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Best Foot Forward
Steve Rushin
February 16, 1998
As the Nagano Games opened with a spectacle led by sumo king Akebono and choirs on five continents, what dazzled visitors most was that gentlest of Japanese virtues: politeness
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February 16, 1998

Best Foot Forward

As the Nagano Games opened with a spectacle led by sumo king Akebono and choirs on five continents, what dazzled visitors most was that gentlest of Japanese virtues: politeness

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In Japan love means always having to say you're sorry. "So sorry," says the bus conductor over the PA. system, "but we are arriving at Nagano Station." Citizens who feel the slightest sniffle wear surgical masks for days on end so as not to spread their colds. The device that switches off the ringer on a Japanese cell phone is called the "manners button," and its LCD icon is a heart. In Japan the collective manners button is engaged as in no other nation on Earth.

So it was only appropriate that the 18th Olympic Winter Games, from which we all might learn a thing or two, opened in Nagano last Saturday when a cauldron was lit by Japanese figure skater Midori Ito, a woman who apologized to her nation after winning the silver medal at Albertville in 1992. (She had been the prohibitive favorite for gold.) The events themselves commenced in earnest eight hours later with ushers bowing deeply to ticket holders in the Big Hat arena, where the Japanese men's hockey team overcame its best cultural instincts in a thrilling 3-1 loss to Germany.

"The players on this team are so polite," says Dave King, the former Calgary Flames coach and current Montreal Canadiens assistant who is serving as general manager of the Japanese squad. "And that is such a beautiful part of their culture. But, as we've told them, it's something that you can't take with you onto the ice in hockey."

Pity. Some customs are so becoming, they hardly seem worth suspending simply for the sake of sports. When King first saw the Japanese play, he learned that the team was divided into groups called kohai (kids) and senpai (veterans). Whenever possible, the kohai would pass to the senpai out of deference to their elders, so that any opposing goalie facing a two-on-one breakaway could easily suss out who would shoot.

Japanese hockey players are reluctant to uncork slap shots in practice, lest they show up their own keeper. And while a hat trick in die six-team Japanese professional league occasions the halting of play so that a comely lady might present a bouquet of flowers to the goal scorer, few players want to score prolifically, for fear of singling themselves out from the group. "The biggest cultural issue to overcome was the national team's inferiority complex," says King. "The players didn't think of them-selves as equal to their international opponents."

Of course, there's another name for an inferiority complex. "Humility," as King calls it, is a paramount quality in Japanese life, but humble is almost an epithet in big-time modern sports. However you describe the Japanese team's RICE ROCKET ATTACK (as one bilingual Big Hat banner put it), this much is certain: "These players always give superlative effort," King said after Saturday's game, in which Japan stayed tied with Germany through 50 minutes.

Superlative effort was on display everywhere last week in Nagano, a host city that is largely succeeding against tall odds. Outside the 1,400-year-old Zenkoji Temple, a souvenir stand sold replica religious relics beneath a handwritten run-on sign: THIS IS DURMA (ONE OF BUDDHIST SAINTS) BELIEVED TO BRING ABOUT HAPPINESS BECAUSE IT WILL CERTAINLY GET UP ONCE IT FALLS DOWN.

That Chumbawamba attitude pervades these Olympics. They get knocked down-by the specter of the U.S. bombing Iraq; by homemade mortar shells fired on Narita Airport near Tokyo on Feb. 2, as athletes were arriving; by a lack of snow or a lack of Stateside interest or a lack of regard for the Winter Olympics in general—but they get up again, and you're never gonna keep 'em down. Asked how he was coping with the pressure of competing, U.S. snow-boarder Todd Richards told a press conference packed full of fat sportswriters: "I'm imagining you naked."

The dude's rude, but measured against the Japanese, who isn't? Consider the high-ranking Canadian Olympic official who addressed his nation's athletes at a reception last Friday night. The official felt moved that evening to praise "l'id�al Canadien'—the Canadian ideal—on display before him. Trouble is, the non-Francophone functionary kept saying a near-homonym, "l'ideal Canadien? He was praising the Canadian idiot standing in front of him.

Several French-Canadians were said to be offended. But let's be honest: It can be exceedingly difficult to tell the difference between Olympic id�aux and Olympic idiots, particularly on Team Canada, where the two qualities were conjoined in a single athlete. At a pre-Olympic press gathering, Paul Savage, an alternate Canadian curler, was identifiable by the maple leaf tattooed on his forehead (temporarily, as it turns out). "That's nothing," said the ignoble Savage, dropping his drawers to reveal the Olympic rings and a curling stone permanently tattooed on his rear end. The ensuing photograph ran on the front page of The Toronto Sun, whose crack staff wrote this headline for a column in the same day's sports section: LAND OF THE RISING MOON.

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