Tokyo 2020

The incredible Aries Merritt, and more

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A dozen musings on track and field, on the 2024 Summer Games bid race and more:

1. At a news conference Friday in Eugene, Oregon, before Saturday’s line-up of events at the 42nd annual Prefontaine Classic, the question went out to Aries Merritt, the 2012 London men’s 110-meter hurdles champion who is also the world record-holder, 12.8 seconds, in the event: on a scale of one to 10, where did he fall?

Heading toward the U.S. Trials in a month and, presumably, beyond to the Rio 2016 Summer Games, Merritt has probably the most unbelievable, incredible, authentic story in track and field. He had a degenerative kidney condition. With almost no kidney function, he somehow won a bronze medal in the hurdles at the 2015 world championships. Thereafter, with his sister as the donor, he underwent a kidney transplant. It required not just one but two surgeries.

Aries Merritt showing off his kidney transplant scar at a pre-Pre news conference

So — one to 10? “Ten,” he said. Which means that the hurdles, always one of the best events at the track, figures to be that much better. And, America and beyond — get ready, via NBC and every outlet out there, for the Aries Merritt story. He deserves every bit of good publicity he gets.

2. With all due respect to the sainted Steve Prefontaine — no snark or sarcasm intended, only a full measure of respect — a significant chunk of the problem with track and field in the United States is Steve Prefontaine.

Every sport needs heroes. Not just legends.

The elements of the Prefontaine story have been well-chronicled: the U.S. records at virtually every middle- and long distance event, the fourth in the 5k at the Munich 1972 Games, his life cut short in a car crash at 24.

The legend of Prefontaine, and appropriately, has had a longstanding hold on the U.S. track and field imagination.

Steve Prefontaine racing in London in September 1972 // Getty Images

But imagine if, say, baseball was stuck in the Roberto Clemente era. Or the NBA fixated on Reggie Lewis, Len Bias, Malik Sealy or, for that matter, Drazen Petrovic. Or the NFL on Junior Seau and others.

One of the major challenges with track and field now is that there is no 2016 version of larger-than-life Prefontaine. No one is that guy (or that woman). Ashton Eaton could be and maybe should be. But who else? Merritt? It's anyone's guess.

Most Americans, asked to name a track and field star, will answer: Carl Lewis.

It has been roughly 20 years since Lewis made any noise on the track itself, more than 40 since Prefontaine was alive. Meanwhile, fourth-graders all around the 50 states can readily debate (pick one) Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, whether Derek Jeter was the best Yankee ever, whether they would start an NBA team with (pick one) LeBron James or Steph Curry.

Every sport, to repeat, needs heroes. Not just legends.

3. Earlier this year, the former 800-meter world champion Caster Semenya made even hardened track geeks go, whoa. She raced, and won, three events — on the same day — at the South African national championships, the women’s 400 (personal-best 50.74), 800 (1:58.45) and 1500 (4:10.93, outside Olympic qualifying time).

So much for the theory — oft-advanced by track freaks who never bother to, say, watch swimming — that a world-class athlete can’t race, and win, multiple events on the same day.

From start to finish, Semenya ran the three races in about four hours.

She went 1:58.26 to win the Doha Diamond League meet in early May, winning by nearly an entire second.

On Sunday, and she wasn’t even really going all out, Semenya ran 1:56.64 for the win at the first IAAF Diamond League meet in Africa, in Rabat, Morocco. She won by more than a full second.

For comparison: on Friday night, on Day One of the 2016 Prefontaine Classic at historic Hayward Field, American Alysia Montaño-Johnson won the women's 800 in 2:00.78.

 Caster Semenya of South Africa celebrates her May 6 victory in the women's 800 at the Doha Diamond League event // Getty Images

Semenya doesn’t deserve to do anything but get to run, and run as fast as possible. At the 2009 world championships in Berlin, she ran away with the 800, in a crazy-fast 1:55.45. Then it was disclosed that she had elevated testosterone levels. The gender testing — and, more, the shaming — that she endured thereafter proved unconscionable.

The rules are the rules. The rules say she can run in women’s events.

The real question is: what should be the rules?

Because it’s perhaps not that difficult to explain why Semenya is — after silvers in the 800 at the 2011 worlds and 2012 Olympics and then injuries and subpar performances since — running so fast again now.

It’s all about testosterone levels.

Because of Semenya, track and field’s international governing body, the International Assn. of Athletics Federations, as well as the International Olympic Committee, put in place a new policy: you could run in women’s events if your testosterone levels fell under a threshold of 10 nanomoles (that’s what it’s called) per liter. In scientific jargon: 10 nmo/L.

Context: as the South African scientist and writer Ross Tucker points out in a brilliant Q&A on what is called “hyperandrogenism” with the activist Joanna Harper, 99 percent of female athletes registered testosterone levels below 3.08 nmo/L.

From the science department, part I: “hyper” is science talk for what in ordinary speech might be described as “way, way more.” The primary and probably most well-known “androgen” is testosterone.

Part II, simple math: the upper limit of 10 is more than three times higher than for 99 in 100 women.

Last year, in a decision that pleased human rights advocates but left knowledgable track observers puzzled (to say the least), sport’s top court, the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport, ruling in the case of sprinter Dutee Chand from India, said the IAAF (and IOC) could no longer enforce the testosterone limit.

In real life, and particularly as we look toward Rio, this means what?

The IAAF and IOC are trying to come up with a new policy.

In the meantime, Semenya, “plus a few others,” as Tucker writes, “have no restriction.” The erasure of the limit has “utterly transformed Semenya from an athlete who was struggling to run 2:01 to someone who is tactically running 1:56," Tucker goes on to say, adding, "My impression, having seen her live and now in the Diamond League, is that she could run 1:52, and if she wanted to, would run a low 48-second 400 meters and win that gold in Rio. too.”

