(TOKYO) — When the Japanese women’s soccer team set out on their quest for Olympic gold, they found themselves at a disadvantage before the games even began: They were jammed into economy class on a grueling flight to Europe, behind the men’s national team seated in the roomy business class section of the plane.
“Age wise, we are older, so it probably should have been the other way around,” team star Homare Sawa joked.
Sawa, who will be competing in her fourth Olympic games, may have brushed off the airline snub, but the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) is taking some heat for the mishap, especially since the women known as “Nadeshiko” are ranked number three in the world and considered gold medal hopefuls.
The team became national heroes last summer after they beat a heavily favored U.S. team to take home the Women’s World Cup, lifting a country reeling from a catastrophic tsunami and nuclear disaster. Thousands of adoring fans greeted the athletes at the airport upon their return home from Germany. The women were showered with endorsement deals, and became the first sports team to win the people’s honor award from the government.
The men, on the other hand, are ranked number 20 in the world and considered long shots for medals in London.
“When we won the World Cup, we returned home on business class seats,” Sawa pointed out.
The Australian women’s basketball team received similar “second class treatment” on their way to the Olympics, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. The women, known as the Opals, were seated in premium economy class, while the men’s team, the Boomers, sat in business. The Opals have taken silver at the last three Olympics, while the Boomers have never medaled.
“Different factors are taken into account when organizing travel arrangements for our national teams, height and size being a primary consideration,” a Basketball Australia spokeswoman told the Herald. “For example, the average height of our male basketball players is 200.2cm. The average height of our female basketball players is 183cm.”
The JOC says most of the Japanese Olympians are required to fly coach as amateurs, though exceptions are made for larger athletes. The men’s soccer team, who have professional status, have been traveling in business class seats since the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.
Sawa, who was named the FIFA women’s world player of the year in 2011, said she planned to use the World Cup experience and the recent snub as motivation.
“We hope to produce the same results this time, so we can get the same kind of treatment,” she said.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Stephanie Halasz, Jason Hanna and Livia Borghese, CNN
Roshni Majumdar, CNN