Jackson Avenue is the main road that cuts through Oxford, Miss. At its northern limit, it circles the Ole Miss campus where Raven Saunders had spent the past three years as a student athlete. At its western end, Jackson splits into a T junction populated by a cluster of familiar American fast food restaurants and retail chains: a Walmart Supercenter, a Home Depot, a Popeye’s, a Chick-Fil-A.
Saunders, a senior at University of Mississippi and a star shot putter on the school’s track and field team, knew the intersection well. Turn right, and the road led home. Turn left, and the highway hugged a steep drop-off floating above towering trees below that Saunders had found herself thinking more and more about in January of 2018.
Her last year in college hadn’t been easy. She won four NCAA titles while at Ole Miss, and finished fifth at her first Olympic appearance in Rio in 2016. But after an injury in 2017, she couldn’t defend her NCAA title and came in 10th at the world championships. The pressure of balancing academics and sports at an elite level was starting to tear her apart. Because the track season ended as the next school semester began, she never had a true break as a student-athlete—every year, less than a week after returning from world championships, she was back in the classroom. After competing at the Olympics in Rio, she had to pick up her studies two days later.
“I was drained,” she tells TIME, days before competing to make her second Olympic team in June. “I would cry a lot and go into isolation. I had suicidal ideation. I thought about different ways to make it happen.”
One morning in January 2018, those thoughts hijacked her brain completely. “It was just too much,” she says of the building pressure and depression. Knowing she had a full day of school, practice and other appointments that started at 8:30 a.m., she woke up in a daze and didn’t leave her house until 11:30 a.m.. Instead of driving where she needed to go and checking things off her to-do list, she drove to those places and kept going. “I rode past every place I needed to stop and get things done, and kept going,” she says. “I felt it was like a goodbye and I was going to see everything one last time.”
Driving west on Jackson Ave. toward the junction, Saunders was ready to take the left toward the drop-off. Something, however, prompted her to text her therapist, whom Saunders trusted completely. Saunders told herself that if her therapist didn’t answer by the time she reached the Walmart, she would take the left hand turn.
Just before Saunders got to the light, her therapist responded.
“She texted back, ‘I got you, just breathe, calm down,” says Saunders.
Saunders turned right, went home and cried. At her therapist’s suggestion, she went to the school and informed her coach about what had just happened, and asked for help. Together with her therapist, he helped Saunders get admitted to a facility for two months. “Man, that was some of the toughest work I’ve ever done,” she says of that stay.
She credits it, however, with saving her life, and with teaching her the skills she now relies on to work through her dark moments. On June 24, at the sweltering U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Ore., Saunders launched the shot put for a personal best throw and made the team.
While their achievements and glorious exploits, chronicled in broadcasts around the world, may make it seem like Olympic athletes live charmed and angst-free lives, that’s far from the case. Saunders’ story is hardly unique. More athletes are reporting mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, psychiatric conditions and eating disorders.
The exact percentage of Olympic athletes with mental health concerns isn’t clear, since it hasn’t been recorded. But given the incidence in the general population, coupled with the added pressures of the pandemic and Olympic competition, “the majority of athletes should be using mental health support,” says Naresh Rao, head physician for USA Water Polo and member of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) medical team at the Tokyo Olympics. “If you look at the percentages of people who have mental health illness in general, it ranges from 40% to 50%. Throw in the pandemic, and the fact that many of these athletes are teenagers or young adults, and you start to see the percentage could go up to as high as 70%.”
In some ways the four-year cycle of fame and fallow is similar to the highs and lows of an addictive drug. The withdrawal after the exhilaration of competing, no matter the outcome, is a mental crash that can hit athletes hard. It’s not just the sudden fame that can be disorienting, but the often disturbing realization that after years and sometimes decades of training and devoting themselves to perfecting their sport, they’ve allowed themselves to be defined by their results and their medals, or lack thereof, and may have lost themselves in the process.
“I just kept coming back to the idea that I just don’t know who I am without gymnastics,” says gymnast Sam Mikulak, who will compete in Tokyo on his third U.S. Olympic team. During the pandemic, the time away from the gym forced him to confront what he had been dismissing for years. “I was going through an identity crisis and asking myself how I can find happiness, where is the happiness if I don’t have this sport.”
And yet, Olympians’ mental health has never been a key concern for the sports governing bodies that oversee them. “It’s as if mental health issues weren’t there, and wasn’t talked about,” says Saunders. “If you got a problem, you deal with it. And if you have any type of mental health problem, people think you’re crazy or something is wrong with you, or you’re off. That’s how I grew up thinking about it.” Physical injuries have long been managed with detailed protocols and services, but coaches and event organizers rarely considered the mental state of athletes, much less ensured there were resources available to address any issues. Tennis star Naomi Osaka highlighted this deficiency by pulling out of the French Open in May, after backlash over her decision not to participate in any press conferences to protect her mental health.
