Unconventional but passionate about sport

Seiko Hashimoto leaving the track at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics - her seventh and final Games. She went to four winter and three summer editions as a speed skater and cyclist.
Seiko Hashimoto leaving the track at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics - her seventh and final Games. She went to four winter and three summer editions as a speed skater and cyclist. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

TOKYO • Seiko Hashimoto, who will head the Tokyo 2020 organising committee after a sexism row forced its last chief to step down, is a seven-time Olympian and was one of just two women in Japan's Cabinet until she took the job.

The 56-year-old politician quit three ministerial appointments to take up her new post.

She is a passionate Olympian, competing at seven consecutive Winter and Summer Games in speed skating and as a sprint cyclist, and winning a bronze for skating in 1992.

She entered politics in the 1990s and after a period balancing sports and statecraft, her final Games as an athlete was in 1996 before she started to work her way up the ranks of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

After the sexist comments made by her predecessor Yoshiro Mori, Ms Hashimoto said she wanted to hold "thorough discussions" about his views.

But she is no stranger to controversy herself. In 2014, she faced a sexual harassment scandal when pictures emerged of her hugging and kissing a male figure skater over 20 years her junior.

Purportedly taken at a booze-fuelled party after the Sochi Winter Olympics, the images appeared to show Daisuke Takahashi in the clutches of the then head of the Japanese delegation to Russia.

Takahashi said he regretted the drunken moment but did not think he had been harassed by the married official, who later apologised for any "misunderstanding" caused by the photos.

Ms Hashimoto was born just five days before the opening ceremony of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics - a pivotal event in modern Japanese history - and her parents drew inspiration from the lighting of the Olympic flame, or seika in Japanese, when naming her.

She has not totally abandoned her sporting prowess, as she reportedly still trains regularly and takes protein supplements.

She married a parliament guard in 1998, raising eyebrows in political circles, and has six children including three stepchildren.

She gave birth to her first child months ahead of the 2000 Sydney Olympics and opted to name her Seika to "pass on the Olympic dream that my father gave to me".

In the patriarchal world of Japanese politics, getting married and having a baby in office was not just unconventional but "positively unfathomable", according to her. But she juggled family and working life, and lobbied for a parliament creche which opened in 2010, paving the way for other women to follow in her footsteps.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 19, 2021, with the headline 'Unconventional but passionate about sport'. Subscribe