Yasuhiro Yamashita, president of the Japan Olympic Committee, knows a thing or two about Olympics-grade frustration.
After qualifying for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the judo heavyweight had to watch from the stands as a spectator, while top rivals vied for the gold. He couldn’t compete because Japan had pulled out of the games, joining an international boycott protesting the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.
As the leader of Japan’s Olympics team, Yamashita is now dealing with another historic dilemma: a delayed Olympics mired in uncertainty because of a pandemic. There’s still a debate over whether the games should be held, the likelihood that overseas spectators won’t be allowed to attend and many unanswered questions about quarantines, contact tracing and vaccinations. All of this hangs over the event, just four short months before the torch is lit in Tokyo’s National Stadium.
“I thought I let go of everything, but it remains in my subconscious,” Yamashita said in an interview, speaking of the parallels between his four-decades-old disappointment and today. “The memory comes back to me at times, when it’s needed.”
Japan’s government is determined to hold the games, despite the hurdles. A rise in coronavirus infections at the end of 2020 spurred Japan’s biggest cities to impose tighter restrictions in the first three months of 2021. Yoshiro Mori, the chief of the Tokyo Organising Committee, stepped down last month after making sexist remarks. More than 75% of respondents in a January poll by broadcaster NHK said the games should be either canceled or delayed again.
Mori, before he was replaced by former Olympian Seiko Hashimoto, had insisted that the games go on under any condition, and that there was “no other scenario.” Yamashita, on the other hand, is more measured when it comes to the current debate over spectators, ahead of a final decision later this month.
“When it comes to the spectators, there are several scenarios. The best is that all spectators attend,” Yamashita said. “But there’s also a scenario of zero spectators” if that means the Olympics can be held safely, he said. No matter the conditions, Yamashita said he’s focused on “creating an environment where they can concentrate without having to worry.”
Yamashita’s worst fears could come true. Just this week, the All-Around World Cup in Tokyo by the International Gymnastics Federation, a test event for this year’s Olympic Games, was canceled. The competition, originally scheduled for May 4, will no longer happen “given the current travel restrictions and difficulties worldwide as well as the measures taken by the Japanese authorities to limit the rate of coronavirus infections in the country ahead of the Olympic Games,” organizers said.
Although qualifying for the Olympics is a hallowed experience for athletes, some in Japan are starting to feel guilty about wanting to compete and chasing their dreams, Yamashita said.
“When athletes make positive comments about the games, they are frequently beaten down,” said Yamashita, 63. Despite his age, the bulky judoka still strikes an imposing figure. “For the spectators, it’s once every four years, but for athletes, it’s a grueling once-in-a-lifetime event.”
Tomoki Sato, an athlete who has qualified for the track and field competitions at the Paralympic Games following the games this summer, said that there’s not much that athletes can do to influence whether the games are held or not.
“The organizers are doing their best to make the games happen, so all we can do is focus on delivering our best performance,” Sato said. He said that his experience of becoming wheelchair-bound at the age of 21 taught him that there’s no point in dwelling on “what was possible in the past,” much like the world before the pandemic.
That’s why Yamashita remains hopeful.
“I want to give these athletes from around the world the best environment possible, so that they can deliver a once-in-a lifetime, top performance,” he said.
The former Olympian’s optimism isn’t entirely unfounded. Four years after sitting out the judo competition in Moscow, he took the gold in Los Angeles at the 1984 Olympics.
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