Earlier this week, 11 Japanese riders and personnel quietly left the Tour of China amidst a tense Sino-Japan landscape which continues to make broadsheet headlines. The group’s departure was either elected or forced, depending on which of the few related reports are accepted as true. Cycling iQ spoke with two of the group for additional insight.
Images: Sonoko Tanaka
The friendly face of Japanese photographer Sonoko Tanaka is well-known amongst the tight-knit group of cycling media that frequents pro cycling events on the UCI AsiaTour. Her images feature regularly in the world’s best cycling magazines, and pro cyclists are at ease before her lens. One of the few full-time female photographers on the pro cycling circuit, Sonoko’s most recent assignment was as part of the official media contingent at the UCI2.1 Tour of China. In addition to this, she was also engaged by Japan’s Aisan Racing Team to produce media content from the race.
Though “politics and sports should never mix” is an oft-spruiked sentiment, the dispute between Japan and China over islands in the East China Sea simmered throughout the race. As a precaution, Sonoko presented herself as “Korean” when at restaurants or using public transport, and the identification badges of Aisan’s Toyota van were covered up. Ultimately, the dispute – or rather, the potential consequences of actions by hardline protesters – boiled over into the Tour of China arena.
I “was” in Tour of China. Yesterday after the finish, the organizer told us, Aisan team, me, and all Japanese, that we have to (go back to) Japan; its impossible to continue racing. Because now Chinese people are so angry at Japanese government about the islands. Some people are attacking Japanese agency, shops and destroying products made in Japan. So the organizer is really afraid of our safety and the race will be destroyed by some crazy people. But its sports! I feel so sad and galling…they take my job from me…I really want to stay this race and work! [Email from Sonoko on 17th September]
Shortly after the Tour of China II prologue on Sunday 16th September, Aisan Racing Team was informed by the Tour of China organizer they would have to leave the race. The news came as a shock to the team, which had won the fifth stage of Tour of China I only a few days prior. “They told me as an option”, Aisan’s manager Takumi Beppu told Cycling iQ, “but it seemed they had made the decision. I had never thought about this unexpected situation, because I didn’t see such a big protest and people in the race told us sports and politics are different.”
Sonoko’s team leader (Greg Chang of Taiwan’s Bikeman Media) gave Sonoko the option to stay, so she went to visit Aisan Racing riders in their hotel room for interviews. By 18:00 that evening, the organizer had held a meeting from which a decision to expel all Japanese personnel was made. In total, 11 Japanese – six riders, three staff from Aisan Racing team, a UCI commissaire and Sonoko – departed China the following day.
“I strongly wanted to stay” wrote Sonoko, in an email to Cycling iQ. “I feel it was an order – no way to stay (in) the race for me. I was working as an official photographer with the international media team, so if I stay there against the organizer’s order, it makes a bad relationship between the media team and the organizers….. so I couldn’t. When I had to say good-bye to the media team, I was crying…. so my friend Chinese photographer cry too…. it made me happy, our friendship is the truth; (a) valuable thing on bad days.”
Unfortunately, Tour of China lies at the tip of a larger wedge driven by China’s highly-centralized government in a deepening divide. Shortly after returning back to her home in Tokyo, Sonoko received an email from Tour of Beijing advising her that her visa application could not be supported, due to the political environment.
Similarly, Takumi Beppu confirmed his team had already been contacted by the organisers of Tour of Hainan (2.HC, 20-28 October) and Tour of Taihu Lake (UCI2.1, 01-08 November), informing the team they would not be invited to race in their respective events this year. The loss of race days leaves a gaping hole in Aisan Racing’s 2012 campaign. “We lost one race that is important for our UCI ranking and 2 big races in Autumn,” states Beppu. “They are nearly 25 stages including Tour of China 2. It means we have fewer chances to get UCI points. It’s very difficult for riders to keep up their motivation. We will only have 2 one-day races in Japan (Japan Cup and Tour de Okinawa). However, we still have to concentrate on these races.”
At time of writing, Sonoko is still waiting to hear back from both Tour of Hainan and Tour of Taihu Lake about whether she will be permitted to attend. It is not also not known whether Japan’s ProTeam riders Fumiyuki Beppu and Miyazawa Takashi will be permitted to race in Tour of Beijing with their respective teams.
For Sonoko, it means unplanned weeks at home without the prospect of income from freelancing projects that were previously confirmed. “One of my dreams is to be the best cycling photographer in Asia” Sonoko wrote, closing out her heartfelt email. “In the near future, China and Japan’s bad relationship might disturb (this).”