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Why Athletes Are Running Away From the Olympic Refugee Team



Why Athletes Are Running Away From the Olympic Refugee Team


One day in Spring 2019, more than 2,880 runners competed in a 10-km race in Geneva. It was a regular event on the athletic calendar, but this time with a striking result. The winner was an orphaned refugee from South Sudan, exiled in Kenya, who had laced up his first pair of running shoes only a few years earlier. Atop the podium, clutching a bouquet of flowers and a trophy, Dominic Lokinyomo Lobalu grinned with delight. “I am very happy to have won today,” he said. “I am going back to even more intense training when I return to Kenya.”

But Lobalu did not go back. Later that day, he would ask about the prize money he assumed he had won. His questions were directed to the managers who had traveled with him to Switzerland. In fact, the race came with no prize money, but that did not explain the evasiveness of the replies Lobalu recalls getting from his managers. They would all discuss the matter once they returned to Kenya, he was told.

“I thought, These people, there was something they were hiding,” he says.

Nothing is straightforward in the life of a refugee, but for at least a moment five years ago, it seemed as though sports might be. At the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, the first IOC Refugee Olympic Team marched behind the flag not of a nation but of the Olympics themselves. A joint effort of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the team won even before its 10 members competed, lifting the Games out of the realms of self-dealing, cost overruns and doping scandals, and into the realm of ideals, a place the Olympic officials like to be.

There will be another IOC Refugee Olympic Team at the opening ceremony in Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium on July 23. With 29 members, it has nearly three times as the number of athletes who competed in Rio, representing a population of 20.7 million, the current estimate of people who have fled their home nation.

The most glittering sporting event on the planet will be elevated once again by epic personal histories involving bloodshed, poverty and a level of endurance other Olympians could scarcely imagine.

Rose Nathike Lokonyen carries the Olympic flag during the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

Rose Nathike Lokonyen carries the Olympic flag during the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

Leon Neal—AFP/Getty Images

But things are no longer so simple. As Lobalu’s experience shows, even refugee Olympians grapple with the same questions—about money, power, control and personal agency—that dominate elite sports as much as athletic ability does.

The training camp to which Lobalu did not return is outside the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Known as the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation Training Center, the camp was founded by Loroupe, a legendary Kenyan runner—and a two-time winner of the New York City Marathon. Her organization was the inspiration for, and the core of, the first Refugee Olympic Team, half of whose members lived and trained at the Kenya site.

The camp will send four runners to Tokyo, all of them, like Lobalu, exiled from war-ravaged South Sudan. But absent from the Tokyo Olympics refugee team are six of its strongest runners, who spent years training for the Games at the camp in Kenya—and who then absconded from the program, effectively fleeing the team with little warning and against all the rules, from 2017 to 2019. In interviews with TIME, two of those six men say their decisions were driven in part by rising tensions over their training and dissatisfaction with a system that, to them, appeared to deny them opportunities to create lives outside the program.

Lobalu, who had dreamed of being the first Olympic refugee medalist, became on that spring day in 2019 the most recent of the six defectors. Within hours of winning the race in Geneva, he made a decision that would change his life and doom his prospects of running in Tokyo this month.

The conversations after the Geneva race had been the final straw, Lobalu says. Implicit in the -manner of his managers was the belief that as refugees the athletes should accept whatever they had, whether there was prize money or not—an attitude he steadily began to reject.

“We cannot talk about money. We were supposed to go, and come back to the camp,” Lobalu, now 22, tells TIME. “They took us to Geneva, so we cannot complain… We are not supposed to talk, because we are just a refugee.”

Before dawn the next morning, he slipped out of the team’s Geneva hotel with a fellow South Sudanese refugee, Gatkuoth Puok Thiep. They left no note. The two friends wandered for hours, with no money or contacts, and only one plan: they would not return to Kenya with their teammates; somehow they would find a way to stay in Switzerland.

The break was clean, but the feelings remain complex. The decision to quit the program left each athlete TIME spoke to highly conflicted. The two former athletes from the Loroupe program said they felt they were being denied opportunities and prize money, and they spoke of an atmosphere in the training camp of overbearing control. At the same time, even athletes who left the team spoke of how the training in Kenya had transformed their lives, giving them passion and purpose they otherwise might never have found.

Camp founder Tegla Loroupe.

Camp founder Tegla Loroupe.

