Tokyo - Japan's
gaffe-prone Olympics Minister was forced to apologise on Wednesday after
suggesting that the leukaemia diagnosis of 18-year-old star swimmer
Rikako Ikee could dampen enthusiasm for the Tokyo 2020 Games.
The shock announcement of Ikee - widely considered the poster girl
for next year's Olympics - that she was battling the disease touched
the hearts of Japanese everywhere and sparked an outpouring of
However, the minister, Yoshitaka Sakurada, appeared to voice sadness that Japan's medal tally might be affected as a result.
"She is a potential gold medallist, an athlete in whom we have great
expectations. I'm really disappointed," said the 69-year-old, according
to local media.
"When one person leads, she can boost the whole team. I am slightly worried that this type of excitement could wane."
Following a backlash from the public and opposition politicians,
Sakurada sought to clarify his stance and admitted his comments "lacked
This is not the first time Sakurada has made unwanted headlines.
He attracted widespread ridicule when he admitted that he "does not
use computers" in his professional life. He doubles as deputy chief of
Japan's cyber security strategy.
Sakurada also sparked anger for ill-advised comments in 2016 when he
described the "comfort women" forced to work in military brothels
servicing Japanese wartime troops as "professional prostitutes."
Ikee shot to fame at last year's Asian Games, where she captured a
record six gold medals to fire a warning for the 2020 Olympics in her
The teenage superstar, who holds a string of national records, has
been tipped to push for gold on several fronts, in particular in the
women's 100 metres butterfly.
Ikee told fans she was determined to beat her illness after being forced to abandon her training camp on Australia's Gold Coast.
"If treated properly it's a disease that can be beaten," said Ikee,
who confirmed she will withdraw from the Japanese championships in
"I will devote myself to my treatment and strive to be able to show an even stronger Rikako Ikee."