Marathon runner Arata Fujiwara will be representing more than just Japan at this summer's London Olympics. He will also be representing Japanese athletes who struggle to train and compete while being financially independent.
Fujiwara, 30, who quit his corporate job and formed his own firm, has begun searching for individual sponsors over the Internet with hopes of starting a new lifestyle.
Until now, most Japanese athletes have had to become employees of companies that paid them salaries and provide them with a training environment, equipment and coaches.
After quitting his job, Fujiwara has been registered as a member of the Tokyo Athletics Association instead of a company.
In a live media conference streamed online in mid-April, Fujiwara called on fans to support him.
“This kind of fund-raising is unheard of as far as I know," he told his online audience. "This may change the way athletes support themselves from now on. I’d appreciate your support.”
Within a week, 20,000 people signed up to be the first paid members of his website. The monthly fee of 525 yen ($6.60) paid by members will go directly to Fujiwara to support his athletic career. Getting direct funding from fans is “the most ideal way for an athlete,” Fujiwara said of this system.
Runners can also gain income from winning races. Fujiwara won 4 million yen when he placed second at the 2012 Tokyo Marathon in February. But it’s extremely difficult for Japanese runners to support themselves solely on prize money when they are competing against talented veteran runners from Africa.
Once marathon runners have proven they can be competitive, they can get sponsors and turn pro. Although a few female Japanese marathon runners have become household names and successfully gained sponsors, male runners have not enjoyed that kind of attention in Japan.
“In the past, male marathon runners had the image of being monks. I’d like to help Fujiwara become a presence like (2000 Sydney Olympics gold medalist) Naoko Takahashi,” said Makoto Koyama, representative of Arata Project, which supports Fujiwara.
To become financially independent, Fujiwara formed his own company named after himself and appointed himself president. His company only has one employee--who is Fujiwara's personal friend. With no steady income, Fujiwara was unable to pay his friend a salary. He even borrowed funds from the friend to start the firm.
Until now, Fujiwara had been tapping into his savings while getting support from his wife, who is a doctor. Will he be able to support himself fully under the new structure to continue his athletic career? Only time will tell. But Fujiwara hopes to be the trailblazer for other Olympic hopefuls.
“There are many athletes in Japan who are struggling in the shadows," he said. "I’d like to be a flag-bearer for such athletes.”
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