Japan’s No Fun Olympic Games

If Japan wants to host an Olympics again, it could learn a lot from Vancouver about how to hold a party.

The Vancouver Winter Games started out terribly on a rainy Friday, with a Georgian luger crashing to his death off a track that lacked safety netting and padded walls. The opening ceremonies embarrassed many Canadians with cliches and a cauldron that refused to rise from the floor. VANOC, the Vancouver Organizing Committee, seemed like the Ministry of Silly Walks, run by a leprechaun and an insane mentality that 20,000 volunteers should work 12-hour days 30 days straight, in violation of British Columbia provincial labor laws. But then the sun came out on Sunday, a French-Canadian freestyler won Canada’s first-ever gold medal on home soil, and forward-thinking city officials, tolerant police and beer-fueled youth turned the Olympics into the biggest street party in Canadian history.

For many Canadians, the Olympics were the greatest moment in history, at least since Canada became a nation in 1867. Throngs of young Canadians who don’t know the words to Oh Canada sang the anthem on buses and trains, even shouting down the Dutch, who often refused to allow locals into their speed-skating victory raves at the Heineken House. Canadians whose parents emigrated from Hong Kong, Manila, Punjab and Osaka proudly wore red hockey jerseys and maple leafs painted on their cheeks. Even white people got excited about Canada, waving flags with a cannabis plant in place of the maple leaf, and perfuming the streets with what became for many the “official smell of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.”

Thanks to nightly free outdoor concerts featuring Canada’s best bands, the Vancouver Olympics was perhaps the greatest pot smoke-off in televised history, an organically grown hydroponic hybrid of sporting events and a Jamaican Sunsplash. After trouncing Russia in the hockey semi-finals, Canadians celebrated by dancing half-naked in David Lam Park to the reggae vibes of Damien Marley, son of Bob. When Canada finally beat the U.S. 3-2 in sudden-death overtime to win the hockey gold, an estimated 150,000 people poured into the downtown core under warm blue skies, to high-five cops and play street hockey in front of the Law Courts building. Despite fears of a 1994-style hockey riot, Granville Street in Vancouver was so incredibly packed with drunken, singing and puking youth that it almost rivaled Shibuya on a Thursday night.

For Japan, however, it was the ‘No Fun Olympics.’ The Japanese won no gold medals. As consolation, they picked up three silvers and two bronze. But by comparison, South Korea took home six golds and China five, while Canada set a record with 14. In figure skating, Mao Asada lost to Kim Yu-Na of South Korea, who had the support of the crowd (and possibly the judges) because she trained in Vancouver with a Canadian skating legend. Pursing her lips on the podium, Asada couldn’t hide her chagrin after mistakes in the final free skate. “I am glad that I was able to land two triple axels, but I had mistakes in other areas,” Asada said. “I am not at all satisfied with my performance.’’ After settling for bronze in men’s figure skating, Daisuke Takahashi apologized by saying, “I went for it because my goal for this Olympics was to skate a perfect program. But I flubbed the quad, and there were other mistakes.”

Japan had high hopes of owning future podiums after it won five gold and five other medals at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano. Since then, Japan has almost disappeared from victory ceremonies, managing only one medal in 2006, when Shizuka Arakawa saved the nation from embarrassment by taking the gold in figure skating toward the end of the Torino Games.

To make matters worse, Japanese often felt left out of the party atmosphere in Vancouver. While thousands lined up outside the Irish House and the German House downtown, the Japan House didn’t even invite in many of the Japanese ESL students and expats who call Vancouver home, not to mention the thousands of Japanese-Canadians rooted in the area for more than 100 years. Afraid of scandals, Japanese athletes were rarely ever seen having fun or drinking, let alone smoking B.C.’s leading unofficial export crop.

The only Japanese guy who seemed ready to fit into the Vansterdam vibe was dreadlocked snowboarder Kazuhiro Kokubo. But the Japan Olympic Committee barred him from the opening ceremonies for not tucking in his shirt at Narita and Vancouver airports (hardly a crime compared to Canadian underage women smoking victory cigars and drinking champagne on the ice rink). Even Kokubo’s own Tokai University stopped publicly supporting him, and he finished eighth in the men’s half-pipe. For his part, Kokubo dismissed the Olympics as “nothing special” and ‘‘just another snowboarding event.”

