TBS Sunday Japan_15March2020
Open discussion on the possibility of postponing the Tokyo2020 Olympics during a popular Japanese news program, Sunday Japon, this morning on TBS_March 15,2020

Standing in the middle of the office, I let out an audible “woah.”

It was around noon on Thursday, March 12 (Japan time) and I saw on my phone that the NBA had just suspended the season after learning that a player for the Utah Jazz (later revealed as center Rudy Gobert) had tested positive for coronavirus. Seemingly minutes later, I saw that Tom Hanks and his wife Rita announced that they too have tested positive while on a movie shoot in Australia.

The NBA is an organization that generates over $8 billion a year and the average franchise is valued at over $2 billion, and it suspended all games in the midst of a playoff drive, probably ending the opportunity for their greatest revenue generating opportunity – the NBA playoffs in May and June.

Tom Hanks is a two-time Oscar award winner for best actor and one of the most beloved actors in the world, and he put a human face on the virus for billions of us.

In the next 36 hours, those major quakes were followed by a quick succession of aftershocks in the sports world: cancellation or postponement of the Major League Soccer season, the NHL during their run to the playoffs, the popular NCAA men’s and women’s basketball championship tournaments, the MLB pre-season and opening day, The Masters golf championship, the Boston Marathon…and that was just the United States.

People like myself, who have not been personally impacted by the growing pandemic in any serious way, were given a reality check. We watched the news with growing alarm, followed the news in hot spots like China, Korea and Italy with concern, obeyed the instructions of health experts, but pretty much went about our lives because we are fortunate enough to do so.

But then came the rash of major cancellations and postponements, the news of global travel restrictions, plummeting stock markets and invocation of national emergencies….many of us are now experiencing, on a much smaller scale, what people who are directly impacted by the virus have already gone through: Shock.

Shock is the first phase of The Change Curve, the emotional reaction people have to sudden change, or very bad news. Based on a model that explains how people deal with terminal illness developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the Change Curve shows how people go through stages that include denial, anger, depression and acceptance.  In my world of leadership development, we use a framework that provides shorthand for that curve: SARA, which stands for Shock, Anger, Resistance, and Acceptance.

The early images of Wuhan, China, where the outbreak originated, were of shock and anger, particularly regarding lack of transparency about how bad the situation was, the silencing and martyrdom of the doctor who first tried to spread the news of the virus in Wuhan, and the fact that the Chinese government waited till mid January to inform residents that the virus could spread via contact with other people. By the end of January, over 50 million people in China saw their cities and towns placed in lockdown, anger boiling over with attacks on doctors or spitting on elevator buttons.

There is no doubt still a great deal of anxiety in China, but recent reports out of major cities in China report an acceptance of sorts, a new normal of everyday life, where almost all moments of the day are spent inside one’s home, where streets are empty except for delivery bikes. Oscar Fuchs, a Brit living in Shanghai, wrote in the middle of February, that he has gotten used to living behind locked gates in a country where swift and strong action was taken to clamp down on social interaction.

I don’t feel under siege. And as inconvenient as these restrictions are, I don’t find them stressful. I find them comforting. There’s a stoicism in my community of Chinese neighbors that is very calming. And everyday changes to regulations are being superbly well-organised and communicated. It makes me feel that China and the Chinese people are on top of this. And it makes me feel that mindset is everything.

In fact, the levels of safety and security compared to the rising concern in the rest of the world has created the perception that China is safer than other countries just starting to deal with the growing shock, anger and resistance to coronavirus. At least that is how Tony Perman, an associate professor at Grinnell College, views China after recently returning to the US from Shanghai.

When my family returned to the United States after six weeks of quarantine in Shanghai, our friends and relatives responded with congratulations and relief that we were finally safe. Less than a week since arriving back home, however, we don’t quite share our loved ones’ sentiments. We felt safer in Shanghai as conditions improved than we do in the U.S.

I’ve now lived through a coronavirus quarantine in the two countries, and the differences are stark well beyond their airports. In China, the obligation to isolate felt shared and the public changed their habits almost immediately. Sterilization, cleanliness and social distancing were prioritized by everyone at all times. Rightly or wrongly, the Chinese state’s heavy-handed approach seemed to work.

