RIO DE JANEIRO – I’m sure I speak for a lot of people here when I say the badminton competition is just not the same without Kento Momota.
You may not have heard of Momota. But earlier this year, he was the No. 2-ranked player in the world. He is just 21. The badminton world was his oyster.
“He had a great, great shot at getting a medal here,” Irish badminton player Scott Evans said Monday. “Absolutely. It’s a shame that he’s not here. He’s a brilliant player. He’s a big star for Japan. Japan is a big country for badminton.”
So what happened?
Momota got suspended.
I’m so glad you asked. I will let you guess from the following options:
A. He took performance-enhancing drugs
B. His ex-husband hired somebody to break an opponent’s leg
C. He bribed an IOC official
D. He didn’t bribe an IOC official
And the answer is: Drugs!
Always a solid guess, but no. The answer is actually: E. None of the above.
Momota was suspended for gambling.
Now, I think we can agree: gambling on your sport is a serious mistake, and betting on your own team is an even more serious mistake, especially if you play for the Sacramento Kings. But Momota did not bet on himself. As far as we know, he did not even bet on badminton.
He just bet.
Specifically, he played baccarat in a casino.
And the IOC kicked him out for THAT?
Nope. The IOC couldn’t care less. Momota was not banned by the IOC. He was also not banned by the Badminton World Federation. He was banned by his own country. Gambling is illegal in Japan.
It’s illegal in a lot of places.
True. But they take gambling seriously in Japan. Sure, the Japanese have Pachinko parlors, which have a bunch of slot machines—the country has to be ready in case Pete Rose visits. But those slot machines don’t award money. They award silver balls, which are worth absolutely nothing … unless you take them next door, where somebody will let you exchange them for money. But officially, that is not gambling.
Sounds like gambling to me. And wait: golf is very popular in Japan. Don’t the Japanese gamble on the golf course?
Of course they do. It’s very common. But nobody is there to catch them. Momota’s mistake was gambling in a casino. His friend and fellow badminton star Kenichi Tago blames himself. Tago was a frequent gambler, though not a very good one. Tago apparently lost 10 million yen gambling, according to various reports out of Japan. That’s roughly $100,000. He introduced Momota to gambling.
And Momota lost more?
No, he lost less. Apparently he lost around $5,000 on six trips to casinos.
Five grand? That’s it? Charles Barkley loses that before his second drink arrives.
Right. But since casinos are illegal, the ones that exist are usually owned by—
How did you ever guess? His favorite casino got busted, and then it emerged that Momota was gambling there.
So Momota was charged with a crime?
Oh, no. He was just removed from consideration for the Olympics by the Nippon Badminton Association. Evans, the Irish badminton player, said Monday, “If the rules in America are that you don’t smuggle drugs into the country, then you don’t smuggle drugs into the country. If you do, you go to prison. If he does something that’s against the rules, he gets in trouble. They have different rules, we have different rules, you guys have different rules.”
So Evans compared a little baccarat to smuggling drugs?
No. I mean, yes. But I don’t think he meant it that way. He meant you can’t apply the rules and social standards of one country to another. In a way, he is right. But it says a lot about Japan that Momota was suspended for this. Japanese culture frowns harshly upon open sin.
Why didn’t Momota just say he was sorry?
Oh, he did. Actually, “sorry” doesn’t begin to describe it. He and Tago held a press conference and took full responsibility. They even dyed their hair black to signify remorse.
Momota said, “I went to a casino for the first time in a country where it’s legal, and the thrill of it gradually took over my senses.”
Meanwhile, Tago had tears running down his face. He is a six-time national champion who competed in the London Olympics, and he is only 26. But he said, “I don’t care what punishment I get, even if I can never play badminton again. My only wish is that you give Momota another chance.”
And the Nippon Badminton Association …
… removed Tago from its athletes’ registry. As for Momota, he may get another Olympics chance—in four years. Those Olympics will be in Tokyo. Momota will be 25, and you might want to bet on him to win a medal. Just don’t do it there.