Akwasi Frimpong

He slept on the ground of his crowded home as a child, his grandmother working hard to get food on the table for nine grandchildren. Akwasi Frimpong grew up in a village called Kumasi in the Republic of Ghana, and while he aspired to a better life, he probably had no thought of becoming an Olympian in the speed sliding sport of skeleton.

Skeleton Olympic champions have emerged from only 8 countries in the world, including the US, Great Britain, Canada, Russia and Switzerland. Certainly, running full speed into an icy track of twists and turns, head first on a tiny sled, is not the first thing 99.99999% of the world’s population would try to do, let alone think, particularly in a country where the coldest it gets is about19 degrees Celsius.

And yet Frimpong defied the considerable odds, and has put himself in a position to become Ghana’s first ever Winter Olympian representing his country at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics in the skeleton competition. To become an Olympian, he has to qualify at the skeleton world cup in mid-January of 2018 by getting into the Top 60 in the world. If he does, he’s going to South Korea.

Perhaps Frimpong’s first big break was leaving Ghana at the age of 8, and move to the Netherlands where his mother had emigrated to. In a more developed economy with more opportunities, Frimpong was shaped by his coach at his junior high school into a track star.

His second big break was having Sammy Monsels as his junior high school coach, a man who competed as a sprinter at the 1972 and 1976 Summer Olympics. According to this article on Olympic.org, Monsels created a vision for Frimpong.

“It was Sammy who really instilled the dream of the Olympics in me. Within two months, I went to the Dutch Junior Indoor Championships and missed out on the 60m final by 0.01 seconds. That summer, I missed out on the 100m final, again by 0.01 seconds… I asked my coach what I needed to do to become a gold medalist. He spoke to me about self-discipline and it all started from there.

Frimpong went on to become the 200 meter Dutch junior champion. But because he was still an illegal alien, he could not benefit from any international competition. What if immigration would not let him back into the country? Competing overseas was too big a risk. And his illegal status stopped him from asking to enter any high school. Fortunately, there existed an institution that looked beyond Frimpong’s legal status – the Johan Cruyff Institute. Named after Holland’s (and the world’s) most famous soccer player, Johan Cruyff, this school is designed to develop the abilities of students, athletes as well as business professionals.

Frimpong’s third break was to have a neighbor who cared. The neighbor was a writer, and she wrote so persuasively, even explaining Frimpong’s illegal status, that the Johan Cruyff College took a chance on the Ghanaian. Frimpong enter the school and earned his school’s international student of the year award. The award was to be presented in Barcelona, Spain, but because Frimpong was too scared to leave the country, Johan Cruyff himself flew to Holland just to present the award to Frimpong.

Eventually, in 2008, at the age of 22, Frimpong became a Dutch citizen. He got an athletic scholarship to study in America at Utah Valley University, and dreamed of making the Netherlands track team for the 2012 London Games. But he was not able to qualify, hampered by an injury.

Entering the second half of his 20s, his dreams of running track in the Olympics was fading. But he got a visit from the Dutch bobsleigh team, and was asked to try out as their brakeman for a World Cup race in Utah. Frimpong showed enough promise that he progressed to make the Netherlands national bobsleigh team. Unfortunately, his results were just under the cut, and Frimpong missed out on the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

At the age of 28, failing to make both a Summer Olympics and a Winter Olympics, Frimpong could have ended his pursuit of an Olympic Games. And that’s when he discovered skeleton. And for some reason, this sport clicked.

I set myself the goal of becoming the first African to win a medal in Winter Olympic history. I knew it would take me four to six years to become really good, so initially my target was the 2022 Games. But when I started racing in 2016, I surprised myself. A lot of coaches said that I was sliding like someone who had been doing the sport for several years.

And so Frimpong is at the door of his long journey to make the Olympics. If he does qualify for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, he will be first black skeleton athlete in Olympic history.

 

Note on February 2, 2018: On January 15, 2018, he got his wish and is headed for the Olympics.

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Aly Raisman _60 MInutes
Aly Raisman in 60 Minutes Interview

Aly Raisman is already a two-time Olympian with 6 medals from the 2012 London and 2016 Olympics, including gold medals in the team competition, while serving as captain. She is also the latest gymnast to step forward with allegations of sexual abuse against USA Gymnastics and their team doctor, Larry Nasser.

