Tokyo: Disgraced Japanese swimmer Naoya Tomita on Thursday tearfully denied he had stolen a journalist's camera at the Asian Games in September, despite previously admitting the crime to South Korean police.
The 25-year-old, who was booted out of the Asian Games in Incheon and slapped with an 18-month ban by the Japan Swimming Federation, said he had confessed because he feared he would not be allowed to return home.
He also claimed that the poolside security camera footage Korean prosecutors said showed him taking the $7,600 camera was unclear.
"I didn't steal the camera," Tomita told a news conference in Nagoya, claiming an unidentified person had grabbed his arm and placed a "black object" in his bag.
"It's true I confessed to Korean police but I regret doing that. I was scared about how long it would take before they allowed me to go back to Japan."
"Maybe my heart was weak," he added, tears rolling down his cheeks.
"I shouldn't have confessed. The police showed me pictures of the security cameras only on a smartphone and the images were very rough and blurred. They didn't show me taking a camera."
Tomita's lawyer, Bujiro Kunita, said Korean police had fabricated the charges and had used an interpreter with insufficient Japanese. He suggested the real culprit had been someone with a vendetta against the Japan swimming team.
"I have dealt with cases where people have confessed to a crime they did not commit," he said. "Whoever put the camera in my client's bag probably had a grudge against the Japanese team. There is no motive for this crime. He is in the prime of his career and it makes no sense to jeopardise his future by doing something like this."
After admitting the allegation to South Korean police, Tomita, who won breaststroke gold at the 2010 Asian Games, paid a one million won ($950) fine and was fired by his employer, sportswear maker Descente.
The Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) called the incident a "very serious violation" of its code of conduct, while the country's Asian Games chief Tsuyoshi Aoki said the swimmer had not been "in his usual mental state".
Pressed on his version of events, Tomita admitted he had been partly to blame for the situation escalating because he had not immediately checked what the unidentified stranger had given him.
"I thought it was rubbish," he said of the black object he claimed had been shoved into his swim bag. "I didn't want to get into a fight so I picked up my bag and left."
When asked why he had failed to notice that the bag he said he contained only swimming trunks and goggles suddenly felt around a kilogramme (two pounds) heavier, the young athlete offered: "At big competitions, athletes often exchange pins -- I thought it was something like that."