Sara Takanashi

Tokyo 2020: a search for connection


TOKYO -- To say that staff and officials of the Tokyo 2020 bid committee were feeling tense and nervous would be an understatement. On a scale of one to 10, nerves were cosmic. Maybe galactic. This was the first of the three bid-city visits -- Madrid and Istanbul come later this month -- and Tokyo is a place where things are expected to be done right. As Yuki Ota, a London 2012 silver medalist in fencing would later say about how much he had prep work he had done to meet the International Olympic Committee's evaluation commission here Monday, "My paper was worn out, that's how much I practiced." The formality of the setting in which the bid committee meets the IOC does not particularly lend itself to easy interaction. Here is the Tokyo set-up, typical of such arrangements:

photo courtesy Tokyo 2020

And then, first thing, Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of the entire country, showed up. Like all senior government officials who meet with the IOC, he was there to say that the bid, and its $4.9 billion infrastructure budget, had full government support. Which he did.

He told the IOC commission, "Soon, the questions we now face in Japan will be the same questions many others will face -- like how best to rejuvenate an aging society, how clean and clear you can keep your sky.

"That's why the torch must come to Tokyo again.

"Tokyo 2020 will inspire many others just as Tokyo did before in 1964."

A couple moments before that, in referring to the 1964 Tokyo Games, Japan's only Summer Olympics, Abe -- whose government was elected just this past December -- briefly broke into song. He sang a little bit of the theme song from those 1964 Games.

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe at the IOC evaluation commission // photo courtesy Tokyo 2020

Evaluation visits are a tricky business.

Bid cities have a ton of information they're trying to convey.

The IOC, meanwhile, has questions it wants answered.

Along the way, the issue is always whether the two sides can find any sort of connection.

With Tokyo, that question is perhaps more pressing than it might be elsewhere.

And they know it.

It's why they paraded athletes, one after another, to meet the commission -- and the press -- on Monday, even Sara Takanashi, the women's 2013 season World Cup ski jump champion, who is of course a winter-sports athlete and would not be competing in the Summer Games but is such a celebrity in sports-mad Japan that photographers went shutter-mad clicking photos of her at an evening news conference. She said she had sat in on the commission meetings and, amid the frenzied  cameras, allowed, "I definitely want to see the Games held in Tokyo."

Left to right: ski jump champ Sara Takanashi, Tokyo Gov. Naoki Inose, Tokyo 2020 bid president Tsunekazu Takeda, Singapore 2010 Youth Games gymnastics gold medalist Yuya Kamoto

The commission heard from Homare Sawa, the soccer player who was the FIFA women's player of the year in 2011 and has played in four Summer Games. Asked later by reporters if she was nervous meeting with the IOC, she joked, "Of course, fighting for the gold medal is my real line of business, so maybe I like it better."

Tokyo Gov. Naoki Inose, meanwhile, not only  met formally with the commission, he showed up again, later, in sweats, at Ariake Arena to play tennis with Shingo Kunieda, the Beijing and London Paralympic gold medalist. The temperature at the open-air court was in the 40s. Kuneida smoked the governor on his very first serve, then let up, then the governor -- who is in his mid-60s and is a recent marathon finisher -- got the hang of it. They produced some decent rallies and, as the commission members filed in to watch, Kuneida serving, the governor won a point. Game, set, match.

"Every single move was a curiosity for me," the governor said later, adding, "I could learn a lot."

He also said, "I love sports," and in a move to show that Tokyo 2020 will be different from the Tokyo 2016 bid, which struggled to get into the second round, he observed, "Last time we emphasized environmental policy," noting that the Olympic Games are first and foremost about sports and thus it would only makes sense to focus on sports.

"This," he said, "is a celebration of sports. To enjoy sports -- that kind of passion is very important, looking to the year 2020. I find great power in that."

It's way, way, way too soon to know whether this Monday in March will, come the IOC's vote in September at its assembly in Buenos Aires, make a difference. There are three days yet to go here in the IOC's visit.

The search is on for connection.

Tsunekazu Takeda, the president of both the Tokyo 2020 bid and the Japanese Olympic Committee who is also now the lone Japanese member of the IOC, said, "We completed the first day without a hitch. As of now, I am very satisfied. Three days still remain. We will do our maximum."

Sarah Hendrickson's Italian fairy-tale victory

Sarah Hendrickson's victory Friday at the ski jumping world championships made for an emotional victory high in the Italian mountains that seemed like something even a Hollywood scriptwriter might not offer up for fear it would seem, well, not real. But it really happened.

