When he finished last at the Japan national championships on June 8, Dai Tamesue bowed deeply toward the track twice. He had taken a tumble at the first hurdle, ending his dream of participating in what would have been his fourth Olympic Games.
Nevertheless, Tamesue, who holds the Japanese record in the 400-meter hurdles, was smiling.
“Dai had already come to terms with it. He looked relieved.” says Beijing Olympics bronze medalist Nobuharu Asahara, 40, who had been watching the race from the sidelines.
He knew then and there that this man with whom he had competed around the world was heading for retirement.
It was the first time Tamesue had fallen at the first hurdle in his athletics career.
“I fell at the first hurdle, which I devoted over half of my training time to and concentrated so much on up until then," he says. "It was over.”
Recently, he had been struggling with Achilles tendon and knee injuries, and suffered from a condition in which his leg twisted on landing after clearing a hurdle. Still, after falling he got up and completed the race as a kind of “ritual to burn it into my memory.”
“People made a fuss over the two bronze medals I won at the World Championships, but I was far from becoming the world's No. 1," Tamesue says. "My 25 years in athletics were a washout.”
This was his self-appraisal in late July, more than a month after his retirement.
“That's all the more reason why I have to become the best in the world in my next challenge.”
CRITICISM OF FINANCIAL MOTIVATIONS
“When's the next meeting?” Tamesue asks in an e-mail sent two hours after his fall to entrepreneur Ron Tanno, the man who had encouraged him to enter the world of business.
The 34-year-old Tanno refurbishes unused publicly owned facilities and schools that have been shut down, and reopens them as restaurants and cafes that use local vegetables and seafood, or training camps for youth soccer teams, university clubs and corporate training venues. He refers to these as his “training camp business.”
Tanno set up a company and purchased outdoor education institution Hota Rinkai Gakuen in Chiba's Kyonan Town from its previous owner, Chiyoda city in Tokyo. It was reopened in 2007 as residential training facility Sunset Breeze Hota and is now used by about 18,000 people annually, a 30-fold increase compared to its previous incarnation.
Tamesue became acquainted with Tanno after the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Tanno suggested they work together, and Tamesue replied that he would come on board once he reached the end of his London journey. His fall meant that this came sooner than he had expected.
Tanno made Tamesue a director, and immediately involved him in two residential training facility projects redeveloping a closed junior high school in Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture.
“Dai has the ability to analyze situations level-headedly, as well as an explosive talent for getting things done,” Tanno says.
But Tamesue's forays into business actually began before he met Tanno.
After the Athens Olympics eight years ago, Tamesue was training for the world championships to be held in Berlin the following year. Without a coach, he silently tore around the track at Hosei University, his alma mater.
At that time, he spoke passionately about his admiration for American hurdler Edwin Moses, a one-time world record holder and two-time Olympic gold medalist, who earned a master's degree in business administration after his retirement. Moses went on to work as a management consultant while acting as a director for a fund set up to support track-and-field athletes.
“When I finished training, I read every book on theoretical economics I could lay my hands on,” Tamesue says of Moses' influence.
Later, Tamesue won his second bronze medal at the Helsinki world championships. During this time when he was at the peak of his athletic career, he was already picturing his future leap into the business world.
In 2010, he formed a foundation with other Olympic track-and-field athletes called Athlete Society, which helps sportsmen and sportswomen realize their post-retirement careers. As its representative director, he searches for ways to link the worlds of sports and business.
As an athlete who turned professional to compete for prize money in tournaments around the world, and who now pursues business and stock investment opportunities off the track, Tamesue has come under some criticism for his financial motivation. Sometimes after he lost a race, he was told that it was because of a lack of devotion to running.
“This type of mentality is still rampant in the Japanese sports world,” Tamesue says.
But Tamesue does not engage in business simply for his own financial gain. For example, he has an idea to set up sports clubs at the residential training facility in Hakone for local children and the elderly, and send Athlete Society members to coach them. His own business interests can also have merits for local communities and athletes.
“That's where my ultimate goal lies,” he says.
THE SPECTER OF DEATH
“I want to become a 'takoyaki' (fried octopus dumpling) vendor.”
This is what Tamesue's father, Toshiyuki, an office worker, confessed to his mother, Fumie, before he died at age 54 in 2003. He began to realize that he did not want to die regretting the things he had not done.
Dai Tamesue will turn 54 in 20 years. When he ponders whether he will be able to become No. 1 in the world of business by the time he reaches that age, the reality of his eventual death hits home.
“That's why I've accelerated my thinking about all aspects of life,” he says.
There was also another thing Tamesue had been thinking about trying his hand at.
His grandmother experienced the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which makes him a third-generation "hibakusha."
“I could become mayor of Hiroshima city or governor of Hiroshima Prefecture, and act as a peacemaker in conflict-torn regions around the world.” His consideration of this possible future vocation was partly due to the influence of his wife, 34, who majored in conflict resolution studies at graduate school.
However, Tamesue's desire to retain his links with the sporting community has been impossible for him to ignore.
In early July he was invited to give a talk at Hosei University, where he made the following declaration to around 200 sports business students: “I'm not going to become a politician or a leader. I'm going to start a business that connects sports and communities.”
Keeping a single pair of running shoes, Tamesue has given away the spikes he wore in competition to his mentor from his days as a student. He has also disposed of four cardboard boxes full of running wear and other items. There is no turning back now.
“I'm going to leap over hurdles in business that no one has ever leaped over before," he says brimming with confidence. "That's what my life is about.”
* * *
Born in 1978 in Hiroshima. Began competing in track-and-field events as an elementary school student. Won the 100-meter and 200-meter dash at the National Junior High School Championships, and switched to the 400-meter hurdles in his third year at Hiroshima Minami High School. Entered Hosei University, and at the Edmonton World Championships in Canada in 2001 he became the first Japanese to win a bronze medal in a short-distance event, including the Olympics. The Japan record he set of 47.89 seconds has yet to be surpassed. In 2003 he left Osaka Gas, the company with which he was affiliated as an amateur, and turned professional. At the Helsinki World Championships in 2005, he won bronze for the second time. Has also built a reputation as an investor and recounted his success in turning his seed money of 300,000 yen ($3,800) into 20 million yen in his book, “Investment Hurdler.”
Favorite food: Fried oysters, made by his mother at his family home in Hiroshima. Smothering them in a mix of locally made Otafuku okonomiyaki sauce and mayonnaise is the Tamesue way. “In the athletics world I was constantly treated as a maverick and always felt like I was an outsider, but home was the only place where I could always be myself. Fried oysters taste of happiness.”
Favorite book: “Homo Ludens,” a discussion of the importance of play by Dutch historian Johan Huizinga. It gave him the idea of asking himself if he was running out of obligation when he analyzed races that he lost. “In athletics and business, 'play' is important. Nothing beats losing yourself in something.”
Hobbies: In San Diego in the United States, Tamesue became hooked on salsa dancing. He says that its pelvic movements are similar to that of hurdling. “If I were to go back to my childhood and do hurdling all over again, I'd want to start dancing the salsa from the age of 10.”
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