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Sports agency to channel funds into events likely to produce Olympic medals

Japan Sports Agency Commissioner Daichi Suzuki, left, and Atsunori Inaba, manager of Japan's national baseball team, compare the sizes of their hands in this file photo taken in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on July 25, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- The Japan Sports Agency is set to channel funds to enhance athletes' performance into events that are highly likely to bring Olympic and Paralympic medals home, as the opening of the 2020 Tokyo Games looms just 570 days ahead.

Japan aims to capture a record 30 gold medals at the Tokyo Games. In light of that goal, the sports agency is preparing to adopt a "selection and concentration" policy, singling out and focusing on promising events, from the beginning of fiscal 2019.

Domestic sports federations have questioned this strategy, but the agency is poised to retain a merit-based policy as it adds the finishing touches to its plan to achieve an unprecedented medal count.

In the summer of 2018, two years before the planned opening of the Tokyo Olympics on July 24, 2020, Japan Sports Agency Commissioner Daichi Suzuki commented, "We have offered chances to (athletes in) many sporting events. From now on, we have no choice but to narrow down the events to provide support bit by bit."

According to the so-called "Suzuki plan," which the commissioner hammered out in October 2016 following the Rio de Janeiro Olympics and Paralympics, the interval from fiscal 2017 through 2018 was dubbed as "a period to establish a solid base for good performance." Under the plan, the agency supported all national federations to enhance their possibility of capturing medals. The period from fiscal 2019, meanwhile was earmarked as one to focus on events with greater medal potential.

This tactic, diverging from the conventional approach of fairly distributing resources across all disciplines, follows the successful precedent set by Britain, which won 29 gold medals at the 2012 London Olympics. The medal count was the second highest following the country's 56 gold medals at the 1908 London Olympics, and was more than three times higher than the nine gold medals it won at the 2004 Athens Games. The Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) envisages a similar upward curve.

In Britain, the governmental body UK Sport has prioritized distribution of state subsidies and lucrative lottery income to promising events such as rowing, cycling and sailing, thereby successfully churning out medalists.

But at the same time, it has shown no mercy in events where British Olympians fare poorly. After the 2012 London Games, it terminated financial support to basketball, volleyball and table tennis, among other sports, and slashed subsides to badminton by 90 percent after the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, despite winning a medal in the event, on the grounds that there was little chance that its badminton players would win medals at the 2020 Tokyo Games.

This achievement-based approach, however, triggered a strong backlash, and the British government ended up creating a new fund of 3 million pounds (about 420 million yen) in October 2018 to redistribute funds to archery and badminton.

Since Tokyo won the bid to host the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic games in September 2013, the Japanese government's expenses for enhancing athlete performance has soared at the request of the JOC and other bodies. In the fiscal 2019 national budget draft, the outlays for athlete performance enhancement reached 10 billion yen for the first time, more than twice the approximately 4.8 billion yen allocated in the fiscal 2014 budget.

The sports agency will work out a new basic policy on fund distribution by the end of fiscal 2018. An individual close to the agency told the Mainichi Shimbun, "In competitive sports, achievements and results are all that matter. Each event should be evaluated on the basis of evidence."

Officials at some national federations are puzzled by the sports agency's move.

"Such extreme raises and cuts in athlete performance enhancement expenses do not fit in with Japanese customs," one official said. Another official complained, "An achievement-based system won't help increase the athlete population."

Amid the unstable financial situation, some national federations have devised their own fundraising countermeasures. Japan's rowing federation secured some 200 million yen in performance enhancement funds through donations. The nation's table tennis federation, meanwhile, is transforming one of the events it organizes into one in which athletes representing Japan in world championships will try to attract more revenue from sponsors. Yoshihito Miyazaki, head of the performance enhancement department at the Japan Table Tennis Association, said, "State subsidies can increase or decrease. To avoid any impact from the changes, we would like to collect funds necessary for performance enhancement on our own as much as possible."

As the government is expected to drastically cut back on sport-related funding once the 2020 Tokyo Games are over, national federations are being pressed to become financially independent to free themselves from reliance on state subsidies.

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

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