He also writes that Semenya is “the unfortunate face of what is going to be a massive controversy in Rio” — my words here, not his, about who is a “female” and gets to run in “women’s” events. He writes, "It won’t be any consolation to Semenya, [that] the media, frankly, have no idea how to deal with this – nobody wants it to be about the athlete, and it certainly is not her fault.  However, it is a debate we must have, and I want to try to have it from the biological, sporting perspective, and steer clear of the minority bullying that so often punctuates these matters.”

Tucker is right. The debate — calm voices only, please — needs to be held, and in short order.

4. UCLA, per a report first from ESPN, landed the biggest college sports apparel deal ever, with Under Armour. Terms: 15 years, beginning in July 2017. The deal is believed to be worth $280 million.

Biggest-ever is likely to be relative, depending on what comes next.

Because, in recent months:

Michigan, 11 years (option to extend to 15), Nike, $169 million,

Texas, 15 years, Nike $250 million.

Ohio State, 15 years, Nike, $252 million.

Boosters of these schools, and others, typically tend to react with glee at these sorts of numbers.

Rhetorical question, part I: why, when USA Track & Field chief executive officer Max Siegel scores a $500 million, 23-year deal with Nike, do some number of track fans bemoan Nike’s influence as a death star of sorts and claim the federation is verging on stupidity if not recklessness?

Rhetorical question, part II: how is it that dismissive claims about the USATF/Nike deal become gospel among the disaffected when track athletes actually get paid to run for a living but college athletes, as UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen noted in a Tweet that quickly got deleted, don’t — and likely won’t —get to see a dime of any of those millions?

Just a thought here: maybe Siegel was, you know, ahead of the power curve.

5. More on USATF, now on the dismissal this week per 11-1 vote of the federation’s board of directors of the Youth Executive Committee and its chairman, Lionel Leach:

Many, many things could be said here about Leach and the conduct that led to this action.

For now, this will suffice:

This is a movie whose ending we can all know, and now.

Why?

Because it’s a re-run.

What’s at issue, at the core, is a power struggle between the volunteers and professional staff.

Here’s news: the professional staff is going to win. As it should.

It used to be that the U.S. Olympic Committee found itself consumed by precisely this sort of petty, personalized politics. That changed when governance reforms became real; when the board empowered the chief executive to run the show; and when the chief executive proved professional and hugely competent (USOC: Scott Blackmun, USATF: Siegel).

It's a fact that USATF has a long and contentious history. But this is a fact, too: Siegel's first four years have shown dramatic, and consequential, improvement for the federation, and the sport.

6. Moving along, to an international sports federation president who also gets it, even if the IOC often doesn't want to admit so: Marius Vizer, president of the International Judo Federation.

Vizer, in advance of the start Friday of a major IJF event in Guadalajara, Mexico, spent about two hours doing a live Q&A on Twitter.

https://twitter.com/MariusVizer/status/736270089708703744

Imagine: actually doing exactly what the IOC says it wants to do, to reach out to young people in those ways, like Twitter, by which young people connect with each other.

Far too many federation presidents might have something resembling a panic attack at the thought of entertaining questions about whatever from whoever. Vizer, who has never had anything to hide and has consistently been a forceful voice for accountability and change (to the IOC's chagrin), made it plain: bring it on.

Indeed, Vizer ended by saying more such Q&A's would be forthcoming.

https://twitter.com/MariusVizer/status/736291453161246722

7. Switching to 2024 bid news:

If you might be tempted to look past those potentially significant developments related to the allegations of Russian doping — first, a potential U.S. Justice Department inquiry and, second, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency chief Travis Tygart’s bombshell of an op-ed in the New York Times — it was otherwise a good week for the LA24 bid committee, at least for those things it could and can control.

Los Angeles, behind a bid headed by Casey Wasserman, who is also in charge of LA24, won the right to stage the 2021 Super Bowl.

Plus, a rail line from downtown to Santa Monica opened, to real excitement and big crowds. Roll that around in your head: LA. Rail. It’s real. Really.

8. Still a long way to go in the 2024 race, which the IOC will decide by secret ballot in September 2017 at a meeting in Lima, Peru. Three others are in the race: Paris, Rome, Budapest.

It’s a proven that what wins Olympic elections are, first, relationships, and two, telling a story that will move IOC members emotionally.

Right now, only two of the four are telling a real story: Los Angeles. And Budapest.

9. Turning to the 2020 Summer Games campaign, won by Tokyo:

The Japanese Olympic Committee announces a three-person investigation of allegations of bribery. This from the same place that brought you the burning of the Nagano 1998 books so as to avoid embarrassing the IOC.

Let’s all wish for really good luck in getting a genuine answer.

Why in the world would you need to send $2 million to Ian Tan Hong Han, a consultant based in Singapore, who is close friends with Papa Massata Diack, son of Lamine Diack, the then-president of the IAAF, when virtually no one in the Singapore international sports community knew of Han or his firm, Black Tidings?

Black Tidings had precisely what know-how to provide such high-level consultancy services?

More: those who were there for the Singapore 2010 Youth Games know there had to be external help when Singapore was bidding for YOG. Curious.

10. Russia uses sports as an instrument of what’s called “soft power,” meaning president Vladimir Putin has sought to use sports to project a Russian image of strength, not only abroad but, crucially, within Russia itself.

The United States, which under President Obama has clashed with the Kremlin over issues ranging from the disclosures of the activist Edward Snowden to the composition of the formal U.S. delegation to the Sochi 2014 Winter Games, has if not unparalleled then at least significant resource available to its spy agencies.

How is it that Sochi 2014 lab director Gregoriy Rodchenkov could flee Russia and end up so quickly in the United States? No one in the American spy apparatus would want to embarrass the Russians, would they?

Again: just curious.

11. What a surprise! The London 2012 doping re-test positives became public on a Friday!

The numbers: 23 athletes from five sports and six countries, based on 265 re-tests

More numbers, 32 doping cases from London 2012, 57 for Beijing 2008. Previous high, according to IOC figures: 26, Athens 2004.

To reiterate a central point: you have to be frighteningly stupid to get caught doping at the Olympic Games themselves.

It’s one thing to be caught in no-notice, out-of-competition testing. But at the Games?

You know there are going to be drug tests. You know the samples are going to be kept in the freezer for (at least) 10 years to allow for advances in testing.

It has been said many times but is still worth repeating: failing a drug test at the Olympics is like failing an IQ test.

Stupid.

12. If you’re thinking of going to Rio, don’t. Sorry to say so but — don’t. Watch on TV.

The pictures will be beautiful and the only danger in overloading on TV is breathing in that funky orange-red Doritos powder.

In Brazil, meanwhile:

The case of the Spanish sailors getting held-up at gunpoint, lucky to escape with their lives, underscores the No. 1 challenge ahead of these Games. More than dirty water, or maybe even Zika, or presidential politics, or corruption scandals. More than anything. To compete, or to be at, the Games in Rio, you have to deal with life in Rio as it is. Maybe — maybe even probably — it will be fine. But one wrong misstep, even with no fault, and you might well find yourselves in a scene evoking Tom Wolfe’s 1987 masterpiece, “Bonfire of the Vanities.”

Who wants that? Be a master of your TV universe.

 

It's Tokyo for 2020

BUENOS AIRES -- Tokyo won the race for the 2020 Summer Games Saturday, capping one of the unusual, unnerving and indeed unsettling contests in International Olympic Committee history. In the second round of voting, Tokyo prevailed over Istanbul, 60-36.

Istanbul had moved into the final round of voting only after surviving a tie-breaker with Madrid in the first round. The tally: Tokyo 42, Istanbul and Madrid 26-26.

In the run-off, Istanbul defeated Madrid, 49-45.

Istanbul had been left for dead by most who did not understand the complexities and nuance of IOC voting, especially with the interlocking influences of Kuwaiti Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah and Tuesday's presidential election, in which Germany's Thomas Bach is favored among five other candidates.

125th IOC Session Buenos Aires - 2020 Olympics Host City Announcement

Part one of the domino chain -- a Tokyo victory.

Part two -- making sure Istanbul was not embarrassed. Four years ago, it was Tokyo that had to be spared embarrassment, leaving Chicago to a first-round exit.

Part three is due to play out Tuesday, and of course it now remains very much to be seen whether Bach, the sheikh and others can execute successfully.

All along, meanwhile, Tokyo had promised the IOC a "safe pair of hands" in a world increasingly confronting economic and security challenges.

"We guarantee to deliver," an emotional Tsunekazu Takeda, Japan's IOC member and the head of the 2020 bid, said late Saturday.

The vote means the IOC will be heading to Asia five times in 12 years, including the Youth Games that under outgoing president Jacques Rogge have become a fixture on the Olympic calendar:

Beijing 2008, Singapore 2010, Nanjing 2014, Pyeongchang 2018 and -- Tokyo 2020.

Now, too, the Games go back to Japan for the first time since the Winter Olympics in Nagano in 1998.

The Summer Games were held in post-war Tokyo in 1964, a historical and emotional note that was referred to time and again in the campaign -- along with the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused so much devastation in northeastern Japan.

The vote Saturday ended a campaign sure to be studied long into the future, and deservedly so.

After the luxury of choosing among some of the world's finest cities or turning to so-called "new horizons," Saturday's verdict offered evidence to some that the IOC picked what it had, given what it had. This was Istanbul's fifth bid, for instance; Madrid's fourth, and third in a row; Tokyo's third, and second straight.

All three cities certainly could boast positives. But all three came burdened as well with worrying negatives. Tokyo: the leak at the stricken Fukushima reactor. Madrid: one-in-four unemployment and lingering recession. Istanbul: deadly anti-government riots, the war in neighboring Syria and, in its sports programs, a massive doping scandal.

High on the agenda of the new president: this  2020 election season surely ought to serve as nothing less than a dramatic warning signal that much about the IOC bid and election process deserves wholesale review.

The 2020 race turned in February, 2012, when Rome dropped out, the then-prime minister, Mario Monti, saying the national government would not provide financial backing for the project, estimated at roughly $12.5 billion.

The United States opted not to get in, despite reaching resolution with the IOC on a longstanding dispute over certain broadcasting and marketing revenue splits.

For 2012, the IOC had five cities -- London, Paris, Madrid, New York and Moscow.

For 2016, four -- Rio de Janeiro, Madrid, Tokyo and Chicago.

2020: only three deemed, ultimately, finalists.

When Rome went out early, the race seemed it would be a referendum on Istanbul.

After all, in recent years the IOC had been in an expansionist mode.

In 2014, it had reached out to Sochi. Never before had there been Winter Games in Russia.

It went to Rio de Janeiro in 2016 -- after the Brazilians, during the campaign, produced a map that showed the Summer Games had never been to South America.

It went to Pyeongchang in a landslide in 2018, the campaign promising to help open up burgeoning Asian markets to winter sports.

Another trend seemingly pointing Istanbul's way: the blockbuster project.

A key IOC theme is what in Olympic jargon is called "legacy." Since Barcelona and the 1992 Games, and perhaps even Seoul and the 1988 Games, the notion of "legacy" has found expression primarily in the idea an Olympics could physically transform a city with massive infrastructure projects, and in turn those projects and the Games could the re-brand a city -- and by extension a country -- on the world stage.

Many have since tried to emulate Barcelona's success.

The Athens 2004 plan, a drama of dysfunction, finally cost Greece about $11 billion, at least double what was initially budgeted. Many facilities sit now moldering, unused, in the hot Mediterranean sun, so-called "white elephants."

Beijing's 2008 Games capital budget? More than $40 billion. As in Greece, there are Olympic "white elephants" in China, too.