Brian Otieno for TIME

They singled out for special gratitude Loroupe, who remains in charge of the camp and who fielded TIME’s questions about the controversies. Loroupe created her organization in 2003 to organize “Peace Runs” comprising warring tribes, and she is now the IOC’s “chief of mission” for the refugee team at the Tokyo Olympics. “She is not just the coach; she is the mother of everyone,” says Gai John Nyang, who fled the team in 2017 amid an angry dispute and who now lives in Mainz, Germany. “Everyone respects her, even me, right up to today.”

This month, the emotions of the athletes are particularly raw as they watch their four close friends from the training camp head to the Tokyo Olympics. Those who left the camp also forfeited their chance to compete. The IOC and UNHCR ruled that Lobalu, Nyang and the other four runners who defected could not even try out for the Olympics team.

The athletes call that arbitrary punishment for having dared to walk away from the team. But the U.N. and the IOC say the men are no longer officially refugees, a protected status intended for those caught between countries, and forfeited upon settlement in one. Loroupe adds that allowing them to compete in Tokyo would encourage those still in her training camp to try to leave too. Indeed, Loroupe met with Lobalu in Switzerland seven months after he quit the team and tried to coax him to return to Kenya so he could run in the Tokyo Olympics, according to Lobalu. “She said, ‘You will get all the chance you are looking for,’” he says. He turned her down, and now will watch his friends in Tokyo from 7,000 miles away.

The very fact that 29 refugees representing 13 nationalities are competing in Tokyo upends a fundamental feature of the Olympics, which for more than a century has been organized around national patriotism. “Most of the refugees lacked the right to compete,” Olivier Niamkey, the IOC’s deputy chief of mission for the refugee program, tells TIME, describing the organization’s negotiations with various athletics federations, which finally cracked open the door to refugees in 2015 after long discussions. “It is not just about money,” he says. “They have no flag to compete under.”

Indeed, to assemble the refugee team, the IOC asked nations to do the sorting. The original group of 43 candidates for the 2016 Games was identified. In Kenya, Loroupe knew where to look for runners. She traveled to the country’s northern border and the Kakuma refugee camp, a sprawling, sun-baked settlement operated by the UNHCR and home to at least 170,000 refugees from nearby countries. To identify potential talent, Loroupe staged a 10-km race.

From those who showed up—some barefoot, some with barely any footwear, none having run an organized race—she picked the fastest and flew them 450 miles south to her training camp in the lush Ngong hills just outside Nairobi. “I didn’t even know what is the Olympics,” says Rose Nathike Lokonyen, 28, who is on the IOC Refugee Olympic Team again in Tokyo for the second time, after the Rio Games. In Ngong, 93 miles south of the equator and 1.2 miles above sea level, they began rigorous, high-altitude training for the Rio Olympics. Raised in the Kakuma refugee camp, Lokonyen ran barefoot in Loroupe’s 10-km race in 2015 and finished second. “We didn’t know about time,” she tells me, recalling that race. “We just ran.”

The point of the Refugee Olympic Team, in fact, is not to clock the fastest time. That would be a daunting task, given that elite runners train for years on state-of-the-art tracks before reaching the Olympics. The point, rather, is to be there. “We want to send a message of hope for all refugees in our world,” IOC president Thomas Bach said before the Rio Games. For the refugees who, like the South Sudanese runners, have witnessed intense brutality, the program has also helped heal painful traumas. Running, says Nyang, “is like medicine to me. When I run, I calm down.”

From being touted as a one-off event for the 2016 Games amid a swelling of refugees emerging from the Middle East and nations including Eritrea and Somalia, the program now appears increasingly permanent. For this year’s pandemic-postponed Olympic Games, the IOC expanded the program to include other parts of the world, and more sports. Niamkey says the IOC’s Olympic Solidarity fund set aside $3 million between 2016 and 2021 for scholarships for 56 refugee athletes worldwide, out of a total budget of about $100 million to fund thousands of athletes. Disbursements, he says, are in the form of monthly $1,500 payments.

Refugee athletes run laps at the training camp in Ngong, Kenya.

Refugee athletes run laps at the training camp in Ngong, Kenya.

