Tributes are pouring in for Sadako Ogata, who died on October 22 at age 92. The first woman and Japanese to be United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), she was also the former president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency as well as Japan’s first representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Although less than five feet tall, she earned the nickname “the diminutive giant” in fighting for refugees, the internally displaced, and even for standing up to the UN Secretary-General during the Bosnian war.
A small story can reveal what a determined person she was. I received a phone call one day from her secretary. “Dr. Warner,” she began, “we have learned that you are an expert tennis player and Mrs. Ogata would like to play with you. Would you be willing to play with her?” she asked.
While I was obviously flattered to be asked, it was not my habit at the time to play tennis with a seventy-year-old woman. And my days as a tennis pro were long past. Nonetheless, as an admirer of Mrs. Ogata’s work at UNHCR and familiar with her background as a PhD in political science from the University of California at Berkeley, I accepted. I also knew that she had been a junior champion player in Japan. But that was a very long time ago. A time and place were arranged at a country club outside Geneva.
We both arrived on time and quickly went on to the court. How to play? She was indeed diminutive, her height coming not much above the net. I envisaged a friendly hour, much like a friendly lesson with few teaching points, allowing the client to feel at ease. I started at the net and hit to her forehand. Her return was more than capable. I then tried her backhand. This was definitely not her strong point.
OK, I thought. We will hit from the backcourt for an hour, and I will hit mostly to her strength, her forehand. I retreated to the baseline and started hitting soft balls to her forehand.
After five minutes, she walked determinedly to the net. I followed. “Let’s play a match,” she announced.
What was I to say to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees? She had invited me to play. She was the boss. I agreed but worried that if I played seriously, she would be embarrassed. Worse, I could see the headlines in the papers: “UN High Commissioner dies at 70 playing tennis with some idiot who made her run all over the court.”
The hour went by with little drama. I don’t remember the score, but I do remember that she won a game or two. In any event she seemed pleased with the outing.
We both walked up to the net after the set and shook hands. She looked me straight in the eye and said: “Dr. Warner, if I ever want to win a mixed double match I will call you again.”
She never did call about tennis. But every time I saw her after that, at receptions and dinners, she would always ask me about my tennis.
Sadako Ogata is remembered as an inspired advocate for refugees, the internally displaced and the world’s most vulnerable. She was an extraordinary woman who was a true internationalist. I was always remember her determination: “Let’s play a match,” indeed.