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Lead Climbing Wall in MoriPark Outdoor Village in Akishima, Tokyo, Japan

The climbing wall looms high over the green at MoriPark Outdoor Village in Akishima, Japan, a yoga class finding serenity in the quiet strength of the monolith.

It’s a sunny Sunday morning on April 21, 2019, and the USA Climbing Team has just arrived and huddled on the grass to confirm their routine for the day. After training intensively most of the week indoors, it was time to get some work done outdoors.

MoriPark Outdoor Village, which is on the western edge of Tokyo, is a compact shopping center, with tenants which sell only outdoor gear and wear, or provide health and sporting services. For Team USA, the village’s climbing walls served as the venue for their day’s training.

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Drew Ruana and Nathaniel Coleman on the speed climbing wall.

Across the street from the rope-climbing wall was the speed climbing wall, used for one of the three climbing disciplines that will determine a medal for climbers at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. At the base of the 15-meter wall, the young men and women of Team USA (the oldest member was 22) began their stretching and prepping routine.

Five days later, the team would be competing for glory at the International Federation of Sports Climbing (IFSC) Worldcup in Chongqing, China. For now, it was a day for low intensity training.

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Ashima Shiraishia and coach Josh Larson

Members of the team, including USA Climbing coach, Josh Larson, first got their senses sharpened with a round of hacky sack. Others stretched in their own AirPod-induced sensory isolation. And a couple pulled out their favorite distraction – the kendama.

A simply constructed wooden plaything out of Japan’s traditional past, the kendama is a wooden ball connected by string to a hammer-like handle that allows the player to catch the ball on a spike or on one of two cups. According to climber, Nathaniel Coleman of Salt Lake City, kendama became an addiction among slacklining athletes, which spread to the climbing world.

Eventually, the climbers had their opportunities scrambling up the wall like frantic Spider-men, hitting the metal plate at the top of the wall stopping the clock in 7 to 8 seconds. A medal for sport climbing will be up for grabs for those athletes who can compile the best combined scores for three types of climbing: lead climbing, bouldering, and speed climbing.

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Claire Buhrfeind and Kyra Condie

Lead climbing is about creativity and endurance. Bouldering is about puzzle solving, getting introduced to a new pattern of hand and footholds, and figuring out the best path. Speed climbing is about practicing the same exact pattern of hand and footholds on a wall that has existed for 10 years, a pattern which is solidly entrenched in the muscle memory of the fastest climbers.

Many climbers love the chess match of the other disciplines – lead and bouldering – but broadcasters love the clear-cut simplicity of speed climbing. In fact, the fastest event in the Olympics will be speed climbing, where the world record is an incredible 5.48 seconds.

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Zach Galla

And like any young sport, there are those who wonder if sports climbing is being sold out to the broadcasters who cater to the lowest common denominator. Kyra Condie of Minnesota is ranked 8th in the world in bouldering, and she learned her skills in the climbing gyms that nurtured climbers, and encouraged support and fun. “I worry,” she said “that climbing will become too competitive,” and lose the fun part of the climbing culture.

But the competitive nature of  climbers are also stoked by sport climbing’s debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games. John Brosler of Dallas, Texas started climbing when he was 10, when his parents sent him to summer camp where he got hooked on the wall. John loves the competition of climbing and is “really psyched” to see the best.

John Brosler 1

“I got to see this sport grow from a niche when climbing gyms were few and far between,” said the 22-year old. “It’s really cool to see it gain traction and become an Olympic sport.”

But sports climbing is a global sport, and Team USA has some catching up to do.

In the three climbing disciplines of lead, bouldering and speed, Team USA is ranked 8th, 8th and 12th respectively. European nations like Slovenia, France, the Czech Republic and Russia, as well as Japan are proven teams that look to medal in 2020.

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While climbing teams in Europe and other parts of the world have been better funded, and training together more formally for a longer time, Team USA has just been unifying its resources in the past year, according to Larson. The Boston native was hired as the team’s first coach in 2018. He was hired by the new CEO of USA Climbing, Marc Norman, who asked his team’s officials to move to Salt Lake City in order to make it easier to coordinate Team USA’s activities.

USA Climbing Team

“It was only a few years ago when I’d go to a tournament in Europe, on my own, without a coach, and find out who else was on the team when I’d see them arrive,” Larson said.