Brian Otieno for TIME

There is an exception to that: the athletes at the Tegla Loroupe camp in Kenya. Niamkey estimated the payments to the refugees there were “between $100 and $200” a month. But both Nyang and Lobalu independently said they received a monthly stipend of 5,000 Kenyan shillings (about $46 at current exchange rates). After TIME asked the IOC to check, the organization confirmed that the payments were indeed 5,000 Kenyan shillings.

An IOC spokesperson said the money was meant as “pocket money” for the athletes in Loroupe’s camp, whose living expenses were covered; the athletes live in four-bed dormitory rooms and cook communally. When TIME asked Loroupe about the payments, her reply was: “Our athletes are not there just to be paid. They are there for a reason.”

Nyang says that before leaving the training program in 2017, he regularly borrowed money from locals to cover expenses. “What can you do with $50?” he says. Complaining was fruitless, according to Lobalu, the athlete who absconded in Geneva. “They would say, ‘If you don’t like the place, pack your bag and go back to Kakuma,’”the refugee camp, he says. “You get food and bed and a room for free.”

Between the quadrennial Olympics, the athletes participate in competitive races around the world to give them the experience of competing at a high level. But Lobalu and Nyang each claimed in separate interviews that they did not receive prize money for their achievements at such events, even those with prize money.

An executive at On, the Swiss athletic-footwear company that helps finance the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation and that supplies running shoes to the team, confirms they were made aware of money not reaching athletes—including bonuses for participation in events like the 2017 World Athletics Championships in London, where two of the runners fled the team, absconding from the Kenya training program and staying in the U.K. “There were bonuses, and those were paid out to the foundation, and it was the foundation’s responsibility to hand them to the athletes,” says Feliciano Robayna, On’s head of sports marketing, who handles the partnership with the refugee team and who has twice visited the Kenya camp. “We went out of our way [to ensure that was happening], after hearing that some bonuses did not reach the athletes’ hands,” he says.

In response to the athletes’ allegations, Loroupe told TIME that athletes received prize money for competing in races. “It is their money,” she says. Told of her response, Lobalu laughed. “O.K.,” he says skeptically. “Maybe after I left.”

For Nyang, it was less the absent prize money that drove him away and more the sense of missed opportunity. He described mounting tensions in the camp, with managers who appeared to favor some athletes over others, and rising fears of retribution if anyone complained. What Nyang most feared, he says, was being sent back to the Kakuma refugee camp, “which is horrible.” He says he also increasingly feared for his personal safety in Kenya, as a South Sudanese refugee. More than anything else, he says, he felt like he was stuck. “Of course no one wants to live somewhere where nothing changes,” Nyang said, referring to the training camp. He says he recalled thinking, “There is no other future, only to say, ‘O.K., I have to go my own way.’”

He and another South Sudanese refugee, Wiyual Puok Deng, did so in dramatic fashion—refusing to board a flight back to Kenya from Frankfurt after competing at the Asian Games in Turkmenistan in 2017. Both Nyang and Lobalu said they felt as if refugee athletes were discouraged from moving on or offered little help to do so. One other person agreed. “They [the refugee training camp] want to keep them for themselves,” said one source who had tracked the athletes for five years, spent time at Loroupe’s training camp and kept in close touch with them. “It [the training program in Kenya] was more for the UNHCR than for the athletes.”

Asked about these accusations, Stephen Pattison, the UNHCR’s deputy chief of mission, said the defections from the Kenya training camp prompted the commission and the IOC to try to secure scholarships for runners picked for the Tokyo Olympics team—all of whom competed in the Rio Olympics five years ago. Speaking to TIME by telephone in a conversation that the IOC insisted it monitor, Pattison said the thinking was that athletes badly needed the prospect of real opportunities after the Olympics—something the IOC and UNHCR had failed to offer after Rio and, according to the two defector athletes Lobalu and Nyang, a reason the Kenya program lost six talented runners. “We understood that there was a concern about what happens next,” Pattison said.

Loroupe told TIME in an interview from Kenya (also with an IOC representative in attendance) that she bore no responsibility for the six men who have fled her camp. “I would not be happy to take such a blame there,” she said, when asked whether she might have discouraged athletes from leaving. For those who want to leave, she said, “they have to go the right way.”

Dominic Lokinyomo Lobalu, who now lives and competes in Switzerland.

Dominic Lokinyomo Lobalu, who now lives and competes in Switzerland.

