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A bizarre doping incident involving top kayakers that came to light Jan. 9 has left a stain on Japan’s reputation for clean athletics.

The incident — Tokyo Olympic hopeful Yasuhiro Suzuki lacing the drink of rival Seiji Komatsu with an anabolic steroid — has made an especially strong impact in the run-up to 2020, and is shedding light on the importance of supervision and mental care as the games draw near.

Suzuki, 32, apparently felt threatened by the rise of younger athletes and purchased a pill containing the prohibited substance methandienone while abroad. He has confessed to spiking 25-year-old Komatsu’s drink at the national canoe sprint championships in September, causing him to fail a drug test. Komatsu was slapped with an eight-year ban from competition by the Japan Anti-Doping Agency (JADA).

After Komatsu repeatedly claimed his innocence, the Japan Canoe Federation investigated until Suzuki came forward. Suzuki subsequently received the ban and Komatsu has been absolved.

The federation’s managing director, Toshihiko Furuya, called it “a significant loss for Japanese people who have spent many years building up sportsmanship as a virtue.”

The Japanese public has largely expressed surprise at the scandal, and some people are worried about the consequences it will have for the country’s reputation.

“First of all, the fact that it occurred in Japan is a problem that we have to face,” said a 25-year-old male runner from Chiba Prefecture. “In this particular incident, there’s also the matter that the two people involved were rivals,” he added, making it an issue of sportsmanship. “It’s quite serious.”

“It’s extremely shocking,” said Hideo Yamada, 63, of Tokyo. “If there was one incident, there could be more. Japanese people are known for being kind and trustworthy, but I certainly think this will have an impact on the trust people put in Japan.”

Others noted the pressure on athletes who are trying to qualify for the Olympic Games.

“I guess (Suzuki) really wanted to compete in the Olympics here, and I suppose his feeling is understandable,” said a 73-year old woman from Tokyo.

Suzuki apologized publicly, saying in a statement released by his lawyer on Jan. 10, “Instead of working hard, I committed misconduct as an athlete and, further, as a member of society.”

Komatsu said he had been in a “bad mental state” until Suzuki confessed.

“I began to feel hopeless about (competing in) the Tokyo Olympics, that it was impossible,” Komatsu said. “I never thought this sort of thing would happen in Japan. … Moving forward, I want to do my best and focus on the Olympics.”

The incident has spurred the JADA, the Japan Canoe Federation and other national sports organizations to consider new preventive measures as the possibility of such cases could increase as the games approach.

The federation, for instance, will install a “drink monitor” station and security cameras at major events like the scene of the spiking.

It is also implementing a mental health care system for its athletes, with a counselor set to visit the sprint canoe training camp next week.

Another managing director of the federation said, “I want to create a system as soon as possible for those who are working daily under stress and strong pressure to be able to open up about their worries and receive guidance.”

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