Odaiba Beach

We were shocked when we read about the levels of water pollution in Guanabara Bay that sailors and rowers competed in, and saw the waters of the diving pool turn a sickly green during the 2016 Rio Olympics.

And yet, here we are a year later, and we learn of the significantly polluted waters of Tokyo Bay, the intended site for triathletes and open-water swimmers.

According to Inside the Games, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government conducted a water quality test in Tokyo Bay over a 21-day period, which is a sample size as long as the actual Games themselves. The results, which were shared at an October gathering of the IOC Coordination Commission in Tokyo, showed “levels of E. Coli up to 20 times above the accepted limit and faecal coliform bacteria seven times higher than the permitted levels.

This Asahi News article quoted organizers as saying that “an inflow of raw sewage caused below-standard water quality in more than half of tests conducted.” Officials explained that “heavy rain caused overcapacity at sewage processing plants, and some of the untreated sewage flowed into Tokyo Bay,” and that “they are considering such measures as installing triple layers of a screen that can block the flow of coli bacillus.

 

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Sign at Tokyo Bay’s Odaiba Marine Park listing prohibitions, including one against swimming.

 

Is there any consideration to move the venue for the triathlon and the open-water swimming events?

Sports Director of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, Koji Murofushi, shut that idea down, stating that “measures will be taken so that we can provide an excellent environment for the sports.”

The truth of the matter is, there have been signs in the area planned for the Olympic events for years warning people not to swim in the bay. Will the organizers figure out to clean up this act? We’re a little more than a thousand days away. Tick tock.

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Ivan Tsikhan, Adrian Annus, and Koji Murofushi with their medals just after the 2004 hammer throw competition in Athens

Koji Murofushi of Japan is not only an Olympian, he’s an alchemist. In his career, he’s turned silver into gold and made bronze appear and disappear.

In 2004, Murofushi was dueling it out with fellow hammer thrower, Adrián Annus of Hungary. Murofushi, though, must have been a bit frustrated because for every mighty throw he made, Annus would throw one slightly further. And in the third of six throws in the finals of the hammer throw, Annus tossed the hammer 83.19 meters, which Murofushi simply could not match. His final throw of the event went 82.91 meters, well beyond every other competitor, except for Annus.

Thus, on August 22, 2004, the Hungarian took the gold in the hammer throw, and the Japanese the silver.

Only a few days after Murofushi stood listening to the Hungarian national anthem on the winner’s podium, he heard the news: Annus would be stripped of his gold medal. As it turned out, the urine samples Annus submitted to authorities before and after the hammer throw competition appeared to be from two different people, neither of them chemically linked to Annus. He was then asked to submit to a urine test after his return to Hungary, but Annus never showed up for the test. Annus was then ordered to return his gold medal so that it could be handed to Murofushi. It took a while, but several months later, under pressure of the IOC and the constant media attention, Annus relented and relinquished his Olympic title.

Murofushi’s silver turned to gold, and he is now the hammer throw champion of the 2004 Athens Olympics.

In 2008, at the Beijing Olympics, Slovenian hammer thrower, Primož Kozmus, won almost every one of the six rounds. He threw 82.02 meters four of those five times, which must have been a bit frustrating, but that mark was still good enough to best all other finalists. Murofushi could not repeat his gold-medal winning distance of 82.91 meters in Athens, his best throw of 80.71 landing him in fifth and thus medal-less.

But in the months after the Beijing Olympics, the IOC began reviewing the test results of the 2008 Olympians and concluded that Vadim Devyatovskiy and Ivan Tsikhan of Belarus had tested positive for abnormal levels of testosterone after the hammer throw competition. (Tsikhan had already been stripped of his bronze medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics.) In December of 2008, the IOC ordered that the Belarusians be stripped of their respective silver and bronze medals, and that the fourth and fifth place finishers receive those medals. As Murofushi finished fifth, he was belatedly awarded the bronze medal, becoming only the third Japanese to win medals in consecutive Olympic Games.

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Koji Murofushi at the Beijing Olympics

“It’s a real honor to get a medal in two straight Olympics,” Murofushi was quoted as saying in this Japan Times article. “But it is sad that this has come about because of doping. These were buddies I competed together with so it is incredibly disappointing. This (doping problem) is something the sports world really needs to tackle. It has to be thought of as a very serious problem.”

