HASHIMOTO Seiko, KOTANI Mikako and TAKAHASHI Naoko: Connecting through the power of sport

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“Sport has the power to change the world and our future”. This is the vision of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The COVID-19 pandemic plunged the world into an unprecedented crisis in 2020, and the Tokyo 2020 Games were postponed for the first time in history. As the challenging situation continues, we must examine how we can deliver a positive Games legacy to future generations.

President of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games HASHIMOTO Seiko, Sports Director (SD) KOTANI Mikako, and Athletes’ Commission Chair TAKAHASHI Naoko gathered to discuss their own personal experiences and thoughts on the four key topics of recovery, the Torch Relay, a safe and secure Games, and gender equality. In the first of our two-part feature, the group look at 'recovery' and the 'Torch Relay'.

Recognising the power of sport through support activities

The Tokyo 2020 Games have been billed as the “Recovery Olympics and Paralympics”. Since the Great East Japan Earthquake, you have all been active supporters of various recovery efforts. What has left a lasting impression on you from those experiences?

Hashimoto
At the time I was a politician and was also working with the JOC (Japanese Olympic Committee) to strengthen competitiveness. The JOC had a medical team, and I traveled with athletes to various locations. Our first stop was Ofunato in Iwate prefecture. That was in late March, and essential lifelines were not restored yet. There were people who could not find family members and seniors unable to get their medicine.

Kotani
I was also involved with the JOC’s Athletes’ Commission, and I remember having discussions on what we could possibly do to help. There were also conflicted feelings about the appropriateness of playing sport in a time of crisis.

Hashimoto
My time in Ofunato was memorable. A preventive care approach is essential in sport, both physically and mentally, so I gave massages and taught exercises to lift the spirits of those who suffered a great deal. You could see an immediate improvement. After teaching kids exercises that they could enjoy with a ball, they became more cheerful too.

Takahashi
I received a letter asking me to exercise with the kids in Fukushima who could no longer play outside, because of the effects of the nuclear power plant. So I gathered fellow athletes and headed to the disaster area. Initially, I was unsure of how to provide words of encouragement, but as I did some exercise with the kids, they began smiling more and more. And in turn, the parents smiled as they watched their kids have fun. Seeing that, I felt that it was possible for us to help in our own way. Recently, I was able to talk with those kids once again, who are now in their last year of high school. I was delighted when one student said, “we were stopped from going outside, but your visit was when we realised that it was alright to do so, and that changed our outlook. After being taught how to run, I wanted to get better, so I joined the track and field team”.

Kotani
I was able to interact with kids in a sports-day type event, and the response from participating athletes was that “we went to provide encouragement to the disaster victims, but we were encouraged by them”. The athletes were spurred by words of support like, “we’re looking forward to the Olympics. Good luck!” And at the London 2012 Olympics the following year, Japan brought home 38 medals—the highest number at the time. I believe many of the athletes participating in those Games were not only striving to do their best for themselves, but also for the added significance of bringing some joy to those affected by the disaster. After the Games, large crowds cheered on the athletes taking part in a parade through Ginza, which I am sure made the athletes aware of the positive impact sport could have on society.

Hashimoto
The athletes that I traveled with also seemed to realise the immense impact that both they themselves and sport has on society. In witnessing that, I was inspired and recognized how vital it is to rally that power and for the government to support those efforts.

Takahashi
I’ve heard disaster victims say that one day they would like to express their gratitude for all the support they received from the rest of the world. I think the Tokyo 2020 Games is an opportunity to share that feeling of appreciation with the world. Ten years after the earthquake, I am hopeful that the Games will provide a chance to express those heartfelt sentiments.

Special victory bouquets made of flowers from disaster-hit areas

Victory bouquets presented to Olympic and Paralympic medallists will be made of flowers produced in regions affected by earthquake.

Hashimoto
I gave my victory bouquet to the person who had managed my equipment since I was young, as a token of my gratitude.

Kotani
I remember meeting someone who had a victory bouquet, and I asked if they were a family member of an athlete. They responded that they were not, but had received it from an athlete. By gifting the bouquet, it had become a treasured object for somebody and a way to share in the joy of that memorable moment.

Takahashi
Every time I look at the victory bouquet I received at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, it brings back memories of standing on the podium, hearing cheers from the crowd and the national anthem, and seeing the Japanese flag waving in the wind. Twenty years on, I can still recall that moment in an instant.

Hashimoto
It’s already been twenty years since then.

Takahashi
Yes. And this time it comes with the Olympic mascot, so it will be extra memorable.

Hashimoto
It’s wonderful that the bouquets will feature flowers produced in earthquake-affected areas. I feel that the added significance of using these flowers in the victory bouquet that applauds athletes from around the world relays a message of hope. The growers can proudly tell future generations of their involvement as well.

Kotani
Reaching the podium is a momentous occasion for athletes, and the presentation of flowers during that time should be a moment of great pride for the growers as well. As a Games meant to express gratitude for the global support of Japan’s recovery, presenting those flowers in a victory bouquet is a way to display appreciation and think of the disaster-stricken areas once again. To further emphasise that message, I’d also like the meaning of each flower used in the arrangement to be shared as well.