But heading into Tokyo, that may be starting to change. Admissions like those from Michael Phelps, who admitted he too experiences depression and was suicidal after his fourth Olympics, have prompted the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and national Olympic bodies including the USOPC to directly address mental health in the same way they advise athletes on nutrition and recovery from physical injury. Tokyo will mark the first time the IOC has guidelines for athletes and their coaches to educate, screen for, and manage mental health issues, the work of independent experts it convened on the subject for the first time before these Games. The USOPC also has more concrete and detailed mental health resources for Team USA athletes, including deeper screening for potential issues that athletes themselves might not be aware of or willing to admit, and referral and treatment options if they need them. Team USA in Tokyo will also include, for the first time, four mental health professionals—a psychologist, two psychiatrists, and a social worker— and each Team USA sport will also have its own dedicated psychologist. The British Olympic Association has a similar team of mental health professionals traveling to Tokyo with Team Great Britain for the first time, while Softball Australia will monitor athletes’ sleep habits on an app as an indicator of potential issues.
“Just to know that [these resources] are on hand if you need them is awesome, especially for the younger kids growing up in sports who can reach out and get help if they need it to be better competitors and better athletes,” says gymnast Simone Biles, who works with her own therapist.
“It’s a work in progress, and we could certainly be doing things better to improve mental health services, but things are moving in the right direction in terms of supporting athletes with regard to their well being and mental health,” says Nicole Ross, a fencer competing in Tokyo who serves as an athlete representative on a USOPC mental health task force.
Stigma remains a problem, however, since the mantra particularly at the elite level is grit your teeth and push through any pain, physical or emotional. “The athletic culture in general is one in which you are driven to continuously push your body and in some cases your mind to the maximum potential,” says two-time Olympic swimming gold medalist Simone Manuel, who revealed at Olympic Trials in June that she experienced depression related to overtraining syndrome. Only recently with prominent athletes like Phelps and Saunders sharing their own struggles with mental health issues is that taboo slowly being eroded. As more athletes vocalize their own experiences, organizations like the USOPC are also finally devoting more resources to addressing the mental health of their athletes and providing them with the tools to improve their mental well being.
‘Athletes are not perfect, flawless gods’
“Five years ago, mental health among elite athletes was not a very often-discussed topic,” says Dr. Claudia Reardon, professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin. If there was any focus on athletes’ mental health, it centered around performance and ways to optimize results on the field. “Most of the emphasis when it came to mental health was around sports psychology and performance, and offering resources to help you perform at your highest level,” says Ross. “Occasionally in the health history [questionnaire] there might be some questions about mental health but they were sort of hidden, and weren’t prominent.”
It wasn’t until 2018 that the IOC convened its first dedicated panel of experts to address all aspects of mental health—the IOC had already tackled other topics such as nutrition and serious physical injuries, but never mental health. The IOC reached out to Reardon and Dr. Brian Hainline, chief medical officer of the NCAA, to co-chair its first working group on the topic. Over several meetings since, Reardon says the group has worked to reach consensus in addressing the biggest barriers in mental health, including stigma and access to resources, across different countries with differing societal norms around mental illness. “When we looked at the world’s research, it was not a surprise to any of us that, lo and behold, elite athletes suffer from depression and anxiety at rates at least equal to—and in many cases may even exceed—general population rates,” says Reardon. “Athletes are not perfect, flawless gods.”
One critical recommendation of the consensus statement focused on the first step in addressing mental health issues—recognizing and diagnosing it in the first place. In September 2020, the working group published two screening tool questionnaires to better identify potential issues among elite athletes. One, the Sports Mental Health Assessment Tool (SMHAT), was meant for medical professionals to use, and another, the Sport Mental Health Recognition Tool (SMHRT), was designed to help coaches, friends and family of athletes to identify mental health signs and symptoms.
“We can’t rely on athletes universally to bring up and discuss issues related to mental health,” says Reardon, pointing to the long-standing stigmas within the community. The key was to suggest that the SMHAT be part of routine physicals that athletes are used to getting before their seasons start or in order to enter major competitions. That normalizes mental health more by putting it on par with physical evaluations, and doesn’t require the athlete or anyone close to the athlete to specifically request or flag a possible mental health issue.
