James Wong at 2018 Asian Para Games in Jakarta_@jameswong6

Like so many 14 year olds around the world, James Wong watched swimming sensation, Michael Phelps, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics with awe. Wong wanted to be Michael Phelps one day….albeit the one-armed version.

Born without a left arm, the native of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia didn’t know anything about the Paralympics at the time. But his father found a grainy YouTube video of the men’s SB8 100m breaststroke finals at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, and pointed out one of the swimmers – Andreas Onea of Austria.

“My dad noticed Andreas was only a few years older than me, and he had a similar build,” said Wong. “He felt relatable. I watched how he swam in that video and tried to see how he was doing it. Basically, that video kind of helped set in stone the vision of what I wanted to achieve. Prior to this, I didn’t actually know what para sport even looked like.”

Eleven years later, Wong was at the World Para Swimming Championships in London. It was a tough time. He was jetlagged. He swam poorly. His chances of making the Tokyo2020 Paralympics were diminished. But he finally got to meet Onea, who was pleasantly surprised to meet Wong. After all, five other swimmers finished better than him at the finals during that competition, so he wondered why Wong liked Onea’s swimming so much.

Andreas Onea at the Tokyo2020 Paralympics_courtesy of Andreas Onea

But Wong then told Onea the story of the YouTube video in 2008. Onea said he was touched.

The Paralympics can have an impact on my life and on the world population. I realized that in 2019, when I was at the London world championships in swimming, and James told me that the first swimming competition he ever saw was the final at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics on the 100-meter breaststroke. And this was the day, he told me, that he wanted to compete in the Paralympics, that he wanted to be a professional swimmer like Andreas Onea. I was emotionally impressed by the story when he told me. Without knowing me, because of me, just seeing me swim, he wanted to swim also.

Andreas Onea, who won a bronze medal in the 100-meter breaststroke SB8 at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, competed at the Tokyo2020 Paralympics. He did not medal this time, but Onea has developed a successful media career in television and print, as well as a motivational speaker. He understands how important it is for persons with disabilities, some 15% of the entire world population, to be given opportunities to lead fuller lives that help them approach their full potential.

Guest speaker, Onea, at a webinar “Tokyo 2020 Paralympics – One Day to Go!” hosted by the Paralliance, a coalition of 20 foreign chambers of commerce in Japan supporting the Paralympics.

We are 15% of the world population,” said Onea. “In Austria, companies are looking for talent. They are fighting over the best talent for their workforce. This is a high potential pool that no one is tapping into. People think they will have problems with figuring out how to bring them into the workforce. These issues are things proven wrong. There are so many companies doing amazing things with people with disabilities.”

Wong told me that swimming gave him those opportunities.

In 2008, he was spotted by the national swimming head coach of Malaysia, Lewin Lim, and was told he had potential as a swimmer. Over the next 11 years, Wong was introduced to a whole new world of training, travel and competition.  He competed for the first time in a tournament in Borneo, which was another part of Malaysia. But it could have been a foreign country as the people and the culture felt so different to Wong.

And when he came away with a gold and silver medal a the 2009 Asian Youth Games in Tokyo, Japan, he imagined one day winning Paralympic gold. Guangzhou in China, Berlin in Germany, Solo in Indonesia, Naypyidaw in Myanmar – Wong was going places he never could imagine.

In 2012, he moved to Australia. His parents thought it would be great if their son could get an education overseas. Because Wong’s hero, para-swimming champion, Matt Cowdrey,  was from Australia, Wong looked down under and targeted the University of Adelaide, which was located relatively near the Norwood Swimming Club.

James Wong at the Norwood Swimming Club_@jameswong6

Wong worked hard to balance academic life and the rigors of training at the world-class level. At the 2014 Asian para Games in Incheon, South Korea, Wong finished 4th in the 50-meter Freestyle S8, behind the top two in the world, and another who was a finalist at the 2012 London Paralympics. And in 2016, he graduated from university.

Wong did not make the Malaysian team for the 2016 Rio Olympics. In fact, Wong has never competed in a Paralympics. But para-swimming changed his life.

