When world tennis No. 1 Naomi Osaka climbed the stairs as the final bearer of the Olympic torch during Friday's Opening Ceremony, I admit to being caught off-guard.
Osaka is a "name" athlete. There was the question of whether or not an athlete with a global "brand" was willing to associate themselves so closely with an Olympic Games that appear to be cursed and an unpopular civic and public health burden on the host country. But the only other Japanese person to open a Summer Games was, for the most part, totally anonymous.
Yoshinori Sakai was a 19-year-old member of a local running club when he took the Olympic torch in 1964. Though he turned out to have a decent career and was a gold-medal winner in the Asian Games, the reason he was chosen was that he was born on Aug. 6, 1945, the day the first atomic bomb was dropped, in Hiroshima prefecture, Japan (about 42 miles from ground zero).
Sakai was a symbol of Japan's restoration as a world power, but a peaceful presence, after the shame of World War II. The 1964 Games were intended to be the debut of the Japan Americans came to know for multiple post-war generations: a frenetically paced hub where high technology met peaceful precision.
On March 11, 2011, the most powerful earthquake in Japanese history took place off the coast of Sendai. The 9.1 temblor triggered a massive tsunami that struck with less than 10 minutes' notice. Nearly 20,000 people were killed by that disaster alone, but the quake and flooding disrupted power to the cooling infrastructure at the coastal Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, leading to core meltdowns and releases of radioactive water into the sea and hydrogen into the air. The effects displaced thousands of people from their homes, in some cases permanently, and marred the landscape for years to come.
On July 16, 2011, the Japanese Olympic Committee approved Tokyo to bid for the 2020 Summer Games.
Though it was probably not feasible to have a 10-year-old from Sendai light the Olympic cauldron, there have been several nods to what the Japanese call "3-11" in the run-up to the Games. The Japan leg of the Olympic torch relay both began (in 2020) and restarted (in 2021) in the area of the country affected by the quake and nuclear disaster.
Had things been different, 1964 would have been a great model to build around. Those Olympics were well-organized, featuring the debuts of judo and indoor volleyball on the Olympic program and featured triumphs of both athletics and the human spirit.
Ten of the 12 members of the 1964 Japanese Olympic women's volleyball team were employees at the Nichibo spinning mill near Osaka, and their boss, both on and off the court, required six hours of training per day, seven days a week, 51 weeks a year. "The Complete Book of the Olympics" does not say if coach Hirofumi Daimatsu was into plaid sports jackets and personality tests, but this looks very Herb Brooks-ish. The final victory over the Soviet Union was watched by 80% of the country.
In an American story I am hoping to tell you about before the inevitable NBC documentary on the topic airs next week, Billy Mills, an Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, scored a shocking upset for the United States in the 10,000-meter run.
Mills, who was orphaned at age 12, unleashed an electric finishing kick to come from third place, setting a personal best by 46 seconds. The finish was so exciting that NBC fired the color commentator, Dick Park, for screaming on the air. Mills, whose story was made into the 1983 movie "Running Brave," remains the only American to ever win the event.
Those Games took place in October to avoid the mid-summer heat and tropical storms that have already become infamous this week. Needless to say, that would not fly with NBC and the NFL these days.
Though there have been and could still be inspiring stories coming from this Tokyo trip, Japan is a country dealing with an aging population, economic stagnation, unresolved impacts from the Sendai disaster and a sclerotic political class whose response to these problems (and insistence on staging these Olympics as close to plan as possible) has inspired more skepticism than patriotism.
Those problems are the sorts of things tennis heroes and Olympic flames can't just cure.
Brandon Veale is presentation editor of the Duluth News Tribune and an Olympics enthusiast.