Olympic gold medal winner Chris Hoy tried his luck at Keirin racing last year.
He told The Scotsman: ""What you need to recognise is that you’re not here for yourself. They drum into you the fact that it’s about gambling. There’s so much money at stake that riots can kick off if the riders don’t do what they’re meant to do."
In the West, Keirin races are partially paced by motorcycles. In Japan, a cyclist will lead out the riders. Once he peels away, all hell is let loose. Keirin racing is not for the squeamish. Keirin means 'battle': riders are allowed to use their arms, shoulders and heads to force their way to victory. Foreign riders, even though faster, rarely win. The Japanese riders gang up on them and butt them out of the way.
The event, created in Japan in 1948, has been in the Olympics since 2000. At the Athens Olympics, BMX/track racer Jamie Staff looked to be a dead cert for gold but when he partially crossed over into the line of an opponent he was eliminated by an overzealous UCI commissaire, clearly unaware of the rough and tumble that takes place in Keirin racing.
Keirin racing is one of the top spectator sports in Japan. In 2001, 57.11m people paid to watch Keirin racing at one of 47 velodromes. In 2002, there were 4111 registered racers. These racers have to pass written and practical tests at the 15-hour a day Keirin school. Places at this school could be filled ten times over, mainly because Keirin racing is so lucrative for the riders, and it's now been alleged, for government officials.
75 percent of the sales of Keirin tickets is returned to the bettors as payouts. Of the remaining 25 percent, 3.3 percent is paid to the Japan Keirin Association, 1.1 percent is paid to local government, and 20.6 percent is the for the sponsoring organization and used for employee wages and other operating expenses.
The 1.1 percent paid to local government goes on maintaining schools, hospitals, and roads.
It's the 3.3 percent paid to the Japan Keirin Association that's at the centre of a cash scandal.
The Asahi Shimbun newspaper alleges that former officials from the Japanese trade ministry have landed plum consultancy packages and created slush funds from the money generated by the Japan Keirin Association.
The Japan Keirin Association – not the ministry – is authorized to make decisions on the distribution of such funds, reports the paper.
Officials from both the ministry and the association deny any wrongdoing concerning the distribution of the subsidies.
"The judgment is done strictly and is not biased by the ministry," an association representative told Asahi Shimbun.
But, says the newspaper, there are "suspicions that the subsidies were preferentially extended to organizations that hired retired ministry officials."
Of the 107 organizations that were granted subsidies from the association for 2005, at least 94 have awarded senior posts to retired officials of the trade ministry.
The subsidies paid out to local government by the Japan Keirin Association total $120m a year.
Who gets what is meant to be decided by the JPA, but says the paper, corrupt officials decide on recipients of the subsidies beforehand. Ministry officials and retired officials land "cushy jobs at the ministry-affiliated organizations," alleges the Asahi Shimbun.
PDF OF BACKGROUND TO KEIRIN RACING AND WHERE FUNDS GO: