Aska Cambridge Keeping Up with Usain Bolt in 4x100 Relay
Aska Cambridge Keeping Up with Usain Bolt in 4×100 Relay – click on image to see Olympic Channel’s “Games to Remember”

The Olympic Channel features a video that recalls images and moments from the 2016 Rio Olympics. Entitled “Games to Remember – Re-Experience Rio 2016: The Official Summary of the Rio2016 Olympic Games,” the video runs over 37 minutes long.

I started it, but was only going to watch it for a few minutes. I ended up watching the entire video, a collection of short clips of the events of each of the 16 days. And they are all stunning!

Slow mo, normal speed, tracking shots, overhead shots, long shots, all edited to highlight the aesthetics of epic poetry in motion, to accentuate the limits to which the athletes will stretch themselves, to remind us of the chills we experienced when viewing the very best in the world achieve the highest levels of physical achievement.

Go to this link. If you can, put it up on your big flatscreen TV. And revisit the joy of the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Kohei Uchimura from Games to Remember
Kohei Uchimura – click on image to see Olympic Channel’s “Games to Remember”
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Usain Bolt and the Holy Redeemer

    Usain Bolt and the Holy Redeemer

The bigger picture at the Rio Olympics:

Cambridge Bolt and Brommel

aska cambridge in rio
Aska Cambridge

When around 98% of a nation is perceived to be of the same ethnicity, it stands to reason that nationality and ethnicity are viewed as one and the same.

But Japan has been a magnet for those seeking opportunity as well as for Japanophiles, particularly since the economy boomed in the 1980s. As the influential Japanese television entertainment industry increasingly viewed diversity as a way to get more viewers, Japanese-speaking foreigners became more popular. Children of mixed marriages, those who essentially grew up Japanese, have now become de rigeur on Japanese television.

I was one of those foreigners who came to Japan in the 1980s, but because I am of Japanese ethnicity, I have been able to blend in. I get neither fingers pointed at me, nor praise for my Japanese proficiency. But even though my cultural background is American, I can see why the attention of Japanese still, to this day, perk up when a non-Japanese is in their midst. The non-Japanese is such a tiny population that they really do stick out. Like the majority of the film, Lost in Translation, the minority experience for the “gaijin” in Japan is clichéd. And yet true.

So when the Japanese men’s 4X100 relay team very unexpectedly took silver at the Rio Olympics, losing only to the vaunted team from Jamaica, it was a very special moment for Japan. Not only did the Japanese excel in an area they are not customarily strong in – the sprint – a 23-year-old named Aska Cambridge (ケンブリッジ飛鳥), the child of a Japanese mother and a Jamaican father – was a proud member of those Japanese speedsters. He ran for the Japanese squad, he speaks fluent Japanese, and yet, he doesn’t fit the everyday look of what most Japanese perceive as Japanese.

Mashu Baker and his mother
Mashu Baker and his mom.

When a 21-year-old Japanese won judo gold in the 90kg weight class at the Rio Olympics, Japan cheered. At the 2012 London Games, no Japanese won gold in judo, the most Japanese of all the Olympic competitions. In fact, no Japanese had won the 90kg weight class since it was introduced in 1980. So who brought back the glory? A person named Mashu Baker (ベイカー茉秋), the son of a Japanese mother and an American father.

At first glance, he looks Japanese. But it’s the name that sticks out. Baker is clearly not a Japanese name, and it is written in the press in katakana, the script reserved for foreign words. Interestingly, the first name “Mashu”, while spelled out in Chinese characters, was likely chosen because of its close approximation to the name “Matthew”. I don’t know what’s written on his US passport, but it’s possible the Bakers decided they wanted their son to be identified in Japan as a “ha-fu”, a child of mixed parentage.

“Ha-fu” over the decades, perhaps centuries, have on the whole experienced more prejudicial than preferential treatment. But I do not underestimate the power of role models. I am sure that the brilliant examples of Aska Cambridge and Mashu Baker will continue to help revise how Japanese, and the rest of the world, perceive what a Japanese is.

And that’s a good thing.

Silver Samurai Japan Team pose
The Japanese men strike a pose – as if pulling out swords for a fight – during the introductions to the 4×100-meter relays finals.

Upstage Usain Bolt? Hard to imagine doing that. But in Japan, the four young men of Japan’s 4×100 team, Ryota Yamagata, Shota Iizuka, Yoshihide Kiryu and Aska Cambridge, did just that.

Very unexpectedly, against such traditionally strong competition as Jamaica, America, Canada and Trinidad and Tobago, Japan sprinted to second place at an Asian record of 37.60 seconds, a fair distance behind champions Jamaica, but ahead of the United States and Canada.