The survey is crafted to raise alarms for any signs that athletes might be a harm to themselves or others, and to immediately connect them with the appropriate support. After the USOPC began using the screening tool with USA Swimming and USA Soccer, Jessica Bartley, the USOPC’s first director of mental health services, says “I was surprised by the number of athletes who were identified as having mental health concerns.” About 80 athletes, or 58%, of the 165 who filled out the questionnaire were identified as potentially having a mental health issue, and Bartley called each to see if they were already getting the help they needed, and, if not, to connect them to a new registry of 150 psychologists and therapists that the USOPC launched in April. The tool identified four athletes as potentially at risk of self-harming behaviors or having suicidal ideation, and Bartley reached out within 15 minutes of receiving their results. “They were all a little surprised when they got a phone call right away,” she says. All four were already working with mental health professionals, and Bartley made sure that they were satisfied with the support they were receiving.
If those athletes hadn’t already had a mental health team, Bartley would work with them to create one, including providing financial support for any therapy or residential care they might need. In May, Bartley worked with an athlete who needed treatment for an eating disorder, and helped that athlete find the appropriate treatment center as well as coordinate lodging and payment through insurance, which is covered by a Medical Assistance Fund created by a USOPC donor for $1.5 million that is dedicated to mental health needs.
Standardizing that type of reimbursement and access is trickier in other parts of the world where mental health services either aren’t as widely available or financially supported. “It’s all well and good and easy for me to say that everyone should have access to an experienced sports psychologist,” says Reardon “But that’s not relevant in the majority of the world. So it requires us to think about community healers, religious leaders and others who may be in a position to help notice mental health concerns and intervene in culturally appropriate and sustainable ways.” So the IOC is also working on building a network of mental health professionals, including culturally relevant resources such as faith healers and other community leaders in countries around the world, to whom it can refer athletes if needed.
‘Our vulnerability as athletes is going to make us stronger’
The second screening tool, the SMHRT is designed for coaches, friends, family members and any non-medical professional who might be close to an elite athlete. Many people who aren’t formally trained in mental health aren’t comfortable approaching athletes even if they sense they are struggling, out of fear they aren’t qualified to help them. “When they don’t know what to do, they don’t do anything. But by not saying anything doesn’t mean they don’t care,” says Reardon. The SMHRT provides exact language for guiding that discussion, and initiating a critical conversation that could save that athlete’s life.
It was just such a conversation that finally helped four-time Olympian Allison Schmitt to face the darkness that had been shadowing her for years.
To swimming fans, Schmitt is “Schmitty,” easy-going and perpetually smiling, known among teammates for her corny jokes and an easy laugh. She admits that at her Olympic debut in 2012, she swam better than she even expected, and became an instant celebrity when she returned home to Michigan and then in Baltimore, where she trained alongside Phelps, who became a close friend. The attention and whispers of people who recognized her on the street were unnerving, and Schmitt increasingly felt exposed and uncomfortable with her newfound visibility. But it was hard to admit those feelings. “Everything has always gone my way, and I was very grateful for the life I had, the opportunities I had, the successes I had,” she says. “So it was very hard for me to accept that I was struggling because I didn’t want to seem ungrateful.”
Instead, Schmitt bottled up the growing sadness and mental anguish. “It got to the point where I was lying in my bed crying because I didn’t know if I wanted to live any more. I didn’t want to die, I just didn’t want to be living through what I was going through any more.” Months after returning from London, Schmitt’s uncle died by suicide, and “it wasn’t really talked about,” she says.
Then, three years later, Schmitt’s 17-year old cousin died by suicide as well. A star basketball player on her high school team, she never discussed her mental torment with Schmitt, nor did Schmitt share her own feelings of inadequacy and purposelessness. To this day, it haunts Schmitt, who gets emotional thinking about what could have been. “That suicide really turned my eyes,” she says. “If she would have shared with me what she was going through, could I have helped? And if I had shared with her what I was going through, maybe she wouldn’t have felt so alone.”
Determined not to have her cousin’s death be in vain, Schmitt decided to share her own experience with depression, in the hopes that others would feel more comfortable than she did in admitting they need help and in getting that help.
Hearing from teammates or other elite athletes is critical to building a new culture around mental health in high level sports, says Ross, who makes sure that her USA Fencing teammates are aware of the mental health resources that are available to them. “I honestly think it will take individual athlete ambassadors to go directly to their sport and talk to teammates and the national governing body staff about what resources are available, and how they were able to successfully use those resources,” she says. “That grassroots effort is what it is going to take to reach the largest number of athletes.”
And that shouldn’t end when the competition does. For the first time, the USOPC has created a support group for athletes who don’t make the team, as well as those who struggle with readjusting to life after retiring. Bartley and her team are also reaching out to athletes every time they experience a major injury or life event that could impact their training or career goals. “That’s never happened before,” says Rachel Flatt, a member of the 2010 Olympic figure-skating team and now an athlete representative of the USOPC mental health task force.