We do not know how long the COVID-19 pandemic will last. Many of us are still in the early stages of the change curve. For me personally, it’s been a succession of shock-anger-resistance cycles. During the Diamond Princess scare in February, I shared the armchair frustration and anger, but continued to attend networking events where large groups of people attended.

Then there were the series of corporate or chamber of commerce events that I was personally involved with that had to be postponed, with the hope that they would be re-scheduled for early Spring or Summer.

And while various officials would speak out on the possible cancellation or postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, I joined Tokyo2020 officials in the belief that the Show would go on as scheduled, wishfully believing that something so big, with so many stakeholders, with so much invested, could not be cancelled or postponed.

But the rapid-fire shocks of recent events have had a desensitizing effect on me. The reality is, the health and welfare of people around the world, whether they be members of our own family, friends, athletes, or world leaders for that matter, is far more important than a sporting event, even a mega, big-tent event like the Summer Olympics.

To be honest, I am still in that resistance stage, hoping that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics will take place as scheduled. But as expressions of shock, anger and resistance continue to grow well beyond Asia, and uncertainty persists as to when a reliable treatment or cure will emerge, it is hard to imagine a world that is secure and confident enough to congregate in July by the tens of thousands in one city – Tokyo.

I’m not quite at the second “A” in SARA, but I’m getting there.

And once there, I hope to add the letter “H,” which represents healing and hope.

Normalcy will return. But not until the change curve has run its course.

Advertisements

syschooling28

Singapore exploded. The Southeast Asian nation of over 5 million, affectionately self-proclaimed as the Little Red Dot, blew up their part of the Twitterverse with exaltations of pure bliss – one of their boys took gold at the Rio Olympics.

And it wasn’t just any gold. It was one destined to land in the hands of Michael Phelps, arguably the most successful Olympian ever.

Joseph Schooling, a 21-year-old third-generation Singaporean, lept to a great start in lane 4 of the 100-meter butterfly finals. Schooling quickly took the lead, held it at the 50-meter turn, and never relinquished it. He led from start to finish and defeated the favorites by a clear margin. Phelps, Chad Le Clos of South Africa, and László Cseh of Hungary finished in a tie for second, 0.75 seconds behind the University of Texas third-year student.

Schooling Sets Olympic Record

“I’m really honored and privileged to swim alongside some of these great names, people who changed the face of our sport,” he told Channel News Asia. “I can’t really tell you how grateful I am to have this chance to swim in an Olympic final and to represent our country.”

Phelps did not add to his treasure trove of gold, instead settling for silver. But as noted in this wonderful New York Times article, Phelps has no one to blame except himself. Ever since Phelps began collecting gold medals at the 2004 Athens Games, he has inspired young swimmers all over the world. Le Clos idolized Phelps as a child, and had the umbrage to defeat Phelps in the 200 meter butterfly at the 2012 London Games, albeit by a mere .05 seconds. Phelps came back to defeat Le Clos in the same race at the Rio Games.

Phelps and Schooling
Schooling, age 13, meets his idol, Michael Phelps in 2008
Schooling is no exception, as he explains in this article. “As a kid I wanted to be like him,” said Schooling, who got his photograph taken with Phelps before his eight-gold medal performance at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. “It’s crazy to think of what happens in eight years,” Schooling said, adding, “A lot of this is because of Michael. He’s the reason I wanted to be a better swimmer.”

While most casual observers of the sport wondered who the heck Schooling was, his competitors were aware. After all, Schooling is the reigning NCAA champion in the 100- and 200-meter butterfly in the US. And the fact that Schooling was in lane 4 indicated he was fast in the heats leading up to the finals. Two days prior, Schooling had won his heat, defeating Phelps. In the semis, he posted the fastest time of all competitors.

But even so, with Le Clos and Phelps in the mix, Schooling’s victory was not a given. And as the winner of Southeast Asia’s first gold medal in swimming, Schooling’s victory is significant, as all trailblazing accomplishments often are, and will no doubt impact the dreams of millions of young athletes in Asia for years to come.

Phelps Le Clos and Cseh celebrate silver
Phelps, Le Clos and Cseh celebrate silver, while Schooling awaits his golden reward.
Schooling’s father, Colin, was ecstatic, but also aware of the responsibility his son now carries.

