Bob Turner, Hideki Matsuyama
Courtesy Bob Turner

Tokyo Olympics an end goal for the American behind Japan sports icons

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FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — As the Tokyo Olympics near and interest generates in Japanese sports culture, an American father and son offer unique perspectives as right-hand men for two of Japan’s greatest athletes.

Bob Turner and his son, Allen, made a business out of acclimating Japan’s sports stars to life in the United States.

For decades, Japanese athletes could easily become icons without leaving the archipelago. Now, most of their time is spent in other countries, and mostly the U.S.

“It’s not just about becoming No. 1 in Japan,” said Bob Turner, a 66-year-old who has managed Japan’s best golfers on the PGA Tour for the last three decades, plus juggled work with Ichiro Suzuki in his early Seattle Mariners years. “They want to participate on the world stage and do very well at it.”

Bob was born in Washington, played high school golf in Northern California and attended BYU before a two-year Mormon mission to Japan, arriving in Sapporo in October 1972, eight months after it hosted the Winter Games.

Bob met his wife, Hiroko, and found his calling working for a sports promotion company, recruiting athletes for golf, tennis and marathon events. The list included Sam Snead, Billy Casper and Seve Ballesteros.

The family, including then-10-year-old Allen and his younger sister, Mika, moved back to the U.S. in 1987.

“It was time for them to be introduced to American culture,” Bob said.

Bob continued his work with golfers, but his role shifted from recruiting the world’s best to Japan to welcoming Japan’s best to the PGA Tour.

In 1993, Bob got a call from Naomichi “Joe” Ozaki, who decided to start playing regularly on the PGA Tour after winning 21 times on the Japan Golf Tour.

For the next eight years, Bob took care of Ozaki’s logistics and traveled with him to every tournament in the U.S. When Ozaki left the tour in 2001, Bob performed similar duties for Japan’s star of the 2000s, Shigeki Maruyama, for eight years.  

Bob has traveled with Japan’s current No. 1, Hideki Matsuyama, since he came over to the PGA Tour in 2013.

But the Turners are best known for their work in baseball. For five years, Bob managed baseball and golf clients. The biggest name on that list, and the biggest name in all Japanese sports, was Ichiro.

That’s where Allen comes in. In 1999, a Seattle Mariners scout whom Allen knew from high school ball said the team was going to sign Japanese pitcher Kazuhiro Sasaki. The club was looking for somebody to not only interpret and translate but also handle some on-field baseball work.

Allen, who began playing baseball in Japan at age 5, interviewed and got the job. The next season, the Mariners signed Ichiro. Allen and/or Bob has spent most of the last 19 MLB seasons with Ichiro. Allen moved with him to New York and Miami before last year’s return to Seattle and this year’s retirement. Ichiro still works for the Mariners’ front office, so Allen remains with the team, too.

Baseball will be played at the Olympics next year for the first time since 2008, but Ichiro has ruled out interest in suiting up.

MLB players are not expected to take part (they weren’t in baseball’s previous iteration, either). Japan’s roster should be made up of stars from the Nippon Professional league, perhaps the world’s second-best.

“That’s come up a lot, and [Ichiro] always, always says he respects Olympics,” Allen said, “but he believes that the Olympics should be for the amateurs, and the best amateurs go and participate in the Games.”

“Respect” and “honor” are two words that Americans often associate with Japanese sports.

Recall images of Japanese spectators at the FIFA World Cup cleaning up after themselves with trash bags in the stands.

In 2008, healthy Japanese gymnast Koki Sakamoto was withdrawn from the Olympic all-around final to give the spot to team leader Hiroyuki Tomita, who had scored five hundredths fewer in qualifying.

“[Sakomoto], I’m sure, felt it was the honorable thing to do,” NBC Olympics analyst Tim Daggett said at the time, noting his knowledge of Japanese sports from being coached by Makoto Sakamoto at UCLA.

“It’s a vertical society in Japan, where America is more horizontal where everyone is on the same level,” Bob said. “In Japan, it’s not that anybody’s better than anybody else, but if someone is older than you, you show them respect.”

That manifested in Allen’s childhood baseball days, when he woke up before dawn, rode his bike to the local diamond, practiced for an hour and then went to school.

The Turners lived near venerable Koshien Stadium, which opened a decade after Wrigley Field and hosts the national high school championship.

Allen idolized Randy Bass, a first baseman who bounced around five MLB clubs in six seasons before moving to the Hanshin Tigers, where he set the league’s single-season batting-average record (.389) that Ichiro could not break.

In 1985, Bass was one home run from tying the legendary Sadaharu Oh’s single-season record of 55 going into the last game. Facing a club managed by Oh, Bass reportedly drew four walks in five plate appearances

“To have somebody from America be that successful and a superstar was pretty cool,” Allen said. “Me being an American in Japan, even though I didn’t speak English, I looked different. The kids knew I was different.”

They were taught the same.

“[Allen] learned from a young age that you don’t argue with an umpire,” Bob said. “At the beginning of the game, you’ll take off your batting helmet when you go up to bat and tip it to the umpire. You don’t spit on the field. When your cleats touch the playing field, you’re running. You’re not walking or loafing. It’s dishonoring the game if you did. At the end of the game, you line up and everyone bows to the other team, you take off your hat and you say nice game. You do the same to the umpire.”

Ichiro, too, was brought up that way.

“Ichiro never threw a bat or threw a glove because it disrespects the maker of that bat or the maker of that glove that took a long time,” Bob said. “Not to say that Japan sports culture is better than here in the United States. I’m just saying that the culture of honor and respect is more demanded, I think, in Japan.”