The 2019 World Para Swimming Championships was his last major competition, but it gave him the credentials to apply for and receive permanent residence in Australia through a talent visa, not something that the Australian government hands out liberally.

Wong has continued his studies and is pursuing his masters in accounting and finance at the University of Adelaide, which he hopes to leverage into an opportunity at a Big Four accounting firm after he graduates in 2022. He’s happy about his future, something that he owes to swimming.

“Through swimming I met an amazing number of people I would not have met otherwise,” he said. “Without it, I’d have a completely different life.”

Andreas Onea and James Wong meeting for the first time in London in 2019_courtesy of Andreas Onea
Tomonari Kuroda goal scores first goal in Team Japan’s first appearance in Blind Soccer in the Paralympics (秋月正樹撮影)

Tomonari Kuroda stripped the ball at mid-field, dribbled deftly between his left and right feet, shifting sharply to his left to elude two defenders and sending a sharp drive off of his left insole, the ball shooting by the French goalkeeper.

Kuroda  did that with a black mask covering his eyes. He couldn’t see the ball go in, as he is visually impaired, but he could hear the reaction of his teammates. Team Japan, in its first ever match in blind soccer in the Paralympics, scored its first goal a little over three minutes into the game in amazing fashion.

Japan went on to win its first match over France 4-0 in a display of skill and teamwork. There are 22 sports categories in the 2020 Paralympics, an opportunity for athletes with disabilities to show off their athleticism, and for the very best, to win medals.

But like the world of work, where people with disabilities are employed in departments and teams, they work best when performing in synch with their colleagues. And in fact, people with disabilities can do their very best when their colleagues and technology can provide accomodations or remove barriers to performance, and create an environment where disabilities fade into the background.

In the workplace, accomodations could include the provision of doors that open automatically for people in wheelchairs, or sign language interpreters in meetings for the hearing impaired, or screen reader software for the visually impaired. These are examples of basic accomodations that can be made to create a more equitable environment for the disabled.

In the case of blind soccer, there are the accommodations of having a ball that makes a tinkling sound when rolling, allows a guide behind the opponent’s net as well as the sighted team coach to guide their players verbally, as well as a goalkeeper who is sighted and able bodied, and can also shout out guidance to his teammates.

The rules for blind soccer, or Football 5-a-side as it is called by the International Paralympic Committee, is an exercise in enhancing equity. The accomodations created by the rules allow people who are visually impaired to play a game of soccer that allows for demonstrations of extraordinary skill, teamwork and performance. In essence, the rules create the perception that the athletes are performing on an equal playing field.

To drive home the importance of the teamwork between people with disabilities and those without, the goalkeepers of the top three teams in the Paralympics take home a medal too. In fact, that is the case with able-bodied people who assist players in Boccia BC3 class, visually impaired triathletes (where the “guide” runs, cycles and helps change the uniforms of the para-athlete), as well as B Class cyclsts (where the “pilot” sits up front in a tandem bike). Here is a great Nippon Foundation article that provides the details.

The concept of equity is getting a lot of attention in the Diversity and Inclusion world, as practitioners realize that driving equity in the workplace is a more accurate approach than trying to drive equality. This difference is explained very well in this article from the Milken Institute School of Public Health:

Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities. Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.  

The Paralympics and parasports in general are not striving, at this stage, to achieve “equality” for persons with disabilities in sport. While Kuroda’s first goal was stunning, and might make people think that he can actually see, no one is saying he should start playing on Team Japan’s Olympic squad, or any soccer squad made up of sighted players.

But given the accomodations provided by they International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA), soccer players who are visually impaired can experience the thrills and spills, aches and pains, and self-affirming achievements and victories of the team sport often called “the beautiful game.”

Yui Wagou, as the one-winged plane in the Opening Ceremony_Yomiuri Shimbun

This was an opening ceremony of conviction.

This was an opening ceremony with a message.

And when conviction and message come together, you get goosebumps.

 

The opening ceremony of the Tokyo2020 Paralympics was electrifying, its Olympic counterpart paling in comparison.

