In Japan, you can emphasize ownership over something by placing the English phrase “my” in front of it. Thus when people dream of expensive purchases, they dream about buying “My car,” or “My home.” This summer, I dreamed about buying “My torch.”
And so I got one.
Photograph by Kevin Ing
“My torch” is from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Scars of spent fuel are wrapped in ribbons around the silver cylinder of “My torch,” which protrudes from a black aluminum holder, also sporting stains of fiery remains. “My torch” is a handsome reminder that someone in Japan proudly held the Olympic flame aloft with this torch, while running amidst spectators cheering along the sides of some small town road.
“My torch” was the amalgamation of two Japanese businesses: Showa Kaseihin and the acclaimed designer, Sori Yanagi.
The Cylinder: The gauntlet was thrown down the by the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee: create a torch that would “absolutely not go out, even in the rain.” The job to develop the cylinder and the fuel to sustain a fire was given to defense contractor, Showa Kaseihin in early 1964. The cylinder, from the tip of which flames would fly, is 55 centimeters long, 3 centimeters in diameter, and 54 grams in weight. Inside the stainless steel cylinder, Showa Kaseihin (which is now called Nippon Koki) packed a chemical amalgam into the cylinder of red phosphorus, manganese dioxide and magnesium. The flare-like flame that emerged when the amalgam was lit would last up to 14 minutes come rain or shine, while creating a billowy trail of smoke that can be seen from afar.
The Holder:Sori Yanagi is one of Japan’s most famous industrial designers of the 20th century, who helped put Japan on the map with his globally recognized furniture and kitchenware. (Maybe you’ve seen his famous butterfly or elephant stools in a MOMA exhibit.) His father, Soetsu Yanagi started the Japanese folk craft movement, passed the torch to his son, Sori. In a case of symbolic justice, Sori Yanagi was asked to create the receptacle for the cylinder of the Olympic torch. Crafted from a metal alloy composed primarily of aluminum, the holder is simple and elegant, with a clean black finish. The words “XVIII OLYMPIAD TOKYO 1964” are etched into the surface of the holder’s face, along with the Olympic rings.
The product of this collaboration is an Olympic torch which fits nicely in one’s palm, its heft equal to its gravitas, its lines simple and striking. This is a torch that spread the word throughout Asia that the world was coming to Japan, and brought hundreds if not thousands running to see the flame, born of the sun in Greece, destined for Tokyo and the commencement of the Olympics, and a new chapter in Japanese history.
Superheroes often emerge from intense pain and suffering, according to their origin stories.
Jean-Baptiste Alaize was three years old when he witnessed the slaughter of his Tutsi mother at the hands of Hutus during the Burundi Civil War, and he himself fell to four machete blows that resulted in the loss of a leg.
Bebe Vio was eleven years old when she fell in a coma induced by a battle with meningitis, a condition akin to “imploding inside.” A budding fencing star and a ball of energy, the Italian pre-teen had to make the horrible decision to amputate both arms and legs to thwart the advance of the disease.
Tatyana McFadden was born in the Soviet Union with a congenital disorder which paralyzed her from the waist down at birth, in a country that did not officially recognize the existence of disabled people.
However, these three and many others profiled in a recently released Netflix documentary found redemption and achievement in sport. The film, Rising Phoenix, is an impassioned introduction to the Paralympic movement. Layering on top of the powerful theme of Channel 4’s marketing of the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Paralympics – We’re the Superhumans! – Rising Phoenix gives Para athletes the Hollywood superhero treatment.
The production values of Rising Phoenix can be described as lavish. Aussie swimmer Ellie Cole is shot dancing under water, rays of light piercing the dark waters. Alaize sits open and relaxed on a spacious couch in an ornate French Baroque setting. South African sprinter Ntandu Mahlangu is interviewed with an actual cheetah in repose at his own cheetah blades. And Vio is filmed lovingly in slow motion, strapped to a wheelchair, lunging and gyrating to angelic music.
And yet when it comes to recognizing the disabled, Rising Phoenix is the exception. Every superhero has a weakness. For Superman, it is kryptonite. For Para athletes, and people with disabilities, it is apathy.
Rising Phoenix is a tale of Two Paralympics, nearly the best of times and the worst of times for the paramount global event for athletes with disabilities. The 2012 London Paralympics were a triumph of the organizers, an event that packed the stadiums and arenas, energized a city, and inspired the world. The 2016 Rio Olympics, as we learn in the film, nearly ended the Paralympic movement.
Seven weeks before the start of the 2016 Rio Paralympics, then president of the Brazilian Paralympic Committee. Andrew Parsons was given terrible news by the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games – they did not have enough money to run the Paralympic Games.
“They are not telling you, we can do that, or we can do that,” said Xavier Gonzalez, CEO of the IPC at that time. “They are telling you we cannot organize the games. I couldn’t at that moment see how we could fix it. And that was scary.”
And as potential Rio Paralympians began to understand that the rumors were true, they had that sinking, familiar feeling from childhood, their teenage years, and still today: unfairness, humiliation, helplessness. Said two-time T-44 men’s 100-meter sprint champion, Jonnie Peacock of Team GB, “you just feel like these people don’t view the Paralympics as anything.”