In Tokyo, Team USA is together, benefiting from the camaraderie that comes from  training together, and the aggregate knowledge that comes from their shared experience. Team USA’s time together has been short, but sport climbing rise to Olympic levels has also been quick. Not everything about the strategy and tactics of how to win a combined climbing event is known.

In other words,  gold, silver and bronze in climbing is for the taking.

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Sports Symbols 1964 and 2020
Can you guess which symbols represent which sports from 1964? Go to the end for answers.

A picture, they say, tells a thousand words. You could also say, it tells it in a thousand languages as well.

In 1964, as organizers were preparing for the arrival of tens of thousands of foreigners for the Tokyo Olympics, the Japanese were concerned with how to direct people to the right places and the right events with the least amount of error, particularly in a country where foreign language proficiency was poor.

The decision was to use symbols to show people where various places were, like the toilets, the water fountain, first aid and the phone. Symbols were also used to identify the 20+ sporting events on the schedule for the Tokyo Olympics. Due to this particular cultural concern, the 18th Olympiad in Japan was the first time that pictograms were specifically designed for the Games.

Over 50 years later, the symbols have become de rigeur for presentation in Olympic collaterols and signage.

Karate symbol_asahi shimbun Karate competitor Kiyou Shimizu poses in a similar manner as the karate kata pictogram in Tokyo’s Koto Ward on March 12. (Takuya Isayama)

On March 12, 2019, the day when officials announced that there were only 500 days to go to the commemcementof the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, they introduced the pictograms designed for the 2020 Games.

“I was thrilled with being able to participate in the history of Olympics,” said Masaaki Hiromura in this Asahi Shimbun article, a Tokyo graphic designer who designed the pictograms for the 2020 Games. “I was able to make them in which we can be proud of as the country of origin that first made pictograms for the Games.”

At the top of the post is a comparison of the symbols designed by Yoshiro Yamashita in 1964 (in gray), and the symbols designed by Himomura (in blue).

For 2020, as you can see below, there are far more sporting events…which means far more tickets. Those tickets go on sale in April.

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Masaaki Hiromura: Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games pictograms

Answers to caption question: 1 – athletics; 2 – fencing; 3 – wrestling; 4 – volleyball; 5 – canoeing; 6 – soccer; 7 – aquatics; 8 – weightlifting; 9 – artistic gymnastics; 10 – modern pentathlon; 11 – sailing; 12 – boxing; 13 – basketball; 14 – equestrian; 15 – rowing; 16 – hockey; 17 – archery; 18 – cycling; 19 – judo; 20 – shooting

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“2020 Tokyo Gorin – Saiaku no Shinario,” (Tokyo 2020 Worst Case Scenario), by Robert Whiting, Yuukan Fuji, March 5, 2019 – The text inside the blue box is where I am quoted.

What could go wrong at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?

I was asked that question by best-selling author, Bob Whiting, for a weekly column he writes for the Japanese  newspaper, Yūkan Fuji. My answer to him?

Anything.

And we don’t have to go too far back in time for a prime example.

It was less than three years ago when the organizers of the 2016 Rio Olympics had to endure an endless number of threats to the reputation of Brazil and the Olympics:

  • The Brazilian economy had tanked. Police and firemen protested at the airports they were not getting paid, warning people to stay away. There was even significant speculation that the  organizers would cut air conditioning in the Olympic Village to save costs.

Police on strike in Brazil airport

  • The largest scandal in Brazilian history filled the headlines in 2016, one that involved state-run oil company, Petrobras, in which officials received kickbacks in return for selection of specific suppliers, kickbacks that totaled some USD3 to 5 billion.
  • The question of whether the president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, would be impeached and removed hung over the Games like a cloud. (She was removed from office 10 days after the end of the Rio Olympics.)
  • The threat of catching the Zika Virus, a mosquito-borne threat to pregnant women and newborns, kept tourists and Olympians away from the Rio Olympics.
  • The site of the triathlon and sailing competition, Guanabara Bay, was so contaminated with human waste that it threatened the health of athletes who would compete in those waters.
Garbage on the shore of Guanabara Bay_1June 2015 In this June 1, 2015 file photo, a discarded sofa litters the shore of Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo, File)

It’s impossible for Olympic officials to control the media’s thirst for issues and scandal, but the circumstances of Brazil at the time made it easy for the press to generate negative storylines.

Will that be the case in Tokyo, when the Olympics come to town in July and August of 2020? What are the headlines that could shake Olympic officials or encourage the naysayers?

