Toru Kobayashi combined his love of alpine skiing with dreams of working overseas to forge a 20-year career with the Olympics Games, and now heads the National Olympic Committee / National Paralympics Committee (NOC/NPC) Services and Relations for the 2020 Tokyo Games’ organizing committee.
Kobayashi remembers once as a university student visiting his older brother in the States. The visit made a deep impression on him. Kobayashi had always scored well on his school English exams but he struggled to make a simple food order at a shop.
“One shop clerk didn’t understand even my simplest request. He made me repeat ‘potato salad’ until my pronunciation was clear,” Kobayashi told The Japan Times Alpha.
Determined to work internationally, he redoubled his study of English back home, using the TOEIC test for motivation. When the City of Nagano put in a bid for the Winter Olympics, the avid skier wanted to be involved.
He realized the local governments would run the events and so applied to work for his hometown, Nagano City. Kobayashi’s first assignment was with the Board of Education in the library system, but he was open with his supervisors about his dream to work for the Olympics, and his perseverance paid off. After Nagano won the bid, Kobayashi was selected to join the Nagano Olympic Committee (NAOC). He was sent to Norway to prepare for the 1998 Nagano Games.
“There weren’t many people in the city government who spoke English or other foreign languages. The NAOC wanted me to gain firsthand experience from the 1994 Lillehammer Games so I spent two winters with their organizing committee,” he explains. His area of specialty was accreditation.
“Accreditation is the most fundamental part of the games’ operations because it manages the registration of all the participants and access to the venues.”
His experience working in the city library helped: “When I started with Olympic accreditation, I found the systems were very similar to Nagano’s library system, and I was able to quickly get used to the Olympic system.”
His determination with languages was strong. English was the common language at the Lillehammer Olympic Committee, yet a new challenge arose when he found a French colleague didn’t speak English, but did speak Norwegian.
“I couldn’t speak French,” Kobayashi remembers, “but I had been taught Norwegian, so it was an incredible opportunity to improve my Norwegian, since we had to communicate every day.”
There was, of course, a learning curve to using everyday professional English, too.
“When I first arrived, I asked an American colleague to proofread a document I drafted, and she said, ‘Do you want me to correct the grammatical errors or just rewrite everything from the beginning?’ ” he recalls. “I was shocked, but from then on I really started to learn the kind of English you don’t get from a textbook.”
Kobayashi became an expert in accreditation, developing a new system for the Nagano Games. After the 1998 Games ended, he continued working for the city, now with a young family to support. But by the early 2000s, he was overseas again with the 2006 Torino Games, as its organizing committee needed an accreditation specialist.
Kobayashi and his family lived in Italy for four years, facing the challenge of yet another new language.
“The committee offered Italian language classes once a week. I had never studied Italian before, but the class was taught all in Italian so it was very helpful.”
Kobayashi next worked for the 2010 Vancouver Games before returning to Japan, accepting a position with Japan’s National Olympic Committee and also working as a consultant for the International Olympic Committee.
“We’re in charge of 206 national Olympic committees from around the world,” Kobayashi says of his current job. “All those details to manage for a wide range of cultures!”
It’s a challenge that perfectly aligns with his longtime goal: “Meeting diverse people from various countries is very rewarding. Since each edition of the games is different, I’m always learning new things, delivering specific services depending on what the country needs for their athletes.” (Kris Kosaka)
Words I tell myself
小林亨 (こばやし とおる)