London's 2012 Olympic plan? More than $14 billion -- though careful planning has resulted in the use of the facilities in Britain.

Sochi 2014? The budget, at least that admitted to by the Russians as they built a brand-new winter resort from scratch: north of $50 billion.

Rio's capital plans, much like the Athens project, have been shadowed by delays. The IOC just days ago told the Brazilians, again, time is of the essence.

It was against this backdrop that the Istanbul bid unveiled what in prior years amounted to the classic IOC play -- a series of enormous metro, airport and sports-related construction projects aiming to transform the city in time for 2020.

The estimated price tag: $19 billion.

Madrid offered a vastly different tack. After bidding for 2012 and 2016, it basically had almost everything in hand already -- only four new permanent venues and three new temporary sites would have to be built. Madrid's capital costs: $1.9 billion, one-tenth Istanbul's.

That's why, the Madrid mayor, Ana Botella, would assert the Spanish capital offered the movement a "new model."

The Spanish team also came to Buenos Aires feeling the momentum of the early July meeting at the IOC's longtime base, Lausanne, Switzerland. There, before the entire IOC membership, Spain's Crown Prince Felipe wowed the members with a speech full of energy, elegance and enthusiasm, declaring memorably, "Madrid 2020 makes sense."

The troubled Spanish economy? Not one question about it in July in Lausanne. Nor here Saturday.

In Buenos Aires, the Madrid team was easy to spot. "Spread the red" was their motto, their team out and about, the men in red ties, the lady mayor in her power red blazer.

The Japanese came to Argentina, in a way, exactly where they started.

Tokyo launched its 2020 bid in part as a response to the devastation of that 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Along the way, the Japanese presented the IOC with an unparalleled opportunity.

Tokyo's capital budget was fixed at $4.9 billion. Its major project was a re-do of the national stadium, with estimates fixed at $1.5 to $1.9 billion.

Because Tokyo had bid for 2016 as well, there was now $4.5 billion sitting -- literally, untouched, available, at the ready -- in the bank.

That money was held by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

This money, the IOC was assured, would be available for "Olympic-related purposes not linked to construction, provided that the appropriate authorizations were obtained."

Which meant, pretty much, anything. Again, and for emphasis -- anything one could imagine.

The Tokyo 2020 team helpfully pointed out, too, that the money for the stadium fix-up was coming not from the TMG but from the Japanese national government itself. So whether you penciled the stadium cost at $1.5 or $1.9 billion, it didn't matter. All the $4.5 billion would still be available. For any "Olympic-related purpose."

For comparison: that $4.5 billion was more than NBC paid the IOC, $4.38 billion, for the rights to televise the Games in the United States from 2014 through 2020. It was like the Japanese were inviting the IOC on a seven-year-long date and saying, oh, by the way, we have $4.5 billion available, too, all of it totally legal and we are super-happy to share -- are you at all interested?

This is why throughout the campaign the Tokyo team stressed the financial security of their bid, saying the IOC would be "safe hands" in Japan. They reinforced the theme by saying Tokyo itself was a "safe" place to walk, even at, say, 3 in the morning.

They sought, too, to stress Japan's reputation for innovation in such fields as technology.

At the same time, for months the Tokyo team struggled to convey the passion they themselves felt working for the bid -- the emotion that brought hundreds of thousands of Japanese to the streets at a parade in Tokyo for the 38 athletes who won medals at the London Games.

Late in the campaign, they turned to the imagery of the earthquake and tsunami. In August, at a briefing at the world track and field championships in Moscow, Naoko Takahashi, the Sydney Games women's marathon winner, talked about how she had been in charge of a project to send shoes to kids in Kenya; instead, the shoes were sent to kids in northeastern Japan; when the kids in Kenya who were supposed to have gotten the shoes heard what had happened, she said, those kids sent the Japanese kids a prayer song.

"I promise in Tokyo every one of you will feel the Olympic spirit," she said. "In the year 2020, it will be full of feelings of celebration."

Then, though, the damage from the earthquake and tsunami came back into focus again -- this time through the prism of the Fukushima reactor.

At issue, ultimately: how bad was the problem, were the authorities covering up its scale and scope and, finally, what was going to be done about it and by whom -- keeping in mind, at least for Olympic purposes, that 2020 was seven years away.

On Saturday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said flatly to the IOC members, "Let me assure you: The situation is under control. It has never done and will never do any damage to Tokyo."

Asked by senior IOC Norwegian member Gerhard Heiberg to clarify, Abe asserted the radiated water was confined to a completely blocked-off area and posed zero risk now or in the future, declaring, "I shall take responsibility for the drastic resolution to render this situation completely problem-free. I shall say this most emphatically and unequivocally."

Tokyo got only three questions from the members after their presentation. Two included asides praising its "emotional" and "inspiring" presentation.

Meanwhile, as everyone fully understood, a vote for Istanbul would take Doha, and Qatar, out of the running for several years, perhaps a generation.

With the emirate poised to play host to soccer's World Cup in 2022, and some in the IOC gravely concerned about the import of Qatari wealth on the IOC bid process, the beginning of the Istanbul campaign seemed full of such promise.

Then came the $19 billion construction play, which seemed so completely and totally in line with recent winning bids elsewhere.

Then, though, it all started unraveling.

The IOC evaluation report made plain that Istanbul is a large and complex city and the 2020 plan widespread and more difficult to deliver than Madrid's or Tokyo's.

The bid, meanwhile, had sought to "reposition Turkey and to foster global understanding and inclusiveness by being the first secular Muslim country to host the Games." But at the core of the riots that shook Turkey this summer was the perception among many of the protestors of a shift away from the secular and toward the fundamental -- that is, a more Islamic society.

At the same time the Istanbul bid was saying an "emphasis would be placed on the use of social media," and the IOC increasingly turning to Facebook and Twitter to get its message out to young people, there was Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan declaring Twitter a "menace," saying, "The best example of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society."

