One of my most treasured memories was in the Fall of 1987, sitting in a hot spring in Hokkaido, the snow falling, the steam rising, and a beer in hand.
In addition to the great food and shopping, tourists are flocking to Japan for the country side, and in particular, enjoying onsen throughout the country. Once you (some of you) get over the embarrassment of getting naked with a whole bunch of strangers, you get yourself all clean in the shower area outside the bathing areas, and then you dip your toes into the water. And yes, it’s hot!
Some of the best onsen are in Kyuushu, a large island in the Western part of Japan. And to get Japanese and non-Japanese alike to venture beyond the cosmopolitan confines of Tokyo and Osaka, the government of Oita Prefecture started a campaign to promote their onsens….using Olympians.
In typical tongue-in-cheek Japanese fashion, the promotional videos portray Japanese synchronized swimmers performing in the onsens of Oita. The athletes include Mikako Kotani, who won two bronze medals at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, as well as Raika Fujii, silver medalist at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and bronze medalist at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The campaign is called “shin-furo”, which is a word made up from “synchronized” and the Japanese word “furo”, which means bath.
Japan had a record 2.68 million visitors in Japan in July, well on its way to topping 2016’s record number of foreign tourists of 24 million, blowing past its original target of 20 million by 2020. The 2020 target has been re-set to 40 million visitors. For repeat visitors, the Oita onsens should certainly be a hot place to spring to.
Pita Nikolas Taufatofua put Tonga on the map during the opening ceremonies of the 2016 Rio Olympics. Carrying his nation’s flag, his torso bare, muscles rippling and golden skin gleaming, Taufatofua had tongues hanging and wagging.
But Taufatofua didn’t last the entire bout of even his first match, eliminated from the Olympics due to mercy rules, losing 16-1 to Sajjad Mardani. To be fair, Tonga is so small, the Pacific archipelago’s population is a bit above 100,000, which is probably about the population of my neighborhood in Tokyo. So the numbers alone make it unlikely for a world champion to emerge from Tonga.
But the tiny kingdom of Tonga, participating in the Olympics since 1984, beat the odds and claimed a silver medal in 1996. Paea Wolfgramm was a student at the university of Auckland in New Zealand where he played rugby when a schoolmate suggested that Wolfgramm give boxing a try in 1990. After 24 bouts in and around the Pacific islands circuit, Wolfgramm found himself the super heavyweight representative of Tonga, and was going to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Wolfgramm was a big man, 185 cm tall and 140 kgs in weight, but as he had no international track record, he was a total unknown among the American, Cuban and European boxers expected to medal.
First up for Wolfgramm was a boxer from Belarus, Sergei Dahovich, whom Wolfgramm snuck by on points, 10-9. This set up a match with the Cuban, Alexis Rubalcaba. The Cuban boxers were always considered a threat. But Wolfgramm, a devout Morman, surprised essentially everyone, taking the fight to Rubalcaba, pummeling him at the ropes, and sending the Cuban to two standing eight counts. Wolfgramm won on points 17-12, and in that moment, to the chants of “Ton-ga! Ton-ga!” from the Atlanta crowd, went from unknown to unbelievable.
The entire island nation of Tonga was already celebrating its greatest Olympic moment as Wolfgramm had secured the nation’s first medal, guaranteed a bronze medal with the Cuban’s defeat. While the match between Wolfgramm and the Nigerian boxer Duncan Dokiwari was not televised in Tonga, the entire populace was on pins and needles when Wolfgramm took to the ring for semi-final bout.
The fight between Wolfgramm and the 1994 Victoria Commonwealth Games champion was a tight affair, tied 6-6 going into the third and final round. And the match stayed tied at 6 until the very final seconds, when Wolfgramm landed a punch to Dokiwari’s face to get the decisive point. Wolfgramm was going to the gold-medal round!
But there was a cost. Not only did Wolfgramm have a broken nose, he had broken his wrist in his desperate match against Dokiwari. And he was up against Vladimir Klitschko. The brainy PhD from the Ukraine, Klitschko would also go on to become a world heavyweight champion, in fact, the second longest reigning heavyweight champion of all time. (Joe Louis reigned for nearly 12 years, while Klitschko was champion for nearly 10.)
Wolfgramm had said that if this had not been a championship bout, he probably would have not gotten into the ring. But this was for gold, and he was reported to have said, “If I won a gold medal, I could not even imagine. I would die first, coach would die next and the king would give me half of Tonga.”
The Tongan did not win, although he made the fight a fight. After the second round, Wolfgramm was down only 3-2. But the third round was the Ukrainian’s. Klitschko pummelled away, and won the gold-medal match 7-3. Despite the lack of resources and support, the broken nose and wrist, Wolfgramm battled for himself and for an entire nation. Of his wrist, Wolfgramm was quoted as saying, “I was willing for it to break into 2,000 pieces if necessary.
Wolfgramm would turn professional soon after the Atlanta Games, and go onto a successful career, winning his first 14 bouts, and retiring with a career record of 20-4.
As Costas recalled on the radio sports program, Mike & Mike, “It was both dramatic and completely stunning!” After all, the producers kept it a secret as to who the final torch bearer would be until the very last moment.
No more than 10 or 12 people on the whole planet even knew that he would be the last torch bearer.