Singapore, he did what you all wanted and he did it in style. The most important thing is to be an ambassador for all our children in Singapore that gives them hope that they also can do it. There’s nothing special about him, just a boy who is interested in the sport.

Yes, just a boy…a boy who would be king.

Uetake at his Induction Ceremony
Yojiro Uetake Obata at his induction ceremony to the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame

He chats with me with a casual ease, talking about his life growing up in his home town of Oura, Gunma, while overlooking the training of high school wrestlers. Suddenly, his eyes sharpen, he shouts out words of encouragement, and then returns to the reminiscing.

Yojiro Uetake Obata, bantamweight freestyle gold medalist at the 1964 and 1968 Olympics, has returned to his hometown to coach at Tatebayashi High School in Gunma. This is where he tried to find his way with judo, but was believed to be too light to compete against competitors of all weights. Wrestling, which divides competitors into weight classes, allowed Uetake to find his life sport. Before long, Uetake was a national high school wrestling champion. Little did he know that wrestling would take him to a far off land called Stillwater.

While teenage Uetake was dreaming of going to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the commissioner of the Japanese Wrestling Federation, Ichiro Hatta, was working on fulfilling a promise to Myron Roderick, American Olympian at the 1956 Melbourne Games and in the 1960s, and head coach of the Oklahoma State University wrestling team that would dominate NCAA wrestling in the United States throughout the remainder of the 20th century. After sending a strong Japanese wrestler to the United States in order to compete for Roderick at OSU, the wrestler went to Brigham Young University instead after being heavily recruited. According to the OSU sports magazine, Posse, “It made Mr. Hatta mad and he told Myron not to worry, that he would send him a better wrestler; that’s when Yojiro showed up.”

Yojiro, or Yojo, as the Americans called him did not really want to move to the US. After all, he couldn’t speak English at all. But at least Stillwater, Oklahoma had the small town feel he was familiar with in Gunma – people were friendly. And he liked the food – particular hamburger steaks and gravy, fried chicken and ice cream!

Fortunately, Uetake know how to control his weight so he could compete for the Oklahoma State University Cowboys. And compete he did, like no other Cowboy in its hallowed history. Yojiro Uetake never lost a match, winning three straight individual Big 8 and NCAA wrestling championships from 1963-1965, going an incredible 58 – 0 in collegiate competition. In between, he also picked up a gold medal for Japan at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

OSU star Yojiro Uetake
Yojiro Uetake with his NCAA winning haul.

What was the secret to his success?

Uetake had a great relationship with his coach, Myron Roderick. “He was a very strong wrestler,” Uetake told me. “He was passionate, strong in fundamentals and technique, and I really liked his focus on getting take downs. ‘Take ’em down and let ’em go’, he would say about how to get two points quickly.” The admiration was mutual. Roderick’s wife Jo Ann was quoted as saying, “Myron always said that Yojiro had natural talent, and was by far the best wrestler he ever saw or coached.”

Uetake also had a great relationship with the OSU football team, taking health and physical education courses with them, including future Dallas Cowboy star fullback, Walt Garrison. “He was one of the greatest athletes I ever saw,” Garrison said in this article. And apparently Garrison and his teammates saw a lot of Uetake because the coach not only allowed him in the practices, he allowed him to practice with them. Uetake credits football training, like running inside ropes, hitting tackling dummies in quick succession, moving side to side, fast-paced push-ups and sit-ups. “Tackling from a squat is great for wrestling as we are in the same stance, where we need to be ready to attack, hit, and get back and get ready again,” Uetake told me.

Living in America had a profound effect on Uetake. Not only was he coached by Roderick, and taken under the wing of the OSU football team, he learned how to build his own style of training. At the time, the NCAA did not allow coaches to train their wrestlers during the summer season. Instead, Uetake had to work to supplement his meager funds. “I would go to the Delta and Grand Junction in the Colorado mountains, which was like a desert. I worked on building irrigation pipes. And to keep in shape, I’d come up with ways to train.” Uetake told me that he would have to lift very heavy hay, but he’d do it in a way to work on specific muscles. He also maintained his feel for combat by actually tackling trees.

