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Athletics: University fires road relay team director over power harassment

In this Jan. 2, 2018 photo, the Tokyo-Hakone collegiate ekiden road relay kicks off in Tokyo's Otemachi. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- A notable sports university in Japan announced Wednesday it has dismissed the director of its ekiden road relay team over power harassment and violence against its members, the latest in a string of scandals that have rocked the country's sporting world.

According to Nippon Sport Science University, a private school known for cultivating world-class athletes, ekiden director Masaaki Watanabe is alleged to have kicked students' legs, grabbed them by the collar, and pressed some students to "quit the university."

Watanabe admitted to the allegations in general and offered to resign, but the 55-year-old was instead dismissed on Tuesday for "lacking aptitude for student guidance" since he did not fully recognize his behavior as inappropriate, according to the university.

"We completely prohibit acts of violence, so this is truly regrettable," university president Koji Gushiken said. "We will make efforts to better train our students, teachers, and faculty members."

Watanabe, who also graduated from the university, took the post in March 2015. In 2013, he was handed a suspension for repeated violence against his athletes at a high school in Aichi Prefecture in central Japan, where he had worked until March of that year.

The university was an ekiden powerhouse in the 1970s, winning the Tokyo-Hakone collegiate ekiden -- one of three prominent university relay races of the year -- five straight times between 1969 and 1973.

The team has won 10 Tokyo-Hakone titles and earned the right to participate again next year after finishing fourth in the 2018 race. The famous road relay is held annually on Jan. 2 and 3 and broadcast live on national television.

The team will sit out the season-opening Izumo ekiden on Oct. 8 in Shimane Prefecture as Watanabe's successor remains undecided.

Nippon Sport Science University is well known in Japan for its notable alumni and has produced over 10 Olympic gold medal athletes, including three-time gold medal gymnast Kohei Uchimura, five-time gold medalist Mitsuo Tsukahara, and four-time gold medal swimmer Kosuke Kitajima.

Current students include Olympic gold medal gymnast Kenzo Shirai and reigning world champion judoka Hifumi Abe.

The Japanese sports world has been jolted by a spate of scandals recently, including four national basketball team members being sent home from the recent Asian Games for paying for sex, and gymnastics officials being suspended over the alleged harassment of 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympian Sae Miyakawa.

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