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Disgraced Japanese badminton duo apologize for illegal gambling

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

One day after their stunning illegal gambling scandal came to light, Japan’s top badminton players Kento Momota and Kenichi Tago apologized for their behavior.

Speaking at a news conference in Tokyo on Friday afternoon, both Momota and Tago, who have admitted to illegal gambling, said that they were imprudent in their actions.

“It’s extremely regretful that I’ve caused such an issue,” said 21-year-old Momota, who rose to a career-high No. 2 in the world rankings on Thursday and was thought to be a medal hopeful in the upcoming Rio de Janeiro Olympics. “I’ve betrayed all the people, including those who raised me, people in Fukushima Prefecture, and my supporters’ association.”

A Kagawa Prefecture native, Momota attended junior high school and high school in Fukushima Prefecture before joining his current club, NTT East, in 2013.

“I knew it was something you can’t do,” said Tago, 26, who competed in the 2012 London Olympics and is a six-time national champion. “But I was just not able to stop myself.”

NTT Corp. launched an investigation after the two players returned from an international tournament in Malaysia on Thursday.

According to the company, Tago visited a Sumida Ward casino about 10 times a month between October 2014 and March 2015. The 26-year-old then moved to another casino in Yokohama between May 2015 and January 2016, as the Sumida casino was allegedly raided by the police last spring.

Investigators determined that the two casinos were run by the same owner. The police suspect the money it earned was a source of income for the Sumiyoshi-kai crime syndicate.

Invited by Tago, Momota visited the Sumida casino and ended up going about six times. The company said that six other players, including those who retired at the end of last month, also went to the casinos.

NTT said that the players wagered using their salaries and winnings from tournaments.

The NTT East badminton club manager, Masayuki Okumoto, said Momota has earned about ¥27 million in his career, while Tago has received ¥20 million.

Okumoto said Tago had lost about ¥10 million and that Momota spent about ¥500,000 through the gambling.

Tago and Momota said that they originally began going to casinos overseas, where such activities are legal, and could not control their impulse to do the same in Japan.

Asked about potential punishment for the players, the company’s personnel manager, Akira Sakakibara, said that the major telecommunications company was still in the midst of its investigation and that decisions would be made later, though he did hint the repercussions would not be light.

“Considering we’ve had so much impact in badminton and sports circles, as well as in society, we will have to give them harsh punishments,” Sakakibara said.

The Nippon Badminton Association will hold a board meeting on Sunday to discuss the issue, but analysts say it is unlikely that Momota will represent Japan in Rio following the scandal.

“It’s been my childhood dream to compete in the Olympics, and by doing well in it, I thought that I would be able to give energy and courage to the people in Fukushima Prefecture (which was one of the places that was devastated by the 2011 earthquakes),” Momota said. “But because of my thoughtless actions, I’ve failed to meet their expectations and I’m deeply regretful about it.”

Tago displayed even more remorse than Momota. He said he would accept severe punishment but begged for the youngster Momota to be given a second chance.

“It’s all my responsibility to have put Momota in this situation,” Tago said, sobbing. “He was preparing for the Olympics, and I really feel sorry for him.

“He’s presently one of the top players in the world. I’ll take any punishment I’m given. I’d accept that I will no longer be able to play badminton. But, I know it’s strange for me to say this, I would like Momota to be given one more chance.”