If he was in Japan, Uetake Obata told me he would be wrestling all the time, and following the directions of his coach. And he would never have developed his own way of training, and never really learn how to best take advantage of their own body and physical gifts. “I did this myself,” he said. “Roderick taught me how to focus, but I learned a lot on my own.”

Obata with the Tatebayashi HS wrestling team
Uetake Obata with the Tatebayashi HS wrestling team

On Monday, August 3, 2015, Yojiro “Yojo” Uetake Obata was finally inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame. As he said in his acceptance speech, nothing gives him more pride. “I have always loved Oklahoma. Every time I come back to Oklahoma I look

The Artistry of Stephen Curry_NYTimes
From the article, The Artistry of Stephen Curry, New York Times

Stephen Curry is 6 ft 3 (1.91 m) tall and 190 lbs (86kg) – above average tall, but kinda small for NBA standards. And yet, if he makes the US Men’s basketball team, and the US wins the gold medal in Rio this summer, Curry has the potential to stand on top of the international basketball marketing world.

After Curry’s Golden State Warriors won the NBA championship last May, and after the holiday shopping season, Curry’s jersey is the most popular. The only shoe more popular than Michael Jordan’s for Nike is Curry’s for Under Armour. This fascinating ESPN article explains, in fact, how Nike lost Curry to Under Armour in one of the great sports marketing signings of all time. According to sports marketing impressario, Sonny Vaccaro, the man who signed Jordan for Nike, Curry didn’t fit the mould, and was overlooked by Nike, which already had Curry under contract.

“He went to Davidson,” said Vaccaro. “He was always overlooked. He was skinny, he was frail, he was all the things you weren’t supposed to be. He never got his due. All of a sudden, like a bolt of lightning, Steph Curry is on the scene. And this is the hardest thing for Nike to swallow right now. What you’re witnessing is a phenomenon. This is like Michael signing with Nike in ’84. He’s going to morph into the most recognizable athlete. And why is he going to be that? Because he’s like everybody else.”

tall and short in basketball
The long and the short of it in basketball.

The average height of a human male ranges from 5ft7in/170 cm to 5ft11in/180 cm tall. So relative to the average height of an NBA player, which probably averages a foot taller, Curry is, well, short. And yes, he is an athletic freak whose body control is at a level of balletic precision. But more importantly, he is the greatest three-point shooter of all time. And while an NBA team loves the athletic big guy who can shoot threes (e.g.; Detlef Schremph, Kevin Durant), the three-point line is the realm of the guard, either the point guard or shooting guard, the shortest guys in the game.

Actually, the NBA has always had a love for the tall guy. There’s an obvious structural reason for that. When James Naismith created the game of basketball, he conveniently attached a peach basket to the rails of a running track that ran above the floor of the gym in Springfield, Illinois in 1891. Those rails happened to be 10 feet off the ground.

“That arbitrary decision to put the basket at ten feet caused the game of basketball to take shape around the tallest players,” said Roman Mars, in this fascinating piece called “The Yin and Yang of Basketball“, in one of my favorite podcasts, 99% Invisible.

As the game developed, it became obvious that the taller you are, the easier it is for you to defend the basket, and certainly, to score. And in the 1960s, the slam dunk became popular, particularly among black players. As the 99PI podcast went on to explain, the dunk became a symbol of black power, and was seen as such a threat that the NCAA, America’s governing body for college sports, banned the slam dunk from 1967 to 1976.

While the NCAA decision was likely a racially-driven one, the slam dunk was also primarily the domain of the tall player. And at that time, the NBA was getting a bit boring as people basically threw the ball into the tall center, who would take a very high-percentage shot. The ABA, an emerging competitor basketball league, saw an opportunity to draw fans that the NBA could not: they introduced the three-point line in 1967. As ABA commissioner, George Mikan (a big man in the NBA himself) said, the three pointer “would give the smaller player a chance to score and open up the defense to make the game more enjoyable for the fans.”

Twelve years later, the NBA also adopted the three-point shot, a radius some 25 feet (7.6 meters) from the basket. And while it was seen as a gimmick and seldom attempted in the early years, the three-point shot has become a strategic tool in the coach’s toolkit, and the