 

The Tokyo2020 Olympics lacked conviction and a clear message, not because the officials, like IOC president Thomas Bach, lacked confidence, or the right words to say about the importance of the Games. It’s because the Japanese public lacked confidence in the organizers’ motivations – many were not prepared to listen as infection rates in Japan continued to climb.

 

But that may not have been the case with the Paralympics, at least with the public’s perception of the opening ceremonies. Japan’s Twitterverse reaction was positive, if not enthusiastic.

In contrast to the subtlety and vagueness of the Olympics opening ceremony, there was a consistent story told throughout the Paralympics opening ceremony, showcased by the theater of the one-winged airplane, with the theme “We Have Wings.” This show had energy!

 

The shifting expressions of the 13-year-old junior high school student, Yui Wagou were captivating. The wheelchair-bound first-time actress portrayed a small plane with only one wing, and her face portrayed beautifully the transformation from a sheltered, timid girl to a little plane that could.

 

Part of the trigger for the one-winged plane’s transformation was a legion of role models, led by Japanese rock legend, Tomoyasu Hotei, who brought explosive energy to the Stadium with his electric guitar. There was the ballet dancer with one leg, Kouichi Ohmae and the one-armed violinist, Manami Itou, who also explained through their performances that one wing is enough.

The story of the one-winged plane was in two parts, with speeches in the middle. Andrew Parsons, the president of the International Paralympic Committee had the unenviable position of speaking right after, Seiko Hashimoto, head of the Tokyo2020 organizing committee, who’s appearance created moans of disappointment across Japan. Many departed for the kitchen and restroom, hoping to be spared the words of a person who, in their minds, does not listen.

 

Andrew Parsons is a relative unknown to the Japanese public. He hasn’t been vilified by the press for shopping in the Ginza, as his counterpart in the IOC has. And Parsons did not shy away from his opportunity. Instead, he leaned in. He shouted with passion. He gestured powerfully. And he sent a message, above and beyond the requisite thank yous to the organizers for making Tokyo2020 happen.

 

Parsons launched a movement – WeThe15. He emphasized that the IPC and its partners were here “to change the entire world” by bringing attention not just to the para-athletes in front of him, but to the 1.2 billion people around the world who have disabilities, or 15% of the world population. He said that the IPC and the International Disability Alliance, along with a broad-based network of civil society, business and media organizations, will work every year to make a difference.

 

Over the next 10 years, WeThe15 will challenge how the world’s 15% with disabilities are perceived and treated at a global level. With the support of 20 international organizations, civil society, the business sector, and the media, we will put the world’s 1.2 billion persons with disabilities firmly at the heart of the inclusion agenda.

 

Parsons noted that the pandemic has been a struggle for everybody, and is particularly a time when people have to come together, indirectly referencing the flaming of fear of the other, which leads to hate and discrimination.

 

When humanity should be united in its fight against COVID 19, there is a destructive desire by some to break this harmony. Overlooking what brings us together, to focus on the factors that differentiate us, fuels discrimination. It weakens what we can achieve together as a human race. Difference is a strength, not a weakness and as we build back better, the post-pandemic world must feature societies where opportunities exist for all.

 

Parsons then brought us down from the helicopter view of WeThe15 and the need for global diversity, and honed in on the reason they are all in Tokyo – the athletes.

 

Paralympians, you gave your all to be here. Blood, sweat, and tears. Now is your moment to show to the world your skill, your strength, your determination. If the world has ever labelled you, now is your time to be re-labelled: champion, hero, friend, colleague, role model, or just human. You are the best of humanity and the only ones who can decide who and what you are.

 

The Paralympics are about celebrating diversity, and creating role models for a generation of persons with disabilities, showing them they too can fly.

 

In 2012, it was “Meet the Superhumans,” with images of heroic para-athletes.

In 2016, it was “We’re the Superhumans,” heroic para-athletes mixed in with images of everyday folk.

In 2021, it’s “Super. Human.” with the emphasis on Human.

