When viral tweets and news articles about the Olympic Village’s “anti-sex beds” began to spread shortly before the start of the Tokyo Games, Airweave CEO Motokuni Takaoka knew that it would do no good to put out a hasty denial.
Instead, the event’s official bedding supplier decided to let the athletes do the talking, leading to a series of viral videos that have made the company’s product an online sensation — even if it wasn’t for quite the reasons it had hoped for.
“We didn’t expect the cardboard beds to go viral like they did,” Takaoka told The Japan Times on Sunday at the company’s showroom in Tokyo’s Otemachi district. “It’s something that we hadn’t given a thought to, hadn’t anticipated at all.”
What Airweave hoped would generate buzz was the latest version of its mattresses, which have become a favorite of Olympic athletes since the company first started distributing them ahead of the 2008 Beijing Games.
The company, which became a Japanese Olympic Committee sponsor in 2013, set out to make a modular version of its mattresses that could easily be adapted to fit any competitor — from 130-kilogram wrestlers to 40-kg runners.
That resulted in mattresses that are half as thick as Airweave’s 20-centimeter consumer model, allowing athletes to flip any of the three segments for firmer or softer cushioning — with initial configurations suggested by the company’s body-scanning technology.
Developed to meet standards put in place by the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee, both the mattress blocks and the cover are washable — an added benefit when maintaining 18,000 beds inside the protective bubble of the athletes village.
“Even in light of the pandemic, we don’t have to take any extra precautions,” Takaoka said. “Before it became known as an ‘anti-sex bed,’ it was really an ‘anti-coronavirus bed.’”
Designers chose cardboard as a matter of function over form, finding the material was best able to support athletes on the thinner mattresses and withstand weight distribution that would break wooden frames.
But stress tests that found that the cardboard could support up to 200 kg struggled to withstand the narrative that the beds were designed to prevent athletes from engaging in the sort of relations that have inspired past Olympic host cities to distribute tens of thousands of condoms within the village.
Not that such activities are of any concern to Takaoka, who took over Airweave’s predecessor in 2004, which at the time built machinery to produce fishing line — the material for which inspired the company’s shift to mattresses and bedding just three years later.
“Sex is sex, whether it’s on our mattress or somebody else’s,” Takaoka said. “We just wanted to create a mattress that’s stronger than a normal mattress. We’re only focused on sleep; we’re not concerned with anything else that happens on the bed.”
A now-deleted tweet by Australian basketball player Andrew Bogut shortly after the beds were first unveiled in January 2020 prompted Tokyo organizers to insist that sex was possible on the beds — so long as no more than two people were involved.
The narrative was swept under the rug by the coronavirus pandemic until just before the start of the postponed Games, when a now-debunked New York Post article and tweets by American distance runner Paul Chelimo brought the issue back to the forefront.
— Japan Times: Sports (@jt_sports) August 3, 2021
Rather than attempting to insert itself into the conversation and risk getting drowned out by more viral posts, Airweave waited — and its patience was rewarded a day after Chelimo’s initial thread, when Irish gymnast Rhys McClenaghan posted a video of himself jumping on his bed, saying rumors regarding the beds’ lack of sturdiness were “fake news.”
“We worried about what the athletes would say, but when McClenaghan’s video came out, all the other athletes also started jumping on them and they all said the beds were fine,” Takaoka recalled. “And that’s why we felt comfortable putting out a statement touting the strength of the beds.”
A second viral video — in which the Israeli baseball team gradually adds to the number of players jumping on the bed until it finally collapses at nine — cemented the frames’ solid reputation online. While the International Olympic Committee and Team Israel offered apologies for the incident, Takaoka says he isn’t concerned as long as his company’s products deliver as promised.
“We just said that we’re disappointed the bed broke but happy nobody was hurt,” he said.
“It’s not our place to receive such an apology, we’re only supplying the beds.”
Airweave, which has also supplied bedding to Olympic teams from the United States, France, Germany and China, is no stranger to handling controversy at the Games.
During the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, the company was forced to scrap its planned marketing events after one of its ambassadors, American swimmer Ryan Lochte, claimed he had been robbed at gunpoint before admitting that he and three teammates had in fact been involved in an altercation with security guards after vandalizing a local gas station.
As Lochte’s other sponsors severed their contracts, Airweave stood by the six-time Olympic gold medalist — against the advice of its U.S. public relations company — saying in a statement issued by Takeoka that it would support Lochte “as long as he is a respectable athlete.”
“We were the smallest of his five sponsors. We didn’t do anything wrong, so rather we thought it’d be okay if we stood out,” Takaoka said of the affair. “Our support for him was factual, as was what he did. But by commenting, it spread our name into the media.
“We didn’t need to comment about Ryan, we needed to comment on our position. And that was what we learned from that incident.”
While Airweave concluded its sponsorship with Lochte shortly after the Rio Games, it maintains a strong roster of athlete ambassadors, including gold-medalist judoka siblings Hifumi and Uta Abe, gymnast Kohei Uchimura and tennis star Kei Nishikori.
According to Takaoka, that’s because the company believes that athletes — for whom recovery during sleep is a key part of training and competition — know better than anyone the value of a good night’s rest.
Referring to the introduction of new equipment such as graphite tennis rackets and carbon fiber golf clubs in the 1980s, and a greater focus on sports nutrition in the 1990s, he asserts that improving the quality of one’s sleep will be the next frontier for athletes looking to improve their performance on the field.
“Everyone spends a third of their day sleeping. People with different weights sleep the same amount,” Takaoka said. “If you think about it it’s a little weird, because everyone eats and trains differently.
“So right now we’re starting to raise the quality of sleep by making better mattresses. And we were able to do that because Tokyo 2020 organizers understood what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Although Airweave’s website has seen a burst of traffic during the Olympics, the company doesn’t expect sales to rise, noting that the average consumer usually waits around 10 years or more before purchasing a new mattress.
But Takaoka is confident that the positive reputation his products have gained through TikTok videos as well as for their sustainability — both the mattresses and the beds will be recycled after the village closes — will build a lasting legacy.
“Now the consumer trusts us,” he said. “In the past, younger customers may have seen us online and thought ‘Oh, (figure skater) Mao Asada is using it, it looks expensive, what sort of weird company is this?’
“Now they’ll think ‘Oh, Airweave is a proper company, they’re making good products.’ If that happens, it will be great because it will mean that our approach has gotten through to the public.”
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