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Gambling scandal highlights lack of moral education for athletes

Kenichi Tago, left, gives advice to Kento Momota in Tokyo on Feb. 14, 2016. (Mainichi)

The chances of Japan's top men's badminton player Kento Momota, 21, competing in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics this August have almost disappeared after he admitted to gambling at an illegal casino. Also involved in the gambling was Momota's teammate, Kenichi Tago, 26. The incident reveals how Japan's world of sports, in its focus on preparing athletes to win medals at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, has neglected athletes' moral education.

As Momota was questioned over the incident by his employer, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone East Corp. (NTT East), his story changed time and again due to his nervousness. Kinji Zeniya, managing director of the Nippon Badminton Association, said he heard that, "They've called a doctor. Momota is exhausted."

NTT East's questioning of the two athletes began on April 7 after they returned from overseas. They are among 16 athletes working for the company who, along with staff members, were questioned about the gambling. Some of the athletes are said to have admitted to going to a casino. According to an insider source, the questioning was conducted strictly, with people in managerial positions doing the questioning and no accompaniment by those linked to the company's badminton team. Opinion has even reportedly been raised within the company that suspension of players' activities should be considered.

Qualification to compete in badminton at the Rio Olympics rests on the number of points obtained at international competitions over a one-year period from May last year. With the third-most points overall and the most points of any Japanese player, Momota's qualification was assured until now. According to the Nippon Badminton Association, qualification is granted not to countries or regions, but to individual athletes, so Japan cannot simply substitute in another player for Momota. The hopes for Japan's first medal in the badminton men's singles have been replaced by the realization that there may be no competitors at all from Japan.

The punishment the association will hand out will be decided at an emergency directors' meeting on April 10. Managing director Zeniya said, "We are looking at strict punishment." Under the association's ethics regulations, there are six levels of punishment, the most severe being expulsion and the lightest being a warning. It is extremely abnormal for the association to punish a currently active player.

For Momota, Tago has been a role model. Saying there are "many good points I take from him," Momota followed Tago to join NTT East in 2013. According to an insider source, in addition to the illegal casino in Japan, Tago also went to a casino in Macau while representing Japan at an international competition, and it is widely thought that the players' use of an illegal casino in Japan was at Tago's invitation.

A representative for one major sponsor of the badminton association, worried that the incident will damage the reputation of badminton as a sport in Japan, said, "It is very unfortunate and regrettable."

Daichi Suzuki, head of the Japan Sports Agency, released a statement, saying, "Both (Momota and Tago) are top-level athletes who receive support from fans around the country and are supposed to be role models for children. They are competing in sport with the support of the government and private sector. They should be aware of their social position and choose their actions carefully."

When the Tokyo Olympics begin, Momota will be at his peak age-wise, at 25. Zeniya, lamenting that this up-and-coming star would deal a blow to the sport, said tearfully, "The athletes were lacking in consciousness of the need to abide by laws as members of the public."

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