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It was an Olympic awards ceremony in a way, not the one they had dreamed of but one that members of Team Japan will not soon forget. They were in a Tokyo auditorium a week before the Games began, seated in perfect rows while schoolchildren walked among them with baskets, like church ushers taking collection. Yet these boys and girls were giving, not receiving, as they handed each of the 518 members of the delegation—athletes, coaches, trainers, officials—a small wooden disk, two inches in diameter, decorated with ribbons that made it look like first prize at a county fair. The keepsakes were hand-carved and sanded smooth, with the five Olympic rings etched into them, and though they were not made of the precious metals for which the athletes are now competing in London, they were priceless nonetheless. As some members of the team held them in their hands, tears welled in their eyes.
There are places in Japan, particularly in the disaster-struck Tohoku region, where you still can find driftwood from the tsunami that ravaged the country in March 2011, leaving an estimated 19,000 people dead or missing. Some of that debris was gathered and carved into the medal replicas that the children gave to the Olympic team. The children were from the most affected areas, and each ribbon carried an innocent, hopeful message from them, such as Bring back a lot of medals, please and I hope you do very well for our country. All athletes take the hopes of a nation with them to the Olympics, but rarely are they as tangible as the ones the Japanese are carrying in their knapsacks in London. More than a year after a national trauma, the country still turns to its athletes to boost its morale. "How can you not be moved?" asks javelin thrower Yukifumi Murakami. "It is our duty to help our country with recovery. As athletes, the Olympics are our opportunity."
Japan may have the physical resources to rebuild after the three-pronged devastation of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake, the tsunami it caused and the resulting meltdown at a nuclear power plant, which displaced an estimated 150,000 people. But repairing the national psyche can't be done with steel and cement. Team Japan has already seen how sporting success can lift the country's spirit from the excitement generated by the women's soccer team's World Cup championship last summer (though the Japanese Football Association didn't show much appreciation by flying the team to London in coach while reserving first-class seats for the men's squad). The Olympians know that their country could use another dose of joy.
For some of the athletes, the recovery is not only collective but also personal. Cyclist Kazunari Watanabe shared a house with his wife, parents, grandmother and the family of his older sister in the town of Futaba until the meltdown at the nearby Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. The radiation forced the evacuation of about 7,000 residents, and Watanabe's extended family was forced to relocate to three other cities. They may never be able to return to their Futaba home.
Fencer Kenta Chida was in Germany when the tsunami hit, and he returned home to find that his best friend, Satoru Onodera, had been killed by the waves. Three years earlier, it was Onodera who had struck just the right tone of consolation and encouragement after Chida was disappointed by an 11th-place finish in foil at the Beijing Olympics. "He told me to be sad, but only for a short time," Chida said. "He said if I began to practice again, even harder, that London would be my time to win a medal. The only way I have to thank him now is to make sure that I prove him correct."
When the earthquake hit, shooter Tomoyuki Matsuda, a 36-year-old policeman, was on the range in the coastal city of Ishinomaki, near the epicenter, preparing for the 2011 World Cup in Sydney. He and several teammates were nearly knocked to the ground by the violence of the temblor and then had to scramble to safety when the tsunami began. Matsuda found ground high enough to escape the walls of water while he watched massive waves in the distance bury his hotel.
Matsuda considered pulling out of the World Cup to help with the rescue effort, but his commander told him that his first duty was to compete in Sydney in honor of his countrymen. Matsuda did that well, winning the 50-meter pistol and 10-meter air pistol and dedicating the victories to the victims before he returned to help with the recovery. "Whatever results I achieve [in London] will be a tribute to the people who have suffered," he says. He faltered in the air pistol last Saturday, finishing 13th, but he has another chance in the 50-meter pistol on Sunday.
Not every Japanese athlete will take home a medal, of course. Some will fall short even of more modest goals, a disappointment that will sting all the greater in light of how their country has turned to them for inspiration. But those who fail should remember that even the darkest moments can be carved into something hopeful. In case they lose sight of that, they each have a precious piece of wood to remind them.