Japanese athletes owe debt to Chiba


In today’s sporting world we are too often forced to see rebels without a cause trying to make a name for themselves by their outrageous actions on or off the field of play. They constantly try to attract attention by bullying, being obnoxious or condescending to opponents, teammates, coaches, fans and media.

That’s why it is refreshing to see a rebel with a cause come along every once in a while, stand up for what he or she believes in, and take action to try and right a wrong.

American sport saw one when Curt Flood challenged the reserve clause and Major League Baseball in 1970. In European sport the nonconformist was soccer player Jean-Marc Bosman, who began his legal battle against the transfer system in 1990.

I’m happy to see that Japan has its own maverick now in swimmer Suzu Chiba.

Though Chiba lost her appeal last week to be put on the Japan Olympic swimming team for the Sydney Olympics before the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Tokyo, she set an important example for Japanese athletes, who normally just accept whatever hand fate deals them and disappear quietly into the night.

Chiba, a two-time Olympian, made a very courageous move in challenging the Japan Amateur Swimming Federation and its selection process for the Sydney Games. Despite winning the 200-meter freestyle and placing third in the 100 meters at the national championships in April, Chiba was passed over in the selection process by the JASF for swimmers of lesser ability for reasons that had nothing to do with performance.

They didn’t like her living in Canada and training with a foreign coach. They were unhappy she didn’t lead Japan to glory in the pool at Atlanta in 1996. But most of all, they were displeased that she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and do things her own way.

It was bad enough for the JASF that one of its own athletes wouldn’t go along with the program, but in male-dominated Japan, the fact that it was a woman stirring up trouble for them had to make it even more uncomfortable.

The nail that stands out gets pounded down.

It’s an old saying in this country that tries to discourage individualism and ingenuity. We’ve all heard it, but the sports officials who still believe in this archaic philosophy better wake up and smell the coffee fast.

The hammer may have finally fallen on Chiba (who was awarded 10,000 Swiss francs — 656,500 yen — by the CAS for her legal costs during the appeal), but not before the nail split part of the wood. I was very pleased to see several television stations carry the Aug. 3 press conference announcing the verdict in her appeal live and the huge coverage it received from the Japanese media the following day.

These are encouraging signs. I can only imagine what would have happened if the CAS had ruled in Chiba’s favor and forced the JASF to put her on the Olympic team for Sydney. It surely would have created chaos, with many other federations thinking, “when is somebody going to do this to us.”

It’s high time the alleged executives running the sporting federations and professional teams and leagues in Japan move into the year 2000 and realize that progress is good and trying to maintain the status quo by avoiding addressing the issues of the day is bad for everybody. These people have got to stop living in the past.

Why not just go to an Olympic trial system like the one used for track and field in the United States? It’s very simple: If you don’t finish in the top three on the day of the finals, you don’t qualify in that event. This is best because it simulates the Olympic-like intense pressure of competition.

It doesn’t matter who has the best times or the most Olympic medals or the world record. If you don’t get it done on that day at the appointed hour, you’re out. Just ask sprinters Michael Johnson and Maurice Greene about the 200 meters at the U.S. trials last month.

Both pulled up lame in the final, meaning neither will be able to run that event in Sydney. That’s the way it should be. If the selection criteria were any different, there would be two deserving runners bumped to make way for Johnson and Greene.

The Chiba case should be a signal to all those officials in Japanese sport that the time for reform is now. Come up with a plan to avoid this type of dispute from happening again and implement it. The winds of change are blowing and if these guys don’t get with the program, they ought to be blown out.

Certainly, Chiba must have felt her career was winding down to try and stage such a challenge to the JASF hierarchy. She knew her case was an all-or-nothing proposition, but did it for the greater good of future generations.

“I filed the appeal because I wanted to see future athletes in an environment where they could compete on fair grounds and continue to embrace their dreams,” Chiba said after the ruling was issued.

What Chiba did was both historic and admirable. The athletes of Japan should be grateful to her for having the guts to stand up and say, “you’re not going to railroad me without a fight.”

Let’s hope others will follow her example and lead a revolution in sport here that is long overdue. Athletes deserve the right to fair working conditions just like any other individual, but it’s never going to happen unless some of them find some backbone in a hurry. Just saying “shoganai” (it can’t be helped) isn’t going to change anything.

That’s why my hat is off to Chiba. She deserves recognition for what may have been her greatest achievement of all — refusing to quit fighting in the face of ignorance.