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AUGUST 14, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 6


Atsushi Tsukada/AP.
Japan's swimming star Suzu Chiba ponders a reporter's question during a news conference.

Tears of a Mermaid
A Japanese swimmer wins in the pool but loses to bureaucracy
By TIM LARIMER Tokyo

Suzu Chiba was a sure bet for stardom in Sydney. One of Japan's top swimmers, the 24-year-old veteran of two Olympics is not only a good athlete, but she's also a compelling story. A teenage sensation when she splashed onto the international scene in 1990, she retired after flopping in Atlanta in 1996. She made a fiery comeback three years later, recording the world's second best time in the 200 meter freestyle last year. At the national championships in April she came down with a bad case of the flu. She won the 200-meter freestyle race anyway, topping the Olympic qualifying mark while displaying the gambatte fighting spirit so revered in Japan. A confident free spirit who likes to speak her mind, Chiba was a marketer's dream in a country that is always searching for a new pop icon. Even the name—Suzu Chiba—seemed destined for a marquee somewhere. "You never forget it once you hear it," she once told a journalist.

But her name won't be lit up in Sydney. In April officials of the Japan Amateur Swimming Federation decided to leave her off the team. They didn't say why. Chiba and her entourage complained that the snub was based on personality, that she was being left home because the officials simply didn't like her. The federation later said it was taking only swimmers whose results were among last year's top eight times in the world; Chiba's time in April, though impressive enough to qualify her for most other countries' teams, ranked 17th. "We are only taking potential medalists to Sydney," sniffed federation president Hironoshin Furuhashi. Nonetheless, a male swimmer whose time was 18th was given a spot. Sensing injustice, Chiba took her case to an international sports authority, the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport. "I want a clear answer," she said.

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Last week, she got a murky one. The international court, meeting in Tokyo, ruled against Chiba. At the same time, though, it reprimanded the federation for not making the selection process transparent and ordered it to pay the swimmer about $6,000 in legal fees. Still, Chiba's Olympic dreams were shattered.

Selection controversies pop up every time the Olympics roll around, and this year is no exception. Japanese female runner Harumi Hiroyama was passed over in the marathon in favor of another runner who had slower race times. (Hiroyama will, however, participate in the 10,000-m event.) The French tennis player Nathalie Tauziat was left off the team, possibly because a book she wrote irritated other French players so much they threatened to boycott the games if she were on the squad. Three top Kenyan marathoners were dropped from their team after coaches complained about lax training habits. Often, disputes come down to evaluating an athlete's entire record versus his or her results in a key race.

In Chiba's case, it has more to do with the opaque nature of Japanese decision-making, common to many realms in her country, from politics to business. "This revealed the old-fashioned, feudalistic nature of sports in Japan," says Gentaro Taniguchi, a prominent sports journalist in Tokyo. "The federation tells athletes what to do, and the athletes cannot refuse. They have this pre-war mentality of kamikaze pilots, that you should work hard until you die."

Chiba, who took up swimming as a child to help her asthma, wanted to have fun too. In 1996 in Atlanta, she told reporters she was there to "enjoy the Olympics." That wasn't the proper kamikaze attitude. "The federation couldn't tolerate Chiba's remark in Atlanta," Taniguchi says. It didn't help matters that she failed to bring home a medal. Iconoclasts often don't last long in Japanese sports, even if they are popular with the fans, as Chiba is—and especially if they don't win. Football sensation Hidetoshi Nakata, for example, was criticized for his cockiness and for dying his hair a shade of copper. He left Japan for glory in Italy's premier league. Chiba further alienated the folks back home by signing on with an American coach, Bud McAllister, who had previously worked with Olympic sensation Janet Evans, and by moving to Ontario to train. "I might not conform to their ideal image," Chiba said recently. "That doesn't mean they shouldn't select me."

On Thursday, after the arbitration hearing, Chiba was stoic in defeat. In front of a packed press conference, she wept quietly and said she thought the court's decision was fair. "I wanted a hand in creating an atmosphere where future athletes could compete fairly and continue to embrace their dreams," she said. Her words sounded especially gracious after Furuhashi spoke again on Thursday. "I hope she takes and learns whatever lessons and experience she's had through the sport to become an outstanding grown-up," he said. "I hope she finds a greater way to contribute to the greater good of society." If Chiba's rebellion does eventually embarrass Japan into reforming the way it picks its Olympians, then she may have more impact than a gold medal ever could.

—With reporting by Shintaro Kano and Sachiko Sakamaki/Tokyo


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