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Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Seven-time Olympian's latest hurdle is planning the Tokyo Games

New chief Seiko Hashimoto takes baton from mentor Mori after sexism scandal

Seiko Hashimoto competes in the 1,500-meter speed skating race during the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, where she won a bronze medal. Hashimoto has competed in seven Olympic Games throughout her career.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Seiko Hashimoto is no stranger to the Olympics, having competed in seven of the games as a speed skater and a cyclist, more than any other woman in Japan.

After decades as a fixture in Japan's sports and political circles, both of which have traditionally been dominated by men, she is now taking on a new challenge as chief for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic organizing committee.

But with just months to go, her challenges are enormous. The committee faces headwinds from the coronavirus and the sexist remarks by her predecessor Yoshiro Mori, who resigned after his comments that women "talk too much" in meetings drew global outrage. Her ties to Mori are also likely to come under scrutiny.

Many described her as "born to compete in the Olympics" during her heyday as an athlete. She was the first Japanese athlete ever to participate in both the summer and winter games. After becoming an upper house member, she continued to train, taking part in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Until her appointment as the committee chief, she had served as the cabinet minister in charge of the Tokyo Games since 2019.

In addition to leading Japan's skating and cycling federations, Hashimoto also led the Japanese delegation to multiple Olympic Games and served as head of athlete training for the Japanese Olympic Committee.

"She's a leader who respects the opinions on the ground and can think about how athletes and coaches are feeling," one JOC source said.

Her dedication to fellow athletes was highlighted during the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, when one snowboarder drew outrage over his outfit and offhand comments. Hashimoto insisted that he compete despite the criticism, offering to take "full responsibility" for the athlete.

During her time as head of the Japan Skating Federation, she also created an athletes commission designed to ensure athlete input into the organization. The JOC and other sports groups have since launched a similar framework.

"She's more of a listener than a top-down sort of leader," said one source from Japan's sports circles.

When Japan failed to win a single medal in speed skating in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, she appointed a new, unconventional training coordinator with no previous competitive or coaching experience. She also shifted the focus to the national team from corporate teams over their objection. The move paid off in spades, with Japan winning three gold medals, two silvers and one bronze in the Pyeongchang Olympics four years later.

Hashimoto took part in the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics as a cyclist, becoming the first Japanese to participate in both Summer and Winter Olympic games.    © Kyodo

"She's thoughtful, and she has no enemies," said another sports source. That reputation has carried over into her now 20-plus-year political career.

In 2016, Hashimoto became the first woman to chair the general assembly for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's upper house lawmakers. She tapped her collaborative skills to lead the body's roughly 120 members, who belonged to different factions within the party, in close partnership with the assembly's secretary-general.

She also brought light to the fact that Japanese lawmakers have no parental leave when she had a child as a sitting upper house member in 2000.

Still, some have raised concerns over her close ties to Mori. She decided to enter the world of politics at Mori's behest, who as LDP secretary-general convinced her to run for the upper house.

In 2019, after Hashimoto was appointed as Olympics minister, Mori said he thinks of her "as a daughter" at one event.

"This is my father," Hashimoto quickly responded.

Hashimoto called Mori her "mentor in politics" and an "extremely important figure" at a Thursday news conference. "There will be situations where I'll need his advice," she said.

"She'll probably ask Mori's advice on decisions," one LDP official said. While this means Hashimoto will have access to Mori's connections and clout, it is unclear how the dynamic would be received by the international community.

Past allegations that Hashimoto forcibly kissed a male athlete have added to the controversy as well.

The Tokyo Olympics are slated to begin in less than six months. With little time to spare, Hashimoto faces a difficult task to prove her leadership abilities extend beyond facilitating cooperation.

"Her ability to navigate difficult negotiations and decisions is still unproven," one critic said.

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