Every four years coinciding with the Olympics there is a surge of interest in keirin racing, and international eyes turn to Japan from where the keirin originated. But keirin racing in Japan isn't quite the same as the international Olympic sport.
The first keirin event in Japan was organised by the local government in the city of Kokura in 1948 as a gambling event to raise funds for post-war reconstruction and as a way to develop a lucrative bicycle industry. From there it has grown into a nationwide spectacle with 47 velodromes around Japan each hosting events on 70 days each year, so there is a keirin race going on somewhere in Japan almost every day.
Despite the glamorous image of Olympic keirin racing, keirin in Japan has a very poor reputation indeed due to its association with gambling. Your average race goer is male, in his 50's or over, smells of tobacco and alcohol, will skip work to visit the track and is most certainly more interested in gambling than cycling. Each time I've visited velodromes in Japan most punters have been indoors, smoking, placing bets and watching numbers flash across monitors rather than out in the stands cheering on the racers.
The keirin website actually promotes the fact that betting tickets can be purchased on line or via mobile phone without even having to visit the track in the belief that this convenience will attract a younger audience. What they're promoting here is gambling, not cycling.
Annual sales of betting tickets reach approximately 800 billion yen, with roughly 60 million tickets sold each year. Keirin is clearly more about gambling than cycling.
Promoters are trying hard to lift the image of keirin in Japan but are failing miserably as are promoters of Japan's other gambling related sports, horse and motor boat racing. The keirin website has a page encouraging people to "take part". I clicked expecting to find times I could visit and ride the velodrome track, or join amateur races only to discover a page informing me how easy it is to fill out a betting form!
Keirin promoters in Japan are failing to promote their sport, instead they're promoting gambling which only appeals to a very small segment of the population and thus will have a difficult time increasing their audience.
As a tourist visiting Japan who is thinking of heading to the track for an afternoon or evening of entertainment, don't expect to get directions from your hotel tourist desk. Keirin's image here is so bad that I've heard stories of tourist desk staff actively discouraging tourists from visiting the track. Tourist desks will most certainly not have any keirin pamphlets on hand that's for sure, nor will they find it easy to give you directions to the nearest velodrome, its not mainstream enough for that.
But if you love your bikes, love track racing, and happen to be in Japan I'd still recommend paying a visit to a Japanese velodrome as its an experience you won't get anywhere else, though it may not be the experience you expected.