Finally, over the summer Turkish sport itself was rocked by an enormous doping scandal. First, nine Turkish track and field athletes got two-year bans for doping. Then, just a few days later, 31 more were suspended, too, 20 of the 31 23 or younger, eight of them teenagers, one just 16 years old. On Aug. 28, 100-meter hurdler Nevin Yanit, the European champ who was fifth at the London 2012 Games, got a two-year ban. Still pending: the case of 1500-meter winner Asli Cakir Alptekin.

The 31 suspensions were tied to tests ordered by track's international governing body, the IAAF, connected to the Mediterranean Games, an Olympic-style competition held in June in the Turkish city of Mersin. The track and field events there were staged at the "Nevin Yanit Athletics Complex."

As July turned to August, there was increasing talk within Olympic circles that the Istanbul bid was losing traction. Even as Istanbul 2020 announced that Erdogan was coming to Buenos Aires, it was speculated that it was not because he was intent on leading a winning bid -- it was a matter of saving face.

On stage Saturday, Erdogan called Istanbul a "city of tolerance" -- no reference to the riots whatsoever -- and said Turkey wanted to "unite the continents in brotherhood."

In the questions-and-answers that followed, Turkey's IOC member, Ugur Erdener, disclosed a bombshell -- that though this was Istanbul's fifth bid over the years, Turkey had just two years ago finally gotten its act together to create a national anti-doping agency.

As a point of sharp contrast, the Tokyo 2020 team noted that not one Japanese athlete had ever failed a doping test at the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Mami Sato, a three-time Japanese Paralympic long jumper with a smile that lit up the rainy winter night here in Argentina, confessed afterward that she had been so nervous before the vote.

"I was so worried for my country," she said.

But she said she was also, in her way, confident, the strength of a woman whose home in the earthquake and tsunami zone, just 200 meters from the sea, had been thrashed. She had lost contact with her family for nearly a week before learning that her parents and grandmother, in her 80s, had made it.

She said, "This bid connected people at all levels across Japan. I have never felt Japan so strong.

"I hope," she added, sighing a happy, contented sigh, "this power continues for seven years, to and through 2020."

 

 

Running for Tohoku

Optimized-Sadhary_Mishina.jpg

SENDAI, Japan -- The anpan is the answer here to a doughnut, a roll typically filled with sweet red bean paste, and the basis of one of the most enduringly popular cartoons in Japan, especially with the 5-year-old and under set, called "Anpanman." The superhero main character -- his head is all anpan -- goes around doing justice. Sadaharu Mishina's 2-year-old loved it. "She watched it a lot," he recalls. "She was very fond of it." The earthquake that rocked Japan on March 11, 2011, hit at 2:46 in the afternoon. Mishina was at his job here in Sendai, the capital city of the Miyagi prefecture, the largest city in the Tohoku region, a city of about a million people roughly 230 miles from Tokyo. At the time, he was an assistant manager at the center-city Holiday Inn.

The earthquake registered at 9.0 on the Richter scale, one of the most monstrous of all time. It then triggered, as everyone knows, a cataclysmic tsunami. The water roared ashore roughly 40 minutes later.

The baby was in pre-school that day, as usual. His wife was at her office. Racing against time and hope, she had left as soon as the quake struck. "I first heard from my wife at 6 p.m.," Sadaharu Mishina says now. "On the way she was informed the child was caught in the tsunami.

"We couldn't do anything. There was no electricity. There was no transport. There was nothing we could do."

Optimized-Sadhary_Mishina

The earthquake and tsunami caused massive destruction and occasioned incomprehensible personal loss. Now, more than two years later, the question throughout Japan is not: is there something to be done?

It's: what is to be done?

And how does the Tokyo bid for the 2020 Summer Games, which intriguingly is a project of truly national scope, fit in to the recovery? The campaign asserts that it has an "important role to play in the process of spiritual and physical recovery." How? Why?

An Olympic bid is not -- can not be -- won on the basis of a disaster. The week after the 9/11 terror attacks, the then-mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni, suggested all the other candidates in the race for the 2012 Summer Games bow out in favor of New York, saying, "This will show that the terrorists are defeated."

By the time the International Olympic Committee got around to voting, in 2005, London won; New York was eliminated in the second round of voting with only 16 votes.

Tokyo, Madrid and Istanbul are now the three finalists for the 2020 Summer Games. The IOC will pick the winner Sept. 7 at an all-members assembly in Buenos Aires.

Tokyo played host to the 1964 Summer Games. There was great symbolism then in that -- in Japan emerging from the destruction from World War II.

As horrific as the earthquake and tsunami were, the situation now is not the same as after the war.

This much is also clear: the Tokyo 2020 bid team is not -- repeat, not -- looking for a sympathy vote.

At the same time, what is also evident -- but what has yet to be made plain internationally -- is the extent to which sport in general and the Olympic bid in particular have played in galvanizing the response within Japan to the 3/11 disaster.

At issue for the Tokyo 2020 bid, of course, is how to tell that story over the final months of the campaign, beginning this week at the Assn. of National Olympic Committees meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Telling the Japanese story has been something of a struggle for prior bids. The 2008 Osaka bid went out in the first round with just six votes. Tokyo's 2016 bid made it only as far as the second round.

The current that has thus dominated the Tokyo 2020 campaign is to find the right message, and strike the appropriate tone -- which leads back to the core question, how much does 3/11 and the response to the disaster matter in telling the story, and why?

“All Japanese have great passion in the heart, but [it's] not easy to show,” Tsunekazu Takeda, the president of the Tokyo 2020 bid and the lone Japanese member of the IOC, said at a briefing Thursday in Lausanne ahead of the ANOC meetings. “Now everybody will be trying hard in this next presentation.”

It's a delicate balance, indeed.

Because if history says a disaster can't form the basis of a winning bid, it's also the case that what is happening in Japan is unique -- and it's right there for anyone to plainly see:

When the Japanese team came home last summer from London, having won a record 38 medals, some 500,000 people lined the streets of Tokyo in welcome.