Thanks in part to the powerful coverage of the Indianapolis Star, and also in part to the recent wave of “#MeToo” revelations against men in power who prey on women, dozens of young women have come out publicly about Nasser, who has been arrested and been slapped with lawsuits.
In an interview with John LaPook of 60 Minutes, Raisman spoke about the denial, confusion and anger she went through upon realizing that she had been abused, and her advice to other girls who may be in an uncomfortable situation alone with an adult. Her words are powerful, and I want to note them:

Denial

Raisman: I was in denial. I was like, “I don’t thi– I d– I don’t even know what to think.” It– you don’t wanna let yourself believe but, you know, I am– I am– I am a victim of– of sexual abuse. Like, it’s really not an easy thing to let yourself believe that.

Raisman: I was just really innocent. I didn’t really know. You know, you don’t think that of someone. You know, so I just– I trusted him.

LaPook: You thought it was medical treatment.

Raisman: I didn’t know anything differently. We were told he is the best doctor. He’s the United States Olympic doctor and the USA Gymnastics doctor, and we were very lucky we were able to see him.

Simone Biles tweets support for Aly Raisman
Simone Biles tweets support for Aly Raisman

Confusion

Raisman (when asked quite suddenly by an investigator to comment on Nasser): And I said, you know, “Well, he– his touching makes me uncomfortable, but he’s so nice to me. And I– I don’t think he does it on purpose because, you know, I think he cares about me.”

LaPook: So it was only after the investigator left that you began to put the pieces together.

Raisman: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s important for people to know too I’m still trying to put the pieces together today. You know it impacts you for the rest of your life.

 

Anger

Raisman: Why are we looking at why didn’t the girls speak up? Why not look at what about the culture? What did USA Gymnastics do, and Larry Nassar do, to manipulate these girls so much that they are so afraid to speak up?

LaPook: You’re angry.

Raisman: I am angry. I’m really upset because it’s been– I care a lot, you know, when I see these young girls that come up to me, and they ask for pictures or autographs, whatever it is, I just– I can’t– every time I look at them, every time I see them smiling, I just think– I just want to create change so that they never, ever have to go through this.

 

“Grooming”

Raisman (explaining the predatory practice of “grooming”): He would always bring me, you know, desserts or gifts. He would buy me little things. So I really thought he was a nice person. I really thought he was looking out for me. That’s why I want to do this interview. That’s why I wanna talk about it. I want people to know just because someone is nice to you and just because everyone is saying they’re the best person, it does not make it okay for them to ever make you uncomfortable. Ever.

 

Where Were the Parents?

Lynn Raisman (Aly’s mother): We were there. But if she’s not knowing that it’s wrong — never in a million years did I ever even think to say, “Hey, when you see the team doctor, is there someone with you?”

LaPook: If you could hit the rewind button, is there anything you would have done differently?

Lynn Raisman: I think the most important thing, if anyone takes anything away from this interview is sit down with your kids and explain to them that predators aren’t just strangers. They can be highly educated. They can be very well-respected in the community. It could be a family member, it could be a family friend. So, you know, that’s really, the, I mean, if I could go back in time, I would do that.

 

The Advice

As 60 Minutes explains, USA Gymnastics has always had a policy that an adult should “avoid being alone with a minor.” Clearly that policy was not publicized or enforced. But as far as Raisman is concerned, it’s time to publicize and enforce.

Raisman: Nobody ever educated me on, “Make sure you’re not alone with an adult.” You know, “Make sure he’s not making you uncomfortable.” I didn’t know the signs. I didn’t know what sexual abuse really was. And I think that needs to be communicated to all of these athletes, no matter the age.

 

Watch the 60 Minutes’ interview here.

Billy Mills and Ron Clarke in 10000 meter run_The Olympic Century - XVIII Olympiad - Volume 16
Billy Mills (center) and Ron Clarke (right) in 10000 meter run, from the book The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad – Volume 16

They met in London at the 2012 Olympics – old friends, old rivals. Mohammed Gammoudi from Tunisia and Billy Mills of the United States had raced against each other in an epic 10,000-meter race at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, in which Mills came from behind to win in stirring fashion. American Olympians in particular remember that moment, whether they watched it live or on television, as if it were yesterday.

Gammoudi asked Mills if he remembered what he told him in Belgium. The two faced off in a 10,000 meter race in Belgium in which Gammoudi won. Gammoudi gave his old friend advice after the race – “more speed”. In other words, Mills told me he needed to “maintain a very fast pace, being right on the edge, just before tightening up. Maintaining a maximum pace, but still being able to sprint. I would practice running as fast as I could go without losing composure.”

Mohammed  Ghamouddy Ron Clarke and Billy MIlls in 10000 meters_Bi to Chikara
Mohammed Gammoudi Ron Clarke and Billy MIlls in 10000 meters_Bi to Chikara

When Mills and Gammoudi met in Tokyo in October, 1964, they embraced as old friends even though they had met only three times. Mills said they respected each other, and hoped that both of them would ultimately celebrate on the victory stand. But so too thought Ron Clarke, their biggest rival in this competition, and the 10,000 meter world record holder.