No sprinters from Japan had ever done so well. Famous for long distance runners, particularly with its share of marathon Olympic champions, Japan had only one sprinting exception: a bronze medal finish in the men’s 4×100 relay at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. As Andre De Grasse, who won silver in the 200 meters and bronze in the 100 put it, “Japan probably surprised us a little bit. We didn’t expect to see them up there. But congrats to them as well.”

After all, at the beginning of the track and field competition in Rio, there was very little to indicate that Japan had the talent to medal in any sprint competition, as seen early on in the men’s individual 100 meter heats.

Cambridge Bolt and Brommel
Aska Cambridge and Usain Bolt face off in the final let of the 4×100-meter relays final.

 

In Heat 8, Yamagata came in second with a time of 10.20, qualifying behind South African Akani Simbine. In the semis, Yamagata finished fifth in his heat with a very solid run of 10.05 seconds, but did not qualify for the finals. Iizuka, who did not compete in the 100 meters, failed to qualify in the 200 meters with a time of 20.49 seconds.

In Heat 7 with Usain Bolt, Kiryu placed fourth, his time of 10.23 not good enough to quality for the individual finals. Cambridge qualified with the second fastest time in Heat 4 at 10.13 seconds, behind Canadian star, De Grasse. In the semis, Cambridge did even worse with a run of 10.17 and crashed out of the running for the finals, finishing last in his heat.

Fortunately for Japan, the individual sprints were one thing – the team sprints were another. In the two preliminary relay heats, Japan was not intimidated. In heat 1 of the 4X100 men’s relay, the United States team bested China, which set an Asian record time of 37.82. Japan won the second heat, not only topping the Jamaican team (sans Bolt), but also setting a new Asian record time of 37.68 seconds.

After the heats were completed, the eight teams competing in the men’s 4×100 relay were set. In order of lanes 1 to 8 were Great Britain, Brazil, The US, Jamaica, Japan, China, Canada, and Trinidad and Tobago. But in the finals, most of the teams were able to conserve the energy of their super stars in the heats, while Japan stuck to their four thoroughbreds. The Japanese were in lane 5, next to the Jamaicans, as the lead runners settled into their starting blocks.

Yamagata exploded out of the blocks, which is what you want from your lead runner. He seemed to gain ground vis-a-vis the lead runner for China in lane 6, but exchanges between runners for the Canada and Jamaica seemed to have happened a split second before Japan’s.

Yamagata passed off to Iizuka, who was Japan’s 200-meter runner. The runner of the second leg has to run in the baton exchange lanes twice, which means he runs about 125 meters. You want someone who’s speedy at longer distances, so Yamagata fit the bill. When Iizuka took off at the 100-meter mark, it appeared nearly all teams were tied.

Iizuka passed the baton to Kiryu for the third leg. The third leg is often a make or break leg. Not only does the runner in the third leg have to run 125 meters, he also has to ensure a smooth baton exchange while rounding a curve. Kiryu handled that responsibility to perfection. At the 300-meter point, Jamaica, Japan, China, Canada, as well as Trinidad and Tobago were looking equal, with a slight edge to Jamaica, Japan and Canada. Great Britain and Brazil had fallen significantly off the pace in the inside lanes, while the USA seemed to be slow on the exchange.

The fourth leg, or anchor, is often run by the swiftest on the team. Cambridge was the anchor, and his personal best was 10.1 seconds. Not only did he have the fastest time for Japan in 2016, he was seen as capable of going faster. As we all know, or could expect, Bolt was a runaway freight train and Jamaica was heading for its inevitable golden finish. But Japan’s Cambridge burst out of the exchange, and for a while appeared even to keep pace with Bolt.

silver samurai asian record
The new giants of Japan.

While gold was out of the question, Cambridge’s job was to hold onto silver. Trayvon Bromwell of the American team exploded through the anchor leg and was pushing hard for second, so desperate that he went flying to the track while crossing the finish line.

The citizens of Japan, fortunate to be able to watch this race on a lazy Sunday morning, worked themselves into a frenzy as the race came to a finish, holding their collective breath as their hearts caught up with their eyes.

And then Japan erupted. Cambridge crossed the line in front of Bromwell. Japan had taken silver.

“Nippon! Nippon!” the announcer from NHK shrieked as Cambridge flew past the finish line. The Japanese quartet instantly became the new giants of Japan. We expected the Japanese men’s gymnastics team to do well. We expected the Japanese women’s wrestlers to do well. We did not expect the Japanese men’s sprinters to beat the Americans, the Canadians and push the legendary Jamaicans and Usain Bolt.

But the Silver Samurai did. And heading into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, pre-teens and teenagers all across the islands of Japan will be saying, “maybe, just maybe, that could be me.”