The Agony of Defeat

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I'm sorry. For days that's been about all Japan has heard from its Olympic athletes. Those were the first words uttered by a young swimmer after competing in the 400-m individual-medley swimming event, an arduous exercise that takes more than 4 1/2 minutes to complete and requires four different strokes. Because her event took place on the opening day of Sydney 2000, her performance was deemed especially significant for the fortunes of the nation. But with all of Japan watching, Yasuko Tajima fell short. Never mind that she earned a silver medal. How disappointing, she said. Next time I will win the gold. ALSO IN TIMECOVER: High-Fiving ItChina's once dour athletes are winningand having fun Personal Glory: Sports institutes adapt to China's Me Generation The Apologists: Japan's Olympians make an exhibition sport of saying sorry Notebook: Highs and lows from the Sydney GamesSPECIAL SITETIME at the Olympics: Sydney 2000TIMEasia, TIMEeurope, TIMEpacific and bring you our take on the first Olympics of the new millennium THE PHILIPPINES: On the RunOther than a dash to freedom by two French hostages, the assault on Muslim rebels in the south is producing few resultsHONG KONG: Dot NotMarket skepticism brings Richard Li's high-flying Pacific Century CyberWorks down to earthVIETNAM: Getting ConnectedAuthorities are hoping the nation's youth will transform the communist country into a major software exporterMALAYSIA: Free to Be MeThe jailing of Anwar Ibrahim for sodomy has not stifled the growing number of citizens who are gay and proud of itTECHNOLOGY: Down to the WireNapster has changed the world by transforming our notions of business, content and culturebut can it survive the week? Downloads Galore: All intellectual property is vulnerableCINEMA: Asian CocktailThe latest crop of the region's films, showcased in Toronto, is more eclectic, more savvy and more commercial than ever TRAVEL WATCH: Talk Can Be Cheap for Tech-Savvy Travelers There is a unique form of pressure on Japan's athletes. Competitors from every country face enormous expectations to win, to make the years of hard work and training pay off, to achieve greatness on the preeminent world stage. American cyclist Lance Armstrong, winner of two consecutive Tour de France races after surviving a bout with cancer, noted last week that, If I lose the Olympics, they'll say, 'I thought he was supposed to be a good cyclist.' But whereas failure to win gold might cost Americans a fat endorsement contract, for Japanese a disappointing performance is even more dire, as individual failure is somehow wrapped up with a sense of national identity. For non-Japanese, it's very peculiar for athletes to say they are sorry, says Mitsunori Urushibara, a professor of sports philosophy at Shikoku Gakuin University. Failure is never just an individual matter in Japan. Athletes always face the terror of being excommunicated from the group. Understanding the culture in which Japanese athletes compete makes watching their defeats all the more painful. The agony of gymnast Naoya Tsukahara, whose hopes for an individual all-around medal were dashed last Wednesday when he inexplicably fell off the pommel horse, was obvious as he seemed to sleepwalk through his other events. His body was limp, his expression blank. I didn't want to disgrace my nation, he said. Another young swimmer, Tomoko Hagiwara, climbed out of the pool after finishing seventh in her 200-m individual-medley qualifying heat last Monday, her shoulders sagging, her head tilted downward. What was the cause of your poor performance? snapped a reporter for nhk, the national TV network. Hagiwara answered that she didn't shift smoothly between strokes and that her turns were poor. Please remember those points and try to do better in the next race, the reporter lectured. You feel as if everyone in Japan feels ashamed of you, former Olympic swimmer Hiroko Nagasaki commented on a Fuji TV broadcast. A memory that still haunts many in Japan is that of Kokichi Tsuburaya, the marathon runner who finished third at the 1964 Tokyo Games. Four years later, while in training for the Mexico City Olympics, Tsuburaya killed himself by slashing his wrist in his dormitory. He was found holding his bronze medal. I remember Tsuburaya's comments before he committed suicide, fellow marathoner Kenji Kimihara told the Nikkan Sports newspaper this year. He said, 'I committed an inexcusable blunder in front of the Japanese people. I have to beg their pardon by running and hoisting the Hinomaru [national flag] in Mexico.' The media are partly responsible for the pressure, but they reflect the general attitudes of the population. And the nation's fans don't seem to be having much fun. Last week, hundreds of Japanese endured a horrific schedule to watch their team battle Brazil in soccer. They took a nine hour flight from Osaka to Brisbane, traveled by bus to the stadium, dutifully watched the game and left immediately for the airport for the return trip to Osaka. They were home in time for work the next morning. They got there and acted like the cheering was compulsory, says Urushibara. They didn't seem to really enjoy the game. It is work. It is what members of the group do. Sadly, even when an athlete lives up to expectations, the demanding drumbeat for victory doesn't cease. On opening day, Tadahiro Nomura won a gold medal in judo in impressive fashion by dropping his opponent in just 14 seconds. It was his second Olympic victory, but Nomura had little chance to savor the moment. What about 2004? a reporter asked seconds after his victory. No one could blame the quiet champion if he felt like folding up his judo jacket and never putting it back on again.