Get to bottom of amateur sports scandals

The resignation this week of the president of the Japan Amateur Boxing Federation following multiple allegations of misconduct, ranging from misuse of grant money to suspicions that he pressured referees to fix matches and his relationship with a former gang leader, is only the latest scandal that has rocked the nation’s amateur sports establishment. The list of other problems includes power harassment by a Japan Wrestling Federation director against a four-time Olympic champion and her coach, and a dirty hit by a player on the Nihon University Phoenix football team that allegedly had been ordered by the team’s coaches.

A common feature in these scandals is the rigid and closed ways in which the sports governing bodies or teams have been run by leaders who wielded power to the extent that no criticism was accepted, to the detriment of the athletes’ interests. The leaders stepped down after the problems were finally exposed through complaints by insiders. But a mere change in leadership will not resolve the problems or the poor governance in these organizations that bred the alleged misconduct. People involved need to get the bottom of the problems at hand and reform the organizations in ways that put the athletes’ interests first.

The allegations against 78-year-old boxing federation chief Akira Yamane, who had run the body since 2011 and was even given the title “president for life,” can only be met with shock. Yamane, who tendered his resignation Wednesday, apologized for improperly dividing the Japan Sports Council grant provided to a boxer who took part in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games with two other fighters. He denied applying pressure on referees to give favorable scores to boxers from his native Nara Prefecture — despite testimony by three referees to that effect. But he acknowledged personal ties with a former leader of a criminal organization — a fact that should have disqualified him from the position in the first place.

Yamane is said to have run the federation with an iron fist. Any criticism against him and his running of the organization by its members was reportedly met with retaliation such as ejection from the federation. Reports that many of the allegations against him — including the suspected match-fixing and gangster ties — were open secrets in the amateur boxing community for years testify to the depth of the federation’s governance problems. It was only after a privately formed group of more than 300 people involved in boxing, including former boxers and officials from prefectural organizations, filed a complaint last month with the Japan Sports Agency and the Japan Olympic Committee that his misconduct came to light.

The problem involving a dirty tackle by a Nihon University football player during an intercollegiate game against Kwansei Gakuin University in May exposed how its head coach, Masato Uchida, who has since resigned from the team, wielded unchallenged power. The 20-year-old defensive player who injured the Kwansei Gakuin quarterback with a late hit told a news conference that he had been given instructions from Uchida and his assistant coach to “crush” the opposing quarterback — a claim denied by both Uchida and the assistant coach but believed by the Kantoh Collegiate Football Association, which banned the two men for life from competition in American football.

A third-party panel commissioned by the university to look into the problem said that Uchida, who also served as executive director of the university in charge of personnel matters, held effective command over a council that governed the university’s sports clubs, which made it impossible for the council to exercise supervision over the way Uchida ruled the team with an iron fist — a factor that led to the dirty tackle.

In both the boxing and football scandals, too much power was apparently concentrated in a handful of leaders of the organizations. And it is the athletes who suffered the consequences. If the allegations are true, boxers lost matches they might have won and the Nihon University football team was banned from playing for an entire season.

The series of scandals that have hit the amateur sports organizations should provide an impetus to efforts to modernize the way such organizations are run. The JOC is recommending that sports organizations be run with input from the athletes, inviting their representatives to serve on boards that operate the organizations. If the opinions of the athletes are adequately heard and reflected in the operation of the sports bodies, many of the problems we have seen in the recent scandals would not arise. What matters is not merely replacing the tainted leaders but reforming the organizations that allowed such leadership to exist.