Learning to cope with the post-Olympic period, whether it’s the four years before their next Olympics, or retirement, is a growing focus of these mental health efforts. When the pandemic lockdown disrupted gymnast Mikulak’s regular training schedule, he finally confronted something that he had been pushing aside in recent years: what he would do once he stopped competing. “It was scary to think what was going to happen after I retire when I don’t have my gymnastic goals any more that I was constantly pushing for and seeking,” he says. “All of that was going to be gone. The more I looked into my future, the more fear I felt. I just really freaked out.”
He started working for the first time with a sports psychologist to address his anxiety, and his broader struggle with his sense of identity outside that of being a gymnast. Together they confronted why, at critical moments when Mikulak had been just a performance away from achieving his dream of winning an Olympic medal, he made costly mistakes. “I was trying to be the most scientifically perfect specimen of gymnastics,” he says of his three previous Olympic experiences. “I felt if it doesn’t happen here, it will never happen anywhere else. So when the pressure I felt was at its greatest, at the 2016 Games, and I had a couple of chances for a medal, I fell short. I was focusing 100% on my physical ability and I did nothing for my mental fitness.”
That changed thanks to his work with his therapist, so preparing for the Tokyo Games, he says, was very different. “I could tell, as we were getting closer to Tokyo, that I was starting to feel the same pressure. But this time, my expectations for them is to have no expectations,” he says. “I’m going out there with the intention of doing nothing more than I can do in that moment, and be proud of that, and happy with that. I’m going to go out there on my own terms, and not on anyone else’s.”
Like Mikulak, Schmitt has found a new power in speaking out about her journey with depression. “I am personally accepting that speaking out and getting help and being vulnerable is strength,” she says. “And that strength has helped me. Our vulnerability as athletes is going to make us stronger in the long run.”
If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental health provider.
Read more about the Tokyo Olympics:
- Naomi Osaka: ‘It’s O.K. to Not Be O.K.’
- Motherhood Could Have Cost Olympian Allyson Felix. She Wouldn’t Let It
- ‘Unapologetic and Unafraid.’ Sue Bird Stares Down Olympic Glory in Tokyo and Equity Off the Court
- Meet 6 Heroes Who Helped Battle COVID-19 Before Competing in the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics
- 48 Athletes to Watch at the Tokyo Olympics
- The Olympic Refugee Team Was Created to Offer Hope. Some Athletes Are Running Away From It
Singapore Eliminated from AFF Suzuki Cup After Loss to Indonesia
On the pitch at the National Stadium on Saturday (Dec 25), they fought like lions.
Backs against the wall, in the face of several questionable refereeing decisions, Singapore stared into the abyss of a loss.
Yet they battled – clearing shots off the line, defending stoutly, throwing bodies around.
Then came heartbreak in extra time, courtesy of two Indonesian goals, which meant that Tatsuma Yoshida’s side were eliminated from the AFF Suzuki Cup on Saturday (Dec 25) after a 4-2 loss to Indonesia in the second leg of the semi-final.
Extra-time strikes from Irfan Jaya via a Shawal Anuar touch and Egy Maulana Vikri gave the away side a 5-3 aggregate victory and ensured that the search for the Lions’ first Suzuki Cup title since 2012 would go on.
Showing “Singapore spirit” was how Yoshida described his team’s performance after the game.
“They showed the best performance since I came to Singapore … I feel happy working with my boys and I am proud of all of them,” he said.
“I was moved by their fighting spirit, their Singapore spirit and they didn’t give up.”
The Lions’ first leg match on Wednesday had ended 1-1 as an Ikhsan Fandi equaliser pegged back the Indonesians.
However, with Yoshida making several changes, Ikhsan started the game on the bench, with a different-looking Singapore side for the second leg.
In his place was Geylang International striker Amy Recha, making his first Singapore start. Faris Ramli was also dropped to the bench, with Hafiz Nor starting for the Lions.
It was the Indonesians who took the lead in the 11th minute, as a Hassan Sunny pass was intercepted by Witan. He brushed off two defenders and found Ezra Walian for the opener.
Four minutes later, they almost doubled their lead but Pratama Arhan could only curl his effort over.
Singapore struggled to find their foot in the game, with a series of misplaced passes handing the momentum to the ever-pressing Indonesia team on a number of occasions.
The Lions’ best chance came courtesy of a lung-busting run from Song Ui-young, who found Hafiz Nor, but his shot was parried wide.
Amy Recha then looked to have been brought down in the box when he was about to latch onto the rebound but vehement appeals from Singapore were waved away.
Then came a flashpoint. Defender Safuwan Baharudin, who was shown a soft yellow card earlier by referee Qasim Matar Ali Al Hatmi, was booked again and sent off after a tussle in the box before a corner kick was taken.