  • North Korea Boycotts the Olympics: The Korean teams marched together at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in 2018, and even brought together North and South Koreans on the women’s ice hockey team. But if pressure mounts due to lack of progress in US-North Korea talks to denuclearize North Korea, who knows whether the Olympics will become an opportunity to raise the rhetoric and make North Korea’s participation a bargaining chip?

Is there precedent? Yes. The North Koreans abruptly boycotted the 1964 Tokyo Olympics the day before the opening ceremony.

  • Magnitude 8.0 Earthquake Hits Tokyo – Olympics Disrupted: The timing of an earthquake just prior or during the Olympics are highly unlikely. And yet, the fear of the big one in Tokyo is in the back of the minds of many in Japan since there hasn’t been one since the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Last year provided multiple reminders of Japan’s vulnerability to mother nature. In an annual vote of the kanji character that bests represent the year of 2018, the symbol for “disaster” was selected. After all, in 2018, 200 people were killed in flood waters across 23 prefectures, dozens perished in a 6.6 magnitude earthquake in Hokkaido, and there were at least 11 fatalities when Typhoon Jebi swept through the Kansai region.

Is there precedent? Yes. The 1989 World Series, when a magnitude 6.9 earthquake struck San Francisco just prior to the start of Game 3 match between two Bay City teams, the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants.

  • Officials Deny Bribery Allegations in Black Tidings Affair: A dark cloud in the distance appears to be approaching. The former president of the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), and longtime IOC member, Lamine Diack, has been held by authorities in France since November, 2015. One of the allegations under investigation is whether Diack and his son Papa Massata Diack, were responsible for payments of USD2 million made from officials in Japan to Papa Diack through a company in Singapore called Black Tidings. It is alleged that these payments, made in July 2013, were connected to bribes that would “help the Japanese capital secure the hosting rights for the Olympic and Paralympic Games,” according to the French newspaper, Le monde. The current president of the Japan Olympic Committee, and member of the IOC, Tsunekazu Takeda, is under investigation for corruption, and may end up retiring from the Japan Olympic Committee in June or July.

Is there a precedent? Yes. A year after the end of the 2016 Rio Olympics, the head of the Rio de Janeiro Organizing Committee and member of the Brazilian men’s volleyball team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Carlos Nuzman, was arrested for soliciting votes ahead of the 2009 IOC session to select the host city for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Carlos Nuzman with Police Carlos Nuzman_Reuters

Make no mistake – prior to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, there will be a lot of noise, much of it negative. That’s just the reality of hosting a high budget big tent event like the Olympics.

But also, make no mistake – in the end, it is always about the athletes – their stories of struggle, fair play, excellence and achievement – that drive the headlines during the Games.  Those are the headlines that will inspire millions of young Japanese, and provide the motivation that propels a select few to future Olympiads.

By the way, the last two paragraphs are what Bob quoted me on at the end of his column – after all, you can’t end a story like this with such black tidings.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be great, and you won’t want to miss it!

2020 Tokyo Gorin – Saiaku Shinario_Robert Whiting YukanFuji March 5 2018 Olympics

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Photo taken by author on January 6, 2019, from the fifth floor of a building.

It’s rising!

The New National Stadium, which will be the focal point for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, is about twice as high as it was a year since I last took pictures.

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Current view of inside the stadium, from Nippon Terebi.

The architect of this stadium, Kengo Kuma, is famous for working with wood, and you can now see long slats of light brown cedar wood lining the upper part of the stadium. While criticized heavily for dropping plans for a thoroughly different design by world-renown architect Zaha Hadid, the organizing committee did well in selecting Kuma. His design will certainly merge more harmoniously with the surroundings, particularly the wooded confines of Meiji Shrine. In fact, the New National Stadium is called The Mori no Stadium (杜のスタジアム), or the Shrine Forest Stadium.

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The cedar slats that line the stadium eaves.

As Kuma explained in this interview, he was anxious about whether the color of the wood, which was tinged a light white color, would blend well with the green of Meiji Shrine’s trees. “But when I saw the texture of the trees (as a backdrop to the stadium), I was relieved that it was okay.”

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An Oedo Line train station – Kokuritsu-kyogijo Eki – is right underneath the stadium.

November 30, 2019 is the targeted completion date for the New National Stadium.

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Tokyo wins 2020 bid
Tokyo wins 2020 bid

573 days to Opening Day of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. On July 24, 2020, all the questions, all the angst, all the planning will end, and all that will matter are the athletes. For now, we can only speculate about what will be, and recall what has been.