To date, the bid team has handed out 5.5 million Tokyo 2020 pins.

Last week, after the Japanese national soccer team qualified for the World Cup next year in Brazil by virtue of a 1-1 tie with Australia, the players paraded around Saitama Stadium with a banner that proclaimed, "Hang in there, Japan -- the whole sports family is together."

Takeda said in a recent interview that planning for the bid was well underway before the disaster. Then, when it happened, "We realized again that sports had such a big power."

He added, "Not to benefit just us. We thought we could bring something to the movement," explaining, "Sports can send this message. Because of this disaster, by engaging with athletes, if they persevere, if they don't give up, that kind of attitude can bring positive change to their lives. This positive change is not limited to Japan. Other people in devastated situations -- if they do the same thing, they can achieve whatever dream they have. This is the power of sports."

Eight Japanese medalists last summer in London came from the Miyagi prefecture. "Sports alone can't reconstruct," said Habu Yoshihiro, the vice principal at Miyagi Technical High School. "But sports can make Miyagi prefecture a better place."

He added, "Japan has received the blessing of the Olympic movement for some time," noting the involvement of Major League Baseball as well as FIFA in rebuilding facilities and the U.S. women's soccer team in playing an April 2012 friendly with Japan in Sendai.

"If we receive the honor of the 2020 Games, we could contribute to the Olympic movement in a unique way. It might be a bit spiritual. It would be a Games that only Japan could host."

At the makeshift headquarters of the chamber of commerce in Onagawa, northeast of Sendai, three Tokyo 2020 posters adorn the wall. Onagawa suffered arguably greater losses than anywhere along the Tohoku coast -- more than 80 percent of its buildings, 50 percent of its homes, just under 10 percent of its population of roughly 10,000 people.

The water that day surged into town about 50 feet high. Takahiro Aoyama was then the assistant director of the chamber of commerce. He survived by climbing up to the roof of the four-story building where the chamber was headquartered, then by scrambling -- with three other men -- to the top of a water tower perched on the roof. The water nipped at their heels.

"It was awful to see it come in," Aoyama, now the chamber director, said. "But when it was going out, that was terrifying. Buildings, people. It was hell."

What he also remembers, after it became clear all four of them might live, is just how cold it was that March day. And how, after the sea raged ashore, the sky shook down snow.

Two years later, Aoyama says, "Finally, we have basic infrastructure. There are a lot of challenges. But," using a sports metaphor, "we have a start line."

The local soccer club, called Cobaltore, fields teams from grade school all the way up. One of the boys and a dad were among the dead; for months, there were no practices.

Then, though, it just seemed right to start up again and, said coach Shuo Sumida, "I noticed the power of sports to transcend anything -- to inspire kids, to put a smile back on their faces."

In other places and under other circumstances, this kind of remark might be seen as so much brave talk. In Japan, now, this sort of comment is offered -- regularly -- with earnest genuineness.

"I would like to see smiles on the kids again," said Igarashi Shigeto, whose Heart Light Sendai charity group organizes soccer tournaments, workshops and other activities. This year's tourney will see two dozen kids who had to be evacuated from their homes around Fukushima, near the crippled nuclear reactor.

A United Nations-commissioned expert report issued last month, which has received comparatively little attention, concluded that levels of radiation following the leaks and explosions at the plant were so low as to be "unlikely" to cause health problems among the general public and the "vast majority of workers."

"Japan is an island country. It's our national character to be united," Shigeto said, adding that he is not alone in seeing the 2020 bid as a special project: "We like to show the joy of being Japanese."

Tomoki Kikuchi, now 21, was at judo practice in Sendai when the quake hit. He and 11 of his judo teammates -- with no place else to go -- crammed into a one-bedroom apartment for the next two nights and three days.

Now a fourth-year student at Sendai University, Kikuchi has since spent countless hours cleaning up bricks and debris at local elementary and middle schools. "When I first started," he said, "I would think, when will this end?" Now, "I realize how important it is to support each other."

A third-year student, Takamichi Hirayama, 20, is a national-level rower, in the eight-man event. His captain's sister and another teammate's sister died on 3/11. "The tragedy was so vast," he said, and it wasn't clear whether they should continue to race.

Ultimately, they decided life is for living. Their team took second recently in the Japanese nationals. "If we got 2020," he said, "it would add energy to Tohoku and the country."

Mami Sato, 31, has represented Japan at the past three editions of the Paralympics in the long jump. She lost her lower right leg to cancer when she was 19. On 3/11, her parents' house, just 200 meters from the sea in Kesennuma, was washed out. It took six days for her, down in Tokyo, to make contact with her family -- to learn that her parents had survived and her grandmother, in her 80s, had made it through, too.

"I imagined all the people in Tohoku losing their families," she said. "I remembered being in the hospital myself, how tough it was for me. Those six days were worse. But thinking of all the people who lost their families -- that's even more painful."

She added, "They're both long battles. I keep thinking of the long battles these people are enduring still."

As of April 30, 48,453 people in Miyagi prefecture alone remained in temporary housing, according to the district's own website.

Last year, Sadaharu Mishina was nominated to run with the Olympic torch in the London 2012 flame relay. His day came up last June 25. He flew all the way to England and ran with the flame for about 400 meters in a little town called Morley.

By then, he and his wife had a new baby, a boy, and he had to leave them both to take part in the relay, to fly all the way to England and then get up north to Morley. Go, she said.

"I was very, very nervous," he recalled. "I remember all the people on the side of the road. I thought that being Japanese and not anyone super-famous -- I didn't expect people to cheer me on. But I got so many cheers. I became less tense and more relaxed. The crowd support gave me more energy to run."

This, too: "There was one thing I decided before I got there. The first step I took was for my daughter. The second step was on behalf of Tohoku."