But the Lions held their nerve and drew level, with Song firing home in the first half added time to the delight of Singapore fans.
Indonesia piled on the pressure in the second half and had a shot rebound off the bar in the 59th minute.
Yoshida threw caution to the wind with a triple substitution, bringing on Ikhsan, Faris and Shawal Anuar.
And it was Shawal who almost made an instant impact a minute after coming on, but his dipping shot drifted just wide.
Singapore defender Irfan Fandi received his marching orders in the 67th minute, after he hauled down Irfan Jaya as he ran towards goal. The referee deemed him to have denied the forward a clear goalscoring opportunity.
But shortly after, Singapore midfielder Shahdan thought he had turned game winner as he curled a gorgeous free kick past the Indonesian keeper to put nine-man Singapore ahead.
But Indonesia were not done yet, and they grabbed an equaliser with four minutes to spare, courtesy of Pratama.
With the game on the line, Faris had the chance to seal a famous win, but his penalty was pushed away by Indonesian keeper Nadeo Winata.
Then came the clincher for the Indonesians with just a minute played in extra time. As Irfan Jaya tried to force the ball across the line, it inadvertently rebounded off Shawal into goal.
Indonesia almost extended their lead on several occasions, if not for the excellent work of Singapore keeper Hassan Sunny, who was one of the many players who were immense for the Lions.
Substitute Egy then doubled the Indonesians’ lead just before the end of the first half of extra time to seal the victory.
Hassan received his marching orders with time ticking down as the Lions went down to eight men.
Speaking after the match, Yoshida said: “The referee is the referee. (If) they say (it’s a) foul, it’s a foul. (If) they say (it’s a) red card, (it’s a) red card.
“We have to accept it, it’s football.”
And it is Yoshida’s hope that the fans will believe in the team, and the players in themselves.
“I always tell the boys, my staff. You must believe (in) yourself. You can do it … Singapore fans I hope, I want them to support the boys and Singapore football.”
Despite the loss, the crowd’s appreciation for the crestfallen team at the full-time whistle said it all.
Singapore may have fallen to a defeat, but on a pulsating Christmas night at the National Stadium, they roared. CNA
Motor racing-Mercedes to leave Formula E after 2022
Formula E champions Mercedes will withdraw from the all-electric series at the end of the Gen2 era in 2022 to concentrate on Formula One, the carmaker said on Wednesday.
The announcement comes three days after Dutch driver Nyck de Vries won the Formula E world championship title after finishing eighth in the season’s final race in Berlin, with Mercedes also winning the teams’ title after Stoffel Vandoorne’s third place.
“Mercedes-Benz today announced that it will conclude its ABB FIA Formula E success story as a team entrant and manufacturer at the end of Season 8, in August 2022,” the manufacturer said in a statement https://www.mercedes-benz.com/en/eq-formulae/we-race-the-city/team/team-news/concluding-formula-e-success-story.
“Moving forward, the company will concentrate its works motorsport activities on Formula 1, reinforcing the sport’s status as the fastest laboratory for developing and proving sustainable and scalable future performance technologies.”
In December, German manufacturers Audi and BMW confirmed they would exit Formula E at the end of this year.
Mercedes announced a new strategic direction for its brand in July, with the aim of going all-electric by the end of the decade.
“As part of the new strategic direction, the brand has deliberately chosen to shift resources for this accelerated ramp-up of electrification, including the development of three electric-only architectures to be launched in 2025,” the carmaker said.
“Therefore, Mercedes will reallocate resource away from its ABB FIA Formula E World Championship programme and towards applying the lessons learned in competition to product development in series.” REUTERS
Tokyo Hands Olympic Baton to Beijing but Virus and Boycott Calls Weigh
American Nelly Korda wins gold in women’s golf as Japan’s Mone Inami takes silver
Japan’s Mone Inami came up a stroke short in her bid to win gold on home soil, finishing a shot back of world No. 1 Nelly Korda of the U.S. in the final round of the women’s golf tournament on Saturday at Kasumigaseki Country Club.
Inami defeated New Zealand’s Lydia Ko in a playoff to claim silver.
Inami fired a stellar six-under 65 in the final round to put herself in contention, but Korda, the overnight leader, was steady throughout and finished with a 69 in her final round. Inami wavered on the final hole, coming home with a bogey to end on 16-under. Korda, playing in the group behind her, made par to secure the gold medal at 17-under.
In the playoff, Inami made par on the 18th hole and watched as Ko’s par save slipped just past the hole.
India’s Aditi Ashok, the world No. 200, was a surprise fourth-place finisher.
The ‘Nolympians’ giving the IOC a run for its money
Long before Tokyo 2020 was saddled with cost overruns, scandals over sexism and fears it would turn into a COVID-19 super-spreader event, anti-Olympics activists were already calling the whole thing a disaster.
