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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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”
phones
There be gold in them thar phones!

If you’re living in Japan, and you buy smartphones like you buy a fashionable spring jacket, then you’ve got a bunch of phones in your cabinet that are just gathering dust.

Tokyo2020 wants your phone! Starting April, Japan telecommunications conglomerate, NTT Docomo, will set up collection boxes in over 2,400 NTT Docomo stores across Japan. Additionally, the Japan Environmental Sanitation Center, will also set up collection centers to collect old PCs, tablets, wearables, monitors, and other electronic devices that can be mined for metals.

The goal is to collect 8 tons of metal, which will yield 2 tons of gold, silver and bronze, and eventually result in the production of 5,000 medals for winners in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Said Japanese gymnast Kohei Uchimura of this initiative, “computers and smart phones have become useful tools. However, I think it is wasteful to discard devices every time there is a technological advance and new models appear. Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic medals will be made out of people’s thoughts and appreciation for avoiding waste. I think there is an important message in this for future generations.”

Sustainability will be a key theme of Tokyo2020. And my hope and expectation is that Tokyo2020 will be a shining model of how to present the Olympics, as it was in 1964. Tokyo2020 will stand in stark contrast to past Olympics.

For example, there are already signs of decay in Rio de Janeiro as venues used for the 2016 Rio Olympics have been abandoned. This is an oft-told tale, with plenty of photographic evidence of waste from past Olympics. Only six months later, the main venue for the Rio Olympics is an empty, pilfered and unused shell of a stadium.

The IOC knows its reputation and perhaps its long-term survival are dependent upon making the Olympics more in line with the host country’s economic plans and means, and more conscious of its obligations to be more socially tolerant and more purposeful in driving sustainability.

kohei-uchimura_gold-medal_rio_ap
Kohei Uchimura’s next gold medal might be made from recycled smartphones

Since its inception in 2014, IOC President, Thomas Bach, has driven home the 40 tenets of his vision – The Olympic 2020 Agenda – a list of priorities, principles and actions that will guide the IOC in the coming years. Some of the hopes is to help ensure that host cities do not end up with an overly burdensome budget to hold the Games, to make the bidding process less complicated and less expensive, to ensure non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and to drive greater sustainability.

The IOC has been working closely with Tokyo2020 to bring its operational budget down from USD30 billion, which is four times the budget put forth in the 2013 bid for 2020. The current goal is to get the budget down to under USD20 billion, which is far under Sochi’s USD50 billion spend, Beijing’s USD40 billion spend, and more in line with London’s USD20 billion spend. I believe that Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike is making an honest attempt to drive the budget down, as well as create a legacy of sustainability and inclusiveness in Japan.

If you’re in Japan, you too can help! Look for your old smartphones, and the signs at NTT Docomo. Donate a phone, and ensure that a piece of your property becomes a piece of the winning medal for Olympians in 2020.

She was a six-year-old when she walked into a placed called Bannon’s Gymnastix in Houston, Texas. Simone Biles was there on a day-care field trip, watching other gymnasts, mimicking their moves, apparently so well that one of the coaches took down her name. The parents were contacted and Biles fate was sealed.

Today, the Columbus, Ohio native is not only the very best female gymnast in the world right now. Biles, who is the first woman to win three consecutive all-around world championships and the recipient of the most gold medals (10) in the history of world championship competition, is considered by some the best ever.

Simone Biles
Simone Biles at the 2015 P&G Gymnastics Championships where she won her third consecutive.

 

High performance athletes are different from us mere mortals. In the Biles’ family, January 1 is not about non-committal new year’s resolutions. Goals are set. Concrete ones. Ones that you are held accountable for. Here’s Buzzfeed’s Dvora Meyers explaining what Simone’s mother, Nellie, told her:

Nellie told me that her daughter had tried to delay their goal-setting talk that day. “She just avoided me like the plague,” she said. But Biles couldn’t avoid her mother, just as she could no longer avoid questions about the Olympics as she had in previous years. That morning in January, I watched Aimee Boorman, Biles’ longtime coach, write out the 2016 competition schedule on a large, laminated calendar to be hung on the gym walls: the American Cup, Classics, national championships, the Olympic trials, and a whole month blocked out for training camps and then the games. Everything was oriented toward Rio — and all eyes were on Biles.

Nellie is not actually Simone’s mother, she is her biological grandmother who, along with her husband Ron, took Simone in after Simone’s biological mother struggled with substance abuse. Clearly, the grandparents changed Simone’s destiny.

