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Wariness greets gov't talk of tightening controls on scandal-hit sports bodies

The Kishi Memorial Sports Building, which houses many sports associations, is seen in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward, on Sept. 29, 2018. (Mainichi/Hitoshi Kurasawa)
Japan Sports Agency Commissioner Daichi Suzuki is seen in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward in this Sept. 7, 2018 file photo. (Mainichi/Taro Fujii)

TOKYO -- Mounting public criticism of a series of scandals rocking the sports community has prompted the government to consider tightening controls over sports associations.

The wrongdoing behind the scandals is largely attributable to structural problems in smaller sports associations, where self-policing functions are almost nonexistent due to their fragile financial base and closed nature.

The government's musings on more controls on the associations is shaking the unwritten rule that politics should not intervene in sports -- a principle established based on lessons learned from Japan's boycotting of the 1980 Moscow Olympics under pressure from the government.

The scandal-hit canoe, wrestling and boxing organizations have their headquarters on the southern side of the fourth floor of the Kishi Memorial Sports Building, also home to the Japan Sport Association and the Japanese Olympic Committee.

The Japan Canoe Federation is being rocked by an incident in which a canoeist laced a rival's drink with a banned substance. The Japan Wrestling Federation is under fire over a power harassment scandal, while the Japan Amateur Boxing Federation is has been shaken by subsidy misappropriation.

Revelations of wrongdoing involving these sports associations do not appear to be a coincidence. All these organizations, with their tenuous finances, have gathered in the smaller rooms of the Kishi building's fourth floor because of the low rents.

A person linked to the Japan Sport Association noted that, unlike the fourth-floor associations, those "that have secure financial backing have well-organized secretariats staffed by employees, and hire outside experts to maintain their governance capacity."

Organizations involved in wrongdoing have another thing in common. They have been desperate to raise funds and relied heavily on a handful of coaches who have developed star players.

Tomiaki Fukuda, president of the Japan Wrestling Federation, remodeled an abolished school in Tokamachi, Niigata Prefecture, into a training camp in 1991, laying the foundation for Japan's female wrestlers' domination of the Olympic podium. Kazuhito Sakae, the former development director at the federation who is accused of power harassment against a female wrestler, held training camps at his home and allowed the wrestlers to stay over.

Akira Yamane, who headed the Japan Amateur Boxing Federation, organized overseas tours for Japanese boxers by taking advantage of his large overseas network, helping one of the association's fighters grab Japan's first Olympic boxing gold in 48 years at the 2012 London Games.

Japan has set a goal of winning at least the third most gold medals in the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, and a massive amount of public funds is being poured into developing athletes.

Noriko Mizoguchi, professor of sport sociology at Japan Women's College of Physical Education and a judo silver medalist at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, pointed out, "Higher-ranking members of sports associations are immersed in a village-like, top-down culture, and have failed to respond to the changing times."

These scandals have prompted the Japan Sports Agency and a non-partisan parliamentary league on sports to call for enhancement of sports associations' integrity. Toshiaki Endo, a former state minister in charge of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics who now serves as secretary-general of the league, mentioned the possibility of the government intervening in sports organizations.

"If there are problems involving the use of public funds provided to sports organizations, it's the role for the government to rectify that," he said on Sept. 18.

Japan Sports Agency Commissioner Daichi Suzuki, who previously headed the Japan Swimming Federation, also underscored the need for the central government to give instructions to sports bodies.

"Sports organizations' autonomy should be respected, but I'm wondering whether the current situation should be left as is," he said. "We must consider a system where we can give instruction to these bodies."

Politics began to encroach on sports organizations' activities after Japan won just one medal at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics. The following year, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party set up a panel to consider developing athletes as national policy.

Since Japan's successful bid to host the 2020 games, budget appropriations for relevant projects have kept increasing. Funds allocated for the development of athletes, which stood at approximately 4.8 billion yen in fiscal 2014, shortly after Japan won the bid, had risen to 9.6 billion yen by fiscal 2018. As a result, the government and the political community have a bigger say in the sports community.

A senior official of the Japanese Olympic Committee criticized the government and politicians for their "authoritarian" ways in dealing with the sports community.

(Japanese original by Kazuhiro Tahara, Yuta Kobayashi and Akira Matsumoto, Sports News Department)

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