At that time, Clarke is world famous, and expected to win. Nobody knows Billy Mills.

But with only two laps to go, Mills is still on Ron Clarke’s shoulder. Hypoglycemic, blood sugar nearly depleted, Mills feels he’s tiring. Then, Clarke looks back, and Mills takes that as a sign – “My God, he’s worried! If I could just stay with him, I have a chance. I have a chance.”

In the final lap, somehow, the Australian Clarke is boxed in front by a runner who’s been lapped, and Mills to his right. “I have Ron boxed in perfectly,” Mills explained of one of the most dramatic moments of the XVIII Olympiad. “He nudged me a little. I nudged him back. He then put his hand under my elbow and pushed me out. I thought I was going to fall. I went out and stumbled. I closed back on his shoulder. Gammoudi from Tunisia then broke between us.”

Gammoudi told Mills in London that he thought Mills was done – “my friend is off balance, and out of the race, but I must focus on Ron, the world record holder.” Gammoudi told Mills he believed it was the Tunisian’s moment to strike, when he elbowed his way through Clarke and Mills.

Mills said that coming around the final bend, in his low blood-sugar state, he could hear nothing but the throbbing of his heart, and feel nothing but a tingling sensation along his forearm, his vision coming and going, but someone pushing himself to give it “one more try.”

A couple of months before the Olympics, Mills is training in the United States, and he notes in his diary sometime in August that “I’m in great shape, must believe, believe I can run with the best in the world now, and I can beat them at Tokyo.” Mills believed that he could win it if he could imagine it. “The subconscious mind cannot tell the difference between reality or imagination,” Mills has said. “You focus for four years, dozens of times a day, visualizing, re-living the moment the way you want it to be. And then you win. And for one fleeting moment, you know you’re the best in the world.”

So there is Mills, in third, with thirty yards to go, thinking, “One more try, one more try.” And then “I can win, I can win, I can win.” And finally, “I won, I won, I won, I won.” And yet Mills is still in third place with 80 yards to go. Sprinting outside in the middle lanes, using precious energy to swing outside but also taking advantage of firmer ground on the rain-soaked cinder tracks, Mills lifts his legs and pumps his arms in an amazing sprint, the incredible finish described in gleeful shrieks by the American announcers: “Look at Mills! Look at Mills! Coming on! Mills is coming on! Oooh hoo hoo! What a tremendous accomplishment! Bill Mills wins the 10,000 meters in a tremendous upset!”

Mills crosses the finish line as the first and only American to win the 10,000 meter race at the Olympics. A Japanese official comes up to him and says, “Who are you?” Mills is struck with fear, thinking he had not run enough laps to complete the race. Reassured that he had indeed won, his friend from Tunisia came up to congratulate Mills.

Gammoudi smiled, and said to his friend, “too much speed.”

Eri Yamamoto and Yamawaki

Eri Yamamoto-MacDonald navigates the world in a wheelchair. No matter how fast this para-athlete swims, or how many goals she scores as an ice sledge hockey competitor, or how many kilograms she pushes into the air as a competitive powerlifter, when people see her, they see someone who needs help.

At an American Chamber of Commerce Japan event on June 2, 2017, Yamamoto-MacDonald of The Nippon Foundation told a fairly typical story, for her, of going to a store to buy rice. When she got to the cashier to pay for a 5kg bag of rice, the person working there took notice of her wheelchair and asked her, “are you able to carry that bag of rice?” She understood the person was not acting mean, but she was frustrated that as a power weightlifter, who lifts 50 kilograms in competition, is seen as so helpless that she can’t lift 5. “They are not seeing me as an athlete. They are seeing me as a disabled person.”

For joint speakers, Yamamoto-MacDonald, as well as Yasushi Yamawaki, also of the Nippon Foundation and president of the Japan Paralympic Committee, it is their mission to change the perceptions of people regarding individuals with impairments. “It’s not about disability, it’s about ability,” said Yamawaki. “We take the word ‘impossible’, and add an apostrophe between the ‘I’ and the ‘m’, because we like to say ‘I’m possible’. To us, nothing is impossible.”

Yamamoto-MacDonald, who has not had the use of her legs since birth, has been working in the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center with a goal of bringing social change to Japan. It’s important to change the tangibles, she said, designing infrastructure and venues to make it easier for people with impairments to navigate and take advantage of their surroundings. But it’s more important to deal with the intangibles. “Changing peoples’ minds is more important. Having them watch high performance para-athletes can change people’s perceptions towards people with disabilities.”