Parsons explained in exasperation how he could not give clear answers to the national Paralympic committees who worried whether the Games would happen or not. But he and the filmmakers were explicit in explaining who was to blame. Speaking over images of the Rio Olympic Organizing Committee, including chairman Carlos Nuzman, who was subsequently arrested for corruption and bribery, Parsons said, “forget about these guys, the leadership, because they won’t help.”
Rising Phoenix goes on to tell the nail-biting story of how IPC leadership, Parsons, Craven and Gonzalez, convinced the Brazilian government and skeptical authorities to keep this dream alive not only for over 4,300 Para athletes, but also for 24 million persons of disability in Brazil.
The 2012 London Paralympics is held up as the gold standard for awakening the world to the incredible athletic abilities of Para athletes. But it is the 2016 Rio Paralympics that may have saved the movement. Said Craven, “We’d have really broken the cycle. Confidence wouldn’t have been there in the future. It would (have been) the extinguishing of that Paralympic flame.”
Changing the World
Instead, the flame burns brightly today. Rising Phoenix brings alive the power of the movement, and the dreams of these superheroes.
The reunification of mother and child as summer Paralympian, Tatyana McFadden wins cross-country silver in the Winter Paralympics in her country of birth, Russia.
The dramatic and stirring gold medal victory of ebullient Bebe Vio in wheelchair fencing, who carries you on her shoulders in waves of joy.
“No one stays the same after watching the movie,” said Parsons in a recent interview with 20 foreign chambers of commerce in Japan. “If ten people watch the movie, ten people will be changed. If ten million people watch the movie, ten million people will be changed. I want the entire world to watch this movie.”
So do I.
Note: All film poster images shared with permission of the IPC.
“I was supposed to be in Tokyo today, rehearsing my opening speech,” said Andrew Parsons wistfully.
It was a little after 8pm on Monday, August 24, 2020 Japan time. Parsons, the President of the International Paralympics Committee (IPC), was addressing members of 20 foreign chambers of commerce in Japan in a Zoom meeting. The event marked one year to go for the Tokyo2020 Paralympics.
The Paralympics would have kicked off in Japan on Tuesday, August 25, 2020 if not for the devastating and global impact of COVID-19 virus. It was March 24, 2020 when the fateful decision was made to postpone both the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics for a year. “That decision was not taken lightly, but it was the right one,” said Parsons. “Had the games been tomorrow, there’s no chance they would have happened.”
Putting the Puzzle Back Together
March 24 brought devastating news to the organizers in Japan. Yasushi Yamawaki, IPC Governing Board Member at Large and Tokyo 2020 Vice President said they were more than surprised.
“When the decision was made to postpone the games, most of the staff and partners, were very much shocked. They had spent seven years putting together the biggest and most complicated jigsaw puzzle. And with a few pieces to go, they were told to start over again.”
There are dozens of major sponsors, over 180 National Paralympic Committees, dozens of international sports federations, and thousands of athletes who had questions. But for the IPC, a huge question that had to be answered was how to ensure funding for Tokyo2020 in 2021. As Craig Spence, IPC Chief Brand & Communications Officer, explained, it was critical to re-do the contracts with the broadcasters first.
“From an IPC point of view, we had to review 300 contracts in the space of two weeks. We have TV contracts with 165 broadcasters. Each contract needed to be reviewed. And each contract impacted the cash flow of the IPC for 2020 because we were due money this year, but the TV contract was then moved to next year.”
And Parsons reminded everybody that this incredibly complex and urgent work had to be done in the challenging environment of a pandemic. “We had to manage our cash flow,” said Parsons. “But we also needed to work with our staff all over the world, many of whom were living away from their families during the most demanding period ever for the IPC.”
Parsons is hopeful, but he is realistic. He said that everything that can be done, that can be controlled, will be. Planning will continue through the end of September. The IPC will focus on countermeasures to COVID-19 in the last quarter of 2020, and then will enter operational readiness in the first quarter of 2021. After that, important decisions will have to be made.
“We still have one year to go. We will follow the development of the pandemic. Unfortunately, none of us have a crystal ball. We have to work as if the Games are going ahead. This is the tricky part – how to work towards something you don’t know 100% is going ahead or not. But at the moment we are working full speed ahead preparing for the Games as if they are happening.”
The postponement resulted in a re-planning process that prioritized two things: the safety and health of the athletes and an approach to budgeting only what is necessary, a sustainability mindset that can be applied to future Paralympics, something that Parsons calls the Principles. “In these principles, the safety of athletes Is the number 1 priority for us,” said Parsons. “Everything that is not fundamental for the Games will be downscaled or cut.”
No Question of the Tokyo2020 Legacy
The Paralympics were postponed for a year. But Tokyo2020 is already establishing a legacy in Japan. Yamawaki explained that Tokyo is one of the most accessible cities in the world for the disabled, and that the media showcases the capabilities and personalities of the Para athletes almost on a daily basis.
