Asian Games: Former figure skater Watanabe lays out welcome mat


Emi Watanabe, a former Japanese figure skating icon, welcomed the Japan team into the controversial athletes village setup at the Asian Winter Games on Thursday.

At a gymnasium abutting the APA Hotel & Resort, one of three hotels housing athletes for the games that will officially open on Sunday and close seven days later, Watanabe looked forward to a week of harmony in Sapporo.

"We're all human beings, regardless of what flag your nation flies," the half-Japanese, half-Filipino former athlete told Kyodo News in Japanese after the ceremony. "I am really looking forward to seeing people of all nations eating together and competing."

South Korean and Chinese athletes will not stay at the APA facility due to the hotel's policy of putting a controversial book written by its chief executive in hotel rooms.

The book denies the "forced recruitment of comfort women," or women procured for Japanese military brothels before and during World War II, many of whom were from the Korean Peninsula. The book also asserts that the 1937 Nanjing Massacre in China was fabricated.

While Watanabe did not mention the political ramifications, the American-raised former skater who won the women's bronze medal at the 1979 world championships was willing to at least talk about it.

"When we have all the athletes enter the stadium together during the closing ceremony, that is the ideal," she said.

At an earlier ceremony, the head of the Japan delegation, Toshimasa Furukawa refused to discuss anything other than the games themselves after brushing aside a question about the controversy, saying, "An athlete can't concentrate on extraneous matters like that, they focus on sports."

Watanabe, who said she was selected for the job of overseeing the athletes' hotels because of her ability to speak English, said great care had been taken to provide athletes with good food, including halal dishes for muslim athletes.

"I haven't tried any yet, but we have them," she said, while adding that great care was being taken to make all 32 countries' athletes feel at home.

"I think part of my role is providing the image of a kind old lady who looks after guests at a Japanese inn, someone that is comforting. That's the image of the job," the 57-year-old said with a laugh. "Just the image."

But the job also allows her to see some competition. In addition to the figure skating, she said she will also take in curling, and short-track speed skating.

"That's really exciting. The speed is incredible," she said. "I'm so looking forward to that because I've never seen it live before."


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