 


Kazuhito Sakae Kazuhito Sakae

Kaori Icho is arguably one of the strongest women in Japan physically. And after the 2016 Rio Olympics, she is arguably the best ever women’s wrestler, capturing her fourth straight Olympic title since wrestling became an Olympic sport at the 2004 Athens Games.

And yet, even the strongest are susceptible to power harassment. In April of 2018, after a thorough review of an independent panel, Kazuhito Sakae was fired from his position as head of top athlete development in the Japan Wrestling Federation, and then in June, fired as head coach of the Shigakkan University wrestling team, for harassment of two Olympians.

As the #MeToo movement hit the shores of Japan, the story of Icho and Sakae played out in the Japanese press, revealing, as Mainichi put it, “an outmoded relationship of master and disciple.” The bulk of the harassment took place in the period around 2010, after Icho had won her 2nd gold medal in individual freestyle wrestling at the Beijing Olympics, and as she was preparing for the 2012 London Olympics.

According to the independent panel, formed at the request of the Japan Wrestling Federation, there were four clear cases of power harassment suffered by not only Icho, but her coach and former Olympian and bronze medalist in men’s freestyle wrestling, Chikara Tanabe.

  1. In 2010 Icho moved to Tokyo from Aichi Prefecture where she was attending Chukyo Women’s University (which is now called Shigakkan University), in an effort to remove herself from the direct influence of Sakae who was the head coach there. When Icho participated in a training session for the Japan national team, which Sakae was overseeing, Sakae said to Icho, “you have the nerve to wrestle in front of me.”
  2. Icho, who effectively stopped taking any coaching from Sakae, asked Tanabe, the coach of the national men’s freestyle team, to coach her. Sakae then demanded that Tanabe to cease any coaching activities of Icho. When Tanabe refused he found himself harassed by other members of the wrestling team, as directed by Sakae, according to the independent panel.
  3. Quite inexplicably, the world’s best female wrestler in her weightclass, Icho, was left off the women’s freestyle wrestling team for the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China. The committee that left Icho off the team was headed by Sakae.
  4. In 2015, Sakae was seen harassing Tanabe to leave a national team training session, screaming, “You are an eyesore! Get out!”

Those were the four specific proofpoints of power harassment that the independent committee described. And while one may suspect there was more, this was enough for the Japanese public to nod their head and think, yes, I’ve seen that too.

According to a survey conducted in 2017 by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry in Japan, one out of every three workers had experienced power harassment over the previous three years. This was up from one out of every four when the survey had been conducted five years earlier in 2012. Additionally, 7,8% said they were harassed “many times”, while 17.8% were harassed “occasionally.”

Of those harassed, 41% took no action, citing the belief that nothing would come of it. According to this Deutsche Welle article, only 4% of the cases of sexual violence against women are reported, and that only one of every three rape cases reach the Japanese courts.

Icho and Sakae
Kaori Icho, right, is one of Japan’s biggest stars but has yet to announce her plans for Tokyo 2020 ©Getty Images

“Not speaking out is rooted in Japanese culture. Traditionally, people here are not accustomed to revealing details about themselves or sharing personal issues in public,” Makoto Watanabe, an associate professor of communications and media at Hokkaido Bunkyo University, told DW. “And society looks down on people who do break that unwritten rule.”

Supporting the tendency in Japan not to report, Icho said in a statement that she was not “involved in any way” in lodging the complaint, according to Inside the Games. Thankfully, three Olympians did send an official complaint to the Chief Cabinet Secretary of the Japanese Government.

On June 14, Sakae finally apologized. “I would like to express my deepest apologies to Icho and her coach (Chikara) Tanabe,” Sakae said. “I will treat people with respect at all times so I never make the same mistake again,” he said as he bowed his head in apology in a news conference.

Despite the swirl of controversy, there is still hope that Icho will commit to an attempt at an unprecedented fifth straight Olympic title in 2020, under the warm gaze of a home crowd. Now 34, she has refrained from competition since the Rio Olympics. If she does, she has said that she will resume her training in 2019.

Icho in 2020.

Imagine what she could do without being harassed by the head of the national wresting team.

1000 days in a row

Every day.

He ran every day for at least a mile from December 20, 1964 to January 30, 2017.

That’s 52 years and 39 days straight!

