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It wasn’t an Olympic test match, but Japan got to see how  Tokyo Stadium looks and feels like when the world comes to it.

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On September 20, the 2019 Rugby World Cup commenced at Tokyo Stadium in rousing fashion as  Japan defeated Russia in a stirring start to this increasingly popular rugby union world championship.

Tokyo Stadium, which is about 18 kilometers west of the National Stadium in Yoyogi, will be the site of Olympic rugby, soccer and the pentathlon in 2020. On the second day of the Rugby World Cup, I was at Tokyo Stadium for a match between Argentina and France.

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Fans from all over the world filed into the stadium, many of them making their way by train, and then taking a short 5-minute walk from Tobitakyu Station on the Keio Line to the Stadium. The path to the stadium was lined by volunteers who were there essentially to smile and wave us on. As a tv commentator said, the volunteers make the entry to a stadium feel like you’re at Disneyland.

Inside the stadium, the atmosphere was electric as fans from France and Argentina competed to be heard, and the inevitable “wave” increased intensity as it rolled around and around. As a bonus, the game was a nailbiter.

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France’s second try.

Despite falling behind 20-3 at the half, the light blue and white striped team from Argentina burst into the second half with two quick tries to pull within 3 of France, and eventually took the lead with a penalty kick. But the fans from France had to fret for only a couple of minutes when a drop kick from a recently added substitute pushed France back in the lead 23-21. And when a potentially game-winning penalty kick by Argentina went slightly wide, Les Bleus had won their opening match of the tournament.

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Argentina’s second try.

Right after the match ended, the fans filed out very quickly, made their way to the crowded station, and yet filled trains back into town. While security might be a tad greater for the Olympics, this match was an indication that getting in and out of Tokyo Stadium by train is a piece of cake. Granted, traffic will be greater as the neighboring facility, Musashino Forest Sports Plaza, will host Olympic badminton and pentathlon fencing.

Note: All photos taken by author.

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US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley
US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley

Members of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics Organizing Committee must be pulling their hair out.

On December 5, the IOC banned the Russia national team from the upcoming winter games. In reaction to losing representatives from one of the biggest and best national teams, president of the organizing committee, Lee Hee-beom, was quoted as saying, he didn’t expect the IOC “to go this far.”

Then on December 8, U. N. Ambassador from the United States, Nikki Haley, apparently raised the possibility of Team USA declining their invitation to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics due to fears that North Korea will create such an environment of uncertainty about safety that Americans would not be safe in South Korea.

Haley’s comments prompted perceived backtracking by officials as White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders was quoted as saying that “no official decision has been made” about America not going to PyeongChang.

What’s interesting is how the press kind of over-reacted to Haley’s comments, in my view, reading a bit too much into the tea leaves. According to SB Nation, Haley’s quote was actually a very indirect reference to the Olympics.

Haley saying that U.S. involvement is an “open question” was part of a larger quote — one that could hint at the topic never being raised in the first place.

“There’s an open question. I have not heard anything about that, but I do know in the talks that we have — whether it’s Jerusalem or North Korea — it’s about, how do we protect the US citizens in the area?”

By saying “I have not heard anything about that” Haley’s answer seems to imply that no discussion is taking place on whether the U.S. will skip the games. Her saying it’s an “open question” is making the rounds, however, and that’s what people are picking up on.

Earlier in the month, National Security Advisor to the US government, H. R. McMaster said, “Yes” to the question if Americans should feel safe about going to the Winter Olympics in Korea next year. But one word alone from McMaster will not diminish the fear.

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In recent months, France, Austria and Germany have also expressed concerns about safety in Korea, and raised the possibility of not going to the Winter Games in February. And with Russia out and America hinting at an exit as well, the PyeongChang is looking, quite possibly, at winter of discontent.

American Rudy Scholz closes down France_s Henri Galau during the infamous 1924 Olympic Rugby final
Rudy Scholz closes down France’s Henri Galau during the infamous 1924 final

Which national team has been the most successful in Olympic rugby history?

The United States.

Not known for its rugby prowess today, a team from America has taken gold twice in the Olympics. Of course, rugby union was an Olympic event only four times – 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924. After that, rugby did not make an Olympic appearance until the 2016 Rio Olympics. America took gold at rugby’s last Olympic appearance in the 20th century – the 1924 Paris Olympics.

