The head coach of Japan’s Olympic badminton team insists the gambling scandal that engulfed the sport three months ago will not cast a shadow over his squad at next month’s Rio Games.
Japanese badminton was reluctantly thrust into the spotlight in April when star player Kento Momota — ranked No. 2 in the world — and teammate Kenichi Tago admitted to gambling at illegal casinos.
The 21-year-old Momota, who was expected to challenge for the men’s singles gold medal in Rio, was subsequently thrown off the team, while Tago was indefinitely removed from the Nippon Badminton Association’s official player list.
But with three weeks to go until the Aug. 11-20 badminton competition begins in Rio, Japan head coach Park Joo-bong insists his nine-strong team has drawn a line under the scandal and is thinking only of Olympic glory.
“Of course it was a big problem, but I told the federation that we couldn’t go to the Olympics in such an atmosphere,” Park told reporters at the National Training Center. “Of course we have looked back on what happened with remorse, but now we are concentrating only on the Olympics.
“It was Momota’s problem, so individually it has nothing to do with the other players. The atmosphere in the team was a little down at the time, but now we have reflected on it and moved on.”
Japan will head to Rio confident of medal success, with Misaki Matsutomo and Ayaka Takahashi currently ranked world No. 1 in women’s doubles.
The former schoolmates, who have been playing together for 10 years, in March became the first Japanese pair since 1978 to capture the women’s doubles title at the All-England Championships, and are both preparing for their first Olympics.
“If my teacher hadn’t put us together as a pair in high school, we wouldn’t be together now,” said the 24-year-old Matsutomo. “I don’t think there are any other pairs who have been together for 10 years.
“We feel confident that if we play our best game, no one can beat us. I want us to do that on the biggest stage.”
Takahashi and Matsutomo became the first Japanese players ever to hold a world No. 1 ranking in October 2014, but Takahashi insists their lofty position does not oblige them to win gold in Rio.
“I don’t feel any responsibility, to be honest,” said the 26-year-old. “We’re not really in the same league as the world No. 1s in men’s singles or men’s doubles, so there’s not really the same pressure on us to win. Rather than being able to beat our opponents, I want us to conquer ourselves.
“I know we should have been in Olympic mode even before we left our club team, but it’s still difficult to take it all in. I’ve never been to the Olympics so I don’t know what it’s like. I know it’s a fantastic event. Since we left our club team we’ve been in training camps, and there is still a lot of work to do.”
Also aiming for a medal in Rio will be Nozomi Okuhara, who is currently ranked world No. 6 in women’s singles.
Okuhara ended Japan’s 39-year wait for a women’s singles champion at the All-England Championships when she beat Wang Shixian in the final in March, and the 21-year-old is targeting more success in Brazil next month.
“Now I have absolutely no fear of the top players,” said Okuhara, who will face strong competition from Spanish world No. 1 Carolina Marin and Chinese duo Wang Yihan and Li Xuerui in Rio.
“My rallies and my games have become longer whoever I am playing, and I think I am becoming a player who no one wants to face. I’m much closer to the world No. 1 ranking than I was at the start of the year, but I’m not there yet.”
With Momota absent, Japan’s best chance of a medal on the men’s side appears to rest with doubles pair Hiroyuki Endo and Kenichi Hayakawa, who are currently ranked No. 8 in the world.
“I’m overseas more than 200 days of the year because of badminton, so I’m hardly ever at home,” said the 30-year-old Hayakawa. “That has caused trouble for my family, so I want to produce results at the Olympics to say thanks for all their help.
“(With regards to the gambling scandal) We can’t do anything other than go out and perform. All we can do is show the general public badminton players giving their all.”