Channel 4, the official broadcaster of the Paralympics in the UK, has, since the 2012 Games, captured and shaped the pop culture view of the para-athlete, and in a broader way, those with disability. Through the eyes of Channel 4, our view of the disabled has evolved.

In 2012, we needed our attention grabbed to even think of the circumstances of the disabled. For many, the para-athlete had to be portrayed as superhuman, placed on a pedestal so we could start a conversation about how inspiring the disabled are.

But the para-athlete no longer wants to be your inspiration, no longer desires to pose on your pedestal.

As disability rights activist and writer, Penny Pepper said in reaction to the 2016 Superhumans video, “the superhuman shtick is a tiresome diversion away from what is important. Let us be ordinary, let us be every day and let us at least have rights. Rights to independent living.”

People with disabilities want you to know that they are you, and you are they – just another person trying to get along in life.

A recently released video captures that tone perfectly: a man in a wheelchair responds to adoring statements of how inspiring the disabled are, with a single word of defiance.

“Bull$#!+.”

That short film is the clarion call for the “WeThe15” campaign, symbolizing the estimated 15% of the global population that are disabled. Launched on the eve of the Tokyo2020 Paralympic Games, WeThe15 “aspires to be the biggest ever human rights movement to represent the world’s 1.2 billion persons with disabilities.”

If people with disabilities had its own country, it would be the third largest in the world.

In other words, one out of every seven of your own family members, friends and colleagues have some form of disability, who may be marginalized or discriminated in some way.

It’s possible that you are treating people with disabilities in ways that are perceived as patronizing, divisive or hurtful without realizing it.

As the WeThe15 film explains, people with disabilities are not “the other.” They are the same as you.

People call us special, but there’s nothing special about us. We have mortgages. We kill houseplants. We watch reality TV. We get sunburned on holiday. We get married. We swipe right. We go on first dates, and get lucky too.

WeThe15 is a broad-based alliance of global organizations related to sports, human rights, policy, business, arts and entertainment, led primarily by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and the International Disability Alliance (IDA).

“WeThe15 is a decade long campaign bringing together the biggest coalition of international organizations ever to work towards a common goals: to end discrimination and transform the lives of the world’s 1.2 billion persons with disabilities who make up 15% of the global population,” said Craig Spence, IPC Chief Brand & Communications Officer.

“This could be a game changer of a campaign looking to initiate change from governments, business and the general public.  By doing so we can place disability at the heart of the diversity and inclusion agenda.”

Rainbow Bridge in Tokyo Bay in Purple, courtesy of Craig Spence

The goals of WeThe15, which are aligned to the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, are to change attitudes and create more opportunities by:

  • Putting persons with disabilities at the heart of the diversity and inclusion agenda,
  • Implementing a range of activities targeting governments, businesses, and the public to drive social inclusion for persons with disabilities,
  • Breaking down societal and systemic barriers that are preventing persons with disabilities from fulfilling their potential and being active members of society,
  • Ensuring greater awareness, visibility, and representation of persons with disabilities, and
  • Promoting the role of assistive technology as a vehicle to driving social inclusion.

During the Tokyo Paralympics, you will see many references to Wethe15, including public light ups in purple, the symbolic color of inclusivity.

It is time to stand up for the 15, not because they are special, but because they are just like you.

So while the pedestals are nice, and the pity tolerated, we are not “special.” That’s not what it’s like. That’s not our reality. And only when you see us as one of you, wonderfully ordinary, wonderfully human, only then can we all break down these barriers that keep us apart.

– from the WeThe15 campaign film

Tokyo Skytree, courtesy of Craig Spence

 

As the jets passed over Paris drawing the tri-colors of the French flag in a semi-circle around the Eiffel Tower, a joyous and packed crowd of thousands in the square shouted, waved and clapped in celebration…in anticipation of the 2024 Paris Olympics.

That live broadcast at the end of the Tokyo2020 closing ceremony stood in stunning contrast to the empty seats of the National Stadium in Tokyo, as the baton was passed from the organizing committee of Tokyo2020 to Paris2024.

