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As the nation rejoices over its largest medal haul in an Olympic Games, speculation is rife in Tokyo over whether politicians will try to capitalize on the athletes’ popularity by giving them awards.

On Thursday morning, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda rushed to stem speculation over who will receive the People’s Honor Award.

“We have seen a number of news articles saying the government may give various prizes to one Olympic medalist after another. But nothing like that has been decided yet,” the top government spokesman told a news conference.

Established in 1977 and first given to baseball home-run king Sadaharu Oh, the People’s Honor Awards are given to individuals who are considered national heroes and “who are widely loved and respected for remarkable achievements that have given great hope to society.”

Fifteen people have received the award, including judoka Yasuhiro Yamashita, former yokozuna Chiyonofuji and the late movie director Akira Kurosawa.

But the criteria have been criticized for being vague, and politicians have often been blamed for awarding the prize to boost their own popularity.

According to media reports, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Wednesday during a dinner at a Tokyo hotel: “If we give prizes generously, we will be criticized for having elections in mind. But now it’s OK, isn’t it? There won’t be an election for quite a while.”

But it will be very difficult for the government to select recipients this year. Japan as of Thursday had 34 medals, its highest number ever.

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