The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 are eight months away, and the Paralympic Games nine months, but this weekend two U.S. track and field athletes looking to make a splash next year are in the country as part of Team USA’s “Thank You, Japan” goodwill initiative to show their gratitude to the country for the work put into hosting both Games.
Five-time Paralympian Tatyana McFadden, who has already qualified for Tokyo, and Olympic hopeful Michael Norman, who’s an early favorite in the men’s 400-meter, helped to officially unveil the brand new track and field facility at Okura Sports Park in Setagaya City that will serve as the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s High Performance Center at both Games. Other events on the docket for the trip were to include a youth sports clinic at the facility, a discussion and a relay race.
McFadden said it’s clear already how high the anticipation level is for 2020.
“We had an opening ceremony (Saturday) and people from the community were here where the facility is and they’re really excited,” she told TeamUSA.org from Japan. “I think this is going to have a domino effect for next year. Japan has worked really hard to have such a state-of-the-art place for athletes. They’ve put in the time and effort to really think about everything, which is awesome. I got to talk to the mayor here and he’s thrilled and can’t wait to have a great show next year.”
Norman, the 2019 Diamond League champion and one of the country’s brightest up-and-coming runners, said that even landing at the airport and seeing all the promotional banners and posters throughout the facility and on taxis made it clear that the country is getting ready to play host to the world.
“It’s nice to see the support of the people who donated to this facility and to see the young elementary students come to show their support,” said Norman, who was a favorite to win the 400-meter world title this year but fell short while battling injury. “It’s exciting for me because all my training and focus has been toward getting out there and being able to represent the USA. It would be a dream come true.”
Part of the purpose of the “Thank you, Japan” initiative is also to spread the Olympic and Paralympic values, and one of the activities on the docket for McFadden and Norman was hosting a youth sports clinic. McFadden, a 17-time Paralympic medalist in track and field and Nordic skiing, was to teach local kids about wheelchair racing and even give them a chance to try out some chairs themselves and see firsthand what it’s like. Japanese Paralympic bronze medalist and two-time New York City Marathon champion Masazumi Soejima was to join her.
“I think it’s going to be mind-blowing to learn about what we do and I’m excited to hopefully have new fans in 2020,” McFadden said.
Norman was to host a sprint clinic alongside Shinji Takahira, an Olympic bronze medalist from Japan.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Norman said of working with youth. “I enjoy doing it. I know for me I’m a very structured human being, but any opportunity that makes sense on both sides I’m open to doing because it’s important to inspire that next great generation of athletes to be even better than what you are.”
After the clinic Soejima and Takahira were scheduled to help facilitate a discussion with the athletes, followed by a relay race, local media interviews and opportunities for photos.
For the athletes, it’s a rare opportunity to get to know the people and enjoy some of the culture in a relaxed atmosphere without having the strict schedules and focus they normally have when they travel to compete.
“I think it’s important for athletes in our position to show that we’re a little more human than what they might see on TV,” Norman said. “It’s important to be more than just an athlete and be more of an influential figure for the younger generations.”
Team USA has been finding ways to thank host cities since Beijing in 2008. Earlier in the fall members of the U.S. wheelchair rugby team took a tour of the Setagaya shopping district to see the improvements being made to the city in terms of its accessibility and had a traditional Japanese lunch with former rugby star Toshiaki Hirose. They also took part in a panel session during Setagaya’s Symposium on Accessibility at a local university with area residents to discuss how to create a more inclusive and barrier-free society.
The U.S. surfing team also held a goodwill barbecue with the Japanese team last month as part of the initiative.
“It creates a sense of togetherness and for us as Paralympians it brings more of an education, too, showing the community here what the Paralympics is, what wheelchair racing is and help that movement,” McFadden said. “The people of Japan have worked so hard and this is a way for us to say thank you for all the support and that we appreciate it. And having them meet the athletes that are going to be competing next year brings the excitement.”