Japan’s canoe federation considers expulsion of top sprint canoeist over spiking of competitor’s drink

Kyodo

The Japan Canoe Federation is considering expelling Yasuhiro Suzuki, one of the country’s top sprint canoeists, from its roster in response to the athlete’s spiking of his younger rival’s drink with a banned substance, officials said.

The possible move comes as the incident, which took place at the national canoe sprint championships last September in Ishikawa Prefecture, has shocked the canoe world and dealt a blow to the image of Japanese sports ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The recommended expulsion — the most severe punishment in the federation’s bylaws — will be discussed by the governing board as early as March.

On Tuesday, the Japan Anti-Doping Agency banned Suzuki from competition for eight years, but expulsion would result in a permanent ban.

The victim, Seiji Komatsu, told reporters on Wednesday in Komatsu, Ishikawa Prefecture, that he hopes Suzuki will “regret” his action.

Suzuki issued a written apology through his lawyer the same day, saying he “failed to exert efforts” in his sport and acted in a way that is “unbecoming of an athlete and a member of society.”

In November, the 32-year-old Suzuki admitted to the federation that he spiked the drink of his 25-year-old rival with the banned substance methandienone, a muscle-building agent commonly known by the brand name Dianabol. Suzuki has said he felt under pressure from younger athletes rising up through the ranks, according to a source.

After Komatsu tested positive, Suzuki confessed to the act, according to Toshihiko Furuya, the federation’s managing director. The federation also found that Suzuki made repeated attempts to sabotage other competitors by such means as stealing equipment used in training and competition.

The drink-spiking incident occurred on Sept. 11 during the championships in Komatsu, where both athletes were competing. Suzuki crushed the pill and put it in his competitor’s drink, which had been placed near a canoe storage area. He easily identified the bottle used by Komatsu as they were close and often traveled together overseas.

Suzuki purchased tablets including the banned substance online during an overseas trip in mid-August, the federation said.

Komatsu unknowingly drank the banned substance before his race and tested positive after the competition. He immediately told Suzuki the news. Overwhelmed with guilt, Suzuki phoned Furuya on Nov. 20 and confessed.

The two had been considered among the top prospects to represent Japan at the 2020 Games and were teammates at last year’s world championships in the Czech Republic.

The incident is a major setback to the federation’s plan to use the Tokyo Olympics as a springboard to raise the popularity of canoeing domestically, building on Japan’s recent success in the sport.

Takuya Haneda became the first canoeist from an Asian country to reach an Olympic podium when he took bronze in the men’s slalom C-1 at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. The Olympic bronze followed his gold medal-winning performance in the same event at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea.

Japan’s first case of an athlete failing a doping test due to deliberate contamination has left authorities scrambling to find an appropriate response.

“An incident of this kind is unheard of in the world. It is something that must not happen. I didn’t think that such a problem could occur between two teammates,” Shoken Narita, the federation’s head, told a Tokyo news conference. Narita, also an executive with the International Canoe Federation, which is pushing for a zero tolerance policy on doping, said he could not believe the incident took place in his backyard.

Komatsu himself told the media on Wednesday, “I did not think this could happen in Japan.”

At a time when Russia’s state-sponsored doping scandal has cast a shadow on the upcoming Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, Japan has been seen to have a clean track record globally, with few cases of doping violations.

The incident has also sparked unease among athletes. While there are designated drink areas in the federation-sponsored competitions, it is hard to ensure their safety from contamination.