Ron Hill, of Accrington, Lancashire, is a three-time Olympian, who finished 19th in the marathon at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and is without a doubt, my patron saint of consistency.

So, I state with some humility that today, Wednesday, January 24, 2018, with this post, I have published an original article on The Olympians for the 1,000th day in a row.

When I started this blog on May 1, 2015, as a kind-of first draft of my book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, I had no intent of publishing a post a day. But alas, one day led to the next, and so on and so on….

I will continue the streak for a while, but I will no longer fret about skipping a day, or two or three. What little time I have for writing on the weekend will eventually shift to time writing the book on ’64, the raison d’etre of this blog.

Now it’s time to do the real writing. Gotta start moving faster. 2020 is around the corner.

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Musashino Forest Sports Plaza on the left, and Ajinomoto Stadium on the right

It was a cold and desolate Sunday when I walked around the grounds of the new Musashino Forest Sports Plaza. Located a short walk away from Tobitakyu Station on the Keio Line, the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza is right next to Ajinomoto Stadium, the home of the J-League Division 1 soccer team, F. C. Tokyo.

Musashino Forest Sports Plaza google maps

There were no events scheduled at either the Sports Plaza of Ajinomoto Stadium on the January afternoon I visited, but come July 2020, this quiet area of Chofu, very near the American School in Japan where my son went to high school, will be filled with thousands of noisy fans. The Musashino Forest Sports Plaza opened on November 27, 2017, the first of eight new permanent Tokyo 2020 venues to be completed. The Plaza will host badminton and pentathlon fencing in the 2020 Olympics, as well as wheelchair basketball during the 2020 Paralympics.

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View of the Main Arena on the left background, the sub-arena with its pool and gym on the right background, with a track and field in the foreground.

According to this article, the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza is built to serve the community long after the Olympics end. The facilities include a swimming pool, a gym, a multi-use sports area and two fitness studios which are available to the public. The roof of the facilities are made up of solar panels, to help provide a more sustainable energy source.

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Main Arena and its solar panel roof

And in line with Tokyo2020 Accessibility Guidelines, “the facility designed to be accessible to all, including the elderly, people with impairments, parents with infant strollers and those with guide dogs. The main arena has space for wheelchairs, and the space is designed with enough height difference between the rows of seating to ensure that those in wheelchairs can see clearly, even if spectators in front of them stand up.”

Ajinomoto Stadium will also host matches in the soccer competition during Tokyo 2020, and will be called Tokyo Stadium during the Olympics in accordance with its non-commercialization policy.

Musashino Forest Sports Plaza 4

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The new National Stadium on 27October2017_Asahi

Ground was broken for the new National Stadium in Yoyogi on December 11, 2016, where the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will kick off.

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My photo of the stadium on December 29, 2017, from the Northwest side.

Exactly a year later, the International Olympic Committee declared that Japan is on schedule with all new venues for Tokyo 2020, even the National Stadium that was put perilously behind schedule when the Japanese government demanded the organizers drop Zaha Hadid’s winning design as costs escalated from JPY130 billion to JPY252 billion.

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My photo – a look inside through one of the few gaps in the wall from the northeast part of the stadium.

As the IOC officials recently saw, the shell of architect Kengo Kuma’s design has risen. I took a walk around it on December 29, 2017, the area quiet as the construction crew was on holiday break. The high protective wall that surround the stadium area is clean and white, only the tiniest of views available for the pedestrian promenading the path around the wall.

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My photo – a view from the west of the stadium.

I looked for high ground near the stadium – office buildings and apartment buildings – but I lacked the reporter’s motivation that day to go up to a lobby receptionist or maintenance person to ask – “can I go up to the top of your building and take a picture of the stadium?”

This post has pictures I was able to take, as well as images off of the internet.

My 3 years to go Coca Cola pin

A friend of mine at Coca Cola gave me a gift that I treasure – a “3 Years to go!” pin, distributed to all Coca Cola Japan employees in anticipation of the Tokyo 2020 Games.

Coca Cola is a TOP Sponsor, which means they are one of 13 global sponsors of the Olympic Games. In fact, Coca Cola is the longest running sponsor of the Olympics, having first established its presence at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. They also produce Coca Cola branded Olympic pins, and sponsor pin trading centers at the Games.

The “3 years to go!” pin highlights the official Tokyo2020 logo and Olympic rings on the right, with a red Coca Cola bottle swathed in a green and gold kimono obi.

No, I won’t trade.