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Why nothing but the gold will do

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                Naomi Osaka of Japan after losing her third round match in the women’s singles tennis tournament during the Tokyo Olympics July 27. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t respond to people’s expectations,” Osaka said after her loss.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Naomi Osaka of Japan after losing her third round match in the women’s singles tennis tournament during the Tokyo Olympics July 27. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t respond to people’s expectations,” Osaka said after her loss.

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                Takeru Kitazono of Japan on the pommel horse July 26 during the artistic gymnastics men’s team competition at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo. Kitazono, who finished sixth on the horizontal bar, fought back tears as he spoke of his supporters. “I wanted to return my gratitude with my performance,” he said. “But I couldn’t.”

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Takeru Kitazono of Japan on the pommel horse July 26 during the artistic gymnastics men’s team competition at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo. Kitazono, who finished sixth on the horizontal bar, fought back tears as he spoke of his supporters. “I wanted to return my gratitude with my performance,” he said. “But I couldn’t.”

TOKYO >> Kenichiro Fumita was crying so hard that he could barely get the words out.

“I wanted to return my gratitude to the concerned people and volunteers who are running the Olympics during this difficult time,” Fumita, a Greco-Roman wrestler, said between sobs after finishing his final bout at the Games last week.

“I ended up with this shameful result,” he said, bobbing his head abjectly. “I’m truly sorry.”

Fumita, 25, had just won a silver medal.

In what was a familiar — and, at times, wrenching — sight during the Tokyo Olympics, many Japanese athletes wept through post-competition interviews, apologizing for any result short of gold. Even some who had won a medal, like Fumita, lamented that they had let down their team, their supporters, even their country.

Apologizing for being second best in the world would seem to reflect an absurdly unforgiving metric of success. But for these athletes who competed in their home country, the emotionally charged displays of repentance — which often followed pointed questions from the Japanese news media — likely represented an intricate mix of regret, gratitude, obligation and humility.

“If you don’t apologize for only getting silver, you might be criticized,” said Takuya Yamazaki, a sports lawyer who represents players’ unions in Japan.

From an early age, Japanese athletes “are not really supposed to think like they are playing sports for themselves,” Yamazaki said. “Especially in childhood there are expectations from adults, teachers, parents or other senior people. So it’s kind of a deeply rooted mindset.”

The expectations placed on the athletes were compounded by the pandemic, which made the Olympics deeply unpopular with the Japanese public. Many may have felt more pressure than usual to deliver medals to try to justify holding the Games, as anxiety continues over rising cases in Japan.

Takeru Kitazono, a gymnast who finished sixth on the horizontal bar, fought back tears as he spoke of his supporters.

“I wanted to return my gratitude with my performance,” he said. “But I couldn’t.”

Naomi Osaka, after she was eliminated in the third round of women’s singles tennis, said she was proud to represent Japan but added, “I’m sorry that I couldn’t respond to people’s expectations.”

In some respects these athletes offered an extreme form of the apologies that are everyday social lubricants in Japanese culture.

When entering someone’s home, a visitor literally says sorry. Workers going on vacation apologize for burdening colleagues, while conductors express deep regret if a train is a minute late — or even a few seconds early. Generally, these apologies are a matter of convention rather than a declaration of responsibility.

The apologies are also likely to be recognized as tacit expressions of gratitude, said Joy Hendry, an anthropologist and the author of “Understanding Japanese Society.”

“I expect they feel that they need to apologize for not having achieved the very best they could,” Hendry said, particularly to those who trained or financially supported them.

The urge to apologize might stem in part from the harsh coaching style found in some sports in Japan, said Katrin Jumiko Leitner, an associate professor in sports management and wellness at Rikkyo University in Saitama. When she first came to Japan to train in judo, she said, she was shocked by coaches’ aggressive language.

“I thought, if that’s the way to become an Olympic champion, I don’t want to be an Olympic champion,” she said. “They did not treat athletes like human beings.”

Some Japanese athletes have been subjected to public criticism for failing to show sufficient humility. Yuko Arimori, a marathon runner who won silver in Barcelona in 1992 and bronze in Atlanta in 1996, was accused of narcissism by some in the Japanese news media after declaring in Atlanta that she was proud of herself.

Arimori understands why athletes continue to offer apologies, given that they can convey a sense of gratitude.

But, “I think supporters know the athletes have worked hard enough,” Arimori said. “So there is no need to apologize.”

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