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The Olympics are indisputably the biggest sporting event in the world, but many Japanese athletes — fearful of sounding selfish amid the COVID-19 pandemic and under pressure to focus on their athletic activities — are facing a dilemma over how to express their concerns about participating.

Some athletes and officials, however, have broken their silence in recent weeks, expressing their honest feelings through mass media outlets as well as their own social media accounts.

In a long Twitter post in early February, two-time Olympic swimmer Yayoi Matsumoto questioned the decision by organizers to persist with the games even as so many other sporting events have been called off.

The 30-year-old decided to speak her mind after Yoshiro Mori, then-president of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, said during a Japan Olympic Committee meeting that the games were being planned for the benefit of Japanese athletes, rather than the JOC or International Olympic Committee.

“I understand people may take those comments in different ways, but I took it as (Mori) saying that even though the world is in a difficult situation with the pandemic, we should hold the Olympics because the athletes want to compete,” Matsumoto wrote. “If you take it that way, athletes might receive even less support from the public and be blamed (for the situation), and I thought that would be really sad.”

The post by Matsumoto, who belongs to X Flag Sports, provoked a flood of reaction on social media, as it touched on issues few athletes have been willing to publicly discuss.

“I got a canker sore and acne from the stress (of expressing my feelings),” Matsumoto told The Japan Times. “But I thought, looking at reactions from the public, that athletes were starting to become targets for blame. I thought it wasn’t right. I wanted to protect myself and other athletes too. I wanted to clear up misunderstandings and say that athletes are not demanding the games to go ahead by any means.”

Writing on his own blog in February, track and field coach Masato Yokota said he eventually came to realize that his “unsettled” feelings on the Tokyo Games were due to remarks made by “a certain politician,” referring to Mori.

“(Mori) made it sound like athletes want to hold the Olympics while everybody else is enduring these tough times,” Yokota, a former 800-meter national record holder who now serves as CEO of the TwoLaps Track Club, told The Japan Times. “But it’s not necessarily true. Everybody (including athletes) is worried.”

Matsumoto, a freestyle swimmer who competed in London and Rio and will be looking to qualify for her third straight Olympics at April’s national championships, said that she was initially disappointed to see survey results showing that over 80% of the Japanese public are either against the games going ahead or pessimistic about the event’s outlook.

She also expressed sympathy for Kohei Uchimura after the three-time Olympic gymnastics gold medalist spoke out in November, asking the public to shift their mindset toward coming up with ways to hold the games instead of simply considering them impossible to host.

But after Japan enacted its second state of emergency in January across 11 prefectures, Matsumoto eventually grew to understand the public’s reactions and said that she would be among the majority if she weren’t an athlete.

With that said, Matsumoto still wants organizers to explain how they believe they will be able to hold the Olympics amid the pandemic.

“They say they are taking measures, and our reaction is, ‘Like what?’” said Matsumoto, who came out of a two-year hiatus in 2018. “That’s what everyone’s thinking. They don’t present concrete plans, and that’s why opposition to the games has gotten bigger. I know it’s difficult to convince all the people but I would like them to at least try to appease the public.”

Yokota wrote on his blog that “sports need democracy,” meaning sports are essentially meant for everybody. But the 33-year-old is concerned to see events such as the Olympics increasingly geared toward satisfying the needs of stakeholders and sponsors, and says organizers have failed to convince the public that the Tokyo Games will help produce fundamental changes in Japanese society.

“Sports should be attached more to the daily lives of the public and society,” said Yokota, who represented Japan at London 2012. “But the current Olympics are quite far from that and aren’t near where sports are supposed to be.”

On his blog, Yokota wrote that the Olympics without public support are “no longer the Olympics” and what the public wants to hear are logical explanations of why the games have to go ahead, “not improper remarks.”

The Tokyo native, a certified public accountant in California who obtained a master’s degree in sports management at the University of Florida, believes that Japanese organizers need to show firmer leadership during the crisis rather than hiding behind the decisions of the IOC.

“They only say the games are something they have already decided to do (regardless of the pandemic) and it’s a promise that the country has made to the global community,” Yokota said. “I understand it’s important, too, but what about us, the citizens? It makes me feel uneasy that they are making light of ordinary citizens.”

One change the postponed Olympics have produced is that Japanese athletes are more willing to express their opinions than ever before.

Hitomi Niiya, the current women’s 10,000 meters national record holder and one of the athletes under Yokota’s charge, has been outspoken in her belief that the value of the Olympics will decrease without the support of the public.

Yokota believes comments such as Niiya’s are pushing back against cultural norms that have seen Japanese athletes discouraged from speaking out on social issues.

“You can avoid criticism if you keep your mouth shut and don’t say anything,” he said. “But athletes make those statements because they feel disconnected from the society they live in and want to change it. I take it positively that those athletes are responsible to society.”

Matsumoto, who has a master’s degree in biomechanics from Nippon Sport Science University, said it’s still rare for Japanese athletes to express themselves like she did, and she admits to having taken “two or three days” to write her Twitter message before finally posting it.

In the end, she posted it after realizing that her concerns about the Olympics echoed those of the public.

“I’ve received messages (from people) that said they respected me for doing it, but I just kind of expressed what the public had already expressed,” the Shizuoka Prefecture native said. “I was only in a different position (as an athlete) and I only shared my thoughts that had already been shared by the public.

“But I thought that there would be more meaning to the message coming from an athlete.”

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