Twelve members of the Self-Defense Forces have been chosen to represent Japan at the London Olympics this summer. What is the secret behind these public servants-turned-athletes?
On May 17, 10 of the 12 visited the Defense Ministry and met with Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka for a pep talk.
The 10 athletes belong to the Japan Self-Defense Forces’ Physical Training School, located within the compound of the JGSDF Camp Asaka in Tokyo's Nerima Ward. The school was built in 1961, three years before the Tokyo Olympics, as a state-run institute to train future Olympians.
Thanks to such support, Yoshinobu Miyake won a weightlifting gold medal at the Tokyo Games in the featherweight category and repeated the feat four years later in Mexico City.
The Physical Training School has gone on to help Japanese athletes win 14 Olympic medals, including six golds. Last year, it celebrated its 50th anniversary since its founding.
But the school has been producing fewer medalists in recent years. For the past 20 years since the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, it has only produced four to eight Olympians per Games. So being able to send 12 to London is a big increase. The SDF athletes will constitute the largest group of Japanese athletes among the roughly 300 headed for London. The school has become an elite institution where almost 10 percent of the entire student body of about 150 will be competing at the Olympics.
Recession played role in increasing SDF Olympians
According to SDF officials, the recession has a lot to do with the increase in SDF members making the national Olympic team.
The current economic slump has forced many private-sector companies to discontinue or downsize their corporate sports teams or athlete sponsorships. This makes the SDF--a public sector job with security--much more attractive in a day when any kind of job is difficult to land. Another benefit is that SDF athletes can keep their jobs as SDF officers after retiring as athletes.
“Compared with the past, top-level athletes are voluntarily joining us,” says Shinju Sano, a major in the Ground Self-Defense Force, who is in charge of public relations.
The Physical Training School’s standard for recruiting athletes is that they are required to place in the top three at national championship competitions in their respective sport. Some athletes join the SDF as a regular officer and switch to the training course. About 30 to 40 members newly enroll in the school every year.
The athletes train in nine events, including judo, wrestling and archery. The school gymnasium has an indoor Olympic-size swimming pool and an all-weather track. There are also equestrian training grounds, dedicated dining facilities, GSDF medical officers and trainers. The facility is also completely self-sufficient.
Special features of SDF athletes is that their athletic careers are considered “missions.” Every time an SDF athlete enters a competition, the school president issues an order. For the Olympics, for example, the school president, who is a major general, may say, “Go compete in the Olympics. Your goal is to win a medal.” The athlete's promotions within the SDF--such as from sergeant first class, master sergeant, to sergeant major--are also determined by athletic results.
Quake motivates SDF athletes
Like many athletes, SDF athletes questioned whether they should continue playing sports after last year’s Great East Japan Earthquake, which left tens of thousands dead or missing. As their colleagues were sent to disaster areas en masse for recovery and cleanup activities, many athletes felt hesitant about continuing with their training.
“I thought I had to produce results at races on behalf of all my colleagues who were working so hard,” says Ken Takakuwa, a swimmer who in April secured a ticket to his second Olympics and is an ensign in the Maritime Self-Defense Force. In London, he’ll be competing in the 200-meter individual medley.
Katsuaki Susa, an amateur boxer and a second lieutenant in the GSDF, is from Fukushima Prefecture, which was hard hit by the events of 3/11.
“I'm an SDF officer first and foremost, an athlete second," he says. "I wanted to work at disaster areas to help with recovery efforts, but my mission was to strive for the Olympics.”
He eventually accomplished that mission by being selected to compete in the flyweight division at the London Games.
Outside Japan, it is not unusual for military personnel of other nations to compete at the Olympics. Five modern sporting events, including the sport of shooting, are based on military exercises dating back to the Napoleonic Wars.
There is even a global event for military athletes called the Military World Games, which Japan does not participate in because the SDF is a self-defense force and is not considered a military organization.
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