Like most people in Japan, I remember vividly where I was on March 11, 2011. I was training in Phoenix, Arizona, for the 2011 World Athletics Championships. I watched in disbelief as the tragedy unfolded in the Tohoku region on TV, feeling utterly helpless. I was frustrated that there was nothing I could do to help except keep trying to reach my family and friends on the phone.
I remember feeling that this was the first time since I had become an athlete that I felt so powerless. As an athlete, if you lose a competition, you train harder. If you are not among the best, you stay motivated and try harder until you achieve your goals.
That is why, on that sad day in 2011 when sport had taken me away from Japan, I made a decision to bring sport and its power back to the affected areas.
I am not the only one. Many Japanese athletes realized there was something they could do to help give courage to, and inspire, people. We realized that sport has so much more to offer, and together we set off to Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi prefectures to visit shelters, participate in discussions and enjoy sports with children, trying to put smiles on their faces.
All of us experienced firsthand the innate power of sport to act as a force for good. Sport has the power to create new dreams and bring people together — even in the most difficult of times.
The first time I went to Tohoku after the earthquake and tsunami struck was in June 2011. A local athletics federation invited me to visit a high school in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. I remember seeing all the students gathering outside and the atmosphere was heavy. Then, we started a relay together, with the teams cheering each other on. The sport seemed to break the tension. The day after, I saw the teenager I passed my baton to on TV saying it was a great experience. From someone who had suffered so much, that meant everything to me.
I was back in that same city last week, to clean and polish the 1964 Olympic Cauldron with children from the area. The cauldron is currently being housed in a public park there. We then ceremonially lit the cauldron before enjoying some sports together.
In all, I have visited Tohoku more than twenty times since 2011. Not only did I meet with children, trying to inspire them and give them hope for the future, I also invited many of them to some national sports competitions, and introduced them to some of their favorite athletes. I felt that this kind of thing was the least I could do after all they had been through.
I have known some of these children for almost five years now. I have watched them growing up and I can certainly testify that their mindsets and outlooks have become much more positive over that time. Some of them have graduated, or are already working, embarking on a new chapter in their lives.
Recovery and reconstruction efforts have been going on in the Tohoku region for the past five years, and for some people memories of the disaster are gradually fading as they move on with their lives. Sometimes we tend to forget that time is a great healer. However, there is still much more to do and we must keep encouraging those who are still struggling to come to terms with the aftermath of the disaster.
Japan is looking forward to and preparing for its future. In particular, 2020 will be a landmark year in the nation’s history. The Olympic and Paralympic Games will return to Tokyo after 56 years, and will have a tremendous impact on the city and the country. Nevertheless, we cannot look at the future without remembering what happened in 2011. As the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee’s sports director, I will make sure the tragic events in Tohoku will never be overlooked. And I am truly thankful for the opportunity to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games to further reaffirm my commitment to taking sport back to the affected areas and demonstrating the healing power it can have.
Since the bid stage, Tokyo 2020 has always asserted that the Games will bring a host of benefits to the Tohoku region. This project has extra significance, as it will serve as a spiritual and physical symbol of Japan’s recovery from a national tragedy. We have a great sense of responsibility to inspire and unite the entire population behind a common vision for the future of Japan.
We are formulating an action and legacy plan to maximize the positive impact of the 2020 Tokyo Games. It is based on five pillars, one of which is “Recovery from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, nationwide benefits and global communication.” The organizing committee has already created the “2020 Young Athletes’ Project” with the aim of encouraging the next generation of athletes to contribute more to society.
Under this project, we organized four different events in 2015. Olympians and paralympians took part in sports festivals in Fukushima with hundreds of children. We also invited some 80 students to Tokyo, a visit that included stopping by the offices of the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee. At Tokyo 2020, connecting with the younger generation, increasing engagement between athletes and local communities and demonstrating the power of sport to act as a force for positive change are among our most important roles.
We will have plenty more opportunities to do this very soon. In a few months, as the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games draw to a close, the focus of the world’s attention will shift squarely to Tokyo.
We will continue engaging with the local communities in the Tohoku region and the best has yet to come. The cultural program, the volunteer program, the live sites, and the torch relay are just some of the milestone events we will stage to ensure the people of the Tohoku region are just as involved in the games as everyone else in Japan. In 2020, the world will witness a vivid demonstration of the power and values of sport — not only in Tokyo, but across the entire country where the games are inspiring new hopes, dreams and aspirations.