Sapporo 2030 bid buffeted by Tokyo Games corruption scandal

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Tokyo Olympic mascot Miraitowa (left) and Paralympic mascot Someity

Sapporo’s bid for the 2030 Winter Olympics and Paralympics is caught in a blizzard. A former executive board member of the organizing committee for the 2020 Tokyo Games has been arrested multiple times for allegedly taking large sums of money from corporate sponsors in return for favors. The Sapporo municipal government, whose top priority regarding the bid is to increase the support of its citizens, has been drenched in ice water.

On Sept. 8, Japanese Olympic Committee President Yasuhiro Yamashita and Sapporo Mayor Katsuhiro Akimoto issued an emergency statement on the 2030 Winter Games bid, following the arrest of the former board member.

“Although the arrest of the former board member is not directly related to Sapporo’s bid, we must be fully aware that the image of the Olympic and Paralympic Games as a whole has been severely damaged. We will work on reforming the operational aspects of the organization responsible for preparations for the Games and firmly demonstrate transparency and fairness,” the statement said.

The statement also made a commitment to the establishment of a system for external accountability in three areas: (1) the organizing committee executive board, (2) the management of transactions that could present conflicts of interest, and (3) marketing projects. The system is to be based on the International Olympic Committee’s Basic Universal Principles of Good Governance and the Japan Sports Agency’s Code of Governance for Sports Organizations.

The actual host city will be decided in autumn 2023. Nevertheless, the JOC and the city of Sapporo made this unusual declaration about their organizing committee, which has not even been created yet, with aims such as checking sponsorship contracts and establishing a third-party committee to conduct a critical examination of board candidates. This shows the strong sense of crisis felt by both parties.

The central figure in the corruption case is Haruyuki Takahashi, 78, who was a member of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee. After joining Dentsu, a major advertising company, he rose to prominence in the sports business and built up a network of contacts with important figures such as former FIFA President Sepp Blatter. He was involved in Japan’s bid to host the 2002 FIFA World Cup and was regarded as a leading figure in the sports business. He served as a senior managing director at Dentsu before retiring to become an adviser. He became a member of the organizing committee in June 2014.

Takahashi allegedly received large sums of money from Games sponsors through consultancy contracts with a company that he represented and other firms.

As of Oct. 19, Takahashi had been arrested four times. The cases involve Aoki Holdings, Inc., a major business clothing company that sold suits with the Olympic emblem and other items; Kadokawa Corp., a leading publishing company that produced official guidebooks and other materials; major advertising companies Daiko Advertising Inc. and Asatsu-DK Inc. (now called ADK Holdings Inc); and Sun Arrow, which sold stuffed toys of the Games mascots. The total amount of the bribes allegedly paid was approximately ¥196 million.

Behind the series of irregularities was the selection of Dentsu as the “exclusive marketing agency” with sole responsibility for sponsor recruitment. Dentsu was informally selected in March 2014, and Takahashi was appointed as a board member in June 2014. Companies that were eager for a piece of the Olympic pie deepened their relationships with Takahashi in the hope of influencing Dentsu, and Takahashi attempted to influence the many Dentsu employees who were posted to the organizing committee’s marketing bureau, which was responsible for screening and selecting sponsors.

Some within Dentsu were of the opinion that the company should keep its distance from Takahashi, who was considered equivalent to a public servant in his organizing committee role. But in voluntary interviews with the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office, Dentsu employees seconded to the committee’s marketing bureau stated that although they were wary of unreasonable demands, Takahashi was a Dentsu alumnus whom they could not refuse. A senior prosecutor remarked, “It can only be said that Dentsu and its alumni tried to achieve tacit coexistence and co-prosperity in order to earn money for each other.”

Now the people involved in Sapporo’s bid to host the 2030 Winter Games are suffering the fallout of the scandal. According to a survey by the Sapporo municipal government, only around 50% of citizens support the bid. Yamashita, the JOC president, acknowledged the difficult situation, saying: “The image of the Olympics and Paralympics was seriously damaged by the corruption scandal. It is quite difficult to boost momentum for the bid.”

That is why the JOC and Sapporo issued the joint emergency statement mentioned earlier. However, a former winter Paralympian living in Hokkaido commented: “It’s good that they have taken a stance regarding the scandal, but the wording in the declaration — ‘although the arrest of the former board member is not directly related to Sapporo’s bid’ — is not good. The main reason for the lack of support is the lack of trust. We need to take this seriously and go further in terms of substance, such as by making public all sponsorship costs, to regain a sense of trust.”

IOC President Thomas Bach, who was scheduled to attend an Oct. 16 event to mark the first anniversary of the Tokyo Games, canceled at the last minute. The meeting with Bach, which Akimoto, the Sapporo mayor, had been seeking, did not take place and the opportunity to convey his enthusiasm for the bid was lost.

Akimoto said:“At the Tokyo Games, many people were encouraged by the dedication of the athletes who overcame the difficulties of the coronavirus disaster. In order to gain the trust of many citizens and the public, I want to ensure that the Games are transparent, fair and clean.”

Can the image of the Olympics and Paralympics, tarnished by the corruption scandal, be renewed? The Sapporo bid will be a touchstone.

Political Pulse appears every Saturday.

Yuji Kondo

Kondo is a senior writer in the Sports Department of The Yomiuri Shimbun.