To some, equally stunning is the fact that France’s daily COVID-19 infection rates (22,000) are about 70% higher than Japan’s daily infection rates (13,000 per day) – that despite Japan’s population being nearly double France’s.

Was Japan being overly cautious to ban spectators from the Olympic events? Was France being irresponsible in allowing its citizens to gather en masse, masked or not?

It’s hard to say as reasons for these different attitudes toward the current state of the pandemic are likely rooted in cultural traits.

Japan is often called a risk-averse culture.

Compared to, say America, savings rates in Japan are very high, and investments tend to be cash in the bank. As a result, Japan is not a hotbed for start ups and entrepreneurs (although that is slowly changing.)

And generally speaking, there is a tendency in Japanese organizations to plan, check, double check and triple check before moving ahead with execution, which can frustrate people who prefer to get things started ready or not, under the assumption that acting quickly gets you feedback you can iterate on.

Many around the world wondered why the vaccine roll out in Japan was perceived to start so late even though officials knew tens of thousands of overseas visitors would likely be crossing their borders in July for the Olympics. I am not clear on the decision making process, but the attitude was likely caution: Are the vaccinations safe enough for our people? My guess is that a lot of people in Japan supported that cautious approach.

I am American, but I have lived in Japan for over 20 years. While I sometimes wish things could be executed more quickly, or others would be more willing to go out of their comfort zone and try new things, I know I live in a country where systems and services work very well, and are operated with the highest levels of safety in mind, because of the behaviors embedded in a risk-averse culture.

The Tokyo2020 Olympics have ended. A COVID bubble of immense proportions – containing some  50,000 overseas visitors – held firm, keeping people both outside and inside the bubble healthy. When Japan won the bid for 2020 in 2013, they were called a “safe pair of hands” for a reason. The reputation for Japan’s operational excellence is unparalleled.

The Tokyo2020 Olympics were a promise made to the sporting world in 2013. There was tremendous effort and political capital spent in order to keep that promise. Time will tell whether keeping that promise was the right decision or not.

But in terms of whether Japan’s cautious approach was the right one or not, I have to say it was.

Thank you Japan, for bringing the world together safely, so we could bear witness to, and draw inspiration from the artistry and humanity of the world’s best athletes.

The Olympic Cauldron and Sacred Flame on Yume no Ohashi Bridge. All photos by Roy Tomizawa

 

At the end of the opening ceremonies of the Tokyo2020 Olympics, Naomi Osaka lit the Olympic cauldron as a white ball peeled open like a flower, it’s metallic petals reflecting the light of the ignited Olympic flame.

 

Designed by Japanese company, Nendo, helmed by a Canadian-born Japanese named Oki Sato, the cauldron is a scintillating sight.

 

At most Olympiads, the flame remains in that cauldron for the extent of the Games. But in the 2020 version, a lick of the Olympic flame was moved to a small lantern, and transported about 13 kilometers southwest of the stadium to a bridge that connected two man-made islands in Tokyo Bay – Yume no Ohashi Bridge (or Great Bridge of Dreams).

 

That Tokyo Bay area has many of the Olympic venues, and under normal circumstances, would have been viewed by masses of passersby. I passed by at noon on Thursday, August 5 where about a few dozen people were snapping pictures of the sacred flame.

 

The cauldron on display is not the same one that Naomi Osaka ignited – it is a replica about one third the size of the one still at the National Stadium. Smaller, yet stunning.

 

The sacred flame will be extinguished at the Closing Ceremony to be held on Sunday, August 8. It is unclear whether the flame will again be transferred from the Tokyo Bay cauldron to the National Stadium cauldron, or whether the flame continues to burn within the bigger version hidden inside the stadium.

 

It’s probably the former.

 

The National Stadium was designed without a permanent fixture for the Olympic cauldron. One underlying reason for not including such a fixture was the use of wood in the construction of the stadium. The most common and apparent use of wood are the eaves that adorn the roof and other levels of the stadium, made from cedar sourced from the 47 prefectures of Japan.

 

According to the stadium designer, Kengo Kuma, the cauldron wasn’t in the original specifications and so he imagined that it would be like other Olympiads where the cauldron was situated inside the stadium during the opening ceremony and then moved.