Spence shared comparative data showing the impact of the run-up to the Games.
“In the build up to London 2012 with 18 months to go, less than 1% of the British population could name a Paralympian, and everyone sees London as the benchmark. In Tokyo last year, 45% of the Japanese population could recognize Shingo Kunieda, the wheelchair tennis player. So that shows the real difference in interest. In terms of accessible transport, I think when Tokyo won the right to stage the Games, around 75% of the city’s metro stations were accessible. By the time the Games happen next year, that’s going to be at 99%. That would never have happened had it not been for the Paralympics coming to Tokyo. The legacies are going to be tremendous.”
Yamawaki oversees the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center, which is driving a groundbreaking education program in Japan’s school system. The IPC’s “I’mPossible” program – a toolkit of resources designed to engage 6-12 year old students about the Paralympic movement – is being pioneered in Japan with great success. Yamawaki said that this program has been delivered to 36,000 primary and secondary schools across Japan.
Children can learn from this unique learning opportunity,” said Yamawaki. “They will become future leaders in creating an inclusive society in this country after the Paralympics are over. It’s going to be one of the biggest legacies. Usually the parents teach the children, but in the I’mPossible program, kids teach the parents. This will increase parents’ awareness of the Paralympic Games and Paralympic sports. That’s the biggest impact we’re seeing.”
What You Can Do
Here are a few suggestions from IPC leaders on what we all can do to support the Paralympics broadly, and people with disabilities specifically.
Employ Persons with Disabilities:If your company does not employ persons with disabilities, it should. If your office is not set up to deal with people in wheelchairs, put in ramps. If you have a restaurant or a canteen, make your menus available in braille, or put your information on the internet so that people with disabilities can more easily access the information.
See the Opportunity: As Spence explained, before he joined the IPC, he didn’t realize people with disabilities are such great problem solvers.
“People with disabilities face challenges on a daily basis. They don’t tend to moan. They don’t just sit around thinking I can’t get around this. They always find innovative ways to get around and beat the challenge. They can bring a whole new creativity and new outlook to your business.”
Go See the Games:Seeing the Para athletes in action will change your attitude for life. Get as many people around you to see the Games.
“There’s very few people in the world who can run 100 meters in under 10.5 seconds,” said Spence. “Yet we have athletes with prosthetic legs and running blades who can do it in 10.4 seconds. It really does challenge perceptions towards disability.”
The photographer’s eye was keen, often captured by the person at work.
The woman shining shoes in front of a bank.
The man patching up the entrance of an old lady’s abode.
A man on his bike after making deliveries.
The proprietors of a tea house.
Men and women of the office entering a busy train station after a day’s work.
Dick Lyon was in Japan for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and bought a Bronica camera. In his quiet walks around the Olympic Village, he was drawn to the working person, which might not come as a surprise to those who knew him.
“For work ethic, no one topped Dick, ever,” said Kent Mitchell, two-time Olympian, who won gold with Ed Ferry and Conn Findlay in the coxed pair at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. “Meticulous in everything was his mantra. For years I have kept a copy of Dick’s daily handwritten workout logs in my briefcase wherever I go. I don’t know why I carry it around. It exhausts me even to read it. I can’t imagine what Dick and Larry went through to do all those things day after day.”
Mitchell recalled that Lyon and his partner in the coxless pairs, Larry Hough, would get in shape for the 1972 Munich Olympics by running up and down stadium steps. “In 1972, he and his pair partner, Larry Hough, in their run up to the 1972 Munich Olympics in a two-man boat, both set records for running up and down ten sets of 88 stairs in Stanford’s Football Stadium. Their record still stands.”
“Pound for pound toughest oarsman I know,” said Ed Ferry, who won gold with Conn Findlay in the coxed pair at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
“I spent hundreds of hours looking at the back of Dick’s head,” said Mittet. “His perfect rowing form was like his life…always striving, always gentle, always on center and always reliable.”
Like Mitchell, Lyon was a graduate of Stanford, who double majored in electrical and mechanical engineering. At the US Olympic trials in 1964, he rigged a double-steering mechanism so that both the stroke and the bow could steer if necessary…because he could. In his life outside of rowing, Lyon worked in the burgeoning IT world of Silicon Valley, many years in Hewlett Packard.
“I have many very smart friends, but Dick’s mind was unique among them,” said Mittet.
Richard Avery “Dick” Lyon died on July 8, 2019. After decades winning boatloads of medals in Masters rowing competitions, he was taking it easy on a sailboat on Huntington Lake with his wife, Marilyn. The boat flipped, and in the course of pulling the boat back to shore, Lyon had a heart attack and passed away soon after.
Mittet was close to Lyon, and appreciated his intellect and his empathy. “He was always objectively focused, soft spoken and an engaged listener without the appearance of effort.”
You can see the desire to tell the story of the everyday person in his pictures. He wrote to me a few years ago about how he enjoyed watching the Olympics on television because he knew the effort and challenges Olympians – famous or not – had to overcome just to get to the Games. And he appreciated them all for that.