Nippon Foundation produces an Education Toolkit, called “I’m Possible”, which they distribute to schools throughout the country. So far they have handed out 23,000 toolkits nationwide. Nippon Foundation has organized visits by para-athletes to over 100 elementary, junior high and high schools last year. The plan is to visit 250 schools in 2017 and 1,000 by 2020.

The education is important because it is often the social environment that highlights the disability of an individual, as Yamamoto-MacDonald explained. If the work environment of a person with an impairment allows that person to move about and do the things he or she wants or needs to do, the so-called disability can be rendered unnoticeable. But if the physical environment caters to so-called able-bodied people only, and the surrounding individuals consciously or unconsciously behave or speak in a way that ignores or demeans those with impairments, then as Yamamoto-MacDonald observed, the social environment creates the disability.

She explained that at her workplace in the Nippon Foundation, everyone works to chip away at both the tangible and intangible barriers people with impairments face. However, while her workplace allows her to live a relatively normal life, she finds Japanese society less accommodating. “Japanese people are very polite. But in public, they are not. If I’m traveling by train, I need to use the elevators. But people who have the option of stairs and escalators push their way in front of me to get into the elevators.” She said that in contrast, while London still needed to make improvements to infrastructure, they had a better mindset, even back in 2012.

Yamamoto MacDonald and Roy

At the London Paralympics, I worked at the Japan House to build awareness for the Tokyo 2020 bid. To get to the venue I had to take public transpiration. I got off at a station where there were no elevators. The officers told me that I had to get off at the station before this one. But they made sure I got to the venue. The people’s mindset is very important, even without all of the infrastructure. I got to where I needed to go in London. Tokyo doesn’t have that mindset. People need to care a little more. It would be better to have more accessibility, but it is accessibility in the heart that is more important.

Yamamoto-MacDonald talked about how important it is for companies to expose themselves more to people with impairments, and to understand that engaging with a wider variety of people is an opportunity. In fact, she said that CSR, which stands for Corporate Social Responsibility, should really be re-labeled CSO, or Corporate Social Opportunity. It’s an opportunity for corporations and wider society to understand the power of diversity and inclusion. But it is also a way to expand opportunities for people like her. This is key for two reasons: to motivate those with impairments who feel different and isolated, as well as to unlock the potential abilities in the disabled.

I never got asked about my hobbies, or what sports I like. When I was 9, I was so shy. I couldn’t say “thank you”. Why is it only me who has to say “thank you” all the time, I thought. I couldn’t say “thank you” back because I felt I couldn’t help anyone. But when I began swimming, I gained confidence. I swam faster, faster than even able-bodied swimmers. That’s when I started saying “thank you”. As I grew more confident, I began to dream of being a Paralympian, going to the Paralympics. Since I began having that dream, it has become my identity.

An injury at 16 made it difficult for Yamamoto-MacDonald to continue her swimming career. She went to Canada and became proficient at ice sledge hockey, but she also understood this kind of hockey was not yet a Paralympics event. When she returned to Japan, she did not have a specialization that could focus her training for 2020, until she stumbled upon powerlifting.

Last year, the Tokyo Metropolitan government sponsored a special event – a power-lifting exhibition. I saw big guys lifting hundreds of kilograms. My boss told me to give it a try. I grabbed 20kg and it was light! It was fun! I saw other women stop at 20kg but I was able to lift 40 kg. Since then I have been powerlifting.

She explained we rarely see powerlifting on television or live. There are very few events and opportunities, and the opportunities for people with impairments to see para-athletes is very low. “You have to meet the right people for the right chance to come around.” And that is something Yamawaki explained is key to driving societal change – the need to create greater exposure of para-athletes to society to show what is possible.

Yamawaki ended the talk with a video from the International Paralympics Committee. As you can see in the video below, there is a strong push to bring sports opportunities to youth with impairments, that motivating them earlier in their lives will lead them to greater choices and fuller lives.

“It’s not about what people can’t do, it’s what they can do,” he said.

cigarettes-in-ashtray

2020 is such a round number, intuitively connected to 20:20 vision, and thus an easy deadline for lofty organizational and national goals, at least for another year at most.

One such goal is the Health Ministry of Japan’s drive to ban smoking in Japan, in time before the spotlight is cast on Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics. Clearly, evidence regarding the health effects of smoking, as well as effects on non-smokers via second-hand smoke is too compelling today to ignore.

And since the Olympics have an agenda that bidding countries need to sign on to, there will be a strong attempt for Japan to honor the Tobacco Free Initiative co-sponsored by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Their goal is to keep non-smokers away from the dangers of second-hand smoke, and even get all smokers to quit.

But ensuring all Olympic venues are tobacco free, which also means tobacco-promotion free, is a challenge. It’s an Olympian challenge.