 

The fuel that sustains the flame in the cauldron is hydrogen, a clean-burning gas that represents Japan’s drive to become carbon-neutral by 2050. Hydrogen has fueled part of the torch relay, many of the hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles that transport athletes and officials, as well as one of the buildings in the Olympic Village.

 

So the Olympic flame, born of the rays of the hydrogen-fueled sun in Athens on March 12, 2020, will be extinguished on Sunday, leaving behind water vapors and memories of an Olympiad like no other.

 

David Gerrard in 2021

Inside the cool and controlled confines of the Ariake Aquatic Center, temperatures are a comfortable 27 to 28 degrees Celsius. Swimmers and divers don’t give a thought to their environs.

But in the Tokyo2020 triathlon and marathon swimming competitions, athletes are freestyle swimming in the mouth of Tokyo Bay, where water temperature and quality are close to levels deemed unsafe.

“We are literally in the lap of the weather gods,” Dr David Gerrard, one of 10 members of the International Swimming Federation’s (FINA) sports medicine committee at Tokyo2020. He is also one of perhaps a handful of people to be accredited at both the 1964 and 2020 Tokyo Olympics, as Dr. Gerrard was a swimmer on Team New Zealand here 57 years ago.

Tokyo is currently facing one of Japan’s hottest summers, which is wreaking havoc for athletes competing in the sun. And when the water in Tokyo Bay is continuously exposed to intense solar rays, the water heats up. Prior to the triathlon in the first week of Olympic play, water temperatures climbed to as high as 30.5 degrees Celsius (86.9 degrees Fahrenheit).

“If water temperature gets above 31 degrees Celsius, we are legally bound to say it exceeds the safety levels, and the event cannot proceed,” explained Dr. Gerrard. He went on to say that special paddle wheel devices floating on pontoons are helping to circulate the cooler water from the bottom of the bay to the top, and that the marathon swimming competitions, which will take place on August 4 and 5, will start at 6:30 AM, when water temperature should be at its coolest.”

Dr. Gerrard was part of a research team at the University of Otago (New Zealand) that measured  the impact of sustained high water temperatures on swimmers.

“The human body can’t sustain a core body temperature in excess of 39 or 40 degrees Celsius.” he said. “This results in hyperthermia, or heat stress, with potential life-threatening effects.  It’s also critical to replace fluids and electrolytes  which are lost through sweat.”

In marathon swimming, athletes have the opportunity to replenish fluids and electrolytes at feeding stations along the course. Coaches on the “feeding pontoons” also  observe their swimmer for any unusual behavior that might indicate the onset of hyperthermia.

If water temperature is Scylla, then water quality is Charybdis.

Apparently, Tokyo Bay stinks.

The drainage systems for rainwater and sewage are the same, which on the average day is not an issue because the sewage is treated before entering the drainage system. However, when there is a typhoon or a sustained rainfall in Tokyo, the treatment system can be overwhelmed and untreated sewage gets swept into the Bay. Years of that have resulted in polluted waters.

David Gerrard in 1964

In order to make Tokyo Bay safe enough for competitors during the Olympics and Paralympics, measures have been taken: implementing triple-layer screens to prevent pollutants from flowing into the Bay, as well as laying of sand at the bottom of the Bay making it easier for water-cleaning organisms to thrive.

Dr. Gerrard explained that event organizers monitor the bacterial count of  E. coli and enterococci, bacterial markers of water quality. And if the water exceeds standards stipulated by the World Health Organization, the swimmers would be at risk of gastroenteritis, an infection of the digestive system, which could induce malaise, nausea and vomiting, and if not treated, dehydration.

However, he assured me that under current conditions, swimmers would have to drink a lot of Tokyo Bay to get that sick. He said that he gets daily reports of Tokyo Bay’s bacterial count, and is not concerned. “Right now, it’s a safe level. We’re very satisfied.”

Shortly after that, the rain came pouring down on Tokyo.

On the one hand, the rain is good for water temperature, he said. But on the other hand, there could also be some waste water runoff into the Bay, he added with a shrug.