The truth, of course, reveals that every elite athlete has a story, full of obstacles they have found their way around or over on the way to their goal. When you train and compete as an athlete at the highest levels, even if you don’t come out the winner, you are forced to learn more about who you are deep down. I have often thought of this as I watch Olympic Games on TV. The commentator goes into depth about a number of particular Olympians, but how much could so many untold stories reveal?
“Imagine coming out of a subway station in New York and all you see is horizon,” said Jan Palchikoff. That was her way of imagining what her father witnessed when he arrived in Hiroshima a few weeks after it was flattened by the first atomic bomb ever used in military conflict.
Jan was an Olympic rower who competed in the double sculls at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, one of nearly 400 who competed on Team USA. But her story of why she competed as an American is distinctly unique.
In 1942, after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor at the end of 1941, Jan’s father, Nikolay, was 17 years old and he wanted to join the US Army. He had emigrated to America in 1940, attended high school in Los Angeles and then worked odd jobs as a janitor and sales before answering the call for army recruits.
He wasn’t even an American citizen. But he did speak fluent Japanese and Russian.
Nikolay eventually made his way to the Pacific theater, lent out to the Navy to question Japanese soldiers and listen in on radio conversations in Japanese. He did intelligence work in New Caledonia and the Philippines, roaming the seas in an American naval convoy as kamikaze pilots and Mitsubishi G4M bombers attacked.
When Japan surrendered, Nikolay was sent to Japan to help seek out safe places for American troops to land in the Tokyo area to ensure the safety of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, General Douglas MacArthur, for the surrender ceremony. And when MacArthur oversaw the signing of the instrument of surrender on the USS Missouri, Nikolay watched from a higher perch on the USS General Pershing, which was docked next to the Missouri.
With his primary duty in Japan done, Nikolay insisted that he be allowed to go to Hiroshima. Only one month after the atomic bomb was dropped on that city, the Army intended to send him to Korea, and was reluctant to send a random American soldier over 800 kilometers to the Western part of Japan which was not yet considered safe and secure.
But Nikolay was insistent. After all, Hiroshima was where he was born, and where his parents were.
Nikolay’s father, Sergei Palchikoff, was a Tsarist from Kazan, Russia, who fought the Communists across Imperial Russia before commandeering a ship in Vladivostok and escaping to Japan. Sergei and a few other Russian families ended up staying in Hiroshima.
A jarring fixture in Hiroshima, the Caucasian Palchikoffs stood out in the Japanese streets. Sergei made his way and built up social capital by teaching violin in an all-girls school, as well as teaching Russian and English.
Nikolay was born in Hiroshima, feeling at home playing Japanese war games with his neighborhood friends. As he said in this Japanese article, “When I lived in Hiroshima, I had many friends and I had never been treated as a foreigner. I was accepted as a single Hiroshima person – swimming, fishing in the river, riding around the city by bicycle.”
However, as the 21-year-old approached Hiroshima on the train, he began to realize that his hometown would not be the same. His train passed the Kurii Naval Base and “you could see that all the Japanese ships were rusting, turned over” as Kurii had been shelled “for three days and nights. And I thought, “My god, Hiroshima couldn’t possibly be worse than this. And I was wrong.”
There was of course, nothing alive, no plants. No birds chirping. In Japan, there are these cicadas, and they make noise all day long. They’re up in the trees, and we used to try to catch them. Nothing. Dead silence. And I approached my house. There was nothing there, except my wrought-iron bed is used to sleep in, so I knew I was at the right place.
Nikolay could not find his family amidst the rubble. When he encountered one of the Parasuchin’s, one of the few other Russians living in Hiroshima, Nikolay was informed that the Russians were rounded up by the police and had taken them all to the mountainside. Whatever the reason for that, the Palchikoff’s were not in the central part of Hiroshima when the bomb hit. In fact, Nikolay’s parents, as well as his brother, David, and sister, Kaleria, were still alive!
The Palchikoffs were moved to a town called Taishaku away from the bomb blast and the initial spray of radiation. As far as the family in Hiroshima knew, their eldest son was in high school in America. But then one day, he shows up on their doorstep in a uniform, one of the first American soldiers to appear in Hiroshima.
It is hard to fathom the emotions of such a reunion. Most of this narrative is taken from an interview of Nikolay in May, 2003. In the parts of the transcript where Nikolay is describing his return to Hiroshima, you can see the word “Cries” in brackets, where Nikolay apparently would be talking through his tears.
Nikolay’s sister, Kaleria, was interviewed shortly after the end of the war, her memories an example of the horrors the people of Hiroshima witnessed. In this excerpt, broadcasted on NPR, she described her shock at seeing people whose skin color were burned dark by the blast, and the subsequent radiation sickness that befell them.
We saw Negroes. They weren’t Japanese. They were Negroes. I asked them what happened to them. ‘We saw the flash and this is the color we turned.’ We reached the military hospital. I stayed there for two days. There were people wounded, badly wounded. The skin just peeled off. Some of them you could see the bone. The eyes were closed, the nose bled, the lips swelled, the whole head started swelling. As soon as they gave them water, they vomited it all out, and they would keep on vomiting until they died. On the second day, the wounds became yellow in color, and it would go deeper and deeper. No matter how much you tried to take off the yellow rotten flesh it would go deeper and deeper.