 

Fast times for Istanbul's 2020 bid

ISTANBUL -- No one ever said they weren't anything but smart and clever here. They knew coming in, because the working group report last spring from the International Olympic Committee said so, that transport issues are -- and will be -- problematic in a city growing so fast it's hard to keep up.

The rhythm of the four-day IOC evaluation commission package inevitably features afternoon site visits. On Day Two, the members checked out, among other locations, a waterfront cluster, which naturally enough includes the marina for Olympic sailing. The sun started sinking lower; time to get back. Uh-oh -- it was rush hour.

Ah, but these Turks had thought of that. Truth be told, traffic was not so bad for a Monday workday. Even so, the IOC made its way back to its hotel base not on the roads but by fast boat, the sea breeze brisk and refreshing.

Istanbul made an "excellent impression," Sir Craig Reedie, the head of the evaluation commission said at a Wednesday news conference, quickly adding that in his world "excellent impression" was "exactly the same" as "hugely impressed," the phrase he used to describe Tokyo, or "greatly impressed," what he said about Madrid.

IOC evaluation commission chief Sir Craig Reedie and IOC Games executive director Gilbert Felli at the closing news conference in Istanbul // photo courtesy Istanbul 2020

The news conference Wednesday wrapped up the evaluation commission's tour of the three 2020 cities. It saw Madrid last week. It visited Tokyo March 4-7. It will now set to work on producing a report that will be released at some point before the IOC's all-members July 3-4 session on the 2020 candidates in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The IOC will pick the 2020 winner Sept. 7 by secret ballot at a vote in Buenos Aires.

The evaluation report will by design focus on the so-called "technical" process of the campaign -- how many roads, subway lines, sports venues, hotel rooms and so on are already on the ground or would need to be built for each of the cities to get ready by 2020.

Already, however, the outlines of the three bids can be fairly characterized:

The Tokyo bid, it can be said, is spearheaded by city government. Madrid might be portrayed as a sports project. And Istanbul is for sure a national effort.

Istanbul's bid would spend $19.2 billion on infrastructure costs. That's 10 times more than Madrid, at $1.9 billion. Tokyo's capital costs come in at $4.9 billion.

This is Istanbul's fifth bid. It is Madrid's third in a row, Tokyo's second straight.

The commission will be keen to write a report that offers a clear differentiation. That way the members can be offered a distinct choice. As it turns out, this 2020 race, even if it can not be said at this preliminary stage to have a front-runner, will likely present many if not most IOC members with a threshold decision.

It's -- what to do about Istanbul?

Madrid and Tokyo absolutely have their cases to make.

Madrid, with 28 of 35 venues already on the ground, wants to re-define the idea of "legacy," to re-purpose the Olympic movement so that it becomes something well beyond just buildings and metro lines, instead a source of inspiration for "healthy living and healthy habits," as Spanish Olympic Committee and Madrid 2020 president Alejandro Blanco put it, and particularly for young people.

That $4.9 billion for Tokyo? It literally is just sitting there, banked, waiting, in today's uncertain economic climate. You want safety and security? Along with Japanese high-tech? The economic clout of the world's third-largest economy? Tokyo's amazing metro and rail system? Plus, like Madrid at night, Tokyo is -- fun.

Not to say Istanbul isn't. They even put on a fireworks show here Tuesday night for the IOC.

Here is the difference:

Istanbul fits the mold of recent IOC winners. The Turks -- again, they notice these things -- picked up on what worked, and have more or less designed their bid to fit that mold.

The issue is whether this strategy will still prevail, or whether -- and especially in light of developments in Sochi and Rio de Janeiro, sites of the 2014 Winter and 2016 Summer Games -- it has played out.

In the 1982 movie "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," a shirtless Sean Penn, playing the surfer dude Jeff Spicoli, walks into a hamburger joint with two of his buddies and says, ever-so-memorably, "Who's got the beaucoup dollars today?" Actually, Spicoli pronounces "dollars" as "dolares," so much the better.

Does the IOC want to keep spending the beaucoup dolares? Or not?

If it does, your winner Sept. 7 will be Istanbul, where $19.2 billion buys you powerful "legacy" in the form of another huge construction project on the order of Beijing 2008, London 2012, Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016 -- all, obviously, winners.

The corollary question, perhaps, is whether it also buys you headaches like in Sochi (construction costs already north of $50 billion) and Rio (significant delays evocative of Athens 2004, officials announcing Tuesday they are closing the stadium due to host track and field at the 2016 Games because of structural problems with the roof, and this at a facility built for the Pan Am Games in 2007).

Reedie -- and it should be emphasized that he was speaking generally, not referring to any bid specifically -- addressed the topic at the closing news conference last week in Madrid. He said, "The IOC are very well aware that the Games simply can not get more expensive, more expensive and more expensive."

Next:

There's no getting around the fact that traffic in Istanbul is congested. They are making a huge -- repeat, huge -- effort to do something about that, including construction of a $4.5 billion metro tunnel under the Bosphorus (that amount is included in the $19.2 billion).

Normal traffic on a rainy Wednesday in Istanbul -- going nowhere fast in one lane, the other wide open

Deep down inside the construction project that is the cross-Bosphorus metro tunnel

They might experiment with flex-time work schedules, special congestion pricing for inner-city road usage, PR campaigns for mass-transit use -- anything and everything to get people out of their cars and onto the trains, in hopes of reducing car use by 30 percent in 2020. Will it work?

They made a point of saying, repeatedly, that such projects are all part of Istanbul's master plan -- that they're going to get done whether the Olympics are coming or not. Yet they're right there in the bid book budgets. So which is it? Both?

The four-cluster venue plan in Istanbul virtually guarantees, meantime, that transport is likely to be the No. 1 technical issue in the evaluation report. Last spring's report noted travel times would be "substantial" and average estimated speeds seem "too optimistic for current traffic conditions."

