The Power of Sports and International Promises

It has been decided that the 2020 Summer Olympics will be held in Tokyo. The other two candidate cities were Madrid and Istanbul. In view of the economic crisis in Madrid and antigovernment demonstrations in Istanbul, plus the problem of neighboring Syria, my impression had been that Tokyo was the only option. Inevitably, however, the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power station turned out to be a strong negative factor. It is still fresh in my memory how foreigners left Japan immediately after the accident occurred. I was amazed at the speed of their response. If that behavior was considered to be normal and natural, then there were dark clouds hanging over Tokyo’s bid.

Whenever questions cropped up about the nuclear power station at press conferences, Japanese Olympic Committee President Tsunekazu Takeda stayed mum and did not try to reply. No doubt his mute response was deliberate, and he was leaving it to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s explanation in the final presentation. And indeed, backed by a rigorous and carefully planned strategy, the final presentation was a huge success. I am sure not only me but many people raised their eyebrows when they heard the cocky statements of Tokyo Governors Shintaro Ishihara and Naoki Inose, but they were probably part of the scenario as well.

In the final presentation Her Imperial Highness Princess Hisako Takamado, who loves sports, gave a heartfelt speech in French and English, the official languages of the International Olympic Committee. Speaking in a noble and eloquent tone, the princess gave the impression that the whole of Japan stood behind the bid and created a reassuring atmosphere.

And then came Mami Sato, who hails from Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture, an area that was heavily hit by the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. I think Sato’s moving speech was the key in bringing the Olympics to Tokyo.

“I am here because I was saved by sport,” she said. “It taught me the values that matter in life.”

In her second year at Waseda University, Sato, who was an athlete, suddenly fell ill and had to have her left leg amputated beneath the knee. She was devastated and in the depths of despair, but then, with an artificial leg, she aimed to participate in the Paralympics, and now she holds the Japanese long-jump record.

I was moved to tears by Sato’s speech. “Only then [after the disaster in 2011] did I see the true power of sport,” she said, “to create new dreams and smiles, to give hope, to bring people together. More than 200 athletes, Japanese and international, making almost 1,000 visits to the affected area and inspiring more than 50,000 children. . . .

“What we have seen is the impact of the Olympic values as never before in Japan, and what the country has witnessed is that these precious values?excellence, friendship, and respect?can be so much more than just words.”

When I heard Sato’s speech, I felt that I was watching not just a ceremony and not just a vain display of national prestige, but the true Olympic spirit.

As an international promise from the country’s top leader, Prime Minister Abe’s statement that the situation at the Fukushima nuclear power station was “under control” and visitors in 2020 would be welcomed by the usual beautiful Japan was the final deciding factor in bringing the Olympics to Tokyo. But this promise is a pledge to the Japanese people as well. I hope that Prime Minister Abe will fix the nuclear power plant problem as quickly as possible and restore a feeling of safety and security to the people of Fukushima and the people of Japan. Now, more than ever before, the whole world is watching.

Come to think of it, I first came up to Tokyo in 1963, the year before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. From the window of the place where I had a part-time job, all I could see was blue skies. I really didn’t have much leeway to get excited by the Olympics.