Takahashi
The Olympics and Paralympics have an amazing ability to unite people as they witness the same moving moments from around the world. By presenting the victory bouquet during the podium ceremony, ideally it would show that the impacted regions have recovered enough to grow these beautiful flowers while also conveying a message of thanks to the world.

Memories of the Torch Relay

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Torch Relay began on 25 March.

Hashimoto
I ran three times, but only once while I was an athlete.

Kotani
You ran it when you were an Olympic athlete?

Hashimoto
Yes, during the 1988 Seoul Olympics, I was selected as a torchbearer for some reason. At the time, the summer and winter Olympics occurred in the same year. The cycling season began right after I returned to Japan from the 1988 Calgary Olympics where I competed in speed skating. It was really tough, but as the first Japanese athlete to participate in both the summer and winter Olympics, it was probably newsworthy.

Kotani
Probably newsworthy. It definitely was (laughs).

Hashimoto
Oh (laughs). Apparently it was known in Seoul too, so I was selected by the Seoul Olympic Organising Committee. I remember running the Torch Relay surrounded by a lot of people. I had always wanted to be a torchbearer.

Kotani
Your name is “Seiko (聖子)” after all. [Seika (聖火) is Japanese for Olympic flame.]

Hashimoto
The second time was for the 1998 Nagano Olympics and I was asked by a village mayor. The last time was for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the Torch Relay route travelled through Japan. As the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics, many former athletes were invited to run as torchbearers through the city of Nagano.

Takahashi
I’ve never done it.

Kotani
That’s surprising.

Hashimoto
You did run a lot already with the marathon (laughs).

Takahashi
You’re right (laughs). I saw the Torch Relay once in a stadium while I was an athlete and five other times en route as a newscaster. For me, the Olympic flame is a flame of the spirit. When it’s finally extinguished after the Closing Ceremony, it feels really sad.

Hashimoto
I agree.

Takahashi
In that moment, I like to believe that the flame isn’t gone, but has dispersed around the world as tiny sparks that motivate athletes who have set their goals for the next four years, and to kids who dream of standing in front of the Olympic flame one day. Then, as those sparks grow over four years, they are eventually brought together to create the Olympic flame. Being able to bring that energy to Japan fills me with excitement.

Kotani
Will you be running this time?

Takahashi
Yes, I will be running in Gifu prefecture in April.

Kotani
For the 1998 Nagano Olympics, I was asked to run by the mayor of Otari village because it uses the same characters as my last name. My mother ran with me and really enjoyed the experience. During competitions, I tried not to think about my family’s presence at the venue to better focus on myself, and my mother knew how I would feel, so I don’t think she ever saw me at the Olympics, but after running the Torch Relay together, she said she was glad her daughter was an Olympian. I felt I was able to give back for the first time, and it made me happy.

Where destiny, spirit, and history come together

What would you like the torchbearers and spectators to experience during the Torch Relay?

Hashimoto
I was a torchbearer three times, and every time it felt different. I was named “Seiko” after my father was moved by the lighting of the Olympic cauldron during the Opening Ceremony of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. I grew up hearing that story, so it was astonishing that I was on the national team and running with the Olympic torch in Seoul. My parents were waiting for me at the hand-off point. Named after the Olympic flame, making the Olympic team, running the Torch Relay where my parents were waiting for me at the finish line, it all sounds unbelievable, but I felt there was a strong connection.

I ran in Nagano for the winter Olympics, and in the cold climate, there was a romantic quality to the Olympic flame. I remember hoping for that feeling of warmth to transpire through the Games. Ultimately, I believe the runners’ individual sentiments towards the Olympic flame affects their overall experience. I’d like to think that the Olympic flame serves to unite as it travels through the country, embodying numerous emotions before reaching the Olympic Stadium.

Kotani
I was a torchbearer in Nagano, Sydney, and Athens. I was particularly moved in Sydney when I was approached by kids after finishing the Torch Relay, asking for photos and autographs. They said “KOTANI Mikako from Japan, congratulations on winning the bronze medal at the 1998 Seoul Olympics. Thank you for running in our city”. That city showed great respect by making the effort to know who was running through their hometown. Although it is difficult to view this year’s Torch Relay in person, I am hopeful that people will watch the livestream and take an interest in the runners, bringing us all even closer together.

Takahashi
Recently, I was invited to an event displaying the Olympic flame in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Seeing it up close made me reflect on the fact that this flame has a long history that dates back to the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics with many momentous historical events occurring since that time. And in that instant, I understood the importance and responsibility of continuing that legacy in Tokyo.

The flame is as warm as it is bright. In that regard, as the Olympic flame passes near our homes, I hope its warm glow serves as a beacon of hope and helps brighten spirits. I’ll run with the wish that it brings people together as one as it ultimately arrives to shine brightly over Tokyo.

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