There is only one legacy of the Olympics, of every Olympics, that really matters – the impact on the aspirations of children. On Wednesday, July 24, 2019, the organizers of the Tokyo2020 Games celebrated the One-Year-To-Go mark with a day of fun and games for the kids. With school out, parents took their kids to the Tokyo International Forum at the outskirts of the Ginza district, and future venue for weightlifting during the summer games next year.
As the Japanese word for five is “go”, and there are a total of 55 Olympic and Paralympic events, the organizers dubbed this event “Let’s 55!” And indeed kids of all ages had activities galore for a fun-filled “go-go” day.
Both inside and outside the International Forum, there simulations and games for: fencing, basketball, field hockey, cycling, karate, archery, volleyball, weightlifting, golf, baseball….you name it. And to make sure they tried everything, they were given a sheet with all of the activities to get stamped after an activity, and to receive other gifts.
Amidst the fun and games, the officials were proud and optimistic about prospects for the Games a year hence.
“Preparations are making excellent progress, thanks to the amazing work of the Organising Committee and with outstanding cooperation and support from the government and the business community, said Thomas Bach, the president of the IOC. “There is so much to look forward to. I have never seen an Olympic city as prepared as Tokyo with one year to go before the Olympic Games.”
And with a nod to the youth, Tokyo 2020 President Yoshiro Mori said:
I believe the Tokyo 2020 Games will become an important part of Olympic history and a talking point for future generations. This–the second time that Tokyo will host the Olympic and Paralympic Games–will be an occasion where the world is united as one regardless of nationality, race, culture or religion. I fervently hope younger generations will learn to respect, understand and accept each other as a result of these Games and play a central role in realising an inclusive society in the future.
The IOC sought to inject youth and improve gender diversity into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics by adding events, while keeping the total number of invited athletes the same. In addition to the five new sports added in August, 2016 (baseball/softball, karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing), the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced the addition of 15 new events to existing sports.
And yet, to keep to a limit of 11,090 total athletes at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, cuts had to be made. The IOC made decisions that resulted in the elimination of 285 quota slots for various sports. Much of this was driven by a need to improve gender ratios, particularly in sports like cycling, judo, rowing, sailing, shooting, swimming and water polo.
But the biggest losers? Wrestling with 56 cuts, weightlifting with 64 and athletics with 105 cuts.
Perhaps messages are being sent.
Wrestling was actually dropped from the Olympic menu of core sports in February, 2013 because the rules were considered vague. Wrestling’s scoring system was too difficult to understand, which in turn made it difficult to engage the average television viewer. Somehow, through significant lobbying efforts, wrestling was reinstated as a non-core sport for the 2020 Games, but the latest decision to cull the wrestling numbers may be a reminder that wrestling has to work at its game.
Athletics, with its high profile events and global track stars, also suffers from a deep and dark history of doping. Most recently, the IAAF banned the entire Russian track and field team from the 2016 Rio Olympics. All of this may have made it easier for the IOC to prioritize cuts in athletics.
As for weightlifting, the dark clouds of doping have hung over this sport for decades. The IOC dropped an entire men’s weight class on its way to eliminating 64 quota slots for Tokyo 2020. Said Japan Weightlifting Association President Yoshiyuki Miyake in this Mainichi Daily News article, It’s a shame. I’m confused why they would make this kind of decision without any discussion.”
In the men’s 94-kilogram class at the 2012 London Games, Poland’s Tomasz Zielinski finished ninth. A disappointment, to be sure, but Zielinski was eventually awarded the bronze medal after six of the lifters ahead of him failed drug tests.
Wonderful story, right? Not so much. Zielinski, who obviously didn’t win a medal for his ability to learn from other’s mistakes, was kicked out of the 2016 Rio Games when one of his own tests came back positive.