Why rugby no longer made the Olympic list of eligible sports after 1924 is unclear to me. Maybe it was a challenge to amass large teams for overseas competition at the time, as only three teams participated in the Paris Games: host France, Romania, and the United States. The American team was, I believe, primarily a squad of 22 from Stanford University, which had to raise $20,000 to pay for their travel to Europe, their training in England and their time in France.

Another reason may have been that unseemly gamesmanship left a sour taste in the mouths of the IOC.

According to Wikipedia, the Americans apparently were initially refused entry into the country, but still forced their way off their ship. The Americans claim that seasickness and the long trip made them very eager to disembark, while the French immigration officials viewed the Americans as “streetfighers and saloon brawlers.” Indeed there was apparently a fight at the docks between Americans and Frenchmen, getting the rugby rivalry off to a roaring start.

What followed, according to reports, was the following:

  • Games between local French clubs and the visiting American squad were suddenly cancelled.
  • The American team was told to hold their workouts on open lots near their hotel instead of proper fields of play.
  • The Americans were denied permissions to film their first match against Romania under the pretext that a French company had sole rights to film all rugby matches (although they were eventually given permission to do so)
  • And just to sprinkle salt on the wounds, the Americans returned to their rooms to find about $4000 worth of cash and possessions stolen despite a guard being on duty, according to this site.

Apparently, captain Norman “Cleaveland and his teammates were not very happy, and because of their treatment in the press, the American side was now being cursed and spat upon on in the streets of Paris. The American expatriate community in Paris was even staying well clear of them.”

Since there were only three teams, there were only three rugby matches actually played at the 1924 Olympics: France vs Romania, US vs Romania, and France vs the US. Both France and American handled Romania handily. So the press quite happily had their dream grudge match, a finals between the US and France. Here’s how this article describes the setting:

May 18th started as another hot day in an unseasonably warm string of spring days in Paris. A crowd of between 35,000 and 40,000 people gathered for the rugby final and the awarding of the first medal of the 1924 Olympic Games. As the team entered the stadium from a tunnel, they noted that the Olympic officials had elected to install a tall wire fence around the stadium to restrain the crowd. The American side wore white uniforms, blue belts, and white stockings hooped with red and blue. An American shield was sewed to the front of their jumpers. Wearing white shorts and blue stockings, the French took the field in their famous blue jumper badged with a cock.

All in all, a fairly normal start….except perhaps for the tall wire fence. Very quickly in the match, one of the speedy French players, Adolphe Jauguery, was flattened by an American winger named “Left” Rogers. Jauguery was taken off the field, unconscious and bleeding, and the crowd quickly turned on the Americans.

In the end, Team USA won the gold medal in a hard-fought match 17-3. The American press in Paris, were of course sympathetic and supportive of their American boys.

The headline for this Associated Press report from May 18, 1924, was “Americans Win Double Victory.”

The American Olympic Rugby football team won two great victories today at the Colombes stadium. The first was their defeat of France in the Olympic Rugby match, 17 to 3. The second was a victory over themselves in not losing their tempers under great provocation from what was termed by spectators as unfair and unjust a crowd as ever attended a sporting event. The American players were booed and hissed throughout the game, at the raising of the American flag on the Olympic flagpole was the occasion for a demonstration of booing and catcalling and the strains of the American national anthem were almost drowned out by the din raised by the seemingly infuriated spectators.

And just in case Americans weren’t outraged enough, here is the kicker. Not only was the unsportsmanlike conduct by the French in the battle on the pitch, the American claimed the same was true in the stands.

A fist fight then broke out in the stands and degenerated into a battle royal in which gold headed canes were freely used. The Americans were outnumbered and furthermore, they carried no canes with which to retaliate. When the police managed to disentangle the combatants, B. F. Larse of Provo, Utah and Gideon William Nelson of DeKalb Ill, two American students in Paris, were found to have been knocked out. Both men had to be carried out of the stand. Nelson was unconscious for an hour. When he recovered, it is said, he began looking for a bewhiskered man who carried a heavy cane.

Fake news, perhaps, but kinda fun.