Will the weather gods cooperate for marathon swimming? We will see.

Yulimar Rojas celebrates a gold and world record_photo by Willie Banks

The lanky woman from Venezuela was psyching herself up for her fifth leap. She took a deep breath, clapped her hands and then let her breath out in a big shout. She blurted out some words of encouragement, and began that rhythmic clap over her head, prompting the crowd to clap.

And then she began her run.

“Oh it’s massive! It’s absolutely massive,” exclaimed the play-by-play announcer.  “But it’s a red flag unfortunately.” The replay showed her toe 7.5 cm over the limit.

Yulimar Rojas had clearly set a world record in her fifth jump at the finals of the Tokyo2020 women’s triple jump competition at the National Stadium on the evening of August 1, if not for the foot fault. In fact, she did the same thing two leaps earlier, a world record jump unrealized for a second time because she stepped significantly beyond the line.

Rojas right now is so dominant that her first attempt of 15.41 meters was an Olympic record, and as subsequent leaps from her competitors showed, was good enough for gold. If she could only start her leap before the plastic board, she’d  set the world record.

Two-time Olympian Willie Banks knows this. The first man to start the modern-day tradition of clapping hands over one’s head to get the crowd into the moment, Banks too set the world record for the men’s triple jump on June 16, 1985 in Indianapolis.

Willie Banks of the World Athletics Council, at the National Stadium during the Athletics competitions.

Banks is in Tokyo serving on the Jury of Appeals for the World Athletics Council. He was present during the women’s triple jump and told me he knew Rojas was going to break the record, that it was just a matter of time. In the case of Rojas, she was so talented that it didn’t matter too much whether she launched perfectly from the board or not.

Too many people focus on the board. A lot will jump really well and not touch the board. For her, what matters are where your hips are in relation to the board. She has long legs relative to her body, which is important. A light body on top of your legs, like she has, helps as her legs are going to do the work. On top of that, she has very good acceleration, and so she is able to get good lift off the board without having to extend too much.

And so when her competitors failed to come close, Rojas approached her final attempt as a chance to put her name in the history books.

Rojas’s coach whistled encouragement. Rojas let out a shout. She swung her arms, got the audience clapping, and started off on a momentous spring. Her first hop was long, her second was flat, but her third launched her into the air and beyond the line for a world record. A white flag went up – no foul!

She did it – the first woman from Venezuela to win a gold medal. Her hands went to the back of her head, her mouth agape. She turned suddenly and nearly ran over the cameraman and let out a mighty yelp. Rojas triple jumped to 15.67 meters, way past the world record of 15.5 meters, set by Inessa Kravets of the Ukraine almost 11 years ago.

Banks thinks that Rojas has a long career ahead and can smash the 16-meter barrier if she makes one improvement.

“That middle step is kind of short,” he explained. “She makes up for it on her jump phase at the end, but what could she accomplish if she got it right? I hope she doesn’t get too comfortable like I did, and work on improving, so she can blast past 16 meters.”

But for now, Banks believes she is great for the sport.

Photo from Willie Banks.

“She’s energetic,” said Banks. “She’s empathetic, and I like that she shows her emotion, that she is enjoying this all the time. When you’re enjoying the sport, you are demonstrating the purest form of the sport, something I have always strived for, but never quite got to. But when you’re as good as Rojas, you can really enjoy yourself.”

Japan’s Mima Ito and Jun Mizutani won Japan’s first-ever gold medal in table tennis, in the debut of the mixed doubles tournament at the Olympics on July 26.

It was an upset and a fantastic comeback as well. Liu Shiwen and Xu Xin of China had swept through their three matches to get to the finals, dropping only 1 set, their first one against their first foe, Canada. In the finals against Japan, Liu and Xu continued with their streak, winning the first two sets, before Japan came storming back for their historic victory.

If not for their dramatic victory over Germany in the quarter-finals, holding off match point after match point, there would be no smiles and tears of joy for Ito and Mizutani.

