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Gold against the soul: The media and the Olympics

When Japan Newsweek editor Keigo Takeda said that it was all over during the live broadcast of Fuji TV’s Sunday night newsmagazine “Journal” on the second day of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, he was talking about Japanese news coverage of the games.

Earlier that day, Japan’s moguls hope, Aiko Uemura, had failed to win a medal. The media had invested a lot in Uemura, though not necessarily because her face was all over those ubiquitous Asahi beer and TBC commercials. Based on what he had seen so far, Takeda thought there was nothing really left to cover at that point, except maybe the controversy over snowboarder Kazuhiro Kokubo, for which Takeda also had a comment: Who cares?

Well, Mikako Kotani, his cocommentator on “Journal,” for one. Kotani, a medal-winning synchronized swimmer, was strong in her denunciation of Kokubo for flouting propriety when he appeared in front of the media with his shirt untucked, his tie askew and his pants riding low in accordance with hip-hop fashion.

According to her, it was an insult to the other members of the Japan Olympic team, not to mention the Japanese public.

Takeda was unimpressed, so Kotani whipped out the official Olympic handbook and read him the section about proper attire. “That’s nonsense,” he said, not so much bothered by the rule as bored by it. Kotani was incensed. “Give me back the Valentine’s Day chocolate I gave you,” she demanded, only half-jokingly.

Bad boy

The lack of sincerity in Kokubo’s initial apology during his appearance at a press conference made him, according to Aera TV columnist Koichi Yamazaki, “the new bad boy of Japanese sport” now that sumo champion Asashoryu had retired and boxer Koki Kameda had turned out to be a nice guy. Reporters went so far as to interview non-Japanese journalists to bolster their claim that Kokubo had violated the so-called Olympic Spirit. Even Diet lawmakers, who would seem to have more important things to do, made a point of complaining about Kokubo.

Viewers, intrigued by all the hullabaloo, tuned in to watch as Kokubo choked on the half-pipe course, and the mood abruptly changed. Now instead of interviewing stuffy members of the foreign press, reporters were talking to characteristically laid-back foreign snowboarders, who commented as heatedly as they could (meaning, not very) that Kokubo had gotten a raw deal.

The media’s final analysis: Public opinion had gone overboard, putting too much pressure on Kokubo and causing him to fail.

Precious pressure

As far as pressure goes, no one received more than Japan’s female figure skaters, who quickly became the only athletes with any chance of bringing home a gold medal. It’s almost axiomatic that the more pressure there is on an athlete, the more pressure the media will exert in their quest to show viewers HOW MUCH PRESSURE THE ATHLETES ARE UNDER.

Shuzo Matsuoka, former tennis star and TV Asahi’s go-to guy for one-on-one empathetic interviews, wanted to know how the other side coped with it all and went looking for some South Korean journalists to explain how Kim Yu Na, the country’s figure-skating superstar, did so. One journalist told him that he and other reporters had agreed to lay off Kim.

“We understand the pressure she’s under, so we try to get in her way as little as possible,” he said.

Matsuoka nodded to show his understanding, and then went out to look for Japanese figure skaters to interview.

I’m more Japanese than you

Maybe the most interviewed Japanese figure skater was Yuko Kavaguti (Kawaguchi), who is not, technically speaking, Japanese since she changed her nationality to Russian and was competing in the pairs event as a Russian. That didn’t stop the Japanese press from treating her as one of their own, and when she tumbled on the ice it was as heartbreaking for them as it was for the Russians. Japanese reporters even recruited her to interpret for them when they interviewed her partner.

On the other hand, they hardly covered siblings Cathy and Chris Reed, who were competing for Japan. The fact that their mother is Japanese obviously held less importance than the fact that they were raised in the U.S. and don’t speak much Japanese.

South Korea up to speed

The South Koreans’ medal haul was a sore point for Japan. Most of the medals were given for speed skating, which is practically Korea’s national sport if you measure such things by money spent. The Korean government built state-of-the-art facilities exclusively for their speed skaters, all with the express purpose of winning medals.

Japan has the speed-skating arena left over from the 1998 Nagano Olympics, which is run by the prefectural government. If Olympic speed skaters want to use it you have to pay to do so, and it’s expensive. Thus, the two speed-skating medals won by Japan were especially sweet, as was the attendant human interest story.

Both winners, Keiichiro Nagashima and Joji Kato, work for the same company, Nihon Densan Sangyo, an electronics manufacturer in Nagano Prefecture whose president decided not to close the company’s speed-skating club even while the company’s commercial fortunes dwindled as a result of the worldwide recession. He even invested his own money in the club, which was founded in 1957 and has sent skaters to every Winter Olympics since the 1960s. The media loved the fact that the company’s own training facilities are old and dark and rundown.

What they loved even more is that the two winners expressed “bitterness” that they hadn’t actually won a gold medal. Now that’s Japanese spirit.

Who needs medals?

Tomomi Okazaki, another speed skater, didn’t express any bitterness over her 34th place finish in the 1,000-meters event. In fact, she cheerfully told reporters that she was thinking of competing under her married name at the next Olympics, when she will be 42.

Nobody in the media asked if it would be unfair for her to skate in her sixth Olympics since her presumed participation would mean that a younger speed skater loses out on the opportunity to compete, but that’s OK with the press. They like Okazaki and she likes them. It makes both their jobs easier.

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