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Japan Is Hosting Olympics Very Nicely, Thank You

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
Friday, February 6, 1998; Page C1



Michael Wilbon NAGANO — Everybody's got a story, and I do mean everybody. About how some volunteer or even a complete stranger — Japanese, of course — has gone to such extreme lengths to be kind or helpful or cooperative that what's happening here at the foot of the Japanese Alps is redefining the term "Olympic spirit."

First story: A car belonging to two American photographers is parked in the massive parking garage atop the main press center in an unmarked space. Two Japanese volunteers see the dome light inside the car has been left on. They find the vehicle identification number inside the car, trace it to the newspaper for which the photographers work, then search the main press center to find the newspaper's office. They explain, in studied English, that the light has been left on. If that isn't't enough, they then follow the appreciative American back to the parking lot, wait until he turns off the stupid dome light, then say, "Will you start your car, please, in case the battery is dead."

Once the car started, the two volunteers said "thank you" to the American.

Welcome to the We-Are-Not-Atlanta Games, where stuff like that is not the exception, it's the rule. My colleague Jennifer Frey lost an earring, inquired if anyone had returned it to the lost-and-found, then went to bed. The next morning, when the Japanese volunteer said she indeed had the earring, Jennifer said, "Oh, somebody turned it in?" And the volunteer said, no, she'd combed the grounds overnight until she found it.

Welcome to the Olympic Games where everything works, where you don't see giant Nike swooshes on every building (see Atlanta), where the trains and subways run with the precision of a Swiss watch (don't see Atlanta), where the words "thank you" have happily replaced the word "y'all," where people go to such absurd lengths to make your time here enjoyable you feel positively embarrassed.

At breakfast today I asked for syrup, not realizing Japanese put honey on their waffles, and the server said, "We don't have syrup, but we can buy some for you tomorrow if that will help."

A.J. Mleczko, a forward on the U.S. women's hockey team you'll be reading about frequently in this space because she's smart, funny and sophisticated, said: "Our hosts [at dinner] were saying to us, 'Thank you, thank you.' And we're saying, 'We didn't do anything. You're giving us food and you're saying thank you to us?' Yeah, part of it is Japanese culture, the politeness, the kindness. Can you imagine, wearing masks if you have a cold or allergies to protect others around you from germs? But you can just see how thrilled they are for the Olympics to be here.

"I was looking forward to the Olympics because of the competition and the camaraderie in the Olympic Village, but this makes it so much easier and so much more pleasant. . . . They have so much pride in their culture. They want you to leave saying, 'This was incredible.' I live in the Boston area and I'm already thinking, 'Can't we take any of this back home?'"

Apparently not. Not the high-tech cell phones (standard issue here at the Games) that are the size of a Snickers bar with batteries that last 280 hours and have total clarity even on overseas calls like 900 megahertz back home. Not the bullet train that zips along at 150 mph and covers the 130 miles from Tokyo to Nagano in less time than you can drive from Fairfax to the District in rush hour. Not the taxis with their white lace seat covers (imagine anything white in a New York taxi!) and passenger doors that pop open like trunks in the U.S. Not the high-definition TV that teases Americans at every turn. We can't get HDTV in American homes until late this year; the Japanese already have it in their cars. And technological advancements aside, we certainly can't take back the order and cleanliness and promptness of a society that values them, unless we roll back the clock to the 1940s.

At least there's time for Salt Lake City, site of the 2002 Winter Games, to learn the lessons Atlanta didn't, though perhaps there's a cultural divide that can't be bridged. In Atlanta, if the MARTA train was due to depart at 11:10 a.m., it means give or take 20 minutes. Here, you're going to get whiplash if you're not in your seat and strapped in at 11:10:00.

I know I shouldn't be picking on Atlanta 18 months after the 1996 Summer Games, but you just get caught up in the contrast. At virtually every Olympic briefing, whether it's by members of the International Olympic Committee or the folks putting on the 2000 Games in Sydney, somebody takes a direct or an indirect shot at Atlanta and what that city should have done differently in hosting the Olympics.

And the bottom line is, it's largely about effort and pride, minus the arrogance, of course. It's not like Nagano is some paradise everyone's fallen in love with hypnotically. There's nothing particularly beautiful about the city. It's an industrial town of 350,000 or so. Mountains appear in the distance, but they're not the French Alps. It's not nearly as pretty as Salt Lake City, either. For some reason it reminds me of Fresno, Calif. It's just a place, although the Zenkoji Temple drawns millions of tourists a year. The street that leads to the temple-Chuo-Dori-is lined with moderately priced shops, some drawing Western tourists who buy wood carvings. Fruit shops sell apples that are famously large (the size of a softball) and juicy. And people walk or ride their bikes to and fro, quietly, respectfully, smiling at visitors, trying harder than Americans ever do to speak a foreign language or simply make themselves available.

You'd have to work to be cynical here. Some folks who make a habit of being ugly Americans during these Olympic journeys can't find anything significant to complain about. If the athletes themselves perform with the same pride and passion and precision that has gone into the preparation and operation of the Games so far, we're in for 16 incredible days of competition.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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