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Former Japan rugby player and sports education scholar Tsuyoshi Hirao insists that it is time for athletes to come forward and share their opinions about the troubled Tokyo Olympics, saying that their voices are more legitimate and powerful.

Earlier this month, Hirao, who serves as a professor at Kobe Shinwa Women’s University, wrote a series of Twitter posts encouraging athletes to publicly express their thoughts on the Tokyo Games, which are in the midst of turmoil over the COVID-19 pandemic and receiving little support from the Japanese public.

Former rugby player Tsuyoshi Hirao, now a sports education professor at Kobe Shinwa Women's University, believes Japanese athletes have a greater responsibility to voice their opinions on the controversial Tokyo Olympics. | COURTESY OF TSUYOSHI HIRAO
Former rugby player Tsuyoshi Hirao, now a sports education professor at Kobe Shinwa Women’s University, believes Japanese athletes have a greater responsibility to voice their opinions on the controversial Tokyo Olympics. | COURTESY OF TSUYOSHI HIRAO

Hirao hopes that former athletes and others closely associated with sports could lead the way, reasoning that they would inspire current athletes — who are generally reluctant to comment on issues not related to their own performances — to follow them.

“In order to draw messages from athletes, why don’t former athletes such as those who are serving as coaches say what they think?” Hirao wrote on Twitter. “Having seen how haphazardly the International Olympic Committee and Japanese government have responded (to public skepticism about hosting the games), do you really think that the Olympics should go ahead?”

Hirao has advocated against hosting the Olympics in Japan since 2017, citing excessive commercialization and the overwhelming amount of power given to organizers.

Public sentiment has shifted even further against the games since the start of the pandemic, with as many as 80% of respondents in some polls opposed to the event being held this year even as the organizers and the Japanese government have ramped up their preparations in earnest.

Hirao, a former fullback and wing for the Kobelco Steelers of Japan’s Top League, who competed at the 1999 Rugby World Cup, doesn’t believe athletes should oppose the Olympics by default, but rather that as the people who are actually competing in July and August they should show more awareness of what’s happening outside their own sport.

The 46-year-old said that the Tokyo Olympics could mark a turning point for Japanese sports culture, with athletes given an opportunity to voice their opinions on social issues instead of staying silent.

“If they won’t come out and say how they think the Olympics should be, I think the values of their sports will keep dropping, and that’s very concerning to me,” Hirao said.

The native of Neyagawa, Osaka Prefecture, stressed that it is “irresponsible” for those who are directly associated with sports to not share their thoughts. In the lead-up to the Tokyo Games, few athletes have expressed their concerns, with long-distance track runner Hitomi Niiya a rare example.

“Some believe that the athletes should only focus on their athletic performances,” Hirao said. “But it is a chance for Japanese sports to be reborn. While the media can choose to avoid (directly criticizing the organizers), they can’t turn a blind eye when athletes say something.”

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