Nikolay had to return to duty back in Tokyo, and then in Korea. In the meanwhile, he made sure that his parents and siblings got safe transport back to Tokyo. He was also able to get his father a job in the Officers’ Club in Tokyo. In January, 1946, Nikolay was allowed to return to the United States, and he was able to bring his family with him.
After returning stateside, Nikolay had an appendicitis attack and went to the hospital, where he had his appendix removed, and his heart stolen by a nurse named Dawn Clarke. Nikolay and Dawn got married, and had four children: Jan, Kim, Kai and Jay.
Jan rowed for UCLA, and then for Team USA at the Montreal Olympics. She is still an active athlete who competes in Masters competitions in cycling. She also currently serves as the senior vice president for sports & programs for Special Olympics Southern California.
But the journey of her family that brought Jan to achieve Olympian heights was a century-long road through the Siberian steppes and the atomic wasteland of Hiroshima.
Remembering my grandparents and my parents, it occurs to me now that one of the common threads that runs through our lives is simple perseverance – necessary for survival and for facing adversity and challenges. My grandparents’ story and how my dad ended up in the US and met my mother has always filled me with awe, wonder and inspiration. While I was not fighting for my life in sport, I am positive that the drive my grandparents had is alive in me today. Perseverance and the drive to succeed most certainly are defining factors in my journey as an athlete and in my individual character.
When Soviet troops marched into Afghanistan in December, 1979, Juan Antonio Samaranch was Spain’s ambassador to the Soviet Union. After two years of cultivating a trusting relationship with Soviet leadership, Samaranch, an International Olympic Committee (IOC) member with a strong desire to become president of the IOC in 1980, was angered when the Spanish government expressed their support of the American call for an Olympic boycott.
As Andrew Jennings wrote in his book, “The New Lord of the Rings,” Samaranch was forbidden to attend the Moscow Olympics by his government, which could put his election to the IOC presidency in jeopardy. Certainly, he’d lose the Soviet vote. Samaranch hurriedly returned to Madrid and persuaded/strong-armed the Spanish National Olympic Committee to ignore the government and accept the IOC’s invitation to participate.
On Wednesday, July 16, 1980, three days before the start of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Juan Antonio Samaranch was elected president of the International Olympic Committee, replacing Lord Killanin, who retired at the end of the 1980 Olympics.
Over 60 nations boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics in support of the American government’s protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, and some suspected that stronger leadership by Lord Killanin might have influenced fewer nations to boycott. As an AP article noted on June 10, 1980, Lord Killanin did not compare favorably in style to his predecessor, American Avery Brundage, whom Killanin had replaced after the 1972 Munich Olympics.
The reporter noted that when the West German National Olympic Committee voted in Duesseldorf on May 15, 1980, or when the United States Olympic Committee voted in Colorado Springs on April 12, 1980 to support the boycott, Brundage would not have stood for that, and instead would have met members of those Olympic committees and challenged them to stand up to their governments. Citing a long-timer reporter of the Olympic Movement, John Rodda of the London Guardian, the article explained what Brundage might have done.
If Brundage had still been president, he would have been in Duesseldorf for this meeting. If Brundage had still been around, and living up to his reputation, he probably would have been defying governments right and left at this movement. He was always the purist, depending the ideals of the Olympic Games as a supranational movement outside of governments and politics, uncompromising in his idealism and abrasive in his public comments. He never once faltered in this defense of the Olympic Charge in his 20 years as IOC president. Brundage, if true to form, might have gone to Colorado Springs to harangue the US Olympic Committee and call its leaders to ignore the White House and send athletes to Moscow. He might have gone to Dusseldorf. He might have been jet-hopping to Tokyo and Sydney, whipping into line NOCs of Japan and Australia.
David Kanin, who was a CIA Analyst in the American government during this time, agreed that different leadership was needed in these times, and that the IOC believed a more politically savvy person was needed at the top of the IOC. Kanin explained in a podcast called “Sport in the Cold War: Carter’s Olympic Boycott,” that one of the myths the 1980 Olympics exposed was that politics and the Olympics were separate. In fact, politics and the Olympics were coming together in a way that was financially lucrative for all involved.
(The 1980 Olympics) ended that fiction. And the best evidence of that was the movement away from Lord Killanin, who was from the old school, and I think a bit over his head, to Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain, who was a seasoned diplomat. He wanted to get the Olympics for Barcelona and did. He understood geo-politics. He knew that the Games and politics were mixed. He knew and everybody else in the Olympic movement knew they could make a lot of money and get a lot of attention and a lot of influence by accepting that, and basically embracing the political side, even while they reject that publicly.
And while Samaranch could not strongarm the Soviet Union and her allies to participate in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, he was able to bring the world together again at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. At the next Summer Games, Samaranch presided over an Olympics in his home country, opening the doors wide to professionals in basketball with the introduction of the American Dream Team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
The Olympics were again a party everyone wanted to join.