First, Asia is still a smoker’s paradise, sales booming in places like China and Indonesia. And while smoking has dropped significantly in Japan (for men from 80% in the 1960s to about 30% today), there is significant resistance to the banning of smoking in public places.

According to this Japan Times article, the Health Ministry is recommending that all restaurants, bars and clubs either ban smoking or install special enclosed areas for smokers, at the risk of heavy fines. Currently, the law only asks businesses to make efforts while imposing no penalties for non-compliance, according to this article. Apparently those ideas are getting significant push back from the restaurant industry, particularly the smaller businesses. Thus the Health Ministry is working on compromises that will still allow smoking for places that are 30 square meters in size or less, as long as they clearly explain that in signage and properly ventilate.

In other words, short-term revenue and the survival of small business is more important than the long-term health implications of people who do not smoke.

That may sound harsh to the ears of health idealists around the world, but the truth of the matter is, the IOC and WHO have had challenges getting comprehensive compliance to their Smoke Free Initiative.

 

cigarettes-beijing-olympics
FreakingNews.com

 

In this recent study of the impact of the Tobacco Free Policy, entitled “Smoke Rings: Towards a Comprehensive Tobacco Free Policy for the Olympic Games“, it appears that reaching the goals of this policy are difficult.

For example, the goal of keeping all Olympic venues smoke free has been labeled “unrealistic and unreasonable.” Apparently at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, according to the study, foreign visitor unused to the strictness of these measures led the Vancouver Olympic Committee to ease up on the policy.

Smoking areas were subsequently permitted on all Olympic sites including the athletes village and sporting venues.

It was a challenge to implement that ban at the 2012 London Olympics as well.

As well as being unaware of the IOC policy, officials found LOCOG staff believed tobacco use was a “personal choice” and thus unsupportive of strong tobacco control. The election of a coalition government in the UK in 2010, and disbanding of the London Regional Tobacco Control Team amid public sector cuts, further weakened commitment. The London games were eventually designated as smoke-free with “discrete smoking areas”.

The policy states that tobacco sponsorship related to the Olympics is not allowed. And yet, that has proven difficult to police, particularly in Asia, according to the study.

It is perhaps in Asia that tobacco sponsorship of Olympic athletes and teams has been most active. When two Filipino athletes won medals at the 1988 Seoul Summer Games, they were rewarded prize money by the Philippines’ Tobacco Fortune Corp. In 1991, the Sports Authority of Thailand and Thai National Olympic Committee pressed the government to lift restrictions on tobacco sponsorship. While acknowledging that it was “illegal for us to be involved” in sponsorship, BAT subsidiary Singapore Tobacco Company (STC) described its use of “a primary sponsor as a cover” to channel funding, admitting “it needs careful handling… The politics are complex–but things are possible”.

At the 1964 Olympics, Japan was tobacco heaven, and the marketing of cigarettes at the 1964 Olympics may be contributing to the current peak in lung cancer deaths over the past two decades, as I wrote about here. But to be honest, I am a non-smoker, and the attitude towards smoking has changed, and the number of smokers in public areas has decreased since the time I first arrived in 1986.

I remember in the 1980s the ball-like metal ashtrays on the train platforms of the Yamanote Line in the mornings, filled with cigarette butts, spewing poison into the air like the Gates of Hell. Today, those are long gone.

The ban may not be total by 2020. But fewer people will be smoking in public. Progress is definitely being made.

personal-gold-1
Lauren Tamayo, Dotsie Bausch, Sarah Hammer, Jennie Reed

“It was a miracle,” he said.

Not only had the US not won a medal in team pursuit cycling in 20 years, USA Cycling hadn’t even bothered to organize a pursuit cycling team since 1996. So in 2012, when four American women decided to make a go of it, training desperately for the London Olympics, the collective experience in pursuit cycling in America was minimal, the team’s budget was meager, and the gap between them and the very best in the world was huge.

And yet, as 1996 Olympian, Sky Christopherson told a transfixed audience at a speaking event sponsored by the US Embassy in Tokyo in early December, a miracle indeed happened. Dotsie Bausch, Sarah Hammer, Jennie Reed and Lauren Tamayo came seemingly out of nowhere to win silver in the women’s team pursuit in London.

Hammer was already a four-time Cycling World Champion in individual pursuit, but was determined to be an Olympic champion. Bausch was a model recovering from anorexia who hadn’t started her cycling career until the age of 26. Reed was asked to come out of retirement to join the team to take a crack at the 2012 London Games.