In the meanwhile, the Belarusians did not take their ignominy sitting down. They appealed the ruling, taking their case to the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport, the international body that settles disputes related to the Olympics. And in June of 2010, the court upheld the appeal from the Belarusians. Apparently, the court uncovered irregularities in the way the urine samples were handled, thus making it difficult to determine with conviction that doping had taken place. As a result, their silver and bronze medals were restored to them, and Murofushi dropped back down to fifth. He was not to receive a medal for his results in Beijing.

Murofushi’s remarks to the press showed he was willing to be diplomatic, emphasizing the positive. As he said in this Kyodo article, “doping is gaining more and more attention and this will result in stricter tests. I think this will be a plus for me at the London Olympics.”

Maybe it was. Murofushi, at the age of 37, took bronze in the hammer throw at the 2012 London Olympics.

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The members of a family sit in the place where their house stood before being destroyed by the tsunami of March 11, 2011, Otsuchi town, Iwate Prefecture, Japan_photo art created by Alejandro Chaskielberg

I was living in Seattle. I was called out of an important meeting because my wife called, moaning into the phone about intense pain in her stomach. I told her I’d rush home, but it was 5pm and Seattle rush-hour traffic was like everywhere else: not so good.

It took forever to get home, and when I did, she wasn’t there. As it turned out, she called 911, got carted off in an ambulance, and was transported to a hospital. I saw the note and took off for the hospital. A few hours hooked up to an IV later, she was told that the food poisoning was no longer an issue, so we hopped in a taxi.

We got home at 10 pm, May 10, 2011. In Japan, it was 3pm, May 11, approximately 14 minutes after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck just off the coast of northeastern Japan. We turned on the TV and watched the horror unfold on CNN, doing all we could to contact friends and family in Tokyo, where the effects of the earthquake were also significant.

So much has been written about the events and aftermath of 3.11’s triple disaster: the earthquake, the tsunami and the nuclear meltdown at Daichi Nuclear Power Station.

One thing I learned a couple of years ago shocked me. It hit me on the treadmill one morning, while reading on my Kindle the book, “Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival“, by Financial Times editor, David Pilling. Chapter 14, “Fukushima Fallout”, began with these words:

Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station and Odaka
The sort distance from my ancestral home town and the Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station.

It looked like any other provincial Japanese town. There was the Shiga Hair Salon, with its red, white and blue barber’s pole, offering cuts and ‘iron perms’. Next door was the Watanabe Cake Shop, doing business since 1990 and housed in a two-storey mock Tudor building. Outside the nearby Jokokuji temple, a tiny granite stone Buddha figurine stood at the entrance, dressed in a weather-worn pink ceremonial shawl. The traffic lights clicked on and off, from red to orange to green and back again. Korean pop music erupted from unseen speakers, breaking what had been a fetid silence. The only thing missing in the town of Odaka, located less than ten miles north of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, was people.

The Shiga Hair Salon! That was the home of my grandfather’s younger sister, a very short drive to the birthplace of my grandfather! In August, 1988, in search of my roots, I was informed by the Odaka city office that I had relatives at the Shiga Hair Salon. So I walked on over, rehearsed an opening line in Japanese in my head, and walked in. After fumbling through an explanation in poor Japanese, showing them the documents that traced my past to this neighborhood over 150 years earlier, and that the hair salon’s founder, Chozo Shiga, was married to my grandfather’s sister….well we were suddenly family! I was ushered into their home, shown pictures, fed sushi and told stories. Later that day, they took me to the original home of my grandfather and ancestors, where the owner still cared for the tombstones of my ancestors.

Needless to say that time in 1988, and that moment when I learned my ancestral hometown was a ghost town, were both emotional jolts. Still today, I do not know what has happened to my relatives in the Shiga Hair Salon, although I’m pretty sure that the ancestral burial ground has been swept away as it was fairly close to the coast.

But my pain pales in comparison to those who truly suffered five years ago today.

When the demolition of the National Olympic Stadium began last year, and they needed a place to put the Olympic Cauldron, it was decided that the cauldron should be displayed in Tohoku. So on June 27 of 2015, the cauldron was unveiled in Ishinomaki, Miyagi, an area hard-hit by the effects of the tsunami. Athens Olympian and gold medalist in the hammer throw, Koji Murofushi, lit the cauldron, shining a light on Tohoku.

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Koji Murofushi lights the Olympic cauldron on June 27 at a park in Ishinomaki, Miyagi

The Olympic cauldron is expected to stay in Tohoku until 2020, when it would be returned to Tokyo to resume it’s spot in the new National Olympic Stadium.

Like the Olympic flame, which represents eternal peace and hope, the 2020 Olympics represent an opportunity to show that Japan is back, and the hopes and dreams of Tohoku are alive and well.