Tokyo Olympics bribery scandal casts shadow over Japan’s 2030 bid
A corruption scandal that engulfed last summer’s pandemic-delayed Tokyo Games has cast a dark cloud over Sapporo’s 2030 bid and raised new questions in Japan about hosting the Olympics again.
Former Tokyo 2020 executive Haruyuki Takahashi was arrested on corruption charges in August and further allegations were brought against him last week as part of a wider probe into corruption at the heart of the Games.
The scandal comes at a bad time for the city of Sapporo in northern Japan, which is bidding to host the 2030 Winter Olympics.
Sapporo hosted the Games in 1972 and is considered a favorite despite competition from Vancouver and Salt Lake City.
Sapporo Mayor Katsuhiro Akimoto and Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) President Yasuhiro Yamashita were due to visit the International Olympic Committee headquarters in Lausanne to talk about the bid later this month.
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The delegation canceled the trip last week, Yamashita blaming a scheduling problem.
Akimoto said it had “nothing to do with the corruption case surrounding the Tokyo Olympics”.
But the controversy has made headlines in major Japanese newspapers and prosecutors have carried out new searches in recent days.
Takahashi, a 78-year-old former chief executive of Japanese advertising giant Dentsu, is suspected of accepting bribes in exchange for helping companies become official sponsors of the Tokyo Games.
Former and current executives of business suit retailer Aoki Holdings and major publishing house Kadokawa were also arrested.
And local media are reporting that Takahashi claimed to have given money to then-Tokyo 2020 president Yoshiro Mori, a former Japanese prime minister.
The controversy has helped reignite anti-Olympic sentiment in Japan, which has seen an outpouring of opposition to hosting the Tokyo Games amid a pandemic.
The Asahi Shimbun daily, in an editorial, urged Sapporo to “wait” its 2030 bid until the scandal is “resolved”.
He said the Japanese public viewed the Olympics “with distrust and suspicion”.
Last year, the Asahi called for the cancellation of the Tokyo Olympics just two months before they started, accusing IOC officials of being “lighthouses”.
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Despite all the national attention on the scandal, experts doubt it will have an impact when the IOC comes down to choosing a 2030 host.
With cities increasingly reluctant to shoulder the expense and controversy of hosting the Games, the IOC cannot afford to be picky.
“If Sapporo comes around, they have a very strong offer from a technical standpoint,” said Michael Payne, who as IOC chief marketing officer from 1989 to 2004 is widely credited with transforming the brand and the finances of the organization through sponsorship.
“I see this as a local political issue. It has raised eyebrows as to why they are making such a meal out of what is frankly underage sponsor influence peddling.”
The leaders of Sapporo 2030 were keen to rally the Japanese public.
Despite the reluctance of some, a survey conducted earlier this year revealed that a majority of residents of the island of Hokkaido, where the city is located, were in favor of hosting the Games.
The city of Sapporo, however, ruled out holding a referendum.
Sports economist Andrew Zimbalist believes the scandal “will continue to be a problem in Japan” but will “fade in international memory”.
He predicted that Japanese officials would “just acknowledge to the IOC that they had bad actors involved and they were going to clean it all up.”
Underscoring public concern, Sapporo Mayor Akimoto and JOC President Yamashita signed a joint statement on Thursday pledging to hold a “clean” bid without corruption.
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Zimbalist believes a recent change in the Olympic bid process will help steer Sapporo away from the Tokyo scandal, as it won’t be in the spotlight as much.
Previously, cities were required to put together expensive bids and were pitted against each other before a vote determined the winner.
Now the process largely takes place away from the glare of publicity, and there is flexibility in how many candidates are involved and when a host is chosen. There is no specific date when a 2030 host will be announced.
“The IOC doesn’t want to be in a situation where a country is hosting the Games that doesn’t have a strong government, that doesn’t have a strong economy, that doesn’t have reliable weather,” Zimbalist said.
“Sapporo has so much to do that it will far outweigh the fading memory of this scandal.”