This is the starting point for the mesmerizing documentary, Personal Gold, produced by Christopherson, who had transitioned from Olympic cyclist to entrepreneur. Not only has he become an authority on the relationship between biometrics and genomics and high performance, he also established a consultancy called Optimized Athlete.

sky-christopherson-at-american-center-japan
Sky Christopherson at The American Center Japan in Tokyo

I had the pleasure of watching this documentary at this event, after which Christopherson made himself available for Q&A. His documentary told the story of a women’s cycling team that clearly lacked support in 2012. While Great Britain and Australia’s cycling organizations put tens of millions of dollars into their road and track cycling teams, USA Cycling put all their dollars in road racing, thanks to the success of Lance Armstrong and his colleagues.

Personal Gold tells the story of how the team identified Mallorca, Spain as a good place to train for its low cost and proximity to London. Other national teams would provide a whole cadre of trainers and coaches. When the American team arrived in Mallorca three months prior to the start of the London Olympics, they were shocked to learn that the only support USA Cycling would provide is a single coach.

As is shown in the documentary, the athletes’ husbands played an integral part in Team USA, keeping the bicycles in tip-top shape, shouting out times and providing water during training, cooking meals, giving massages, and being massively important keepers of morale. In addition to the cyclists’ husbands, Christopherson created a virtual team of volunteer advisors – experts on biology, genetics, sleep, a data analytics consultancy, as well as a former Navy Seal who provided guidance on teamwork.

During the course of the training camp, amazing progress was made in understanding the particular strengths and weaknesses of each of the cyclists, and what they needed to do as a team to improve. When the team began its training in Spain, they knew they had to get to world-class speeds of about 3 minutes and 16 seconds in the 3,000 meter race. But try as they could, they could not even break 3 minutes and 20 seconds. Unfortunately, by the time they broke camp, they still had not improved their times.

But Christopherson provided insight into how the body works after training hard. Like the idea of how an “a-ha” moment hits unexpectedly, after periods of great focus and concentration, the body is also readying itself for it’s own “a-ha” moment. “When we arrived in London, we began to taper (our training routine). We mostly rested. And that’s when the biggest potential comes. Of course, it’s unclear how high you will go. But athletes can get into a flow. Something happens, from their hearts, and they transcend.”

As they readied themselves for the qualification round in the velodrome in London, the team from the US tried to stay calm in a velodrome located in a country that is cycling mad. Unfortunately they were going up in the first round against Team GB, and the noise and the support for the Brits was likely intimidating.

The riders selected for this round, Bausch, Hammer and Reed, looked sloppy during the qualification race, their formation far from tight. As it turns out, they achieved their fastest time ever at 3 minutes and 19.4 seconds. But it was disappointing as it was still

cian-oconnor-waterford-crystal
Cian O’Connor on Waterford Crystal

Show Jumper Cian O’Connor was stripped of his gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics. O’Connor didn’t do the jumping himself. The Irishman is an equestrian, who rode a horse named Waterford Crystal. In competition horses also get tested for illegal drugs, and at the Athens Games, traces of various anti-psychotic and pain relieving drugs were found in Waterford Crystal.

So yes, Jane Fonda, they do shoot (up) horses.

Apparently, anti-pscyhotic drugs like fluphenazine are commonly used to calm horses, particularly in cases when horses have been injured and completed treatment, but won’t stay calm and allow their wounds to heal. Another drug like reserpine acts as a long-lasting sedative, which is likely prescribed for similar reasons as fluphenzine. They were likely in Waterford Crystal in order to calm this excitable horse and thus give the rider a more stable mount in competition.

Clearly the horse has no say in the matter. The team around the horse, including the rider and the trainer, are held accountable for what goes in the body of the horse. About a year after the Athens Olympics, O’Connor had to return his gold medal, and Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil became the new showjumping king, trading his silver for gold. Chris Kappler of America got to trade his bronze for silver, and suddenly, Marco Kutscher of Germany was awarded a bronze medal.

Four years later in Beijing, a horse named Camiro was found to have the illegal pain killer, capsaicin, in her system. Camiro was the horse of rider Tony Andre Hansen, who was one of four members of the Norwegian jumping team. Camiro apparently failed the first of two drug tests so Hansen was not allowed to compete in the individual jumping event, but was allowed to compete in the team event, at which Norway took the bronze medal.

norwegian-jumping-team-beijing
Riders from the team of Norway celebrate during the victory ceremony of the team jumping final of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games equestrian events in Hong Kong, south China, Aug. 18, 2008. Tony Andre Hansen far left (Xinhua/Zhou Lei)

The Norwegian team stood on the medal podium and sank in the cheers and congratulations. Ten days later, after the Beijing Games had completed, Camiro failed a second test. With Hansen’s horse now DQ’ed, the Norwegian team dropped from third to tenth in the point totals. The four members of Team Switzerland were suddenly bronze medalists.