Dick Ebersol who ran NBC Sports and was such an important part of the history of the Olympics, it was his idea to have Muhammad (Ali) do it. The night before the Olympics at the production meeting, Dick said to me and Dick Enberg, who was co-hosting the opening ceremony with me, “I’m not even going to give you a hint as to who the final torch bearer is, except that you will definitely recognize him or her. And I want your expression to be as spontaneous as that of the crowd.”
And when Janet Evans, that great Olympic swimmer climbed up the steps carrying the torch, got to the top, Muhammad literally stepped out of the shadows. So no one saw him until the very moment that he got the torch. And Janet handed him torch and you heard in that stadium something you almost never hear in an arena or stadium. You hear lots of sounds in a sports event, but you almost never hear an audible gasp. And that’s what you heard that night, because people were so stunned to see Muhammad Ali.
And here was this man, who once was one of the most physically beautiful and nimble of athletes, reduced to a man trembling, trying to hold onto that torch and light the cauldron, and yet somehow, even in that condition, there was something so dynamic and magnetic about it. And he was once one of the most vocal of athletes and by that time he had been reduced to virtual silence. And yet in that moment, he was just about as profound as he had But there was something truly unique about that moment. And every time I think about it, even now, and I’ve recounted it a couple of times in the last 24 hours when people have asked me the question you’ve just asked me, every time I think about it, I still get goosebumps.
Here is a short clip from an ESPN piece about that moment.
Burundi is a dot in the middle of the African continent. Agonized by decades of tribal conflict between Hutus and Tutsi, and one of the world’s poorest countries, the former French colony is not a sporting hotbed.
Despite the challenges, the International Olympic Committee finally recognized Burundi when it established a National Olympic Committee (NOC), allowing this landlocked and resource-poor country to join the Olympics at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
New countries rarely do well in the competitions. Their’s is an opportunity to compete, experience and learn. In fact, 75 of the current 206 countries with National Olympic committees have not won an Olympic medal, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, Honduras, Libya, Nicaragua and Rwanda.
But Vénuste Niyongabo helped Burundi beat all the odds, and has given hope to all nations bereft of Olympic glory. He was a 1500-meter runner, a rising star on the international circuit in the 1990s, and in 1996. When the IOC recognized Burundi’s NOC, Niyongabo was indeed considered a favorite for the Atlanta Olympics. But in a nod to an aging compatriot, Niyongabo gave up his spot in the 1500 meters to Dieudonné Kwizera. If Burundi had had a NOC prior to 1996, it is likely that Kwizera would have competed at the Seoul and/or Barcelona Games. Thanks to Niyongabo, the 800-meter specialist became an Olympian for the first time.
Niyongabo moved up to the 5,000-meter competition instead, an event he had run in only twice previously. Although he had won both, he was not favored in Atlanta. And in fact, sat towards the back while the Kenyans led for much of the race. But win he did, and convincingly. Here’s how the New York Times described it in 1996:
With 200 meters left, his (Niyongabo’s) lead was comfortable over the eventual silver medalist Paul Bitok of Kenya and the eventual bronze medalist Khalid Boulami of Morocco. When Niyongabo crossed the finish line, Dionisi was already hopping up and down in the stands, waving a Burundian flag. Before long, that flag was being waved on an Olympic track for the first time in history.
In the end, Niyongbo put his victory in context, reflecting on the decades of internecine conflict in his tiny country. “All I want is peace for my country,” Niyongabo said. “I hope this can help the healing.”
The Olympics live on symbols. The five colored rings that represent the five continents of the world. The doves that represent peace. The gold, silver and bronze medals that symbol achievement at the highest sporting levels.
One of the most dramatic symbols of the Olympic Games has been the lighting of the Olympic cauldron that symbolically represents the Games ancient Greek origins, the beginning of the Games, and by extension, the suspension of hostilities in times of conflict and the coming together of the world’s athletes in competition and fair play. The cauldron lighting of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics most poignantly emphasized the need for world peace.
While this particular ceremony started at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, it was at the 1992 Barcelona Games where organizers raised the bar significantly in creating the Wow factor, that moment when you’ve seen something spectacular, something you would not have imagined or expected. In this case, it was paralympian archer, Antonio Rebollo, who shot a flaming arrow some 60 meters over a cauldron that rose seven-stories high, igniting the gases accumulating over the cauldron, and sending chills and thrills across the world.
In 1996, the organizers of the Atlanta Olympics had all sorts of issues with the planning of the cauldron lighting, but one thing they got right was having Muhammad Ali do the honors. Spectacle had to wait four more years for Sydney to bring goosebumps tot the world. An island nation, surrounded by water, Australia brought fire and water together in spectacular fashion. 400-meter sprinter, Cathy Freeman, stood in a pool of water. When she placed it to the watery surface, a ring of fire curled around her, the cauldron rising out of the water like a spaceship, making its way majestically to its home at the top of the stadium.
In 2008, China amazed the world with its spectacular opening ceremonies, highlighted by its impossible-to-imagine sky run, performed by legendary gymnast, Li Ning. Rising high above the crowd, suspended on wires, Ning appeared to run along the stadium wall for 500 meters before applying his torch and igniting another flame that spiraled up into a spectacular ignition of the cauldron.
What new spectacle and symbolism will the Rio Olympics bring? Our hearts are already a-flutter in anticipation.