Anna-Tia Buss for TIME

For Dominic Lokinyomo Lobalu—the star runner—there was no “right way” to leave, as Loroupe says. Within hours of winning the race in Geneva, he had broken ranks from the refugee team and fled his hotel. Like Nyang’s, Lobalu’s family had scattered while fleeing their war-torn village in South Sudan, a country that came into being in 2011 after a decades-long civil war with Sudan, and where fighting has remained common in independence. He spent some of his childhood in an orphanage, playing soccer as a way to dull the intense pain of loss, eventually taking up running at a school near Nairobi, where he was discovered by Loroupe.

Three months after Lobalu went AWOL from Loroupe’s team, a Swiss refugee center contacted Markus Hagmann, an athletics coach in Saint Gallen, Switzerland, saying there were two South Sudanese men who wanted to run. Hagmann invited them to his club and instantly spotted major star potential in Lobalu. He brought him to the first race he could find in Switzerland.

Lobalu won the race—and has continued winning in Switzerland. In addition to On, he also now has endorsement funding from the Italian insurance giant Generali. In late June, he ran a 5,000-m Swiss race in 14 min. 1 sec., one-thousandth of a second behind the winner—who is competing for Switzerland at the Tokyo Olympics. Unable to compete at Tokyo (he too has no official refugee status), Lobalu will instead spend July and August training at an athletic center high in the Swiss Alps.

Meanwhile, On’s marketing chief, Robayna, says the company has hired a lawyer to secure residence status in Switzerland for Lobalu, whose renown has grown among the country’s runners. Hagmann estimates that it could take up to 10 years for Lobalu to become a citizen, making it uncertain whether Lobalu will be able to compete as a Swiss national in the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

As for the question of money, after winning his first Swiss race back in 2019, Lobalu climbed into Hagmann’s car. There, Hagmann showed Lobalu the 200 Swiss francs (about $218) he had won, then deadpanned, “Oh, this is mine now,” Hagmann recalls. “He went white, and I said, It’s a joke. It was the first time he realized, ‘No one is going to take my money away from me.’”

With reporting by Nik Popli and Simmone Shah/Washington

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Singapore Eliminated from AFF Suzuki Cup After Loss to Indonesia



Singapore Eliminated from AFF Suzuki Cup After Loss to Indonesia
Singapore's Nur Adam Abdullah slides in to stop the ball from getting to Indonesia's Asnawi Mangkualam during their sides' AFF Suzuki Cup 2020 semi-final second leg match at the National Stadium in Singapore on Dec 25, 2021. (Photo: CNA/Matthew Mohan)

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

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Motor racing-Mercedes to leave Formula E after 2022



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

“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

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Tokyo Hands Olympic Baton to Beijing but Virus and Boycott Calls Weigh



