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Japan bobsled makers miss out on Olympic games glory

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

On Feb. 17, the BBC reported that the Jamaican women’s bobsled team would compete in its “preferred sled” at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea “after a beer producer purchased the craft and donated it” to the team. The main concern had been the departure of the team’s German coach, who was reportedly “legally responsible” for the Latvian-made vehicle. The Jamaican Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation was afraid the coach would take the sled with her after, according to her claims, she was “forced out.” Apparently, she demanded payment for the sled’s use, and Jamaican brewer Red Stripe came up with the money. Everybody was happy.

Well, almost everybody. Originally, the Jamaican team was going to use a Japanese-made bobsled, and on Feb. 5, the promotion committee for the Shitamachi Bobsleigh Network Project announced that if the Jamaican team didn’t use the committee’s sled then it might file a lawsuit, since it had a contract with the Jamaicans to supply sleds free of charge. The suit would demand ¥68 million in damages, about four times the combined cost of the development of the sled and related transportation. On Feb. 16, the Yomiuri Shimbun said that the Japanese sled would be on hand in Pyeongchang in case the Jamaican team needed it, but thanks to Red Stripe it didn’t.

The Feb. 5 announcement, which was covered extensively by the media, was the first time that most people had heard anything about the Shitamachi project, even though it was launched in 2011 with the idea of designing a world-class bobsled that would draw attention to Japan’s storied small factories (machi-kōba) concentrated in the Shitamachi area of Tokyo’s Ota Ward. Since some Shitamachi factories supply parts for high-end motorsports, the committee thought it could adapt its expertise to the manufacture of bobsleds, many of which are designed by automotive powerhouses like Ferrari and BMW. The press became briefly interested in the project when the committee visited Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and he had his picture taken sitting in a prototype. The photo eventually made its way into a new ethics school textbook as an illustration of Japanese workmanship.

Jamaica decided to not use the sled following the Bobsleigh World Cup in Germany last December. According to reports, the Jamaican team was unable to use the Shitamachi sled due to a transportation strike that prevented delivery, so they opted to use a sled made by a company called BTC in Latvia.

The Mainichi Shimbun said the Jamaican team preferred the Latvian bobsled to the Japanese one — they came seventh in Germany, its best finish ever — and so subsequently chose it for the Pyeongchang Olympics. Latvia is experienced in bobsled technology, having supplied sleds to Soviet teams for many years. In fact, a number of other national teams are using Latvian sleds at the Olympics.

Originally the Shitamachi sled was designed for use by Japanese Olympians, but the local bobsled federation rejected it for the 2014 Sochi Olympics and later again for Pyeongchang, so the promotion committee looked for other countries and set its sights on Jamaica, which, due to the popularity of the 1993 Disney movie “Cool Runnings,” has garnered an eternal underdog reputation in the sport. (It doesn’t snow in Jamaica.)

The Japanese team offered the Jamaicans the use of its sled for free and would ship it anywhere without charge, so the Jamaicans accepted, but once they discovered how fast the BTC model was, they decided to use it instead and the promotion committee threatened to sue.

Last week, business magazine Diamond Online posted an article that attempted to clear up the confusion surrounding the Shitamachi sled, since the matter has kicked up something of a ruckus on the internet. According to Diamond, commenters have blasted the threatened suit as embarrassing, while others have said the committee is only interested in government subsidies. Diamond learned that after the project got off the ground in 2012, the committee raised funds through corporate donations and grants from Ota Ward. It then applied for subsidies from the central government, which gave the committee up to ¥20 million a year for three years.

The money was important since the project started with zero knowhow in the field of bobsled design, and because the purpose of the project was to show off Shitamachi’s manufacturing prowess, the committee needed money to exhibit its designs at overseas trade shows. The initial goal was not the Olympics, but while the sled did draw attention at trade shows such as Germany’s Compamed, in the end the design would have to be proven in competition, since that is what bobsleds are for.

Enter the Jamaicans, whose aim in accepting the Shitamachi sled is different from the project’s purpose in finding a user. The Jamaicans wanted to win but couldn’t afford equipment from the best, meaning Ferrari or BMW. The Shitamachi project’s aim shifted to getting its sled into the Olympics. Then the Jamaican men’s team failed to qualify for Pyeongchang. The women’s team did well at the North American championships last November with the Shitamachi sled, but at the World Cup, using a different sled, for the first time ever it pulled within a second of the winning team’s time, so the decision to go with BTC at Pyeongchang was a no-brainer.  

What’s ironic about the affair, according to web TV channel “No Hate TV,” is that BTC has more in common with the legendary Ota Ward factories that used to be lionized on NHK’s documentary series “Project X” than the Shitamachi project does. BTC has only six employees. The Shitamachi sled was developed by several factories and a large number of technicians. The sled itself is fabricated by major materials manufacturer Toray.

More to the point, the proposed lawsuit confounds the spirit of competition inherent in the story. As Diamond put it, the Shitamachi project should just “admit it lost the race” and find a new challenge.