Ichiro Uchimura Hanyu Icho
Clockwise from upper left: Ichiro Suzuki, Kohei Uchimura, Kaori Icho, Yuzuru Hanyu

The 24-year old figure skater walked into a private room in Saitama Super Arena, the television to his left showing clips of the World Finals Figure Skating Championship that had just ended on the evening of March 23, 2019.

“I lost! I can’t believe it (“Maketa yo, kuyashii!),” said Yuzuru Hanyu. He glanced at the television set which showed his rival and winner of the world championship, American Nathan Chen. “How do I beat that?”

Despite Hanyu’s incredible free program and brief hold of first place, Chen’s was better.

“I really wanted to win when I was skating,” Hanyu stated. “I think I did my best, but the problem is that a figure skating competition consists of two days, and I lost both. It means that I simply do not have enough strength to win.”

Chen is a brilliant young skater, who has proven his metal by defending his world championship. But Hanyu will not go down without a fight.

Those who have followed Hanyu even a little know that he is not losing confidence. He may in fact be steeling himself for the greatest competition he has faced. Battling and overcoming an ongoing ligament injury to his right ankle, Hanyu won gold in PyeongChang last February, and the Cup of Russia in November. The flames of his competitive spirit have been fanned by Chen, and he’s out to take figure skating to the next level, which should surprise no one.

Hanyu is a living legend.

What’s incredible is that he is not alone here. We in Japan have been blessed, recent witnesses to once-in-a-century global talents in a wide variety of sports – four of them to be exact:

  • Yuzuru Hanyu (figure skating)
  • Ichiro Suzuki (baseball)
  • Kohei Uchimura (gymnastics)
  • Kaori Icho (wrestling)

Yuzuru Hanyu (figure skating): The Sendai native is a two-time world champion, has broken the world record in figure skating scores eighteen times, and is the first person since Dick Button did so in 1948 to win individual gold in two consecutive Olympiads. Can he do the unthinkable at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, and win an unprecedented third Olympic championship? I wouldn’t bet against him yet.

Ichiro Suzuki (baseball): After 28 years of professional baseball, the athlete known as Ichiro retired last week amidst adoring fans at the opening season matches between his Seattle Mariners and the Oakland A’s. No one has had more hits in professional baseball than Ichiro (4,367), and in the Major Leagues in America, he set the season hit record in 2004 with 262 hits, surpassing George Sisler’s record that stood for 84 years. His speed and defense made him a threat to steal a base as well as hits and runs in the field. There’s an overwhelming consensus that Ichiro will be the first player enshrined in the baseball hall of fames of both Japan and America. His love of the game, his training regimen and his flare for the dramatic will live on forever.

Kohei Uchimura (gymnastics): He is called King Kohei. The native of Nagasaki is the only gymnast to win all-around gold in every major title in a four-year Olympic cycle….twice. In other words, Uchimura won the world championship and Olympic gold from 2009 to 2016. You may as well tack on his silver medal in the all-arounds at the 2012 London Olympics, and call it a decade of dominance. Calling him the Greatest of All Time (GOAT), as many do, is not hyperbole. As Uchimura is 30, it is unlikely that his dominance will continue at Tokyo 2020.  But he might be there, giving us all still a chance to glimpse greatness.

Kaori Icho (wrestling): There is another Japanese GOAT – a woman from Japan named Kaori Icho. The freestyle wrestler from Aomori, Icho has won an unprecedented and incredible four straight Olympic championships since women’s wrestling became an Olympic sport at the 2004 Athens Summer Games. In fact, she’s the first female in any sport to win an individual gold in four straight Olympiads. Through that period, Icho had won 189 straight matches, a 13-year streak that ended in January, 2016 to a wrestler ten years her junior, only to re-start the streak and take her fourth gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. She is indeed the best female wrestler ever.

We in Japan have been most fortunate in recent years to live among living legends.

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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.

Wrestling - Women's Freestyle 53 kg Gold Medal
2016 Rio Olympics – Wrestling – Final – Women’s Freestyle 53 kg Gold Medal – Carioca Arena 2 – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – 18/08/2016. Helen Maroulis (USA) of USA celebrates with her coach winning the gold medal after her victory against Saori Yoshida (JPN) of Japan. REUTERS/Toru Hanai .

The match started off according to the script.

In round one, Saori Yoshida of Japan takes a one point lead thanks to the passivity of her opponent, Helen Maroulis of the United States.  Yoshida is a living legend – she has won 13 straight world titles and the past 3 Olympic gold medals in freestyle wrestling. As the captain of the entire Japan Olympic team, she is expected to cap a tremendous team effort in Rio – Japanese women have already taken gold in the other three weight classes.

Going into the second half, Yoshida is still up 1-0 on Maroulis, who had never beaten Yoshida. In fact, in their first match in the past, Yoshida defeated the American in 69 seconds. Maroulis has studied Yoshida’s techniques over the past three years, in fact getting an opportunity to train with the master. But still, early in the second half, Yoshida’s victory is preordained. After all, her teammate, Kaori Icho, had already accomplished the unprecedented feat of taking gold in freestyle wrestling in four consecutive Olympics.

