Gaffe-prone Olympics minister Yoshitaka Sakurada apologized Wednesday for making comments he acknowledged “lacked consideration” for star Rikako Ikee’s feelings following her leukemia diagnosis.
Sakurada, who is responsible for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, retracted comments he made a day earlier after the remarks quickly triggered a massive backlash from both the public and fellow politicians.
“She is a potential gold medalist, an athlete for whom we have great expectations. I’m really disappointed,” Sakurada told reporters hours after the teenage swimming sensation revealed her illness Tuesday.
Ikee, 18-year-old Tokyo 2020 Olympic gold-medal hopeful, who has attracted fans at home and abroad, is currently hospitalized and receiving treatment.
Sakurada was also quoted as saying that he hoped she would “focus on her treatment and do her best,” adding that he wants “to see her well.”
However, the minister, who doubles as the government’s cybersecurity strategy chief and is no stranger to controversy, appeared to place more of an importance on motivating the Japanese Olympic team than Ikee’s well being.
“When one person leads, she can rouse the whole team,” he said. “I am slightly worried that this type of excitement can wane.”
Sakurada, who revealed last November that despite his role, he does not use a computer, attempted to defend himself in the aftermath of his latest gaffe.
“Her recovery is the most important thing,” the 69-year-old told Kyodo News while trying to explain his comments. “I would like her to focus on her treatment and get better as soon as possible.”
In the wake of his remarks, opposition politicians and fans of the star swimmer pressed for Sakurada’s resignation, with many describing his comments as “heartless.”
However, Sakurada told the Lower House Budget Committee he has no plans to step down.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also rejected calls for Sakurada’s resignation, saying he hopes the minister will “fulfill his duties.”
“This is terrible. Is this the type of comment that Cabinet members should make? It is symbolic of the character of Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe’s administration,” said Yuichiro Tamaki, leader of the Democratic Party for the People.
Yukio Edano, who heads the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, was incredulous over the minister’s remarks.
“He cannot empathize with someone suffering from a terrible illness,” Edano said.
Fans of Ikee, who holds multiple national records, ripped into the minister on social media, calling for his head while expressing their support for the swimmer.
“Isn’t it normal for the minister to apologize and resign (in a case like this)?” asked one.
“Most people want (Ikee) to just get better more than (they care about) Olympics or medals. That’s the only thing that matters and we don’t need unnecessary comments,” wrote another fan.
Since the announcement of her diagnosis, messages of support and encouragement have been pouring in for Ikee, who won an unprecedented six gold medals at the 2018 Asian Games and became the first female athlete to be named MVP at the region’s biggest multisport event.