With this summer’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics just around the corner, sports are currently very much in the spotlight.
Having been involved in sports for decades, both as an Olympic swimmer and administrator, 2016 is a key year for Daichi Suzuki, the inaugural commissioner of the newly launched Japan Sports Agency.
In an exclusive interview with The Japan Times last month, Suzuki, 49, said that August’s Rio Games would be enormously important for Japanese athletes leading up to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. He had already announced that Japan would aim to clinch a top-three spot in the medal standings at the Tokyo Games (Japan was sixth at the London Olympics with 38 medals).
“Japan earned about 18 gold medals overall at world championships from different sports last year, so we would like to reach double-digit golds,” Suzuki said of his hopes for the Japanese delegation at the upcoming Olympics in Brazil.
Suzuki knows first-hand how an Olympic gold medal can affect the general public.
Suzuki, then 21 years old, claimed an upset victory in the men’s 100-meter backstroke final over then-world record-holder and race favorite David Berkoff of the United States to give Japan its only swimming medal at the 1988 Seoul Games.
Suzuki had the third-fastest time in the preliminaries, yet boldly changed his strategy to increase the number of his signature underwater dolphin kicks from 21 to 27 in the final, which worked out as he beat the American and other rivals.
“When Japanese athletes excel at the Olympics, they inspire children to have dreams and hopes,” Suzuki said. “And ultimately it doesn’t just apply to sports. It makes the public think that hard work can bring you glory.
“When you have medalists, the public can be inspired, thinking, ‘Maybe I should start running as of tomorrow,’ and things like that. And there are going to be more sports-minded people with more energy in this country.”
Meanwhile, Suzuki wonders about Japanese elite-level athletes’ awareness of their place in society in the wake of recent betting scandals in baseball and badminton.
The Chiba Prefecture native emphatically believes that a winners-can-do-anything mindset should not be tolerated, adding that he has strong concerns over the issue.
“It’s a problem that if you are good (athletically), you can do anything,” said Suzuki, who was once a collegiate scholar and earned a Ph.D in medical science in 2007.
“If you are competitive but don’t have common sense and a general education, you’re getting your priorities wrong,” he said. “Not that you’re allowed to do anything you want to if you’re better. When you are a good member of society, plus you excel in sports, then that really makes you a great role model.”
The Sports Agency began its operations last October as an external bureau of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports Science and Technology in order to integrate the country’s sports administration, which had been dispersed among multiple ministries.
Previously, for instance, the education ministry had been in charge of elite-level sports and school sports, while the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare was taking care of sports for the disabled.
Suzuki said that his agency loans government officials from various different ministries, and they are currently mediating with their own ministries to carry things out smoothly.
The task to put together a vertically divided sports administration in Japan doesn’t seem easy. But Suzuki has a simple message for the agency officials: Do the right thing for the country’s sports scene, instead of just being loyal to their respective organizations.
“It’ll probably take some time,” Suzuki said of the integration process. “But we are definitely going to get it done. If we don’t do this, I think sports in Japan are going to be ruined.”
Suzuki added that the government has been cooperative so far.
“I’ve visited all those ministries and told them, ‘let’s do this together,’ ” said Suzuki, who previously served as the president of the Japan Swimming Federation. “I’m not a person who came from one of those ministries, so I’ve got no ties or obligations and I can be in a neutral spot, and I would like to take advantage of that as my strength.”
One of the biggest reforms that Suzuki wants to bring to Japan is to develop the country’s sports into bigger industries. The Gross Domestic Product for Japan’s sports industries is estimated at about ¥5.5 trillion, which is roughly one ninth of that in the United States.
Somehow, making a profit through sports has been thought of as greedy and dishonorable in Japan, where many believe in the beauty of amateurism. Suzuki insists, however, that such a mindset has to change.
“The government is going to send a message to generate more money in sports going forward,” said Suzuki, who’s been active in inspecting big sporting events, both inside and outside of Japan, such as the NFL’s Super Bowl back in February. “As they do in the United States and Europe, we have the potential to make it happen in various ways, using the examples of the U.S. and Europe as references.”
The Sports Agency also promotes the “Sport For Tomorrow” program, which was initiated by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the 2013 International Olympic Committee Session in Buenos Aires and has been led by the foreign and education ministries. The program is meant to make an international contribution, such as providing sports infrastructures and technologies, dispatching coaches and exporting Japanese sports culture to other countries around the world, developing nations in particular.
“Japan needs to be a leading nation in Asia in making international contributions through sports,” said Suzuki, who has also been a director for the World Olympians Association.
Suzuki declared that the Sports Agency would place emphasis on raising the health of the general public and promoting sports for disabled people.
“This has got to be an agency for the citizens, and we’re definitely going to work on health issues for them,” Suzuki said. “Japan’s (annual) medical expenses of ¥40 trillion, it keeps growing, and we think we can help control it through sports.”
He added that his agency also wants to attract the public’s attention more to sports for disabled people, because he thinks the awareness level is still lower than in other countries. But looking on the bright side, awareness is growing with Tokyo chosen to host the Paralympics in 2020.
“Now it’s up to us how much we’ll be able to stir up the public toward the 2020 Games,” Suzuki said. “Realizing a symbiotic society is one of our themes. We would like our citizens to support sports for the disabled as well.”