 

Anatomy of a Comeback Against Team Germany

On Sunday, July 25, Japan was up against Germany’s Petrissa Solja and Patrick Franziska. 2nd-seed Japan was favored over 7th-seed Germany, but they battled evenly back and forth. When Japan won the sixth set, the seventh one would determine who moves on to the semi-finals.

Germany started off strong – very strong –  going up 5-0. They extended their lead to 9-2, going up by 7 points. It was the highest point differential in the entire match, and a seemingly insurmountable mountain to climb for Japan.   And when Germany flicked a winner wide to get to 10-6, they had 4 match points, and were on the verge of advancing.

Then something clicked inside Mizutani. The 32-year old 4-time Olympian shot a winner and then fired tight top spin forehands that the Germans sent into the net or wide. Somehow, Japan had staved off 4 match points.

Germany served and Japan sent it wide, leading to Germany’s 5th match point at 11-10. But Ito’s serve was quickly returned into the net, and the score was deadlocked at 11-11. Germany served, and Japan sent it out, so Germany again were at match point, now for the sixth time!

Even if you are casual watcher of table tennis, you could not help but feel all tense inside. The small racquet and tiny ball on a small table with two people requires constant and intense concentration, instantaneous reflexes and explosive power. It’s exhausting to watch, particularly in a tight match.

Japan tied it at 12-12 with Germany returning into the net. Japan won the next point, and suddenly they had their first match point, but on the next point, Mizutani was caught off balance and mis-shot, sending it to 13-13. Back and forth it went as the teams knotted it again at 14-14.Franziska serves, Ito returns, Solja returns and Mizutani sends a heavy top-spin cross court which Franziska sends out. Japan has its second match point.

Ito, at her first Olympics, a childhood friend of Mizutani’s, had her moment of moments. Her spin serves usually end up in the mid court of her opponent’s side, but this one went deep to the forehand of Solja who simply could not catch up to it. Her return was fired wide and the Ito Mizutani team won. While Mizutani was all smiles, Ito collapsed in tears of exhaustion.

11-8, 5-11, 3-11, 11-3, 9-11, 11-8, 16-14.

For Solja and Franziska, nothing but the thousand-mile stares of disbelief.

For Ito and Mizutani, the right to fight another day.

Photograph by Roy Tomizawa

The protests were never huge, but they seemed to be omnipresent. Groups of placard holders could be seen in front of train stations, at torch relay events, wherever there were crowds.

 

Their protests are symbolic of the seriousness with which people in Japan are taking the COVID-19 virus and its variants.

 

The climbing infection rates in Tokyo on the eve of the Games are like darkening clouds over the city. After a visit on Thursday, July 22, to the Tokyo Bay Ariake area where so many of the Olympic arenas are located, you might think the Games had already ended, there were so few people, and so little energy.

Photograph by Roy Tomizawa

 

However, if on the afternoon of Friday, July 23 you visited Harajuku, minutes away from the National Stadium, you would have heard the constant buzz of a beehive in anticipation. Around 12:45 pm, thousands of people congested the intersection in front of Meiji Shrine, waiting in the hot sun for the roar of jet engines.

 

Blue Impulse over Tokyo_Photograph by Roy Tomizawa

And suddenly, they were rewarded as the Air Self Defense Force air acrobat team called the Blue Impulse roared overhead. Cameras and phone pointed skyward as the jets formed the Olympic rings in the sky, an act harking back to the Opening Ceremonies of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

 

Photograph by Roy Tomizawa

 

A 15-minute walk takes you to the National Olympic Stadium, where crowds line the street. It’s only 1pm and it may be too early for the arrival of the athletes, but Japanese were happy to see the National Stadium in full regalia, albeit behind fences to keep us out.

Photograph by Roy Tomizawa

And when you get to the Olympic rings in front of the Olympic Museum and across the street from the National Stadium, the need to socially distance was totally forgotten. Anything to get a picture in front of the rings.

 

Yesterday, in my walk through Ariake, I was worried for the patient. But today, as I walked through the heart of the Tokyo Olympics, I felt a pulse.

 

Doctor, the patient is alive.

Photograph by Roy Tomizawa