Olympics

Mori touts transformative power of sports

by Hiroshi Ikezawa

Staff Writer

Yoshiro Mori, a former prime minister and the current president of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, believes sports has the power to connect people’s hearts and encourage them to overcome obstacles.

That belief motivated Mori to make a major contribution to successful bids for the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

“When Tokyo hosted the 1964 Olympics, it had not been long since the city had been ruined during World War II and many people doubted we could handle that big event,” the 81-year-old Mori told The Japan Times earlier this month in an exclusive interview at the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee office. “But we made it with cooperation from the world. We showed the world that we had recovered from the damage of the war. This is one of the powers sports have.”

Mori has always been fond of sports. Born in 1937 in Neagari (currently Nomi), Ishikawa Prefecture, he loved to play baseball. But his interest eventually turned to rugby, which his father, Shigeki, used to play.

Three years after World War II ended, Shigeki Mori, the then-mayor of Neagari, invited the Waseda University rugby team to the village for a training camp. That is when Mori saw rugby being played for the first time. It didn’t take long before he picked up the sport himself.

He eventually attended Waseda. His playing time, however, ended abruptly in part because he was diagnosed with a stomach ulcer a few months after entering college. Mori also struggled to adjust to his new life and nearly chose to quit not only rugby but also Waseda, which he had entered on a scholarship.

“But coach (Tetsunosuke) Onishi scolded me and said, ‘Don’t abandon your life with rugby. If you feel sorry about quitting rugby, do something for rugby,’ ” Mori recalled. “His words had been in my mind for a long time and I had been thinking I owed something to rugby.”

After quitting rugby, Mori joined a debate circle at Waseda, which opened a window for him to become a politician. He became a member of the LDP. In April 2000, he was named prime minister when Keizo Obuchi, his predecessor, stepped down after suffering a stroke.

Mori resigned as prime minister in April 2001 and eventually became the president of the Japan Rugby Football Union in 2004. His goal was for Japan to bid for the Rugby World Cup.

“Japanese rugby has a history of more than 100 years and we want to make the world aware of that,” Mori said. “Rugby is popular in countries which were former colonies of the British Empire. Japan was regarded as minor country in rugby. I wanted to change that.”

Mori’s wish was granted in 2009 when Japan were awarded the 2019 Rugby World Cup, becoming the first Asian nation to host the tournament.

“That’s when I really felt I had made a contribution to rugby, as Onishi told me to,” Mori said.

His next goal was to bring World Cup matches to Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. Kamaishi has been regarded as a hotbed of rugby in Japan since the locally-based Nippon Steel rugby team won seven consecutive national championships from 1978 to 1984.

Nippon Steel folded in 2001 when its parent company ended its sponsorship, but former players regrouped to establish a new team, Kamaishi Seawaves, later that year.

“When I visited Kamaishi after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, Mayor Takenori Noda took me to an area severely damaged by the tsunami where more than 800 people died,” Mori said. “At that time, he asked me to bring World Cup matches to the city.

“With the help of the Reconstruction Agency and the government, we were able to establish a new rugby stadium in Kamaishi and the organizing committee decided to play matches there,” Mori explained.

The new venue, Kamaishi Unosumai Memorial Stadium, officially opened on Sunday. It will host two matches during next year’s World Cup — Fiji vs. Uruguay on Sept. 25 and Namibia vs. the repechage winner (to be decided later this year) on Oct. 13.

Many believe bringing World Cup matches to Kamaishi will help boost the recovery of the city from the 2011 disaster, and Mori insists that the concept of helping the Tohoku region’s recovery contributed to Tokyo winning the bid to host the Olympics and Paralympics in 2020.

“When we lost the bidding for the 2016 Olympics to Rio de Janeiro in 2009, we failed to get enough support from people in this country, which is something the International Olympic Committee cares about,” Mori said. “Then we had the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11 in 2011. Shintaro Ishihara, who was the governor of Tokyo at that time, said we should bring the Olympics to support the reconstruction of Tohoku. That united people’s minds and helped win the bid.”

On Sept. 7, 2013 in Buenos Aires, Tokyo defeated Istanbul to win the right to host the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic games. Now, the Tokyo Olympics are now less than two years away.

“I have no concern about the progress of the preparations. But we cannot be too optimistic because we have a lot of issues to solve,” Mori said. “Look at the highways. Most of them were built for the 1964 Tokyo Games. The population increased and our economy expanded. It is impossible to use those roads without building new ones. There will be traffic jams here and there during the Olympics and Paralympics.

“We also have to establish an anti-terrorism policy. Since recently, we have to worry about cyberterrorism, too. It is difficult to predict how it will happen but we have to deal with it.”

Mori identified the fierce summer heat as one of the major problems the Tokyo Games will face. He is aware that his suggestion of introducing daylight saving time in Japan is considered controversial.

“Among OECD and G7 countries, Japan is only one that doesn’t have daylight saving time,” said Mori, who argues that daylight saving time should not be limited to the 2020 Games but should instead continue permanently. “This is an international standard. It is not acceptable that Japan doesn’t have it. I know many people are against this idea, but it also contributes to creating a low-carbon society. Japan should show the world that we are making an effort to make it happen. If we try, introducing daylight saving time can become one of the legacies of the Tokyo Games.”

The construction of new venues has also become a controversial topic, especially after the cost of the new National Stadium and other new facilities in Tokyo drew public criticism.

But Mori denied that these new facilities would factor heavily in the legacy of 2020.

“Legacy is not what we make an effort to leave for the future. Legacy comes after we achieve something. Building new stadiums is not everything when it comes to the legacy,” Mori insisted. “The important thing is what people learn or how they change through hosting the Olympics and Paralympics. We did have new stadiums in the 1964 Games. But our real legacy from the 1964 Games was that those new facilities, including highways, helped boost our economy.”

Mori has been candid about his battle with lung cancer, revealing his diagnosis to the public after a 2016 surgery. He previously recovered from prostate cancer, which was discovered shortly before he became prime minister in 2000. Mori said the Rugby World Cup and 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics are motivations to fight the disease.

“What I want to tell the people in the next generation is to challenge yourself and overcome your limits,” Mori said. “Each person has different abilities. Pick up what you love and believe in yourself in the face of adversity. That is how I have come this far.”