That was why one year before the pandemic-hit Games were originally slated to open in late July 2020, anti-Olympic activists convened in Japan for the first ever global summit of “NOlympians”, as those opposed to the Games are known.
The pow-wow of NOlympians signalled that once ad hoc localised opposition to Olympic events had gone global.
“We shouldn’t see the anti-[Olympics] movements [as] being isolated and divided according to nations and cities,” said Hiroki Ogasawara, a professor in sociology and cultural studies at Japan’s Kobe University, “because the protest is already worldwide and the Olympics inevitably involve global scale wrongdoings, too.”
Dozens of activists from host cities past (London, Rio de Janeiro and Pyeongchang, South Korea) and future (Paris and Los Angeles) were joined in the Japanese capital by those bracing for a bid by their cities, including Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta.
“That was a pivotal moment,” Jules Boykoff, a participant and professor of politics and government at Pacific University in Oregon in the United States told Al Jazeera. What Boykoff previously called “a moment of movements” had blossomed into a transnational coalition with staying power.
Boykoff, an Olympian turned critic, says that because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is “a multibillion-dollar behemoth” those opposed to it have realised, “the only way to fight is to become more mobile with their dissent”.
Founded in 1894, the IOC is a non-profit that serves as the governing body of Olympics committees in each of its member countries with a mission to distribute the billions in revenue from broadcasting and marketing to sports development. Its executive board is formed of members drawn from the global business elite.
In Asia, Japan has hosted the most Olympic events – the Games that kicked off on July 23 were its fourth in 50 years.
While the 1964 Games have generally been portrayed positively – a showcase of the technological prowess and design brilliance of post-war Japan and its debut on the world stage – not everyone holds such a rosy view of later Olympics.
Of the two main anti-Games groups spawned by Tokyo 2020, one is called Okotowa Link, which means “Olympic Disasters”.
The Japanese activists had a litany of concerns concerning the event from the demolition of affordable housing to the removal of street sleepers and the transformation of the world-famous Tsukiji fish market into a parking lot for the National Stadium.
In an era where activism is increasingly global and finding momentum online – from the #MeToo movement to Fridays for Future and Black Lives Matter – it is hard to recall the days when grassroots organising spread one leaflet at a time.
That was how Helen Jefferson Lenskyj and her fellow activists at Bread Not Circuses got their start in the late 1980s when Toronto vied first for the 1996 Games and then for the 2008 event. While her city’s repeated bids called for a sustained campaign, Lenskyj notes how the anti-Olympics movement has since grown.
“It’s definitely gathered strength,” said Lenskyj, now professor emerita of social justice education at the University of Toronto. “With social media and more effective use of the internet, the growing problem of huge debts and expensive venues, the legacy that never materialised, there’s growing disillusionment.”
The Canadian anti-Games activists were the first to launch the Poverty Olympics Torch Relay, in which the torch is fashioned from a toilet plunger. And an annual NOlympics day was marked every late June to galvanise opposition worldwide.
The Games’ human costs, including the massive disruption to the lives of residents and heightened police surveillance, stand in stark contrast with the corporate interests of the Olympics boosters. Typically, they are the business and political elites who have the most to gain from brand sponsorships, white-elephant building projects and lucrative service contracts.
“I call this trickle-up economics,” said Boykoff. “It’s a massive economic juggernaut; the sports are incidental.”
Over the past few years, citizens have become increasingly resistant to hosting the sporting extravaganza, with some Western countries putting the decision to voters in a referendum.
One by one, potential bid cities have been eliminated by “no” votes from Boston in the US to Krakow in Poland.
In 2015, in the leadup to the IOC awarding the 2022 Winter Games, only two candidate cities were left standing: Almaty and Beijing.
Authoritarian countries have long seen the Games as a form of “soft power”, while the IOC has sought to frame the event as a force for good that transcends politics.
In 2001, when Beijing was awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics despite concerns over China’s human rights record, the IOC claimed hosting would help usher in an era of greater freedom.
Seven years later, artist Ai Weiwei, the man who had helped design the centrepiece Bird’s Nest stadium, was persecuted by authorities for his political activism, and Beijing won its bid for the 2022 Winter Games three weeks after a nationwide round-up of human rights lawyers and their staff.
With less than seven months to go, Beijing’s mass imprisonment of Uighur Muslims and its crackdown in Hong Kong are fuelling calls from Europe and North America for a boycott.
Meanwhile, the dwindling number of cities prepared to bid for the event has spurred the IOC to act. Its Agenda 2020 called for transparency, sustainability and flexibility. Critics, however, say the organisation is incapable of genuine reform.