Afraid of failure, shy Japanese athletes spoke to reporters in hushed apologetic tones. Joji Kato, a former 500-meter speed-skating world-record holder who captured bronze in Richmond, seemed more likely to win gold in the unofficial competition for repeatedly saying “hai, hai, hai” to reporters’ questions.

”They are not enjoying the sport, they are not comfortable,” remarked Manto Nakamura, an illustrator and freelance sportswriter who moved from Japan to Vancouver 18 years ago. “There’s too much pressure. It makes them crazy. They are trying to be perfect in order to win.”

Frustrated analysts point to a number of reasons for Japan falling behind regional rivals South Korea and China. Tokyo and Osaka lack ice rinks and freezing temperatures, they say. Other than Hokkaido, Japan is “not a winter-sports country,” says Nakamura. “We like soccer, volleyball and baseball – summer sports.” Japanese athletes, unlike those in China or South Korea, are company employees not driven by obsessive parents, national glory or
the lure of endorsements. Japanese Olympians often seem more interested in making friends with famous athletes than beating them. Figure skater Fumie Suguri, who narrowly missed medals in 2002 and 2006, wrote in the Asahi Shimbun about her fondest Olympic memory: lending her tights to American skater Sasha Cohen and becoming friends.

This attitude frustrated even stoic Japanese coaches. “The Olympics is all about winning medals,” Yoshiri Ito, head of Japan’s Ski Association, told reporters in Vancouver after his athletes came up empty-handed in skiing. “Just getting a place among the top eight finishers doesn’t cut it here.”

It’s true that the Olympics emphasize events catering to European strengths. While Japanese people are among the most active and healthy in the world, and the Japanese media do their best to support Japanese athletes, they might not ever be able to compete with bigger, stronger, faster athletes from Europe, America and Africa playing games rooted in their cultures. Given this harsh reality, perhaps Japan’s best hope is to host a future Olympic Games on home soil, playing sports native to Japan.

In past bids, Japan has wrongly tried to be a European nation instead of a proud ancient culture fusing the harmonious grace of Pacific island life and the heritage of the Asian continent. The next time around, Japan should play up its strengths.

Japanese people – especially women from Hokkaido – can drink people from Rio de Janeiro and Madrid under the table. Forget about Spanish wine and those sugary Brazilian caipirinhas. Japan has sake, shochu and a lot of cheap and hearty beers made out of beans and vegetables. Japan’s penchant for alcoholic excess would guarantee the festive atmosphere that saved the Vancouver Olympics from its fanatical organizers and overworked staff.

Japan has even warmer, sunnier winters than Vancouver. While VANOC moved heaven and earth – by trucking in hay bales and helicoptering in snow at C$900 an hour – to hold freestyle skiing at Cypress Mountain above Vancouver, Japan could promise the visual spectacle of skiers flying down Mount Fuji.

Perhaps given its climatic reality, Japan should offer to stage the first Hybrid Games, combining all winter and summer sports into one grand extravaganza. It would dwarf Beijing and Vancouver, and forever stamp Japan’s hanko onto global consciousness. Toyota, maker of the iconic hybrid Prius, would surely sponsor the Hybrid Olympics.

Just think of the possibilities. As I write this in 19 C weather in early March, you could have beach volleyball in Kamakura and downhill skiing in Nagano. You could fuse surfing and snowboarding into one event – a “board-cross.” You could have new Japan-centric events, such as kendo and sumo – maybe even janken – in order to pad the host nation’s medal tallies (as Canada did with curling and women’s hockey). Rebranding dolphin culling and (scientific) whaling as “sports” would turn on a whole new generation to the Olympic movement in the same way X Games sports have inspired skate kids from the southern climes of California and Australia. (This “new generation” of Olympic fishermen and whale researchers, of course, would be largely over 60 years old – another factor in Japan’s favor.)

And if this still fails to capture the IOC’s attention, Japan could simply bow out of competing in the Olympics altogether by citing Article 9 of the Constitution. After all, the goal of postwar Japan is to preserve group harmony and not, as U.S. comedian Stephen Colbert would put it, to “defeat the world.” ❶

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