Bob still goes back to Japan about twice a year. Since Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Games in 2013, he’s noticed storefronts with Olympic merchandise.

A 2018 survey published by Central Research Services in Japan showed that its most popular athletes were, in order, baseball players Shohei Ohtani and Ichiro, followed by figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu and tennis player Kei Nishikori.

A Japanese media research and analysis company recently reported that Hanyu received the most hours of major TV coverage of any athlete in 2018. He was followed by Ohtani, tennis player Naomi Osaka and then three more PyeongChang Olympic medalists.

“The Tokyo [1964] Olympics, Sapporo [1972], Nagano [1998], you still see documentaries about those,” Bob said. “More so than here in the United States, the Olympics are revered in Japan.”

Bob has never been to an Olympics. Neither has his primary client, Matsuyama, Japan’s top-ranked golfer the last five years who withdrew ahead of Rio due to Zika virus concerns. Matsuyama is planning on going to Tokyo. Bob is, too.

“That’s the finish line for me, hopefully,” Bob said.

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U.S. Olympic women’s tennis qualifying already looks intense

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Serena Williams is in strong early position to make the 2020 U.S. Olympic team. For everyone else, including older sister Venus Williams, every set of ranking points could be crucial over the next 10 months, including at the upcoming U.S. Open.

The U.S. has seven women in the world top 36 — not including 52nd-ranked Venus — but only four singles players can go to an Olympics from any one country come the rankings cutoff next June.

Serena Williams leads the way for Americans in second place overall in Olympic qualifying — which counts WTA rankings points starting after the 2019 French Open and running through the 2020 French Open. She has 1,885 points despite playing just two events the last two months, taking runner-up at Wimbledon and the Canadian Open.

Only Wimbledon champion Simona Halep, who has already been named Romania’s Opening Ceremony flag bearer, has more Olympic qualifying points (2,395).

After Serena, three more U.S. women are in the top 10 in Olympic qualifying — Sonya Kenin (No. 5), Madison Keys (No. 8) and Alison Riske (No. 10).

Keys, a quarterfinalist or better at all four Grand Slams in her career, jumped from outside the top 20 among Americans to the No. 3 American by notching her biggest title in Ohio last week.

Notables who must improve their ranking start with Venus Williams, who moved from 18th on the U.S. list to eighth by reaching the Cincinnati quarterfinals. She turns 40 before the Tokyo Games and could become the oldest Olympic singles player since the sport returned to the Olympic program following a 64-year break in 1988. She already owns the modern-era record of five Olympic tennis medals from her five previous Games and could still get to the Olympics in doubles if she doesn’t qualify in singles.

Sloane Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open champion, is 12th in U.S. Olympic qualifying, winning a total of three matches among four tournaments in the window.

The veterans Williams sisters, Keys and Stephens, who made up the 2016 U.S. Olympic singles team, must fend off an emerging class.

Kenin, 20, backed up her French Open upset of Serena Williams by winning a lower-level event in June and then beating the world Nos. 1 and 2 the last two weeks.

Riske is playing some of the best tennis of her career at age 29. She beat world then-No. 1 Ash Barty to make her first Slam quarterfinal at Wimbledon, a week before her wedding.

Then there are two of the phenoms of the year. Coco Gauff, 15, is ninth in U.S. Olympic qualifying after a run to the Wimbledon fourth round. Gauff was granted a wild card into the U.S. Open, after which she can’t play in more than five senior tournaments (and possibly no more than three) until her 16th birthday in March due to WTA age restrictions to keep young teens from burnout.

Amanda Anisimova, 17, is 13th in U.S. Olympic qualifying. Her best results this year — French Open semifinal, Australian Open fourth round — came before the Olympic qualifying window.

It’s looking like the toughest U.S. Olympic women’s singles team to make outright since 2004. Back then, the U.S. had Nos. 4 (Lindsay Davenport), 7 (Jennifer Capriati), 8 (Venus Williams), 11 (Serena Williams) and 18 (Chanda Rubin). Davenport, Capriati and Serena didn’t play at the Athens Games, opening the door for Lisa Raymond to play singles and doubles in Athens.

In 2000, Serena Williams didn’t make the Olympic singles field despite being ranked eighth in the world. A max of three players per nation were taken to Sydney, and the U.S. had Nos. 2, 3 and 6 in Davenport, Venus Williams and Monica Seles.

An Olympic rule mandating a minimum of Fed Cup appearances could affect Tokyo 2020 eligibility. However, the fine print allows for that to be bypassed in discretionary exceptional circumstances.

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U.S. Olympic Women’s Singles Qualifying Standings (Max. 4 can qualify)
1. Serena Williams — 1,885 points
2. Sonya Kenin — 1,081
3. Madison Keys — 972
4. Alison Riske — 802
5. Jennifer Brady — 356
6. Jessica Pegula — 348
7. Madison Brengle — 344
8. Venus Williams — 302
9. Coco Cauff — 298
10. Bernarda Pera — 280
11. Lauren Davis — 245
12. Sloane Stephens — 238
13. Amanda Anisimova — 230

U.S. athletes qualified for 2020 Tokyo Olympics

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The U.S. Olympic team roster for the 2020 Tokyo Games will eventually reach more than 500 athletes. It is currently at seven.

Qualifying competitions and Olympic Trials events dot the schedule from now into early summer 2020.

Athletes qualified so far:

Modern Pentathlon
Samantha Achterberg
Amro Elgeziry

Sport Climbing
Brooke Raboutou

Swimming
Haley Anderson
Ashley Twichell
Jordan Wilimovsky

Triathlon
Summer Rappaport

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