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Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2006

IT'S A RAT RACE WITHOUT CELEBRITY STATUS

Staffing companies find market in helping retired athletes


Staff writer

When international midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata recently announced his retirement from soccer, people wondered what he would do in the next stage of his life -- business, sports, or a combination of both?

News photo
Former Weightlifter Koki Tagashira (right) discusses his athletic background and jobs he hopes to get with Shuichi Onishi, a consultant at Intelligence Inc., at the firm's office in Tokyo last month. SATOKO KAWASAKI PHOTO

Whatever he chooses, there is no doubt Nakata will continue to attract attention, and the publicity will make it easier for him to make money out of it.

But not all athletes enjoy Nakata's status. Staffing firms are finding new opportunities to cash in on retired professional and amateur athletes who are looking for a second career.

One client, Koki Tagashira, a former weightlifter who competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, felt it was tough for athletes to find a job if they did not win a major medal or become a national icon.

"I had thought being an Olympian would change everything," said Tagashira, who placed 13th in the 56-kg category in the Sydney Games. "But it didn't."

His passion for weight-lifting burned out after competing in the Olympics. And after spending five years as a physical education teacher, including coaching an after-school weightlifting club, Tagashira now wants to do something different.

But it was a tough road for him. "Even though I have achievements in weightlifting, I don't have experience in business," he said.

At 32, Tagashira has been looking for a job without success since he quit teaching in March.

"I even started to think participating in the Olympics had been a waste of time," Tagashira said. "If I had focused on a career instead, I would have been a full-fledged business worker by now."

His case is just the tip of the iceberg in the world of professional and amateur sports in Japan.

In 2002, the J. League, where about 100 soccer players leave the sport every year, established a career support center to help retired players find jobs or move on to the next phase of their lives. But the league is an exception in Japan's world of sports, as most other organizations offer no such services.

To help people like Tagashira, staffing firms have started services matching athletes and companies seeking the strong points athletes generally are believed to have nurtured through their tough training.

In April, Intelligence Inc., in which Tagashira registered, launched an athlete career support division to carry out a consulting program and introduce jobs.

"The hardest part is that not all of them are mentally ready to make a transition to the next stage in their lives," said Shuichi Onishi, a consultant at Intelligence's athlete division. "Most of them, although they don't voice it, are very scared about starting from scratch."

Through consultations, Onishi and his staff go over the merits each client has as an athlete, including a strong will to achieve a goal, to convince them that they can succeed in business as well.

But retirement is not the only stage of an athlete's life that staffing firms see as a new market.

Pasona Inc. formed the subsidiary Pasona Sportsmate Inc. in March 2005 aimed at introducing part-time jobs to help active athletes manage both sports and work.

"Until the late 1990s, athletes usually joined corporate sports teams," allowing them to work part time and practice in the afternoon, said Miyuki Yakuwa, president of Pasona Sportsmate. "But when the economy declined, companies began to slash costs, starting with their teams."

Yakuwa, herself a slalom canoeist, was well aware of the environment athletes have to endure. She proposed a new business aimed at finding jobs for athletes that ensures they have enough time for practice.

"Sports players are eager and highly able to achieve goals," Yakuwa said. "It would be a waste if they don't utilize these abilities in business."

Tae kwon do fighter Kumiko Kawarai, 26, has job-hopped several times in the past four years since she graduated from college, because her long hours at a design firm did not give her enough time to practice.

"As I changed jobs, I sought a better environment to better balance my work and tae kwon do," Kawarai said. "The reason I work is to gain the money I need to participate in competitions overseas, including fees for hotels and plane tickets."

Although she used to feel bad when she had to go home at fixed hours even though her colleagues were working late, Pasona Sportsmate has made sure in her current workplace that Kawarai does not need to work late when she has to practice.

Kawarai feels that the new staffing business will pave the way for more athletes to continue on as high-performing amateurs. Her goal now is to get a medal in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

"At present, athletes need to choose between becoming a professional or work in a company and play in their spare time. There isn't any choice in between," Kawarai said. "But (the new business) will allow them more alternatives."



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