Speaking of Turkish optimism, a senior transport minister, Muzaffer Hacimustafaoğlu, at a news conference Tuesday, declared that in 2020, "We will aim to make the transport experience immune from unforeseen events." Asked a few moments later to clarify, he said, "I don't think there will be any big surprises."

Meanwhile, a factor that has gotten virtually no scrutiny whatsoever -- yet -- is that the current IOC Games executive director, Gilbert Felli, will be stepping down soon. He has more than 20 years experience. If the IOC votes for Istanbul, these Games presumably would be in the hands of his successor, Christophe Dubi. On Dubi's watch, does the IOC want to take on another massive project?

These are all legitimate questions.

As are other factors, some geopolitical, that also may weigh on the vote:

-- The IOC has in recent years not just opted for big projects but gone to cities and countries keen to make plain their station in the world -- China, Russia and South Korea, in particular. Turkey would fit that pattern precisely, bid chairman Hasan Arat noting in an interview Wednesday with a small group of international journalists the impact the 1988 Seoul Games had on Korea and in turning Barcelona into a world-class destination after 1992, declaring, "It's a great opportunity."

-- Istanbul is a hot tourist destination. Feza Solaklar, the bid's head of accommodation, said Tuesday, that it is now the third-most popular destination in Europe, after London and Paris.

-- One of Istanbul's major selling points is that it would offer the IOC the chance to take the Games to a Muslim nation for the first time. In the Eurocentric IOC, how does that play -- positively, not or makes no difference?

-- Unsaid in that selling point -- but well-understood in IOC circles -- is that a vote for Istanbul would probably take Doha, the Qatari capital, out of the bid game for 20 years. There are elements within the IOC who would view that with favor and those who assuredly would not.

-- The conflict in Syria, on Turkey's eastern border -- they sought here this week to downplay that, understandably enough. How, if at all, will that conflict, figure into the vote?

In Istanbul, they know they have a real chance at 2020. Indeed, they have a confidence that borders -- already -- on something close to bravado.

The president of the country, Abdullah Gül; bid leader Arat; the sports minister, Suat Kiliç -- each of them used the word "deserve" this week. As in, Istanbul deserves the Olympics.

Asked to explain the word choice, Kiliç said at a Monday news conference, his comments translated to English, "As a Turkish delegation, we did not say anything negative. We did not make negative comments about the other candidates. Olympic ethics and morals are involved. We are competitors. That doesn't mean we should treat them bad. We don't belittle them. We don't underestimate them. We don't treat them bad. We don't make negative comments. But I am a Turk. I am minister of youth and sport.

"… I share what I believe is true regarding Istanbul. I have used the appropriate discourse for that. Istanbul is a candidate city. I have to use a discourse which fits this identity. We are also a modest city. We are open to all diversities.

"… Istanbul will show itself to you. We are trying to tell you to what extent we are ready to host the Games, to what extent we want and are willing to host the Games. The words we are using reflect our excitement [and] the commitment of the government … please look at my words from this point of view."

For a group that is indeed very smart and very clever, "deserve" -- and such a round-about way to explain it -- seems off-message, indeed. Typically, humility plays better in bidding campaigns within the International Olympic Committee.

After all, it's a long, long way until September.

 

Istanbul 2020's triple-play up-day

ISTANBUL -- Olympic bids are generally an exercise in crisis management. Rarely do you get a triple-play up-day like Istanbul's 2020 Summer Games campaign engineered Monday.

For starters, the International Olympic Committee's evaluation commission made public poll results that showed 83 percent of local residents support the Games, 76 percent nationwide.

The 83 percent is not only the highest of the three cities in the 2020 campaign -- Madrid and Tokyo are also in the race -- but also marks a 10 percent jump from a similar IOC poll last year.

Next: Istanbul unveiled its new bid slogan, "Bridge Together," the country's sports minister, Suat Kiliç, asserting that it highlighted the city's role as a "bridge between East and West, Europe and Asia, between civilizations, faiths and religions."

Finally: a leading Turkish businessman, Ali Koç, a board member of Turkey's Koç Holding conglomerate, said the nation's business leaders were ready to "help one of the most important projects in Turkey's history," adding that the country is "truly experiencing a "dramatic transformation."

So what is the import of all this?

Turkey's sports minister, Suat Kiliç, reveals the Istanbul 2020 bid slogan // photo courtesy Istanbul 2020

IOC evaluation commission and Istanbul 2020 officials checking out the local sports sites // photo courtesy Istanbul 2020

No one knows. This is all, if you will, positioning. If this were a U.S. presidential election, it would be primary season. The real deal is yet to come.

The IOC will select the 2020 winner Sept. 7 in balloting in Buenos Aires.

Istanbul is bidding for a fifth time, after tries for the 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 Games. This is Madrid's third straight bid, and Tokyo's second in a row.

Tokyo's poll showed 70 percent local support, up 23 points from 47 percent last year, the evaluation commission said when it was there earlier this month. Madrid got 76 percent local support in its IOC poll, a figure officials there last week said was evidence of the power of the Games to move people emotionally amid the economic hard times that have battered Spain.

Margin of error, survey methodology and other data are due to be provided when the evaluation commission report is made public in advance of the IOC's all-members meeting on the 2020 race at its Lausanne, Switzerland, base.

Also hard to know is what difference, if any, the slogans make. Tokyo's is "Discover Tomorrow." Madrid's: "Illuminate the Future."

Amid the drumbeat of public-relations good vibe for Istanbul, there was this intriguing note from Tokyo:

Carl Lewis, winner of 10 Olympic medals, nine gold, said in appearance there that he hoped Tokyo would win for 2020. Both Associated Press and Reuters deemed the story newsworthy; moreover, AP distributed a 690-word take, which in today's web-oriented environment made for a remarkably long story.

Clearly, Carl Lewis generates press. Of course, no one knows whether there's a shred of evidence that he moves votes in the IOC one way or the other.