21 June 2011

Realizing an Olympic Dream

Sumo wrestling, martial arts, football, and baseball are among the most popular sports in Japan. While swimming has yet to be considered as one of the Asian nation’s stronger events, Japanese swimmers have nonetheless put in some remarkable performances over the years. Among these is Daichi Suzuki’s gold medal performance at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. Like many young people in Japan, growing up in Narashino, Chiba, a suburb of Tokyo, Daichi played baseball and football. His focus shifted to swimming, when at age 7, he signed up at the neighborhood swim club. Even without knowing how to swim, Daichi wrote on his registration form that his dream was to swim in the Olympics. Not only did his dream come true at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics but he became one of Japan’s most renowned Olympians.

Since his victory at the 1988 Games, Daichi, now 43, has remained actively involved in the sport. He is currently the head coach of the varsity swim team at Juntendo University, in Tokyo, where he is also a professor. In addition to serving on WADA’s Athlete Committee, Daichi sits on many committees in Japan, including the Japan Swimming Federation, the Japan Olympic Committee’s Athlete Committee and the board of the Japan Anti-Doping Agency. Here’s what Daichi has to say about his Olympic career, the fight against doping in sport and being a positive role model for young athletes.

Play True: At the 1988 Olympic Games, in Seoul, going into the 100 meter backstroke final, David Berkoff (USA) was the favorite, having set a world record in the preliminaries. You created a huge upset by beating him and winning the gold medal. What are your memories from the final?

Daichi Suzuki: At that time, I did not feel that it was huge upset. I still feel this way about it. During the World University Games in Zagreb, Croatia, in 1987, he and I competed in the 100 and 200 meter backstroke and during the first leg of the 400 meter medley relay. I never lost. I analyzed his swimming style and I noticed that he usually swam faster in the preliminary rounds than in the finals. Because of this, I decided to save my energy during the preliminary races so that I would be able to swim faster during the finals. As a result, I felt confident that I would win the gold medal before the race.

I had dreamed of winning the gold medal ever since the 1984 Olympics. I always envisioned winning the gold at the 1988 Olympics. My dream came true and it was a strange feeling, because it happened almost exactly as I had envisioned! I learned that there is enormous power in positive thinking and visualization.

PLAY TRUE: You were a talented young swimmer, taking part in your first Olympics at only 17 and retired after winning your gold medal at 21. Why did you retire so early in your career?

DAICHI SUZUKI: I did retire from competitive swimming early. At that time, I wanted to focus on my future and a career. I had achieved my dream and I felt it was important to begin focusing on improving the conditions of future swimmers. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Japanese Swimming Federation did not allow its members to become professional swimmers. Therefore, we were unable to earn a living by swimming. Also, we were not allowed to appear in commercials, or any magazine covers and so forth. Basically, we could not choose swimming as a career path. For these reasons, I chose to change focus towards an occupation other than swimming. I needed to support myself.

PLAY TRUE: What did sport teach you?

DAICHI SUZUKI: Many things. It taught me that a strong effort will be rewarded. If you work hard, your dream will surely come true. Sport made me strong and provided me with opportunities to open many doors in the world.

PLAY TRUE: During the 1988 Olympic Games, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson won the 100 meter with a new world record, but was later disqualified after he tested positive for stanozolol (a banned steroid). What went through your mind when you heard the news?

DAICHI SUZUKI: It is interesting actually. The day Ben won the 100 meter final was the same day as my race. I remember that race very well. My friend and I watched it in a conference room at the pool. A few days later, he failed a doping test. Even though I didn’t do anything wrong or take any drugs, I felt nervous until I passed the doping test. I remember feeling very surprised, shocked and disappointed when I heard the news about Ben.

PLAY TRUE: As an elite athlete, had you heard about doping before?

DAICHI SUZUKI: Yes I had. I knew that the problem of doping existed and I had experience with being tested before. I knew it was dangerous and unfair.

PLAY TRUE: How do you see your role as a member of WADA’s Athlete Committee?

DAICHI SUZUKI: Historically, Japanese athletes have been very clean and really could not conceive of ever using drugs. I would say that our strong moral instruction in school, within our families and Japanese society has lead our young generation to value fairness and hard work. As a member of WADA’s Athlete Committee, I am able to promote these values and share them with the world. I feel that we can serve as role models for the world.

Also, I am a university teacher and researcher. As such, I am able to collect important data about anti-doping. My hope is to be able to use this information to improve anti-doping policies.

PLAY TRUE: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the fight against doping in sport?

DAICHI SUZUKI: I think many drug companies have an interest in creating new and more advanced doping substances. As this happens, WADA needs to understand these new advances in order to continue our fight against doping. It never seems to end.

PLAY TRUE: One of WADA’s main focuses is educating a younger generation of athletes. Any advice to give to young athletes?

DAICHI SUZUKI: I would tell them to always enhance the spirit of fair play and to always maintain a chivalrous sense of justice and samurai spirit.

PLAY TRUE: You remain actively involved in sport, coaching the Juntendo University swim team as well as serving on numerous committees and boards. What else is keeping you busy?

DAICHI SUZUKI: Currently, I am focusing on my research and volunteer projects and of course, my family. I also play my shakuhachi (traditional Japanese flute), which I enjoy very much. One of my aims in life is to master a sport, a musical instrument and a second language. These goals help to make my life fulfilled.

PLAY TRUE: As a former elite athlete, do you consider yourself a role model?

DAICHI SUZUKI: Yes, I always do my best to be a good role model. I think that all Olympians should be positive role models.