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New Zealand Olympic Gala

Athletes, politicians gather to showcase 2020 ambitions

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Stars from international sports and politics gathered on Oct. 31 in Tokyo for the New Zealand Olympic Gala 2019 to showcase the country’s ambitions for next year’s 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The black-tie event at the Hilton Tokyo was held in partnership with the International Sports Promotion Society founded and chaired by Japanese philanthropist Haruhisa Handa. Known as ISPS Handa, it supports various sports, including golf for the blind and disabled.

A trio of political luminaries in the form of global statesmen John Key, Tony Abbott and Enda Kenny, the former prime ministers of New Zealand, Australia and Ireland, respectively, were in attendance. All are patrons of ISPS Handa.

New Zealand athletic headliners included 2000 Sydney Olympics rowing gold medalist Rob Waddell, who serves as his country’s chef de mission for Tokyo 2020, and 2016 Rio de Janeiro silver canoe slalom medalist Luuka Jones.

A dash of royalty came in the form of Zara Tindall, equestrian silver medalist for Britain at the 2012 London Olympics and also the eldest granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II.

Handa described his thoughts on the transformative power of sports and explained his connections with New Zealand. He wanted to help after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake and ISPS Handa sponsored the New Zealand Women’s Open golf tournament to offer support through sports.

ISPS Handa has also donated funds in equal amounts to New Zealand’s Olympic and Paralympic teams. “For us, the Olympics and Paralympics are equally important,” Handa said.

Mike Stanley, president of the New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC), expressed sympathy to Japan over deadly Typhoon Hagibis and other recent weather disasters. “We are nations that are joined by the Pacific Ring of Fire and we understand natural disasters and we understand the impact on our communities,” Stanley said, noting how both countries are prone to earthquakes.

He and others expressed gratitude to Handa for his overall charitable efforts and backing for New Zealand.

“Your contribution to sport, to education and to humanity is incredible and in New Zealand we are extremely grateful for the contribution that you have made to our country,” said Grant Robertson, who is both New Zealand’s sports and finance minister.

New Zealand has high hopes for 2020 after copping an all-time best total 18 medals in Rio. Next year also has special meaning for the country as it marks the 100th anniversary of its independent participation in the Olympics.

Robertson said that more than 200 athletes are expected to compete in Tokyo, making it the country’s largest Olympic team.

The evening was also an opportunity to reflect on what success in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics has meant for New Zealand.

Kereyn Smith, chief executive officer and secretary general of the NZOC, noted the 55th anniversary in October of the first Tokyo Olympiad.

“These were an incredibly important games for New Zealand and helped define who we are as a nation,” said Smith, stressing its three gold medals, two won by Peter Snell in the 800- and 1,500-meter races.

Given the importance of rugby in the country, the 2019 Rugby World Cup was a frequent topic of discussion, though admittedly bittersweet for Kiwis, as their beloved All Blacks lost in the semifinals to England.

All Black legends Richie McCaw and Dan Carter joined ex-England captain Mike Tindall, the spouse of Zara Tindall, in an on-stage panel discussion session moderated by Key.

In a humorous moment, the former leader ribbed McCaw and Carter for wearing blue and red ties, respectively, at a black-tie dinner.

“Do you think there is something wrong fundamentally with the education system in New Zealand when they can’t understand what black-tie actually means at a black-tie dinner,” Key said. “The operative word is black … like the All Blacks!”

Entertainment was provided in the form of songs by New Zealand operatic pop trio Sol3 Mio and Modern Maori Quartet. The Japanese side was represented by a boisterous group performance of Tsugaru Shamisen music.