In 1989, the Japanese minister of transport, Shintaro Ishihara wrote an essay that Japanese needed to be more assertive, speak up and say “no.”
In the case of the cold war rhetoric between the US and the USSR, Ishihara wrote that USSR missiles could hit their targets within 60 meters, while Americans bragged US missiles were accurate to 15 meters. Ishihara emphasized that Americans could make that claim thanks to Japanese technology.
“if Japanese semiconductors are not used, this accuracy cannot be assured,” wrote Ishihara in the 1989 book, The Japan that Can Say No. “It has come to the point that no matter how much they continue military expansion, if Japan stopped selling them the chips, there would be nothing more they could do.”
In the late 1980s, the Japanese economy was challenging the American economy, books on Japanese productivity and quality was must reading in MBA programs, and Japanese people were omnipresent globally, quietly confident about Japanese ways.
If the Moscow Olympics had taken place in 1988 instead of 1980, perhaps Japan would have had the confidence to say “no” to an American boycott of the Olympics. However, in 1980, that was not the case. Despite the fact that many of America’s biggest allies in Europe decided to go to participate in the Moscow Summer Games, Japan waited until the last possible moment before finally saying “yes” to America and the boycott.
On Saturday, May 24, 1980, the day before the deadline when national Olympic committees had to accept or decline their invitation to the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, members of the Japan Olympic Committee(JOC) met to vote. The president of the JOC, Katsuji Shibata, clearly wanted Japanese athletes to compete in Moscow. But the odds were stacked against him.
Since January, 1980, officials from the Japanese government expressed a strong view that Japan must boycott the Games, although they were diplomatic enough to say that the final decision rests with the JOC, as per IOC rules.
In an opinion poll taken in late February, 40% of the public were against Japan sending a team to Moscow.
A week later, an informal poll of JOC members revealed that the committee was far from making a decision as 12 members were in favor and 13 were against, although 14 refused to provide a response.
Shibata hoped that an outside force would convince the Japanese government to change its position and pleaded with the president of the International Olympic Committee, Lord Killanin, to negotiate with American President Jimmy Carter and Soviet secretary general Leonid Brezhnev to find “an effective solution to the present crisis of the Olympic movement.”
Even a week after the United States Olympic Committee voted on April 12 to support the Carter administration and boycott the Moscow Games, Shibata was still telling the press that Japan should go to the Moscow Games “in principle.”
In May, Japan Prime MinisterMasayoshi Ohira reiterated the government’s position to boycott the Olympics, while Finance Minister Noboru Takeshita said that financial assistance will no longer be available to sports organizations wishing to send athletes.
Grasping at straws, Shibata sent JOC officials to Asia and Europe to gather information, and perhaps uncover support for Japan to send a team.
But finally, the day of the May 24 vote came. And despite the tearful appeals of Japanese athletes, the JOC voted 29 to 13 in favor of the boycott. “With a heavy heart, I report to you that the JOC has voted to boycott the Games,” said Shibata in a Japan Times report.
One of the most promising medalists for Japan, distance runner Toshihiko Seko was present. Said Seko, who made it to the meeting after a 25-km practice run, “I am despondent but after all I suppose we have to follow what the government says because there would be no sports without a government.”
Alas, 1980 was not yet a time when Japan could say no.
He had pulled off a rare double – winning the 800 meter and 1,500 meter track finals at the 1979 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships – on the same day, with only 35 minutes in between finals. Don Paige, a student at Villanova University, was priming himself for a spot on Team USA for the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
But when President Jimmy Carter announced at the White House in March 21, 1980, in front of 100 American Olympic hopefuls, including Paige, the 23 year old was in shock.
Plan A: This plan assumed that the boycott wouldn’t happen. After all, the USOC had not yet declined the invitation to the Games. Paige would then win the indoor nationals in the 1000 meter, win the 800 in the outdoor season, earn a sixth NCAA title, place in the top three in the Olympic trials, and then march in the Opening Ceremonies in Moscow.
Plan B: This plan was taking control of what Paige could control – competitions he could enter. Assuming Team USA did not go to Moscow, Elliott said that Paige would win every 800 meter competition he entered that year, win the US Olympic trials, and run the fastest 800 in the world. Paige would also compete in Europe after the Olympics, gunning for Sebastian Coe, the world record holder in the 800 at the time.
At the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the 800-meter and 1,500 meter finals are now the stuff of Olympic legend. The British compatriots Coe and Steve Ovett were fierce rivals, with Coe setting world records in the 800 and Ovett in the 1500.
Coe was favored to win the 800 meters, but on July 26, 1980, he found himself boxed in by a couple of East Germans, had to fight his way through them, run wide, and kick his way to a silver medal, losing to Ovett. Coe said in this Guardian article that it “was just a f@%k-up from beginning to end”, and calls it “the very worst 800 meters of my 20-year career.”
