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Tokyo Olympics—Behind the Lens with Nobuhiko Tanabe

With local knowledge and an eye for the moments between, Tokyo photographer Nobuhiko Tanabe captured the Olympic races with a style all his own.


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The moments before the men’s start.

Nobuhiko Tanabe is a photographer and cyclist based in Tokyo, who had a unique perspective going into the Tokyo Olympics as the world’s biggest sporting event staged in his home city.

“It’s a very strange feeling to see the world’s best athletes in Tokyo,” he says. “Most of the games are unattended, but the positive energy that comes from sports is amazing. I thought this positive energy was just what Japan needed during the exhausting Covid-19.”

Tanabe’s approach to shooting is different than many race photographers—instead of only focusing on the action between the tape, he aims to also capture the culture, atmosphere and enthusiasm of a venue. That creative philosophy shows in this selection from last week’s men’s and women’s Olympic races; Tanabe’s interpretation of the race days has a distinctly different feel, almost like he’s shooting from within the crowd as opposed to the designated media zones.

“The world’s highest level of competition is taking place here in Japan. I wanted people who could not be there to feel the tension and the passion and spirit of the athletes,” he said.

The mountain bike course was challenging for photographers because access was restricted, and there wasn’t much access to walk the course beforehand, but Tanabe shot the test event in 2019, so he already knew where he wanted to be. “On top of that, I made decisions as I watched the race unfold. I think I was able to take good pictures with preparation and a sense of what to expect.”

Tanabe captured many beautiful moments of the races, but witnessing Tom Pidcock’s incredible win is etched in his mind.

“I was very moved by Tom Pidcock’s gold medal win. I’ve been following him for years in cyclocross races, so to see him win here in Japan was very special for me. He didn’t win alone, but with the support of his coach, trainer, and team. I’m especially proud to have captured the moment of sharing the joy of victory right after the finish line.”

Tanabe has shot for Cannondale, Rapha, and Bridgestone, New Balance, The North Face, Mizuno and Daiwa Japan. He focuses largely on cyclocross, and every year travels to Europe to shoot a project called “Cross is Here,” a series of photo books that convey the unique culture and enthusiasm of the sport. Check out more of Tanabe’s work here: instagram.com/nobuhikotanabe.

 

Always a spectator sport, even with limited access for fans.

Japan’s only entrant, Kohei Yamamoto, framed by his country’s flags.

The world's highest level of competition is taking place here in Japan. I wanted people who could not be there to feel the tension and the passion and spirit of the athletes.

Switzerland’s Filippo Colombo embarks on another lap, with the U.S.’s sole men’s racer, Christopher Blevins, close behind.
Tom Pidcock makes a move as he leads defending gold medalist Nino Schurter.

Dutch favorite Mathieu van der Poel jockeys for position moments before his devastating OTB.

Pidcock head down, making headway.

MVDP’s post-crash focus.

I was very moved by Tom Pidcock's gold medal win. I've been following him for years in cyclocross races, so to see him win here in Japan was very special for me.

Exuberation, relief, gratitude.

A strong start was everything in this race; the women charge ahead.

Italy’s Eva Lechner.
America's Erin Huck is all focus.

Smooth, calm, and strong, eventual winner Jolanda Neff makes it look like she’s out for a pedal on her home trails.

Neff’s teammates Linda Indergand and Sina Frei on their way to filling out the podium.

Great Britain’s Evie Richards gave this race her all, leading for a brief period, before eventually finishing 7th.

Most of the games are unattended, but the positive energy that comes from sports is amazing.

Neff truly rocked the course.

A sweet Swiss celebration.