Tokyo Hands Olympic Baton to Beijing but Virus and Boycott Calls Weigh
Journalists watch a light show at the National Ski Jumping Center for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Zhangjiakou, in northern China’s Hebei province, in July. | AFP-JIJI
The focus immediately shifts to Beijing as the curtain falls on the Tokyo Olympics, with a growing coronavirus outbreak in China and boycott calls looming large just six months from the start of the Winter Games.
The Beijing 2022 Olympics are scheduled to take place from February 4 to 20, when the Chinese capital will become the first city to host a Winter and Summer Games.
New venues have been constructed and some from Beijing 2008, including the “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium, are being spruced up as China attempts to show the world its best face. The 2022 Games will be spread over three main zones Beijing, Yanqing and Zhangjiakou, which is about 180 kilometers (110 miles) northwest of the capital.
A high-speed train will connect the three hubs. All competition venues were completed several months ago and the Chinese government has been keen to assert that preparations have successfully ploughed on despite the coronavirus pandemic.
But just as Beijing 2022 swings into view, China is now facing its largest virus outbreak in months, even if infection numbers are still low compared with many other countries. Another headache for the Beijing Olympics and China’s ruling Communist Party is sustained calls from activists, the Uyghur diaspora and some Western politicians for a boycott over the country’s rights record, especially the fate of Muslim minorities.
China, where Covid-19 emerged towards the end of 2019, already had some of the world’s strictest containment measures and is ramping them up further in the capital. People flying into China from abroad must quarantine for between two and three weeks in a hotel, and it is unclear if the thousands of athletes, team officials, media and others coming to the Games will have to do likewise.
Tokyo model?
Bo Li, assistant professor of sports management at Miami University in Ohio, said Beijing 2022 organizers should take their cue from Tokyo in handling the virus threat. There were concerns there would be mass infections among participants in Japan but while there have been cases, the worst fears have not materialized.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and local organizers insisted on testing everyone involved before and regularly during the Games, and keeping athletes away from the public. Spectators have also been barred from most events at Tokyo 2020 it is unclear whether Beijing 2022 will follow suit. “Overall the strategy that has been used by Tokyo has been pretty successful and I think Beijing will duplicate something very similar,” said Bo Li, adding that he was “curious” about what China would do with its current strict quarantine procedures.
“I don’t think it’s realistic to expect the athletes to arrive in Beijing (at least) two weeks in advance and to be quarantined,” he said. “From the financial point of view, who would pay the bill? The organizing committee? The IOC? “The preparation of the athletes would be greatly affected, it would be unacceptable to most of them.”
Unanswered questions
The United States says Beijing is carrying out a genocide against Uyghurs in the region of Xinjiang and experts estimate more than one million people have been incarcerated in detention camps. Beijing denies genocide and has described the camps as vocational training centers.
Yaqiu Wang, a New-York based China researcher for Human Rights Watch, stopped short of calling for a full boycott: “Athletes have been preparing their whole lives to have this moment, so taking that moment away is wrong. “Athletes can still go, but sponsors, international dignitaries, celebrities, we think they should not go to lend legitimacy to the Chinese government hosting the Games.”
Mark Dreyer, a China sports analyst, said that many questions remain unanswered about the Winter Games, even with fewer than 200 days to go.
“Ticketing plans haven’t been released. And do we know about spectators? It’s looking likely there are not going be international spectators allowed, but what about domestic spectators?” asked Beijing-based Dreyer, who runs the China Sports Insider website.
“All this sort of stuff, normally it takes years to plan and there are still test events supposedly happening between now and the Games. “Will those happen? Will they provide us any additional information in terms of how China plans to run the real thing?”- AFP

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American Nelly Korda wins gold in women’s golf as Japan’s Mone Inami takes silver



American Nelly Korda wins gold in women’s golf as Japan’s Mone Inami takes silver
Nelly Korda of the U.S. watches her drive from the 8th tee during her final round of the Olympic women's golf tournament. | AFP-JIJI

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.

Mone Inami of Japan during her final round at Kasumigaseki Country Club in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture | REUTERS
Mone Inami of Japan during her final round at Kasumigaseki Country Club in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture | REUTERS

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The ‘Nolympians’ giving the IOC a run for its money



The ‘Nolympians’ giving the IOC a run for its money
Japanese have been lukewarm about the pandemic-hit Tokyo Games, holding demonstrations during the event itself. The black-shirted protester’s placard reads ‘Anti-Olympics’ [Kantaro Komiya/AP Photo]

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”.

Japan has held four Olympic events in 50 years, the most of any Asian country despite strong opposition because of the cost and their social and environmental impacts [File: Robert F Butaky/AP Photo]

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.

‘Olympic Disasters’

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.

There were protests against the Summer Games when they were held in Greece in 2004 with demonstrators concerned about security measures [File: Louisa Gouliamaki/EPA]

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.”

‘Soft power’

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.”

China celebrates being awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics, but there are calls for a boycott in response to the crackdowns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong [File: Ng Han Guan/AP Photo]

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.

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Welcome to Tokyo’s five-ring Olympic circus



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.

People protest against the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics on July 23 in Tokyo. Photo: AFP / David Mareuil / Anadolu Agency

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.

Shinzo Abe promised that the Fukushima nuclear accident was under control. Photo: AFP / Kunihiko Miura / The Yomiuri Shimbun

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.

Plagiarism (2015)

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.

Empty stands are seen behind the stage and the Tokyo 2020 emblem ahead of the opening ceremony. Photo: AFP / Franck Fife

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.

Kyoko Ishikawa, who has attended every Summer Olympics in the past 30 years, expresses her gratitude as Japan’s Air Self Defense Force aerobatic team forms the Olympic rings in the skies over Tokyo on July 23. Photo: AFP / Yasuyoshi Chiba

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.

Olympic rowers train at Sea Forest Waterway, in Tokyo. Photo: AFP / Vladimir Pesnya / Sputnik

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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