Ovett was favored to win the 1500 meters, especially after his unexpected triumph in the 800. But on August 1, 1980, East Germany again impacted the outcome. Jurgen Staub set a fast pace. It was Coe, not Ovett that kept pace, in fact passing Straub, and wondering where Ovett was. Coe cracked the tape and won the 1500 meter, covering his face with his hands. His knees buckling, Coe fell to the track, his head touching the track surface for a moment before he raised himself for a victory lap.
Paige followed his coach’s plan. He won the 800-meter finals at the US Olympic trials on June 23, running a world best at the time of 1:44.53. And after the completion of the 1980 Olympics, he went to Europe. Fortunately, his friend had entered him that Spring in a track meet in Via Reggio in Italy, where Coe was scheduled to race on August 14, only 11 days after the end of the Moscow Games.
According to the book, Boycott, Paige was surprised to hear from officials that he had not been entered into the 800 meter competition. He pleaded with race officials. He pleaded directly with Peter Coe, the father of Sebastian Coe, but to no avail. Paige essentially demanded to be in the race, giving an ultimatum:
Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to warm up for the 800, take my sweats off, and go to the line,” recalls Paige. “You’re going to have to remove me from that line. When you do, I’m going to hold a press conference explaining to them how my good friend Marty Liquori entered me in this race months ago and you two wanted me out because you thought I might beat Sebastian Coe.”
According to Paige in this CNN article, he went to the starting line and no one asked him to leave. So he finally got his wish – a head to head with the Olympic champion. And with 300 meters to go, Paige was in the lead. “We come off the turn, 100m to go, stride for stride,” said Paige. “Fifty meters, 20 meters. Before the line I’m thinking, ‘God darn it, we are going to tie!’ ”
It wasn’t a tie. Paige beat Coe by two one-hundredths of a second.
The Debate and The Irony
Within teams that boycotted the Olympics, there is always speculation. Would Yasuhiro Yamashita of Japan have won gold in judo? Would Edwin Moses have continued his Olympic dominance in the 400 meter hurdles? Would Don Paige actually have defeated both Ovett and Coe at the 1980 Moscow Olympics?
Yes Paige defeated Coe in Italy. But one can argue that Coe had already peaked, while Paige trained to peak in Italy, as explained in this Let’s Run forum discussion:
Coe was exhausted after running several races post Olympics. Paige was geared up to meet Coe and edged him out by o.03. A one off race. Coe’s PB was 1.42, Paige’s best was 144.5. Paige may well have taken bronze in Moscow. Ovett beat Paige in 83 easily – in the year that Paige had set his 800M PB. Ovett was well past his peak in that race.
Coe also proved himself again at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, winning gold in the 1500 meters and silver in the 800 meters again, with Paige no where to be seen.
At the end of the day, Paige is realistic about his place in history. “I was No. 1 in the world, but Sebastian Coe was a better half-miler than me,” Paige said in 2010 in this Philadelphia Inquirer article. “I just beat him that day. There’s only one Olympics. That was just a great competition that I was fortunate to win.”
But he does hold out hope that the boycott had meaning. Paige was, perhaps ironically, an American athlete who supported President Carter’s decision to pull Team USA from the Moscow Games. In 2010, he wrote an article that explained why he supported the boycott, and explained this view to Track and Field News.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing in this world, and [Carter] had to make a tough decision which I’m sure crushed him when he had to make a stand worldwide . . . There will always be politics in sports, and I believe Jimmy Carter made the best decision he could at the time . . . I still say maybe because Don Paige did not go to the Olympics, maybe I spared one life in Afghanistan. And if I did, I sleep really well at night because of that. It makes me feel good and proud.
Sebastian Coe was in Singapore in July, 2005 to convince the IOC that London was the best choice for the 2012 Summer Olympics. He believed he could speak with conviction about Great Britain’s commitment to the Olympic movement – after all, Team GB has never missed a date, as he related to The Guardian.
I don’t think I would have been able to stand up in Singapore in front of the International Olympic Committee and say what I said with credibility if I had boycotted in 1980. I was able to say that Britain had sent a team to every winter and summer games. Had I not gone in 1980 it would certainly have been seized upon and exploited by rival cities.”
Coe helped convince the IOC to make London the host of the 2012 Olympics, taking heart in the fact that Great Britain did not boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
President Carter felt that the invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR threatened the national security of European nations and in particular the NATO allies. But getting the commitment of other countries, particularly American allies, was a challenge.
“The foreign reaction (to the proposed boycott) was something else,” said CIA analyst, David Kanin in a podcast about Carter and the boycott. “There was always a quizzical response – why? There was skepticism. There was support from some allied governments. There was support from allied Olympic committees, but not many. And it was clear that the athletes were dead set against it. It was a complicated situation.”
The complexity that the Carter administration was trying to grasp was the multi-faceted leadership of the Olympic movement, as Kanin went on to explain. He noted that the Carter administration initially didn’t understand much about Olympic movement, and “how the tripartite system with all the federations worked.” What was not clear at first to many was that governments don’t officially determine whether a national team goes to a given Olympics or not – in fact, it’s the national Olympic committees. That is why American vice president Walter Mondale went directly to the US Olympic Committee on the day of their vote, as explained in post 2 of this series.
