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Olympics: Second best in the world, but still saying sorry

TOKYO — Kenichiro Fumita was crying so hard that he could barely get the words out.

Olympics: Second best in the world, but still saying sorry

Apologising for being second best in the world would seem to reflect an absurdly unforgiving metric of success. But for these athletes competing in their home country, the emotionally charged displays of repentance can represent an intricate mix of regret, gratitude, obligation and humility.

TOKYO — Kenichiro Fumita was crying so hard that he could barely get the words out.

“I wanted to return my gratitude to the concerned people and volunteers who are running the Olympics during this difficult time,” Fumita, a Greco-Roman wrestler, said between sobs after finishing his final bout at the Games this week.

“I ended up with this shameful result,” he said, bobbing his head abjectly. “I’m truly sorry.”

Fumita, 25, had just won a silver medal.

In what has become a familiar — and, at times, wrenching — sight during the Tokyo Olympics, many Japanese athletes have wept through post-competition interviews, apologising for any result short of gold. Even some who had won a medal, like Fumita, lamented that they had let down their team, their supporters, even their country.

After Japan’s judo team earned silver, losing to France, Shoichiro Mukai, 25, also apologised.

“I wanted to withstand a little bit more,” he said. “And I’m so sorry to everyone on the team.”

Apologising for being second best in the world would seem to reflect an absurdly unforgiving metric of success. But for these athletes competing in their home country, the emotionally charged displays of repentance — which often follow pointed questions from the Japanese news media — can represent an intricate mix of regret, gratitude, obligation and humility.

“If you don’t apologise for only getting silver, you might be criticised,” said Mr Takuya Yamazaki, a sports lawyer who represents players’ unions in Japan.

From an early age, Japanese athletes “are not really supposed to think like they are playing sports for themselves,” Mr Yamazaki said. “Especially in childhood, there are expectations from adults, teachers, parents or other senior people. So it’s kind of a deeply rooted mindset.”

The expectations placed on the athletes have been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic, which made the Olympics deeply unpopular with the Japanese public before the events began. Many may feel more pressure than usual to deliver medals to try to justify holding the Games, as anxiety swells over rising coronavirus cases in Japan. Athletes who have failed to do so have offered outpourings of regret.

“I feel fed up with myself,” said Kai Harada, a sports climber, vigorously wiping his eyes during an interview after failing to make the finals.

Takeru Kitazono, a gymnast who finished sixth on the horizontal bar, fought back tears as he spoke of his supporters.

“I wanted to return my gratitude with my performance,” he said. “But I couldn’t.”

Naomi Osaka, in a statement after she was eliminated in the third round of women’s singles tennis, said she was proud to represent Japan but added, “I’m sorry that I couldn’t respond to people’s expectations.”

In some respects, these athletes have offered an extreme form of the apologies that are everyday social lubricants in Japanese culture.

When entering someone’s home, a visitor literally says sorry. Workers going on vacation apologise for burdening colleagues, while conductors express deep regret if a train is a minute late — or even a few seconds early. Generally, these apologies are a matter of convention rather than a declaration of responsibility.

At times, the mea culpas ring hollow. Corporate chieftains and politicians frequently bow deeply to the news cameras to apologise for this corporate scandal or that political misdeed. For the most part, few consequences follow.

The former president of the Tokyo Olympic organising committee, Mr Yoshiro Mori, initially tried to use such an apology to avoid resigning after making sexist remarks. But a vociferous social media campaign helped depose him.

People who study Japanese culture say the athletes’ apologies, even in the face of victory, stem from an instinct that is cultivated from childhood.

“Americans are very good at finding reasons why you are great even if you fail,” said Dr Shinobu Kitayama, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan. But in Japan, he said, “even if you succeed, you have to apologise”.

The apologies are also likely to be recognised as tacit expressions of gratitude, said Dr Joy Hendry, an anthropologist and the author of “Understanding Japanese Society”.

“I expect they feel that they need to apologise for not having achieved the very best they could” for those who trained or financially supported them, Dr Hendry said.

The urge to apologise may stem in part from the harsh coaching style found in some sports in Japan, said Dr Katrin Jumiko Leitner, an associate professor in sports management and wellness at Rikkyo University in Saitama.

When she first came to Japan to train in judo, she said, she was shocked by coaches' aggressive language.

“I thought, if that’s the way to become an Olympic champion, I don’t want to be an Olympic champion,” she said. “They did not treat athletes like human beings.”

Some Japanese athletes have been subjected to public criticism for failing to show sufficient humility. Yuko Arimori, a marathon runner who won silver in Barcelona in 1992 and bronze in Atlanta in 1996, was accused of narcissism by some in the Japanese news media after declaring in Atlanta that she was proud of herself.

Arimori understands why athletes continue to offer apologies, given that they can convey a sense of gratitude.

But “I think supporters know the athletes have worked hard enough,” Arimori said. “So there is no need to apologise.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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