baseball will take off in England – there is so much competition for the English sports fans’ mindshare and wallet. But MLB believes that the Asian emerging markets show tremendous potential for growth, particularly China and India.
China: As China prepared for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Small told us that leaders in China recognized that they were not competitive in baseball compared to its Asian neighbors, like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. They saw baseball as an Asian sport and they wanted to be better. Today, 650,000 viewers watch each MLB game broadcasted in China, in Chinese, which actually dwarfs the Japanese market. Some 300 stores sell MLB goods. And there are actually 7 Chinese nationals in the farm systems of major league baseball teams. China may not make the top 12 for the Olympics in Tokyo, but they are determined to catch up to their Asian brethren.
India: In 2008, the Pittsburgh Pirates created some media buzz by announcing the signing of two pitchers from India to minor league contracts. As interest by Indians in American baseball has grown, so too has MLB’s interest in growing the India market. As Small explained, India’s love for cricket is an advantage, particularly from a talent perspective, as the throwing and catching movements, on the whole, are similar to those in baseball. But perhaps even more intriguing is this: India has an incredibly high percentage of people who own connected devices like smartphones and tablets – 90%. That’s 90% of 1.1 billion people, of which 89% interact on social media. That’s the kind of market where the right steps can grow brand awareness very quickly.
Ichiro maybe saying goodbye to baseball. But the MLB is saying hello, konnichiwa, namaste and ni hao to the world.