Delving into the Intangibles

   The Olympics  

Already half a century has passed since the Tokyo Olympic Games of 1964.
I have a special feeling about them because I was there: a young and pretty Russian- language interpreter of 24, just back from Moscow.

A commercial broadcasting station assigned me to all the competitions involving athletes from the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries. Tokyo was in the midst of the postwar reconstruction boom: the Tokaido shinkansen (bullet train) had just started operation, and freeways were being built one after another. The marriage of Crown Prince Akihito and Princess Michiko several years earlier had fostered a mood of jubilation. We Japanese all felt united, going forward towards a bright future.

This was also right in the middle of the US-Soviet Cold War. Not surprisingly, athletes from the opposite side of the “Iron Curtain” attracted a great deal of attention from all quarters, including the media and so forth.

Furthermore, during the Olympics, the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was suddenly deposed. I remember how the athletes looked deathly shaken on learning the shocking news from Moscow. Various international journalists must have thought, “That interpreter girl might know something.” Before I knew it, I found myself surrounded, with their microphones thrust under my nose.

Notwithstanding the world situation, the Olympics were held in a very friendly atmosphere, unaffected by differences of race or ideology. Tokyo then was a safe and clean city: garbage cans were installed everywhere, and there were no intrusive police patrols, since there was no threat of terrorism, unlike today.

“Taking part is more important than winning”––the athletes, of course, did not forget the “intangible” Olympic spirit, even as they tried their utmost to secure “tangible” gold medals. Altogether, the 1964 Games blossomed into an unforgettable festival.

The sporting venues were school gymnasiums close at hand: at Komazawa University, Nihon University, Rissho High School, et cetera. The canoeing was held at Lake Sagami, and the rowing at the Toda speedboat racecourse. I remember also visiting a park in Utsunomiya City for competition. Unlike today, thousands of billions of yen of taxpayers’ precious money were not splashed about. I have strong doubts about building new venues, one after another, without any vision for their use post-Olympics. It is a new form of taxation in disguise. For the International Olympic Committee to be giving orders, under the euphemism of “advice,” without fully understanding the affairs of the host country is, I think, highly questionable.

In the 1960s, we didn’t have fax machines, computers, cell phones, and, of course, such super hi-tech gadgets as smart phones. Information was collected, written, and delivered by hand to the news desk. The only means of communication were public phones in the street or telephone booths at the athletes’ living quarters, and transportation was by bicycle. An inconvenient yet beautiful and heartwarming sight, wasn’t it? I still remember how my heart pounded at the closing ceremony, proud of the progress of Japanese technology, when the words appeared on the electronic scoreboard, “Sayonara, see you in Mexico.” Then, as the song “Hotaru no hikari” (to the music of Auld Lang Syne) played, athletes from all over the world began to walk out of the stadium waving “Goodbye!” A simple but touching farewell: that was the exact moment when the hearts of the world’s people were one.

Over the next fifty years, other Olympics followed in various countries, gradually changing in their nature and appearance. Gaudy opening ceremonies became de rigueur, showing off hi-tech stunts and gimmicks, all of them “tangibles” that can surprise but hardly move the hearts of an audience. The whole world seems obsessed with doing things with maximum display and expense, using advanced technologies. I cannot find any better word for such excesses but “stupid.”

Forgetful of the noble spirit of the founders, the Olympics seem to have become a shrunken “monster” that eats money and belches out flames. It takes on the appearance of a festival only for the opening and closing ceremonies.

If there is a country brave enough to revive the founding principle of the Olympics some time in the future, and trim the excess fat to a minimum, that country would be entitled to the world’s gratitude for its intelligence and high culture.

A turn away from the merely “tangible” Olympics, and a return to their “intangible” spirit: that is my sincere hope and message for the Olympics.