“The IOC has a democratic deficit,” said Boykoff, adding that it was ruled “with an iron fist.”
In response to the rising NOlympics backlash, the IOC has accelerated the process for naming host cities.
In an unprecedented move in 2017, it doled out a twin award to the remaining candidates: giving the 2024 Summer Games to Paris and 2028 to Los Angeles.
And just before the Tokyo Olympics got under way, the IOC announced the host for 2032 – Brisbane in Australia, the only contender. Previously, the host city was selected only seven years before the Games were due to start.
For now, activists’ rallying cry of “NOlympics anywhere” may seem a long shot, but as the memory of two weeks of sporting spectacle begins to fade and Tokyo assesses the Games’ longer-term effect, it seems likely the rumblings of discontent that follow the IOC will only grow – as will the movement.
“The anti-Olympics campaign has a significant impact in raising local residents’ consciousness on what human rights will be violated and what they would have to suffer to have the Olympics,” Lenskyj said.
Welcome to Tokyo’s five-ring Olympic circus
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics have been plagued by defiled graves, bribes, lies, outbreaks of Covid-19, colossal mistakes and mysterious deaths.
At the massively expensive Olympic Stadium, when they light the Olympic flame on Friday night, reflect on one thing. The architects originally forgot to put a place for the stand in their designs, which wasn’t noticed until 2016.
Even the opening ceremonies have been a fiasco before they started. The original music composer had to resign after his history of gleefully torturing the disabled became an issue. The former comedian turned director of the pre-game show was fired because of his past Holocaust jokes.
There are reports that the new music will be provided by an ultra-nationalist composer who denies the existence of comfort women and the Nanjing Massacre. That may not go over well with Japan’s neighbors.
It seems like the games are cursed – and former Prime Minister Taro Aso has said so publicly. If something can go wrong it will. Is it supernatural bad luck or just the karma of the organizers?
At Asia Times we’ve decided to chronicle the series of unfortunate events that led us up to this day of days, not necessarily in chronological order, but in a way that you can meditate on the mandala of misfortune that is the Tokyo 2020 Five-Ring Circus. Can things get better?
Will the opening of the Olympics be prying open an already damaged Pandora’s Box or will it somehow release “fighting spirit” to save the day?
The Big Lie (2013)
Shortly, after taking office in 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in his second time at bat, began pushing to have Tokyo host the 2020 Olympics. Naoki Inose, the governor of Tokyo, had his back.
At a September general meeting of the International Olympic Committee, Abe made a bold appeal to host the games. When concerns were raised about the Fukushima nuclear meltdown that had happened less than two years earlier, Abe confidently said, “Fukushima is under control.”
It wasn’t and it isn’t now. In two years, Japan will start dumping radioactive water that has been piling up on site into our oceans. The clean-up will take decades.
The bribes (2013)
It wasn’t until 2019, that it was reported that French prosecutors have investigated the head of the Japan Olympic Committee, for bribing former members of the IOC. At least two million dollars was allegedly spent buying off former IOC officials so that they lobbied African nations to vote for Japan’s 2013 Olympic bid.
Reuters later reports that even more millions were spent currying favor and paid out to a former executive of Dentsu, Japan’s incredibly powerful advertising agency.
Speaking of bribes, Tokyo Governor Inose, who helped secure the Olympics, was forced to step down after being accused of accepting a 50,000,000 yen ($450,000) contribution from a medical consortium. Just like Abe, he wouldn’t survive in office long enough to boast about the success of the Games.
Skeletons in the closet (2013)
In November of 2019, it was finally reported that 187 human bodies had been excavated between 2013 and 2015 from the construction site of Tokyo’s new Olympic stadium. The bad news (and the bones) had been covered up for years.
Apparently, the Olympic organizers had built over an Edo era cemetery. Did anyone do the proper Buddhist rituals to quell the spirits of the dead? Nobody knows.
Like the movie Poltergeist, are the angry ghosts of the displaced now cursing the games? We know that many who were evicted from their apartments in the area to make room for the stadium are cursing the Games, but they’re still alive.
The Olympic emblem created by an elite former advertising agency man turns out to be a rip-off of a Belgian theatre emblem. With much haste, a new Olympics emblem had to be resigned.
When the in-house newspaper of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan later did a parody of the emblem, which likened it to the Covid-19 virus structure, the Japan Olympic Committee forced them to pulp the magazines.
It’s a curse to have no sense of humor.
Back to the drawing board (2015)
In July, The Olympic Stadium plans of famous female architect, Zaha Adid, were rejected as the building costs ostensibly were out of control. In reality, it’s probably because the architect was not Japanese, and she was a woman. A famous Japanese male architect was chosen to do the design, which some have said, resembles a rip-off of Zaha Hadid’s design.
