Successful Olympic bid thrusts Tokyo into spotlight, fencing star says

by Sayuri Daimon

Staff Writer

For Yuki Ota, who won Olympic silver for fencing in Beijing in 2008 and again in London in 2012, Tokyo’s winning bid for the 2020 Summer Games and Paralympics was like receiving his first gold medal.

“I wanted to win (the vote) no matter what. I’ve never won the final match in the Olympics. . . . I really wanted to get the gold medal,” Ota said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “Because I could finally get the gold medal in such a great way, I am grateful to all the people who supported this bid.”

Ota was one of the seven Japanese representatives who delivered Tokyo’s final presentation Sept. 7 to the International Olympic Committee.

With people around the world tuning into the IOC general session in Buenos Aires, Ota made a speech, as did Princess Hisako, the widow of Prince Takamado, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japanese Olympic Committee President and Tokyo bid chief Tsunekazu Takeda, Paralympic long jumper Mami Sato, Tokyo Gov. Naoki Inose, Tokyo 2020 bid ambassador Christel Takigawa and JOC Vice President Masato Mizuno.

In a secret ballot to pick the host city, Tokyo beat Istanbul 60-36 in the final round, after Madrid was eliminated in a runoff with Istanbul after the first round.

Asked about the main reason for Tokyo’s victory, Ota said Japan brought everything it had to the final presentation. He said that in terms of lobbying, Japan was not ahead of the competition until the final presentation.

“Most of all, the timing was perfect, especially the timing for Prime Minister Abe and Princess Hisako to travel to Buenos Aires to give the final presentation,” he said.

“And they worked so hard for Japan until the last minute, talking to key people involved in the voting,” Ota stressed.

Princess Hisako, for instance, held meetings until late into the night with IOC members and conveyed Japan’s appreciation for the international help it received for the quake and tsunami that struck on March 11, 2011.

During the final presentation, the 27-year-old fencer spoke about Tokyo’s attractiveness in terms of youth culture.

“Tokyo will deliver an incredible platform for the promotion of the Olympic Movement. Promotion that will go hand in hand with the worldwide appeal of Japan’s youth culture whose animated heroes inspired real life stars such as Messi, Kaka and Uchimura . . . as well as many children, in many countries, to take up their favorite sport,” Ota told the IOC session, referring to soccer stars and Japanese artistic gymnast Kohei Uchimura.

Ota revealed that the script was handed to him just two days before the presentation, which didn’t leave him with a lot a rehearsal time.

“As I was under tremendous pressure, I had a hard time memorizing my speech,” he admitted.

Overshadowing the efforts of Ota and the other Japanese representatives was the widespread concern over the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Just before the final presentation, the growing problems with the contaminated water at the plant made headlines around the world, and reporters started asking serious questions about Tokyo’s safety.

“It was a very difficult three days,” Ota acknowledged.

After finishing that huge task and taking the long flight home to Japan, Ota was soon back in the air, traveling to China last week to attend a promotional reception in Dalian hosted by the Japanese government.

The reception was held on the sidelines of the Annual Meeting of New Champions 2013, dubbed the Summer Davos, where many leading figures from business, politics, academia and the media gathered to discuss various issues facing the world.

“I could only stay home for seven minutes after I came back from Buenos Aires,” Ota said with a smile.

As soon as he got back to Japan, he gave a report on the successful bid to the nearly 6,000 people who had gathered at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, held a news conference and then celebrated the victory with close friends until early the next morning.

“So many people gave me positive reactions, and this may be more than when I received my medals. Even though people don’t know about fencing, they know me. So now I feel that I can increase the profile of fencing,” Ota said.

But he also stressed that landing the games is just the beginning for Tokyo and the extravaganza in 2020.

“Tokyo is not a city that is friendly to foreigners at all. Take Wi-Fi connections, nonsmoking areas, road signs and barrier-free environments, for example. There are still many aspects of Tokyo (not befitting that of) an international city,” he said. “I truly think this is the chance for Tokyo to be reborn as an attractive city.”

As for his own goals, Ota said he’s uncertain about his future because his world will be different now that Tokyo has landed the Olympics.

“Once you have succeeded in one thing, you are able to see a different picture of yourself for the future,” he said.

What he imagined when he was 18 was different from what he felt when he won his first silver medal at 22, he said. When he received his silver medal in London, that elevated him to another stage.

“So, I hope to draw as big a picture as possible and try not to make my life boring,” Ota said.

He stressed that it is important to pass on bigger roles to the younger generation and let them take the initiative in many areas, including preparations for the Tokyo Olympics. But that does not mean he’s taking himself out of the game.

“Fortunately, sports, including fencing, has an established rule, which is ‘the winner is stronger.’ So if I lose, I will give up, but until then I will play to the bitter end,” he said.