Feb 22, 2024

Sports, Sponsorships, and Events / Feature Story

Sponsorship & Events

Young Japanese Athletics Coach Committed to Developing a Social Business in the Pacific Island Nation of Vanuatu

Panasonic is a founding partner of the IOC Young Leaders Programme, which annually selects 25 young people worldwide to help them leverage the power of sport to make a difference in their communities. Ryosuke Itomi, a Japanese athletics coach in his 20s, is one such IOC Young Leader who was selected for the programme in 2023.

Since 2019, Ryosuke has been coaching athletics overseas in his role as JICA Overseas Cooperation Volunteers & Athletics Director for the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. His most recent responsibility was leading the training of local athletes in preparation for the Sol2023 Pacific Games which were held in the Solomon Islands in November 2023.

Photo: Ryosuke Itomi

Development Studies, which I studied at a graduate school in England, is one of the disciplines that laid the foundation for the concept of the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs,” says Ryosuke. “At that time, I couldn’t find anyone around me who shared a similar aspiration—to realize the concept of SDGs through sport.”

“However, when I participated in the training courses for the IOC Young Leaders Programme, I encountered literally thousands of people who shared the same motivation. With this experience, I was confident the IOC Young Leaders Programme would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he says. Even after being selected as a Young Leader, Ryosuke continued to meet members who had deeper knowledge and even greater passion, and this stimulated his motivation further.

Yasur Volcano Run: supporting Vanuatu’s remote islands through sustainable tourism and sport

When he moved to Vanuatu, Ryosuke was at first bewildered by the unfamiliar culture and characteristics of the new country. “Time in Vanuatu flows slower than Japan. We call it island time,” he explains. “What I kept in mind when coaching here is to not just tell the local athletes to show up on time, but to lead by example. When I continued to be on time every day, the local athletes eventually started to follow my behavior. Showing by example, rather than just pushing the rules—this is equally important in both track and field and in social business.

Ryosuke then started to see opportunities to leverage sport to provide economic and social support for the people of Vanuatu. “When I saw Mount Yasur, a volcano on Tanna Island, I came up with the idea of utilizing Vanuatu’s tourism resources for a sport-based business. Developing a social business project through sport was my long-held dream,” he says.

Ryosuke is currently working towards the realization of a social contribution project called “Yasur Volcano Run,” a trail running event around the active volcano. The project aims to create business opportunities on the remote islands where there are limited sources of income and work opportunities for some communities, particularly for women. Additionally, the project aims to build a business foundation that helps the local community stand on its own feet. By leveraging the rich natural environment around Mount Yasur on Tanna Island, the idea is to revitalize regenerative tourism in Vanuatu. The project will be operated in cooperation with the Vanuatu Tourism Office, which has the same purpose and passion, and aims to expand the country’s tourism market by promoting it to a wider global audience. This partnership will be key to the success of the project and will ensure it has a broader positive impact on society.

Ryosuke continues, “As I continue to work on these projects, I always remind myself of a phrase I was taught when I was training as a track and field athlete: ‘Train yourself to become a good person before becoming a good athlete.’ This phrase was influenced in no small measure by the words of Konosuke Matsushita, founder of the Panasonic Group, who said, ‘We build people before products.’”

Overcoming setbacks: how Ryosuke found his passion through perseverance

Ryosuke’s path has not been a smooth one. In his second year of junior high school, he thought he was no good at anything, and started imagining what kind of person he wanted to become. To achieve his ideal self, Ryosuke went abroad and studied in England. After returning to Japan, he began to pursue his childhood dream of competing in the Hakone Ekiden (a relay race). In his junior high school days, he was able to thrive with his passion for track and field events. However, entering a high school famous for its track and field club proved to be a great setback for him. He tried desperately to keep up with the other athletes and pushed himself too hard. He eventually wore himself out, and his dream of competing in the Hakone Ekiden gradually faded away.

However, learning about the JICA Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers program, which he discovered when he first gave up on his dream and entered university, became a turning point for Ryosuke. “The emotions I had felt in England began to well up inside me,” he recalls. The country he was assigned to was Vanuatu. At the time, athletics in Vanuatu were underdeveloped, and Ryosuke was able to leverage the track and field experience he had developed in Japan to coach the local athletes.

Working in an environment where he could make the most of himself allowed Ryosuke to rapidly develop his coaching skills. He started to think, “I may be able to return to Japan for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 as coach of the Vanuatu national team.” The COVID-19 pandemic then engulfed the world, and Ryosuke was forced to return to Japan. It was then announced that the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 would be postponed for a year, and Ryosuke desperately searched for a way to take part in them. After finally finding a way to experience the Olympic Games as a volunteer, he decided to go back to England and study at graduate school there to fulfill a dream he had had since his junior high school days. The English language skills he developed there became the foundation for his long-held dream, allowing him to coach the athletes in Vanuatu.

Find a dream that excites and leads to a better future

Ryosuke has learnt two important lessons through his experiences. The first is to “Be able to continue with your efforts without pushing yourself too hard.” He was not able to continue performing as an athlete, but he did continue to learn English, which eventually led him to become a national coach in Vanuatu and to study at a graduate school in England. The second lesson is to “Find something that excites you. It’s called a dream.” Hakone Ekiden, the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, and studying abroad—not all his dreams have come true, but throughout the past 13 years, Ryosuke always kept a sense of excitement in his heart. It is his curiosity that has led him to where he is today.

Photo: Second grade pupils at Nagashima Junior High School in Kuwana, Mie prefecture, who attended Ryosuke’s lecture.

Second grade pupils at Nagashima Junior High School in Kuwana, Mie prefecture, who attended Ryosuke’s lecture.

Ryosuke’s eyes are firmly fixed on the future. Being true to one’s heart, not wavering because of other people’s opinions, and always pursuing excitement; he sees these as the first steps towards the realization of dreams and meeting the social challenges of the SDGs. As well as supporting Ryosuke and other IOC Young Leaders, the Panasonic Group hopes to continue bringing happiness to a sustainable society by empowering future generations.

This article is based on the content of a talk Ryosuke Itomi gave at the IOC Young Leaders x Panasonic KWN SDGs event held in December 2023 at Nagashima Junior High School in Mie prefecture, Japan, Ryosuke’s alma mater.

About the IOC Young Leaders Programme

The IOC Young Leaders Programme is a joint project between the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Panasonic which aims to develop future leaders by selecting 25 young people worldwide to help them leverage the power of sport and make a difference in their communities. The programme works together with a number of initiatives in various countries to address a range of social and environmental issues, many of them focus areas of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Panasonic is the Founding Partner of the IOC Young Leaders Programme (olympics.com).

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