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By Rob Smaal

Fair games

It's not whether you win or lose…

Rob Smaal is a sports editor and filmmaker living in Tokyo

It's that time again, as the Summer Games roll around and we all get to use obscure terms like "epee" and "dressage" around the office water cooler for a few weeks. And, in another Olympic tradition, by the end of the month we'll all likely be wondering why a nation with an abundant population, piles of material wealth, and strong sporting traditions has come up woefully short in the medal standings yet again.

I'm talking about Japan, of course, which has sent 312 athletes off to Athens in search of gold and glory. If past performances are anything to judge by, the Japanese Olympic Committee's return on investment could be downright Enron-like. At the last Summer Games in Sydney in 2000, Japanese athletes brought home a measly five gold medals-compared to 40 for the United States, 32 for Russia and 28 for the Chinese. Nations like South Korea, Romania, Hungary and Poland all finished with more gold medals than Japan.

The reasons for Japan's anemic athletic performances on the world stage have been debated for years. I've heard all sorts of theories, ranging from the smaller physical stature of Japanese athletes (which is not nearly as much of a factor now as it might have once been), to the fact that they lack a killer instinct. People cite the diet here, and I even recall reading one amusing article that blamed the sit-down toilet-the theory being that national leg strength has diminished as the practice of squatting has abated.

But let me offer another possible-albeit partial-explanation: The Japanese are, in general, simply too honest, law-abiding and morally upstanding to compete with many of the world's top athletes.
It's a sad state of affairs that fantastic athletic achievements are these days often met with a skeptical raising of the eyebrows rather than a hero's embrace. What's sadder still is that this skepticism is often well-deserved. Whether it's an aging slugger like Barry Bonds blasting 73 home runs, recovered cancer victim Lance Armstrong pedaling to a record sixth straight victory in the Tour de France, or sprinter Marion Jones blowing away the competition, the first thought that springs to mind for many of us is, "Were they juiced?"

And, unfortunately, it's an entirely legitimate question.

As part of my research for this article, I did several Internet searches for Japanese athletes who have tested positive for steroids, and the only name I could come up with was a sprinter from a few years ago. Of course, that doesn't mean there aren't drug cheats in Japan (maybe they're just better at hiding it), but compared to the nations that consistently produce the best results in Olympic competition, the number of Japanese caught using illegal steroids is negligible.

Anyone who has lived here is aware that this is a very rules-conscious society, particularly when it comes to drugs. I remember being in Nagano in '98 when Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati lost his medal after testing positive for marijuana. Japanese friends and acquaintances were horrified. When I tried to explain that marijuana use was not a big crime back in Canada, they looked at me like I was on drugs.

But perhaps more damning than the legal ramifications of using drugs is the fact that to most Japanese, cheating-politicians and corporate heads notwithstanding-is just not part of their character.

Hidenori "Henry" Ishii was one of the top swimmers in Japan in the '70s and '80s, holding the national record in the 100-meter freestyle from 1978-83. Ishii missed out on his chance at an Olympic medal when Japan joined the boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow.

"I never took any steroids, was never offered any steroids, and I believe that most Japanese athletes in general were not really even aware of steroids," Ishii says. "Of course, we figured something was going on when we'd see these big East German women get out of the pool with beards at the '78 World Championships [in Berlin]. I never saw any of the Japanese women swimmers exhibit those kinds of features." Ishii also points out that the Olympics were contested by "amateur" athletes for pride, not money-and how could anyone be filled with pride if they knew they had cheated to win?

These days, of course, it is all about money. In the past, it was a few unlucky (and likely careless) cheats who got caught, but nowadays technology is catching up with the chemically enhanced athlete. Disgraced sprinter Ben Johnson claims in a new documentary about the 1988 Olympics that "everybody in Seoul was using drugs." His ex-coach, Charlie Francis, confirms this. "Steroids are so ubiquitous, so omnipresent and have been for decades," Francis says. "There is a level playing field out there. It just isn't the playing field you thought it was."

Japanese athletes may not be bringing home the biggest medal hauls, but at least there's a good chance that the medals they do win were earned legitimately. And that should count for something.

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