IOC president has been explicit that he is sending messages, according to that same article:
Bach called weight lifting’s punishment in Friday’s reordering of the Games “a strong signal” to the sport. Good for him. Standing up to cheaters, and meting out real punishment, is common sense. If one sport’s athletes can’t follow the rules, other athletes from other sports should get a chance.
When you think of Brazil, you think of samba, you think of Carnivàle, you think of joy. And the Rio Olympics had its share of joyful moments.
Here are a few of my favorite examples:
Fu Yuanhui: The Chinese may have had an off-par Olympics in terms of medal haul, at least to them, but Chinese swimmer, Fu Yuanhui, became an overnight sensation. While the Chinese expect gold from every one of their athletes, the Chinese and the rest of the world fell in love with the 20-year-old bronze medalist in the 100-meter backstroke. There were few more expressive, more unfiltered, more joyful than the young woman from Hangzhou. Watch the clip for a few examples of why Fu Yuanhui lit up the Twitterverse with delight.
Justin Rose: The golfer on Team GB was outspoken in his criticism of other professional golfers foregoing the Olympic re-boot of golf after over a century. Justin Rose won gold in men’s golf, stating “It’s right up there with anything I’ve achieved in the game.” Rose won on skill and determination. But on the 189-yard par-3 fourth hole in the first round of the tournament, Rose walked into a bit of luck with his 7-iron, nailing the first ever Olympic hole in one. Watch the video to see Rose’s pleasant surprise.
David Katoatau: If you have never heard of the Republic of Kiribati, you may be excused. This nation of 33 atolls and reef islands spread out over 3.5 million square kilometers lies on the equator in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. On one of those islands resides David Katoatau, who came in 15th at the 2008 Beijing Games in the 85kg weight class, and 17th at the 2012 London Olympic Games in the 94kg weight class. At the Rio Olympics, Katoatau managed only 14th in the 105kg weight class, but came in first in the Olympic dance competition. In his last failed attempt in Rio, Katoatau fell over, rolled on his back, flipped himself up, hugged the weights, and started the most joyful funky dance you’d ever see from a weightlifter.
Monica Puig: If you weren’t following tennis in the Olympics closely and tuned on the television for the women’s finals, you would be wondering, Who is Monica Puig? Even casual fans of tennis would likely have recognized Australian Open champion, Angelique Kerber, but you could be excused if you didn’t know the unseeded Puig.
However, every time Puig won, her home country of Puerto Rico began to rumble and roar. In an economic mess, Puerto Ricans have had little to cheer about in recent months. But as Puig continued her march to the medal round, an entire country stopped to watch. With monumental expectations on her shoulders, Puig did the unthinkable – she upset Kerber. Her medal was gold, her tears were of joy.
It was an image that went round the world – a smallish man lifting a huge amount of weight, and then lifting one leg like a stork, lounging about in a lake.
Alexey Vakhonin, competing in the bantamweight class (56kg or less) was attempting a clean and jerk of 142.5 kilograms. If he succeeded, he’d win gold. Imre Folde of Hungary had already lifted 137.5 kilograms in the clean and jerk to take the lead. In fact, the Folde camp thought they had gold locked up.
In 1964, at the Tokyo Summer Games, there were three types of lifts required in the weightlifting competition: the press, the snatch and the clean and jerk. The best of the three lifts were totaled to determine the winner. Folde had started well, pressing 5 kilos more than Vakhonin, and 10 more than the Japanese favorite, Shiro Ichinoseki. Vakhonin lifted 105 kilos in the snatch, 2.5 kilos more than Folde, so Folde was leading by 2.5 kilos before commencing the clean and jerk.
Vakhonin had to lift 140 kilos to tie Folde, or 142.5 kilos to win. Lifting 142.5 kilos would also result in the highest weight total ever lifted in bantamweight competition up to 1964.
He walked fast, the little man from Shakhty City, across the platform. Like some cowboy film hero in a hurry to get the gunfight over. He breathed out, breathed in, and down went his hands wrapped round the bar. It came up to shoulder level and Vakhonin’s face was blank with concentration. Then his neck strained, his eyes started from their sockets, his face slowly turned purple. But the bar went up.