As for Cian O’Connor, eight years later at the 2012 Olympics, he was able to ride a horse named Blue Loyd 12 to the medal podium, taking the bronze medal in the London Games.

Men's hammer throw gold medal winner Adr
Ivan Tsikhan, Adrian Annus, and Koji Murofushi with their medals just after the 2004 hammer throw competition in Athens

Koji Murofushi of Japan is not only an Olympian, he’s an alchemist. In his career, he’s turned silver into gold and made bronze appear and disappear.

In 2004, Murofushi was dueling it out with fellow hammer thrower, Adrián Annus of Hungary. Murofushi, though, must have been a bit frustrated because for every mighty throw he made, Annus would throw one slightly further. And in the third of six throws in the finals of the hammer throw, Annus tossed the hammer 83.19 meters, which Murofushi simply could not match. His final throw of the event went 82.91 meters, well beyond every other competitor, except for Annus.

Thus, on August 22, 2004, the Hungarian took the gold in the hammer throw, and the Japanese the silver.

Only a few days after Murofushi stood listening to the Hungarian national anthem on the winner’s podium, he heard the news: Annus would be stripped of his gold medal. As it turned out, the urine samples Annus submitted to authorities before and after the hammer throw competition appeared to be from two different people, neither of them chemically linked to Annus. He was then asked to submit to a urine test after his return to Hungary, but Annus never showed up for the test. Annus was then ordered to return his gold medal so that it could be handed to Murofushi. It took a while, but several months later, under pressure of the IOC and the constant media attention, Annus relented and relinquished his Olympic title.

Murofushi’s silver turned to gold, and he is now the hammer throw champion of the 2004 Athens Olympics.

In 2008, at the Beijing Olympics, Slovenian hammer thrower, Primož Kozmus, won almost every one of the six rounds. He threw 82.02 meters four of those five times, which must have been a bit frustrating, but that mark was still good enough to best all other finalists. Murofushi could not repeat his gold-medal winning distance of 82.91 meters in Athens, his best throw of 80.71 landing him in fifth and thus medal-less.

But in the months after the Beijing Olympics, the IOC began reviewing the test results of the 2008 Olympians and concluded that Vadim Devyatovskiy and Ivan Tsikhan of Belarus had tested positive for abnormal levels of testosterone after the hammer throw competition. (Tsikhan had already been stripped of his bronze medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics.) In December of 2008, the IOC ordered that the Belarusians be stripped of their respective silver and bronze medals, and that the fourth and fifth place finishers receive those medals. As Murofushi finished fifth, he was belatedly awarded the bronze medal, becoming only the third Japanese to win medals in consecutive Olympic Games.

koji-murofushi-at-the-beijing-olympics
Koji Murofushi at the Beijing Olympics

“It’s a real honor to get a medal in two straight Olympics,” Murofushi was quoted as saying in this Japan Times article. “But it is sad that this has come about because of doping. These were buddies I competed together with so it is incredibly disappointing. This (doping problem) is something the sports world really needs to tackle. It has to be thought of as a very serious problem.”

In the meanwhile, the Belarusians did not take their ignominy sitting down. They appealed the ruling, taking their case to the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport, the international body that settles disputes related to the Olympics. And in June of 2010, the court upheld the appeal from the Belarusians. Apparently, the court uncovered irregularities in the way the urine samples were handled, thus making it difficult to determine with conviction that doping had taken place. As a result, their silver and bronze medals were restored to them, and Murofushi dropped back down to fifth. He was not to receive a medal for his results in Beijing.

Murofushi’s remarks to the press showed he was willing to be diplomatic, emphasizing the positive. As he said in this Kyodo article, “doping is gaining more and more attention and this will result in stricter tests. I think this will be a plus for me at the London Olympics.”

Maybe it was. Murofushi, at the age of 37, took bronze in the hammer throw at the 2012 London Olympics.

cat-and-mouse-1

It’s a cat and mouse game, the chemists on the side of the cheaters, and the chemists on the side of the authorities. And like hackers in cyberspace, the well-financed black hats in the shadows will often times be one step ahead of the rule-makers and the enforcers.

But doping detection technology improves, and what was once untraceable is now visible. A considerable number of urine samples were taken on athletes, samples that were considered clean in 2008 in Beijing and 2012 in London. With the revelations of state-sponsored doping in Russia, sports officials decided it was time to re-test samples from previous Olympics to see whether any medal winners had gotten away with cheating. For certain Olympians, the results have been traumatic…others euphoric.

