With the Olympic Torch Relay now underway in Fukushima, Tokyo 2020 looks back at a March interview with Olympic track cyclist NITTA Yudai where he talked about the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 and his thoughts ahead of an emotional summer Games.
"I want to convey to the world the vigour and allure of Fukushima through my performance," said track cyclist NITTA Yudai as he reflected back on the ten years since the Great East Japan Earthquake.
Nitta was selected to represent the Olympic team for keirin and sprint last June after the one-year postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Games was announced. It will be his first return to the Olympics since the London 2012 Games. As a native of Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima, his anticipation for the region’s recovery is especially strong. Propelled by thoughts of the disaster-stricken area, he strives to be the first Japanese cyclist to win a gold medal in keirin – a sport that originated in Japan.
Vivid memories of that fateful day
Every 11 March, Nitta reflects on the time that has passed and he posts the words “never forget” on his blog. It has already been ten years, but it has also only been ten years. He imparts the significance of continuing to share these messages as a top keirin cyclist and world-class athlete.
"It’s easy to demarcate ten years as a turning point, but for those who’ve lived through it, nothing changes. The memories don’t fade. Our understanding of it can vary each time we think about it. It’s important to keep sharing what’s happening every year. I don’t think there’s anything negative about doing that, and it’s a good way to remember the people affected by the disaster."
11 March 2011. In preparation for the World Championships, Nitta - a member of Japan’s national team - was in Tokyo for a training camp. With no practice that day, he was in the city when he experienced the violent shaking. Transportation services were halted and phones lines went down, cutting off communication. Left in unfamiliar surroundings, Nitta wandered through the city full of anxiety.
"I wasn’t familiar with the geography, and I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t able to get back to the dorm that night. A lot of people were moving about with no idea what was going on that day. People weren’t equipped to respond to an earthquake and I don’t think there was much awareness of its potential danger."
Immediately afterwards, information spread quickly. Nitta’s hometown of Aizu-Wakamatsu was inland and safe from any threat of a tsunami, however the earthquake’s impact on the nuclear power plant affected all of Fukushima. Video showing massive damage caused by the tsunami was shown alongside footage of the devastation at the nuclear power plant. His heart ached as his confusion was compounded by the sheer volume of information that was disseminated, not only through news sources, but on social media as well.
"I finally reached my family and was told that the only damage they suffered were broken dishes, etc. That provided some relief, but more challenges lay ahead. There was a lot of incorrect information being shared in regards to the nuclear power plant, and I was unsure of the risks involved and what actions to take. It wasn’t until two to three weeks later that we got a clearer sense of the situation. I was extremely worried until then."
Five days after the earthquake, Nitta was scheduled to depart for the World Championships in the Netherlands. Training was far from his mind, and he even questioned whether he should participate in the event. While he was still struggling to contact people back home, it was his friends who he was able to reach that encouraged him to go.
"Should I be leaving? Is it appropriate to prioritise sport at a time like this? I was full of uncertainty and didn’t know what to do. My friends and colleagues encouraged me to go and show what I’m capable of on the world stage - race to lift the spirits of those who were suffering, even if it’s just for a moment. Receiving those words of support, I was able to leave for the World Championships".
The impact of the London 2012 Games
The following year, Nitta participated in the London 2012 Olympic Games. As a primary school student, he looked up to speed skater SHIMIZU Hiroyasu, a gold medalist at the Nagano 1998 Winter Olympic Games, and aspired to reach the Olympics in cycling. Despite the grief caused by the earthquake, he remained focused to attain his goal. What he encountered on the world-class stage of the Olympics was the Games’ significance, the role of sports, and its power. These experiences left a lasting impact on Nitta’s competitive career.
"In London, there was memorial for the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake, and events were held during the Games. Up until then, I only saw the Olympics as a competitive sporting event, but there was more to it than that. It was an event that made clear what athletes could do and what supporters wanted achieved through the medium of sports."
Japan won its highest number of Olympic medals at the London 2012 Games, bringing home 38 medals. Athletes fought hard to invigorate the Tohoku region and the people of Japan who were still reeling from the earthquake’s aftermath. As the purpose of sport was questioned amidst the unprecedented disaster, the athletes left their mark. Having achieved his goal of reaching the Olympics, Nitta placed eighth out of ten teams in the Team Sprint event - an unsatisfying result.
"Host countries for the Olympics typically win a lot of medals. The added excitement for the athletes probably plays a part. There was a similar energy among the Japanese athletes at that time. It felt different from other tournaments as I reflected on the training, conditions, supporters, and the earthquake’s effects. It was my first Olympics and I was disappointed by the results, but the national team was unified and strong."
Cycling was not a sport in which Japan excelled, having won only three bronze medals and one silver medal in the past. Many had low expectations for the London 2012 Games, and Nitta’s aim was to simply reach the Olympic stage. However, that goal soon shifted to "winning a medal," after being inspired by other athletes’ successes and recognising the significance of sports and the Games.
"I didn’t race believing that I could actually win a medal at the Olympics. The host country’s British national team won with their overwhelming power, as if it were only a qualifying or regional tournament. That’s what I would like to do too. As the Games progressed my focus shifted to winning a medal at the next Olympics."
Following his mentor’s footsteps
In 2013, Tokyo was announced as hosts of the 2020 Summer Olympics. "It is especially meaningful to me, and not only because I’m Japanese," explained Nitta. MADARAME Hideo, Nitta’s coach and mentor in keirin since his time at Shirakawa High School in Fukushima, who represented Japan in cycling at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and later became the coach for the national team.
"I met Mr. Madarame when I was 16. Knowing his career, I was excited to have a mentor that had experienced the Tokyo Olympics work with me to get to an international level. When the Tokyo 2020 Games were announced, I knew I had to qualify. Just knowing someone who has experienced the Olympics is unique, and this was an opportunity to participate in the same Olympic Games in Tokyo, which I found particularly significant."
Nitta’s hometown of Aizu-Wakamatsu and Shirakawa hosted many displaced victims of the nuclear power plant accident and suffered the harmful effects of rumours and misinformation. During that time, he received support from many of those around him, which included an environment that helped him focus on competing. Feeling grateful, Nitta is determined to give back to those affected by the disaster.
"Seeing the situation in Fukushima, I began to think about what assistance I could provide to the place that had always supported me. It was Mr. Madarame who advised me to ‘impart the wonder and joy of sports to children.’ What began as an effort to cheer up the children affected by the disaster, eventually led to me gaining motivation from them."
After the one-year postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tokyo 2020 Games will be symbolic, not only as the Olympic and Paralympic Games that coincide with the ten-year anniversary of earthquake recovery efforts, but for many other reasons as well. Nitta chooses to have a positive perspective.
"This is an opportunity for everybody to think about the role of sports in society and the fundamental principles of the Olympic Games and its value. Ultimately, I believe the Games will benefit Fukushima. It’s a large region with vast, rich land and has a lot to offer. I want to share Fukushima’s appeal and vigour with the world."
The gold-medal hopeful from Fukushima placed second in Men’s Keirin at the 2019 Track Cycling World Championships and earned the top spot in the world rankings that same year. With ongoing recovery efforts close to his heart, Nitta will soon race around the banks at the Tokyo 2020 Games.