Slowly the normal colour returned to the new Olympic champion’s face. At the same time his introvert behaviour changed to that of an extravert. As he stood there under the load of iron he gently lifted first his right foot and then his left to show that it all had been comparatively easy.
One of the greatest weightlifters the world has ever seen started his career in an internment camp during World War II.
Tommy Kono, the only Olympic weightlifter to have set world records in four different weight classes, won gold in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, gold in the 1956 Melbourne Games, as well as silver in Rome in 1960.
But at the age of 12, Kono and his family were removed from their home in Japanese Alley in Sacramento, California, and relocated to Tule Lake Segregation Center, which is at the northern-most part of California, near the Oregon border.
Kono and his family were assigned to Tule Lake because of geographically proximity to Sacramento. But of the ten concentration camps designated to hold over 110,000 Japanese or American of Japanese ancestry upon enactment of President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, Tule Lake was the maximum-security camp that came to house those considered most disloyal or disruptive. (The order was issued exactly 74 years ago on February 20, 1942.)
Little Tommy Kono, skinny, terribly shy, and sickly due to asthma, had to grow up in a camp that housed the most disruptive inmates in a facility that was overpopulated, unsanitary and squalid.
Strangely enough, it may have been the best thing to happen to him personally.
Tule Lake is high above sea level, and as Kono told me, “it was a dried up lake, where no bushes or trees would grow.”For the first time, Kono could breathe free and easy, and enjoyed good health for the first time in a long time.
At the age of 11, Kono was 4 ft 8 and a half inches tall and weighed 74 and a half pounds. In other words, he was scrawny. But his friends in the camp were weight training enthusiasts, and as this article explains, they “gave him a fifteen-pound barbell and the advice, ‘It’s good for you, keep lifting it up, lots of times.'”
Weight training was an activity he could do to improve his health, see measurable results, and feel good about himself. Kono told me this was the positive side, the meritocratic side of camp life for him. “There was nothing there (to distract me). No stuff hindering me. You have to understand when you’re in Tule camp you are like everybody else. I got to be in pretty good shape.”
After World War II ended, Kono and his family were not compelled to go to Japan. Kono went back to high school in Sacramento, continued his weight training at a local YMCA until he was drafted into the US Army. So despite the fact that his loyalty was questioned only 8 years earlier, he was considered loyal enough to join the US military in 1950. That was when the Korean War was raging. Kono was targeted to be a cook in South Korea in support of the troops. He had heard that North Korean snipers were targeting cooks in particular – the logic being that if the cook went down, so too would morale.
Fortunately, Kono was breaking California weightlifting records and winning tournaments. When the US Army found out Kono was a really good weightlifter, they decided to move him to safer grounds where he could train for a possible spot on the US team in Helsinki.
Kono had come a long way. He told me that he had difficulty explaining what it was like to lift 300 pounds to a layman in the street. To show how strong he was, he instead would take a hot water bottle (those thick red rubbery things that kept you warm when you were sick as a child) and blow them up. “I blew up hot water bottles with my mouth. First they’re red, then it becomes pink, then white, until it finally bursts!”
This from a boy who had trouble breathing in asthmatic fits.
Kono admits to having an inferiority complex as a teenager, being so small and sickly. And not only did weightlifting improve his health and strength, it introduced him to the world of body building. Kono not only was an Olympic champion, but he was also a body builder champion, who won three Mr Universe titles in 1955, 1957 and 1961. A young Arnold Schwarzenegger considered Kono a role model.
“In Europe, everybody lifts weights.” Kono told me. “It’s a common thing. Arnold was a weightlifter living on the outskirts of Vienna. He saw me in 1961. He was 13 years old. He decided that ‘if that little guy can win Mr. Universe, I could do that too.’ He started training hard, he won Junior Mister World, and eventually he won the big one.”