According to this New York Times article, 75 athletes have been declared cheaters as traces of the anabolic steroids Turinabol and Stanozolo. As the article explained, the “findings have resulted in a top-to-bottom rewriting of Olympic history.”

The article cited the case of American high jumper, Chaunté Lowe, who finished sixth in her competition at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Eight years later, when the urine samples were re-tested, two Russians and a Ukrainian who had finished ahead of Lowe in 3rd, 4th and 5th place were disqualified for doping. As a result, Lowe, who originally finished 6th, was suddenly a medalist.

As she was quoted as saying in the NYTImes article “I kept doing the math,” said Ms. Lowe, who originally finished sixth. “Wait: 6, 5, 4. … Oh my gosh — they’re right. I started crying.”

chaunte-lowe-in-2012
Chaunté Lowe in 2012

Nearly a decade later, out of her prime, Lowe should be receiving her bronze medal at the age of 32, way too late to take advantage of the “benefits” that come with a medal. For one, she may have been viewed as an athlete worth continued investment, and could have gone onto greater glory at the 2012 London Games at the age of 28. Or she could have managed her way into sponsorships in the strong afterglow upon her return from Beijing. At the very least, she could have been celebrated among her peers or in her hometown in a fleeting ego-affirming way or, who knows, in a life-changing way.

With the advancement of technology an assumption, taking samples during a given Games will continue to be key. Dr. Olivier Rabin of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was quoted in the article as saying, “Science progresses every day. Just over the past probably five years, the sensitivity of the equipment progressed by a factor of about 100. You see what was impossible to see before.”

However, the Rio Olympics demonstrated how poor planning and execution can lead to a large number of untested Olympians. In other words, years from now, WADA may not be able to catch all the cheats. Will Tokyo2020 be able to execute on the growing demands for testing?

The cat and mouse game continues….

 

from-1964-to-2020
A sign at Haneda Airport in Tokyo, the point of arrival of most Tokyo Olympians in 1964

Bob Schul planted the seed in my brain.

At the end of a wonderfully long interview in early 2015, the 1964 gold medalist of the 5,000 meter track competition mentioned it would be nice if Olympians who participated in the 1964 Tokyo Games could return to the Tokyo for the 2020 Games. He wasn’t suggesting that the government or anyone pay for their expenses. He was just wondering, wouldn’t it be nice if they could get assistance in finding accommodations or meals, for example.

That would be nice.

But it would be nicer, frankly, incredibly inspiring actually, to find a way to bring ALL 1964 Tokyo Olympians back in 2020. I have interviewed over 70 Olympians from the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics. I would estimate well over 90% of them, without prompting, described their time in Japan and at the Olympics as a wonderful and special experience. Many have said they would love to come back to Japan for a visit, particularly in 2020.

Imagine the stories that these Olympians would tell about 1964, about their memories of Japanese graciousness, resiliency, efficiency, and pride. There is little doubt that bringing the 1964 Olympians would result in a mutual lovefest. There could be opportunities for fundraisers dedicated to the 1964 Olympians, educational opportunities for Olympians to share their memories at schools or museums. And it would be another opportunity for embassies and chambers of commerce to embrace their heroes from 1964, reliving their stories, and reinforcing cultural impressions.

How many Olympians would that be? Allow me to make assumptions (and use admittedly somewhat cold and clinical language about life expectancy).

logos-1964-and-2020

According to this article in The Daily Mail, British athletes were offered free admission to certain events at the 2012 London Olympics. It was estimated that around 125 Olympians were eligible (ie: still alive). Since there were 404 Brits representing their nation at the 1948 Games, one could say that 31% of that group of Olympians were alive in 2012.

But the gap between the 1964 Olympics and the 2020 Olympics is smaller – 56 years to be exact. In other words, assuming an average Olympian age of 25, most 1964 Olympians would be in their mid-70s to mid-80s. Because of that, we could assume that more than 31% of all 1964 Tokyo Olympians could be healthy and ambulatory and interested in coming to Japan in 2020. For the sake of generating an estimate, let’s say 40%. That would mean, of the 5,151 worldwide Olympians who participated in the 1964 Games, a little over 2,000 Olympians could be here in Japan in 2020!

But alas, this is still only a dream. If London organizing committee’s offer were expanded to all 4,100 Olympians from 1948, it’s possible they would have had to extend their offer to over 1,200 Olympians. I am not aware of such a program to bring all the 1948 Olympians back to the 2012 Games, but I imagine the organizing committee considered it, and I’m sure they knew the challenges. How do you contact all those Olympians? How would you finance it? At a time of peak capacity for the city, how do you accommodate so many people who deserve respectful attention and may have special needs due to their age?

Good questions all.

But it all starts with a dream.

 

日本語