For most people, going to watch the Olympics is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but for 92-year-old superfan Naotoshi Yamada it has become a quadrennial ritual over the last five and a half decades.
Yamada, known to his Japanese compatriots as “Olympic ojiisan” (“Olympic Grandad”), first experienced the Summer Games when Tokyo last hosted the gathering in 1964, and he has been there for every minute of every one since.
“Mexico, Munich, Montreal, Los Angeles, Moscow. Japan did not even participate at the Moscow Olympics but I went to see that games,” said Yamada, speaking in Tokyo.
“Moscow, Seoul, Barcelona, Sydney, Athens, Beijing, London. I went to all games from the opening to the closing ceremony … There is no other such person like me. I am the only one on the earth.”
With his distinctive gold top hat, red jacket and beaming smile, Yamada has become one of the most familiar and colorful figures at the games, regularly followed by television cameras and cheered by other fans.
Now, as the nation marks on Tuesday the 500 days to go until the formal start of next year’s Tokyo Olympics, he has one final wish — to live long enough to witness that sporting spectacle.
“It will be the culmination of all my years cheering at the Olympics,” said Yamada.
Yamada was a relative stripling of 38 when he attended his first Olympics, hoping not just to witness the sporting spectacle but also to sate an earlier desire to experience the world that was inspired by a speech given at his university by Emperor Hirohito, who is posthumously called Emperor Showa.
“The Emperor said he wanted the young generation to rebuild our country,” Yamada said. “I felt that I wanted to do something for my country. I think that it is one of the reasons why I started to attend the Olympics.”
Yamada’s first games outside Japan was Mexico City, in 1968, where he paired his classic Haori Hakama kimono with a Mexican sombrero.
Yamada said it was impossible for him to choose a favorite from the 14 Olympics he has attended.
“If you have … different colors of crayons and someone asks which color is the favorite one? Black? Red? Blue? Green? … Each color has its own character,” said Yamada, a wide grin etched across his face.
“So I cannot say which is my favorite one. Each of the Olympics were fascinating.”
Yamada loves the international nature of the Olympic Games and has a vast collection of souvenirs he has collected over the years, some of them acquired through swaps with other fans.
His haul of flags, stamps, photographs and other items are on display at a gallery in his hometown of Nanto, Toyama Prefecture.
“The Olympics is the only international festival for all humankind,” said Yamada. “Athletes and tourists from more than 200 countries will gather at one place.
“For the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, so many people want to come to Japan.
“I think that 2020 will be amazing event.”