European Resistance to the Boycott
In the case of Great Britain, prime minister Margaret Thatcher was in agreement with American president Jimmy Carter – that a boycott would sent a strong message to the Kremlin. But in Europe, governments were supportive of whatever decision their Olympic committee chose.
Early on, the French Sports Minister Jean Pierre Sottson said that “The Olympic Games ae not organized by the governments but by the International Olympic Committee which chooses a city, and not a country,” he said in a January 19, 1980 UPI article.
In early February, 10 national Olympic committees in Europe gathered in Frankfurt, West Germany and released a joint communique stating that “National Olympic Committees had sole responsibility to decide on the participation of their athletes at the Summer Games.” (AP, February 3, 1980)
Still, Thatcher believed that a boycott was the right thing to do, as did the Parliament. On March 17, 1980, after 7 hours of debate, the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly for Great Britain to boycott the Moscow Games.
Allan Wells of Scotland was a sprinter expected to compete in the 1980 Olympics, and thought that the British government went overboard in trying to influence the athletes that Moscow as a bad idea, as he related in this Guardian article.
We received maybe half-a-dozen letters from 10 Downing Street trying to put us off. I opened one. There was a picture with a letter saying this is what the Russians are doing. It showed a dead Afghan girl with a doll. I can still see the picture even now as if it were yesterday. It made me feel very angry that we were being pressured to this extent. I think deep down the government wanted us to go but also wished to please the Americans. My first thought was, “What’s going to happen if I don’t go? A Russian soldier isn’t going to say, ‘Oh, Allan Wells isn’t coming. I’m not going to shoot somebody.”
In the end, the British Olympic Association voted to go, and the British government did not put up barriers to their athletes’ participation. Although West Germany’s Olympic committee voted to boycott, France, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Iceland and Finland joined Great Britain and sent teams to the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Allen Wells would go on to win gold in the 100 meters, as well as silver in the 200 meters. But it was the duels between famed British middle distance runners, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett that captured the imagination of the British public, and could be seen as defeat for Thatcher, according to Paul Corthorn, senior lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, in this podcast.
A large part of the public debate had taken place earlier on in the 1980, January through March. The Games were held in the summer. A certain amount of time had passed. Other things had happened, have risen to prominence. I think in terms of the way in which the British successes were portrayed in the media, there is simply a case of interest in those competitions themselves, and a desire to celebrate them instead of hark back to an earlier debate.
On Friday, July 23, 2021 – 365 days from now – the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will start!
In this time of uncertainty, hope is all we have. No one can guarantee an Olympics in Tokyo. No one knows if the world will be healthy enough to come together in Tokyo a year from now.
With coronavirus infections on the rise in certain regions of the world, in particular the United States, doubt remains. Professional baseball has started in Korea and Japan. Football has commenced in Europe. Baseball, basketball and ice hockey are about to return to the United States. But no can say if they can finish what they start.
In Japan, as the number of infections climb, particularly in Tokyo, public sentiment towards the Olympics next year is running negative. Less than 40% of Japanese in a recent survey stated they would want to attend an Olympic or Paralympic event. This is only a year after over 7 million Japanese bought up nearly 8 million tickets in the opening stage of the ticket lottery, setting the tone for what was arguably to become the most popular Olympics ever.
Today, even if you have tickets, it’s unclear whether you’ll be allowed to go to the events. Right now, it doesn’t look good.
And yet, there’s still one year to go.
We face adversity all the time. Sometimes barriers or problems we face are out of our control, spiraling us into a vortex of hopelessness. But time and time again, we persevere, we see winds shift and fortunes change.
At times, film can powerfully convey our innate ability to overcome. I cite three scenes from movies you know.
First we do everything we can to put ourselves in a position to achieve our goal in the face of adversity. Al Pacino captured this mindset powerfully in his halftime speech to his football team, the film “Any Given Sunday.” He states the reality: “We are in hell right now, gentlemen.” But then tells them that “life is just a game of inches….” and that “the inches we need are everywhere around us,” and that “on this team, we fight for that inch.”
I believe there are many people around the world fighting for those inches, to cure the virus, as well as make sports in general, and Tokyo2020 in particular, safe.
In the final film of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo is ready to give up in his quest to save Middle Earth. But his friend, Sam, is not ready to give up on Frodo, literally lifting and carrying him forward.
I believe there are many people around the world willing to carry us when we are down, remind us of better times, and tell us those times will return.
And in the movie, Henry V, Kenneth Branagh brings incredible joy and energy to young King Harry as he wills his ragtag troops to take on the bigger, fresher French army at the Battle of Agincourt. Outnumbered, in the face of what they believe to be certain death, the men of England are inspired by King Henry to imagine a world when they have survived this battle and lived to a ripe age, telling their children of the scars they got and the feats they achieved that miraculous day in France.
I believe there are many people who see in their mind’s eye a packed stadium, a field filled with the best athletes in the world, and a brilliant blue sky, telling us all that anything is possible, including a Summer Games in 2021.
If there are people who fight for that inch,
If there are people who carry us when we need them,
If there are people who paint us a picture of a glorious future,