Sweet jobs offered to athletes with star power

by Tomoko Arima

Kyodo

An increasing number of companies are converting top athletes into full-time employees once they retire because they “have mental toughness and pursue success at any cost.”

“I wondered if I could work at my desk from 9 a.m. until 5:35 p.m.,” swimmer Haruka Ueda, 26, said, recalling her decision to work for Kikkoman Corp. after winning bronze in the 4 x 100 meter medley relay in the 2012 London Olympics.

Ueda joined the soy sauce maker in 2011 as a contract worker on condition that she could become a full-time employee after retirement.

Big firms often recruit Olympic prospects to bolster their in-house teams, which compete in corporate sports leagues, and to cash in on the prestige and other sponsorship benefits to be had if they become good enough to make the Olympics.

“I could concentrate on swimming until I got burned out because my postretirement job was guaranteed,” she said.

Ueda retired from competition last year and has since been working in the public relations section.

Tsuyoshi Matsuzaki, head of the personnel department at Kikkoman, said Ueda is “the type of person we need because she made all-out efforts to attain her goal and produced results.”

Construction machinery maker Komatsu Ltd. converted female judoka it hired as contract workers to full-time employees in the early 2000s. The change made members of the judo club at Komatsu “more connected with the company” and attracted other top-notch judoka, including two-time Olympic gold medalist Ayumi Tanimoto, 32, said section chief Atsuko Nagai, 40.

Nagai, also a judoka, was a rival of five-time Olympic medalist Ryoko Tani, 38.

Olympic-level athletes have a can-do attitude and show respect for senior workers, said Yuichi Ito, deputy head of Komatsu’s personnel department.

Companies used to hire top athletes for advertising purposes. After the bubble economy imploded in the early 1990s, however, they stopped sponsoring athletes for the sake of “management efficiency.” This made it difficult for athletes to continue competing as they began to worry about life after sports.

So in 2010, the Japan Olympic Committee created the Athnavi website to arrange jobs for professional athletes.

The JOC posts athletes’ data on the site so firms can hire according to their needs, but only on condition that they are kept on the payroll after retiring from competition. More than 30 athletes have found jobs through the program.

Keidanren (the Japan Business Federation), the nation’s most powerful business lobby, said in March that it will help athletes prepare for the 2020 Tokyo Games by offering job training and recommending employers, among other steps.

But athletes in low-visibility sports are struggling to find jobs despite the Athnavi site because there is little demand for them to appear in ads and commercials. Furthermore, there are few sports in which retired athletes can make a living as coaches. Among them are judo and volleyball.

“It may be financially difficult for companies to own teams,” Shigeru Hatta, a JOC director, said. “But they can support athletes by hiring them on an individual basis. Athletes, who have endured hard training, can be highly useful to them.”