Hendrickson is just 18. She out-jumped Japan's Sara Takanashi in a thrilling duel to win the 2013 worlds.

On the jumps in the narrow Italian valley where her coach grew up. The jumps the coach's father helped build. At the championships the coach's mother was so excited to have here -- except that she passed away, unexpectedly, just a couple weeks ago.

So Sarah went out and won the contest -- for herself, of course, and her mom, dad and brother, who were there watching, and the entire U.S. team, cheering her on, and of course, her coach, Paolo Bernardi, who as it happens is one of the world's nicest guys and, obviously, a first-rate coach.


Jessica Jerome of the United States finished sixth.

Five jumpers, including Jerome, hit jumps of 100 meters or longer, and what was abundantly plain Friday -- this could have been seen two years ago at the world championships in Oslo but for many got lost that day in the fog -- was that women's ski jumping doesn't have to prove anything to anyone any more.

It's just one more winter-sports discipline, with depth and talent. The big fight before the Vancouver Games over whether it belongs -- that's yesterday's news. Next February in Sochi, it will make its Olympic debut.

What that means is there are already better stories in women's ski jumping than the issue of ski jumping itself.

Among them: Sarah Hendrickson. Sara Takanashi. And Paolo Bernardi.

Hendrickson's victory makes for the second significant U.S. teen victory in just a few days at a winter world championship. Mikaela Shiffrin, 17, won the slalom title at the alpine world championships last week in Austria.

Sarah Hendrickson is from Park City, Utah. She grew up on the 2002 Olympic jumps there. She is the 2012 World Cup season champion.

Sara Takanashi is already the 2013 World Cup season winner; she clinched that title last weekend in Slovenia.

Bernardi is from Predazzo, Italy. That's the little spot where the ski jumping potion of the Nordic world championships is being held this week -- on the very ramps his dad literally helped construct.

Three years ago, at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Bernardi was a ski tech for the U.S. Nordic combined team. What that means, in plain English, is that he waxed skis. That was his job.

It happened after Vancouver that he was hired to become the U.S. women's ski jumping coach. He has not only helped develop their ski jump talent, he has developed a culture within the team of trust and confidence.

Because Predazzo is home, Predazzo has become something of a second home for the U.S. team. They go there to train. They know the hill. They like the hill. At last year's World Cup, a two-day event, Hendrickson won both days -- and on the second jump on second day, she jumped way out there, 108 meters.

Last month, as the women's tour was in Japan, Bernardi's mother, Gina, passed away.

He left the tour and -- this is how it is -- some foreign-tour coaches stepped in to help the U.S. athletes. He rejoined the team at the stop in Ljubno, Slovenia.

Hendrickson consults with U.S. coach Paolo Bernardi at the 2013 ski jumping championships // photo courtesy Sarah Brunson and  U.S. Ski Team

Before her first jump Friday, even though she knew the hill well, Hendrickson would say afterward, "My heart was beating and everything was shaking."

Why? Probably because it was the worlds. And because Takanashi had whomped the field in Ljubno and that coming into the worlds she -- Hendrickson -- "definitely had doubts."

Then it all settled down and, on her first jump, she rocked it for 106 meters.

Takanashi jumped 104.5.

"The first jump is important for me mentally," Hendrickson said. "If I have a good first jump, I know I can have a good second jump. If I have a hard first jump, sometimes I mentally shut it down, so it was really important for me."

On their second jump, both went 103.  "I had to stay strong and do my jump regardless of what the results were after the first round," Hendrickson said.

With style points, Takanashi finished at 251.

Hendrickson -- 253.7.

Jacqueline Seifriedsberger of Austria took third, with 237.2.

"This is hometown for Paolo -- born and raised," Hendrickson said. "His dad built these ski jumps. I've had an amazing relationship for the past two years he's been coaching. To share this with him in his hometown is awesome. No words need to be exchanged. Just hugs and happiness."

"When we all went out to celebrate with Sarah, we were pretty much all crying." Jerome said. "I think that as a team we do really, really well together."

There's a traditional champagne toast in the U.S. team hotel after a gold medal. At the one late Friday, Paolo Bernardi took note of everything, his dad, his mom, the jumps, what Sarah Hendrickson had done, and then he said it was the most important day of his life.

And then he popped the champagne.

It happened, really, just like that.