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When being first class only gets you a seat in economy

by Philip Brasor

Thanks to international media coverage, everybody in the world is now convinced that the Japan Olympic Committee is sexist. When two of Japan’s national soccer teams recently flew to Europe prior to participating in the Olympics, the women’s squad was placed in the premium economy section (¥470,000) while the men’s under-23 contingent got to sit in business class (¥670,000). The senior female player on board, Homare Sawa (33), answered Japanese reporters’ questions about this arrangement by saying that maybe the two teams should have switched places and, in any case, the women were older. Only a few articles implied that she was probably being sardonic, and I’d like to think that if she was it’s because she wanted to take the stuffing out of the sports media.

Many cried discrimination, which it is, according to the simplest definition of the word. Both teams are representing Japan, and for the JOC to allow the men to travel under more comfortable circumstances than the women would seem to contradict one of its principles. All Japanese Olympians — with the exceptions of the very large ones — are supposed to fly coach, presumably to avoid any hint of favoritism (and save the JOC money). The Japanese male soccer team flew business because its members are professionals and their sponsors paid for the upgrade, which means the JOC’s rules only apply as long as money isn’t involved; and, of course, money is always involved.

Had the JOC enforced its own edict and made the men’s team sit in coach, would any players have refused to go? Last week Asahi Shimbun reported on various farewell parties for Olympic athletes, each one organized by a specific sports association. Some were attended by professionals, and several told the Asahi reporter they didn’t consider the Olympics the pinnacle of sporting events. That doesn’t mean they aren’t excited about going; only that winning a medal doesn’t signify as much to them as winning a world championship in their particular field of endeavor. As long as someone is paying for them to go to the Olympics they’re happy and maybe honored to go. Even if they don’t come home with a medal, think of the memories — and all those parties!

This dynamic doesn’t apply to every sport, especially when gender is factored in. The Japan national women’s softball team won the world championship last week, ending a seven-year winning streak by the Americans, but the team received only a fraction of the coverage it enjoyed when it won the gold at the Olympics in Beijing. The women’s soccer team has already won the World Cup, which according to the above-mentioned credo would seem to be the highest achievement, but last year after the team’s surprise victory in Germany Sawa said that, in reality, winning a gold medal at the Olympics is what the team really wants. This could be interpreted to mean that women’s soccer is still not prominent enough to make a world championship trump the Olympics in terms of prestige, but Sawa may have been talking about Japan. Winning the World Cup was great, but what Japanese people really want is gold medals.

If that’s the case, then the JOC should have forked over the cash to pay for the women’s upgrade, since they have a better chance of winning a medal than the men’s team does, pros or no pros. (Though it should be pointed out that many of the women players are pros themselves.) After all, it is the JOC’s mission to do everything in its power to assure that Japanese athletes bring home as many medals as possible, so business class for the women could have been justified as an investment, even if it discriminated against other athletes who were less likely to win anything.

In fact, why not use taxpayers’ money for the upgrade, since support for winning medals is now national policy? After the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, where Japan only won a single measly gold, the national government issued a directive that said it would shoulder the responsibility of “fostering excellence in sports and individual athletes.” This idea was reflected in last year’s Basic Sports Law. The government approved a sports budget of ¥23.8 billion, ¥2.7 billion of which will specifically go to those events that have a better possibility of success at the Olympics. And while ¥2.7 billion sounds like chicken feed, it’s nine times the amount of money set aside for Olympic athletes four years ago.

The international Olympic charter clearly discourages such support by stating that the games are competitions among athletes not countries, but who ever took that seriously? Countries have always subsidized athletes when it comes to the games, but once they were effectively professionalized in the ’80s the quest for sponsorship became a prerequisite to the quest for athletic excellence, at least in non-socialist countries. Companies tend to sponsor athletes who are popular but not necessarily more likely to win medals; or, at least, that’s the situation in Japan, which sends the same superstars to the games every four years.

It’s also why the men’s soccer team gets to fly business class. They provide a surer ROI (return on investment) because they receive more coverage under normal circumstances, but whether such sponsorship provides an effective incentive to win, nobody really knows. An athlete is defined by his or her desire to prevail over the competition, so in principle money should have nothing to do with it. Nevertheless, the JOC promises a gold medal recipient ¥3 million, a silver ¥2 million, and a bronze ¥1 million, all tax-free. It’s been reported that if the women’s soccer team wins a gold, they can fly business on their way home, which is exactly what happened after they won the World Cup. The reasoning seems to be: If you aren’t popular enough to attract a sponsor, you have to prove your value with actual results. Then you get to see the real money.