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Asia

Japanese baseball mired in scandal amid efforts for its Olympic inclusion

The organizers of Tokyo 2020, Japan's biggest sporting event, have responded furiously to revelations that at least three players from the nation's most popular Yomiuri Giants club have been betting illegally on games.

The timing of the scandal could not have been worse as baseball remains Japan's most popular sport and organizers are pushing hard for it to be reinstated in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

At a meeting of the International Olympic Committee in July 2005, baseball was voted out of the 2012 Games in London, becoming the first sport to be voted out of the Olympics since polo in 1936.

Japan has long advocated a return for baseball, in part because the Japanese team won two bronzes and a silver medal in the four Olympic games between 1992 and 2004. However, those ambitions may now have taken a serious hit thanks to the actions of Satoshi Fukuda, Shoki Kasahara and Ryuya Matsumoto.

Three Giants pitchers

All three players are pitchers for the Tokyo-based Yomiuri Giants team, with 34-year-old Fukuda's wagers - including on games involving the Giants - the first to come to light.

As well as betting on professional baseball games, the three men allegedly played baccarat for money and gambled in other ways.

Japan Baseball

Baseball became the first sport to be voted out of the Olympics since polo in 1936

Gambling is illegal in Japan, while the Nippon Professional Baseball Agreement expressly forbids any sort of wagering on matches.

The three men have all denied that they deliberately lost games in order to win bets, while Hiroshi Kubo, the president of the team appeared before a press conference and said, "I sincerely apologize to professional baseball fans."

Tokyo Olympics organizers remain unmollified, however.

"This issue threatens the integrity of sport and the trust of baseball fans and society in general," said Hidetoshi Fujisawa, executive director of communications and engagement for Tokyo 2020, in a statement issued to DW.

"We condemn the incident in the strongest possible terms. We would like the relevant authorities to exert the utmost efforts in its investigation of this matter and implement the necessary measures to ensure that these types of illegal practices are completely eradicated," Fujisawa said, adding that the campaign to have baseball reinstated in five years' time will continue.

'Extremely popular sport'

"Baseball is an extremely popular sport in Japan and we believe that its inclusion would greatly add to the value of the 2020 Games," Fujisawa said.

"We will further strengthen our collaborations with the baseball authorities, demonstrate our firm commitment to ensuring the integrity of sport in Japan, and work towards the formal adoption of baseball to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic program," he noted.

Nevertheless, the latest incident has jogged memories of what is known as the "Black Fog Incident" of 1969, in which a number of players from several teams were found to be involved in colluding with members of Japan's underworld to fix the outcomes of matches.

Eventually, three were banned from the game for life.

Baseball is not the only sport in Japan to have been tainted with allegations of gambling and results being rigged, with sumo attempting to clean up its image in recent years after allegations of cheating, drug-taking, links to organized crime and bullying that in one case led to the death of a young wrestler.

Widespread illegal gambling

"There is a widespread problem with illegal gambling in sport in Japan, with sumo in the headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent years," said Fred Varcoe, a journalist who has covered sport in Japan for nearly 30 years.

And while this latest indiscretion is undoubtedly not good for the image of baseball or the reputation of sport in Japan in general, Varcoe believes it is unlikely that the scandal will impact efforts to get baseball back on the schedule for 2020.

Japan Baseball

'Baseball is an extremely popular sport in Japan and we believe that its inclusion would greatly add to the value of the 2020 Games,' said Fujisawa

"I don't think this is a pandemic across the sport here and I would have to say that part of the problem would have to be the management of the Giants and their failure to get across to their players exactly what is expected of them," Varcoe said.

"The Giants are Japan's most popular team but they're also synonymous with the old ways of doing things," he said.

"They're the salaryman's team in a salaryman's sport," said Varcoe, hinting at the old-fashioned and hidebound way that things are done at the club.

"But, at the end of the day, it's not just Japan that is pushing for baseball to be reinstated into the Olympics and there is a lot of support for this from other countries that play the game," he said.