Wrestling - Women's Freestyle 53 kg Gold Medal
2016 Rio Olympics – Wrestling – Final – Women’s Freestyle 53 kg Gold Medal – Carioca Arena 2 – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – 18/08/2016. Saori Yoshida (JPN) of Japan reacts after the match against Helen Maroulis (USA) of USA. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

In the second half, Maroulis fights off an attempt by Yoshida to drag her down, and instead manages to pull Yoshida down with her right arm, and get behind Yoshida for two points and a 2-1 lead. Like Icho, who won her Rio gold medal with points in the waning seconds, Yoshida’s supporters in the stands, and in Japan were anticipating a similar spectacular comeback. But with a scant 60 seconds left, Maroulis forced Yoshida out of bounds to take 4-1 lead. That turned out to be an insurmountable lead

For Japanese fans, the impossible happened. She lost.

For Yoshida, tears of anguish streamed down her face. She had not just lost a match, as far as she was concerned – she let down her team, her country and her family. “I am sorry to finish with a silver medal despite all the cheers from so many people,” Yoshida said through tears. “As the Japanese captain, I should have gotten the gold medal. I kept thinking that I would be able to win in the end, but it got to the point where I could no longer come back. I’m sorry I couldn’t exert all my strength.”

Yoshida Saori cryingIn Japanese, Yoshida repeatedly said, “gomen nasai” (“I’m sorry”) as if she had burned down a house, or lost a company a million dollars, or lied to the press about being held up at gun point. Japanese apologize for everything, as a matter of everyday politeness, even when they haven’t done anything wrong. But in this instance, you could see the pain in her face and hear it in her voice – she believed she had failed Japan.

But as Masanori Sudoh of Nikkan Sports put it, Yoshida indeed had the weight of the world on her, far more than any mere mortal deserves.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t get the gold,” she said. Seeing Saori Yoshida cry and apologize like that pained me in my heart. At the 2004 Athens Olympics, carefree and full of smiles at the age of 22 upon winning an Olympic finals, she breezily stated “the gold medal was the only thing I didn’t have. But now I have all the medals!” Twelve years ago, the medals were her reward. But somehow, at some point, the medals became Japan’s reward. And in Rio, the burden of expectation was particularly great. Continuing to win is far more difficult than just winning once. You have to keep up with rivals who are studying your every move. You have to continually evolve. And she did, through 16 straight victories in the Olympics. To us, she was all powerful. But in truth, I believe Yoshida was always in a state of uncertainty, desperately figuring out how to stay ahead. And the more she won, the stronger she appeared…to the point where winning was a given. No one expected Saori Yoshida to lose.

And yet, lose she did. And an entire nation cried.

After the final match, Yoshida made her way to her mother, who watched from the stands. They embraced in tears as her mother said, “You lost, but you have this magnificent silver medal. I am so proud of my daughter. You gave it your very best. You are my treasure.”

Interviewed later in the day, Yoshida-san’s mother, Yukiyo Yoshida, reflected on the fact that this was the first Olympics where she was not accompanied by her husband, Eikatsu Yoshida, a former national champion and wrestling coach who passed away two years ago. Yukiyo explained to the press that her daughter told her, “Father will be angry with me.” But Yukiyo replied as all good mothers do, “No he won’t. It’s all right. You did your very best.”

Yoshida Saori and mother
Saori Yoshida comforted by her mother, Yukiyo Yoshida, and her brother Hidetoshi.
Yoshida and Icho
2012 Vogue Japan Woman of the Year: Saori Yoshida and Kaori Icho

There are only two people, both male, who have won individual gold medals in a single event four Olympic Games in a row: Al Oerter in the discus throw from 1956~1968, and Carl Lewis in the long jump from 1984~1996.

At the Rio Olympics in August, we may bear witness to a historical achievement by a Japanese wrestler, not once, but twice.

Both Saori Yoshida (吉田 沙保里,) and Kaori Icho(伊調馨) have won consecutive gold medals in wrestling at the Olympic Summer Games in Athens (2004), Beijing (2008) and London (2012). And they won their respective weight classes at the Japan national championships in June last year to get their tickets punched to Rio. In fact, they both won their 13th straight national championship.

Yoshida of Mie Prefecture and Icho of Aomori are quite simply the two most dominant wrestlers on the planet. They are both referred to as the “legends of the unbeaten streak” (不敗神話). Ito has won 172 straight times since May, 2003, and Yoshida has lost only twice in her career, most recently in May, 2012. But they are both perfect at Olympiads.

 

There was a brief time when both Yoshida and Icho competed in the same weight class, but fortunately, Icho moved up to the next heavier weight class, setting up this year, a historic opportunity.

For some reason, Yoshida has become more the face of Japanese wrestling, as the front person for the Japanese security company, Alsok. But they are both supported by Alsok, as you can see in the commercial below.

But come August, we will be hearing a lot about both of these two wrestling legends.