Today, Biles is considered a game-changer, her power and speed never before seen in women’s gymanstics. As the Huffington Post gushed, “she has an immensely difficult tumbling pass named after her, a double back layout with a half twist. If you’re the first person to complete a new trick in competition, you get that trick named after you forever. This is the Biles.”

At Rio, Simone Biles is a sure thing to win gold in at least the all-arounds. The question, like with Kōhei Uchimura for the Japan mens’ team, can Biles lead the US women’s team, the current reigning Olympic champions, to gold. Golden glory awaits.

Uchimura holds up six fingers

At the 2015 World Gymnastics Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, after the competition ended, Kōhei Uchimura beamed into the camera and raised one finger at a time, until he showed the world six fingers, one for six consecutive world championships since 2009. Actually, it’s seven if you include the 2012 London Olympics. In fact, he is the only gymnast, either male or female, who has ever won more than two world championships in a row.

Such consistent superiority at the highest levels of gymnastics competition have left experts with little more to say about “Superman” Uchimura, except that he is the greatest gymnast who has ever lived. As USA Today put it:

There have been gymnasts who have won more medals, and those who claimed more golds. But no one – no one – has dominated like Uchimura or done it for so long. That just doesn’t happen in gymnastics, where the difficulty of the skills and the constant repetition required to perfect them means the best gymnasts have all the staying power of a Kardashian marriage. It’s simply too grueling to stay at the very top for more than one Olympic cycle.

Uchimura is amazing because he doesn’t believe he has to show he can make the most difficult maneuvers, which he probably could do. But his goal is perfection, and the beauty that perfection can reflect. Here is a wonderful interview of Uchimura conducted by the International Federation of Gymnastics (FIG), in which he says the following:

Beauty of movement is my goal. My father used to say that a hundred imperfect movements cannot match a single beautiful one, and this is something I have always kept in my mind. I could perform more difficult skills, but if I did I would have problems. For instance, I don’t have the energy that I did, and I can’t keep my feet taut, so I always aim for a balance between technical difficulty and execution in my routines. This is where the beauty of gymnastics comes in.

At the ripe age of 27, the Kita Kyushu native believes he is peaking at the right time for Rio, and that this is the last chance for him to maintain this level for all-around competitions, although he does leave open the possibility, as he says in the FIG interview, of competing for Japan at home in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The Rio Olympics will probably be the last when I am at the top of my game. I want to be faultless. As the 2020 Olympics are being held in Japan, I want to carry on until then. [But] the risk of injury increases with age. One can carry on competing on the horizontal [high] bar for longer than the other apparatus. My technique is good, and I’m capable of scoring highly, so I would choose the horizontal bar.

The question is, can he lead the Japan team to its first overall gold championships since 2004, and perhaps spark another golden age of Japan’s men’s gymnastics when they won gold at six consecutive Olympics from 1960 to 1976. Uchimura will have London Olympic teammate, Koji Yamamoto, Ryohei Kato and Yusuke Tanaka, as well as a 19-year-old talent, Kenzo Shirai, who is a world champion in the floor exercise.

But there is no question: Unless Uchimura has an injury in Rio, there is very little stopping Superman from repeating as Overall Champion at the Olympics this summer.

Konami Congratulates Japan Men's Gymnastics Team, October 2015
Konami Congratulates Japan Men’s Gymnastics Team, October 2015

The headquarters of sports fitness company, Konami Sports, is in the same building complex as my company, and I was happy to see the above poster featuring three members of the Japanese Men’s gymnastics team, who also happen to be Konami employees: Yusuke Tanaka, Koji Yamamuro and Kohei Uchimura (内村 航平, )who won gold in the World Gymnastics Championships in Glasgow on October 28, 2015.

Kōhei Uchimura
Kōhei Uchimura

There was a time from 1960 to 1978 when Japan’s men dominated, taking team gold in five straight Olympics, as well as five straight World Gymnastics Championships. They finally re-claimed Olympic gold in 2000 and 2004 but had not won in the World Championships since 1978…until Wednesday.

And this weekend, we find out if Uchimura, arguably the greatest men’s gymnast ever, will win gold in the men’s all around, again, as he has done since 2009. Since then he has won gold in London, Rotterdam, Tokyo, Antwerp and Nanning, including gold in the 2012 London Olympics. No one has ever come close in excellence and sustainability.

Can he make it six straight as the very best men’s gymnasts in the world?

Watch him in his floor exercise at the 2014 World Gymnastics Championships. Perfection.