Everybody dies (2013-2021)
The architect Hadid did not take kindly to her design being rejected and went to court with the Japan Sports Council. But while the courtroom battle was waging, she suddenly died in the spring of 2016. Hers wasn’t the last death.
As the fever pace to complete the stadium mounted, in March of 2017, a freshly hired construction company employee, 23, killed himself after mental and physical exhaustion in a horrifying case of “Karoshi” – death by overwork. He logged 190 hours of overtime in a 30-day period before his death.
In May of 2020, the 54-year old owner of a fried pork cutlets restaurant, who was scheduled to be one of the Olympic Torch Relay runners, torched himself to death. Due to Covid-19, the Olympics had been postponed, he had to close down his shop and was in deep despair.
In June of 2021, an accountant for the Japan Olympic Committee killed himself by jumping in front of a train on the Asakusa line. Did he know something about the bribes? People began asking, will the accounting ledgers for the Tokyo Olympics be burned, like they were for the Nagano Winter Olympics?
The Japanese media has politely not followed the story. The Japan Olympic Committee refuses to discuss it.
Smells worse than fishy (2017-2021)
In 2017, the swimming area set aside for the triathlon near Odaiba was found to be polluted with fecal matter and not safe to swim in. It turns out that in times of heavy rain, the sewage system overflows into the pool area. The problem is allegedly fixed but the New York Post and the Korean Press have been reporting, “The area smells like a sewer” – even now.
The coronavirus outbreak was a curse for the world, but the government of Japan, desperate to hold the Olympics, downplayed the virus, under-tested and was slow to take action. Even in early March of 2020, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, said, “It’s inconceivable that we don’t hold the Olympics this year.”
The day after the Olympics were postponed, the number of Covid-19 cases in Tokyo mysteriously surged and Koike discussed having a lockdown and the “Covid-19 infection explosion.”
Japan, eager to put on a good face and host the Games no matter what, has haphazardly handled the virus, which has resulted in more than 15,000 deaths now, the worst in East Asia.
In contrast, Korea has had a little over 2,000 deaths. Vietnam, which has a population of 95 million (Japan 126 million) has only had 370 deaths.
Despite warnings, and even a scolding from the Emperor, the “safe and secure” Games are going forward, even while outbreaks continue in the Olympic Village and Tokyo hospital beds are now in short supply.
The army of the unlucky
It’s hard to keep track of all those involved in the Olympics who have been fired or forced to resign from their jobs since Japan won the bid, but here’s a partial list with their misdeeds. However, some of these unfortunate souls may still be haunting the Games.
Yoshiro Mori, former prime minister, head of the Tokyo Olympic Committee (sexist remarks)
Keigo Oyamada, original composer for the Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremonies (abusing disabled children in the past)
Shinzo Abe, now honorary advisor to the Olympics (resigned as PM ostensibly because of stomach problems, but was also under investigation for election law violations)
Hiroshi Sasaki, former Olympics creative director (planning an opening ceremony skit that would ridicule obese people)
Tsunekazu Takeda, former president of The Japan Olympic Committee (allegations of giving bribes and corruption)
Most expensive summer Games
The price of hosting the Olympics and Paralympics has astronomically increased from 734 billion yen ($6.67 billion) when the bid was made. Last December, the Japanese government estimated it will cost about $154 billion.
That’s a huge cost overrun. Part of the high costs might have come from a vice-president of the Japan Olympic Committee having reported ties to the largest yakuza group in Japan, but who really knows?
The cost to Japan’s public image from these mishandled Games is probably incalculable.
Too damn hot
Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote that “Hell is other people” and in a Covid-19 infested Tokyo, that rings truer than ever but it’s also true that Tokyo summers feel like being in an inferno.
If “Fukushima is under control” was the biggest lie told by Japan in this decade, the second can be found in Tokyo’s original bid for the 2020 Games. They claimed July 24 to August 9 is a great time for sports “With many days of mild and sunny weather, this period provides an ideal climate for athletes to perform at their best.”
Anyone who lives here knows this isn’t true. With a heat index of 101 degrees and thousands hospitalized with heat-stroke each summer, Tokyo summers are not ideal for anything. That’s why the 1964 Tokyo Olympics were held in October.
By 2019, Tokyo had to sort of admit it had lied and began trying out a coating on the marathon roads to reduce the heat. In August, it was reported that it had a reverse effect, making the temperatures rise 2.6 degrees celsius at 150 centimeters above the ground, and increasing damage from UV rays. The IOC later ignored Tokyo Governor Koike and moved the marathon to northern Japan’s Sapporo City.
In these “cursed” Olympics, athletes and participants face the double-threat of Covid-19 infections and/or heat-stroke.
Let the Games begin.
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