How Sapporo’s Bid to Host the Winter Olympics Went Downhill

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Japan Olympic Committee President Yasuhiro Yamashita (right) and Sapporo Mayor Katsuhiro Akimoto announced that they would abandon their bid for the 2030 Games and aim for the 2034 Games or later, on Oct. 11 in Tokyo.

The Sapporo Olympics and Paralympics, for which a bid had been in progress, are now a long way off. At its Executive Board meeting on Nov. 29, the International Olympic Committee narrowed down its short list for Winter Games hosts to the French Alps in 2030 and Salt Lake City in 2034. It also decided to proceed with exclusive dialogue with Switzerland on the 2038 Games until the end of 2027. Has the dream of a Sapporo Games melted away?

Christophe Dubi, the IOC Olympic Games executive director, told a press conference: “The Japanese Olympic Committee is working on a new framework in terms of governance.” The IOC has effectively decided that it will be difficult to hold the 2034 Olympics in Sapporo — or even the 2038 Games, which are 15 years away.

Sapporo was originally the most likely candidate for the 2030 Games, and the outline plan for the Games announced in November 2021 included the key phrase “sustainable city.” Mayor Katsuhiro Akimoto said that the city would be cost-conscious from the preparatory stage and aim for a sustainable model for hosting the Games.

Sapporo began its bid in 2014. Sapporo initially set its sights on the 2026 Games and estimated the cost of hosting the games at ¥450 billion, but after the Hokkaido earthquake in 2018, it switched its bid to the 2030 Games to prioritize reconstruction and announced estimates in 2019 that reduced the cost of hosting the games to the range of ¥310 billion to ¥370 billion. The November 2021 estimates further lowered the cost to between ¥280 billion and ¥300 billion.

The IOC also had high regard for Sapporo’s ability to host the Games, as the city had hosted the Winter Olympics in 1972 and was the venue for the marathon and walking races of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. IOC President Thomas Bach had stated in December 2021 that he saw no obstacles, saying, “Sapporo has practically everything in place.”

Furthermore, in June 2022, the Spanish Olympic Committee gave up its bid to host the 2030 Games. As for Salt Lake City, in the same month, U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee Chair Susanne Lyons pointed out the difficulty of raising funds to host the event, given that the Los Angeles Summer Games will be held in 2028.

Clearly, a tailwind had been blowing for Sapporo’s bid. Then came a headwind like a typhoon.

In August 2022, a board member of the Tokyo Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games was arrested by the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office on charges of bribery. The case later developed into a bid-rigging case over the Olympic and Paralympic test events project. The successive revelations of corruption and bid-rigging cases spread distrust of the Olympic and Paralympic Games among the public. Naturally, momentum for the Sapporo Olympics bid rapidly waned.

The IOC, forced to respond to this situation, decided in December 2022 to postpone the decision on the venue for the 2030 Games. The decision had originally been scheduled for the IOC General Assembly in September and October 2023.

JOC President Yasuhiro Yamashita expressed his willingness to restart the bidding process, saying, “We now have time to establish a system to prevent another incident that will cause a loss of trust in the sports world.”

Then, in July 2023, Sapporo tried to regain ground by announcing an anti-corruption plan for the Games, which included the establishment of a Sponsors Selection Committee composed of external experts. However, there were no signs of a recovery in public support for hosting the Olympics and Paralympics.

In response to such public opinion, on Oct. 11 this year, the JOC and Sapporo officially announced that they had abandoned their bid for the 2030 Games and would aim to bid for the 2034 Games or later. At that point, both the JOC and Sapporo were fully motivated to bid for the 2034 Games. However, the JOC was almost immediately wrong-footed.

Four days later, on Oct. 15, the IOC decided to simultaneously select the host cities for the 2030 and 2034 Winter Olympics. The candidate cities were in Sweden, Switzerland and France for 2030, plus Salt Lake City for 2034. Sapporo’s name was not even on the list of candidates.

The final blow came from the IOC Executive Board on Nov. 29, when it narrowed down the 2030 Games to the French Alps and the 2034 Games to Salt Lake City as the only candidates. On top of that, it was decided to proceed with exclusive dialogue with Switzerland until the end of 2027 for the 2038 Games.

JOC Secretary General Mitsugi Ogata was astonished by the decision, saying, “We never anticipated that specific negotiations would extend as far ahead as the 2038 Olympics.”

What will happen to Sapporo now that it has been abandoned by the IOC? There is a slight chance of Sapporo becoming a candidate for 2038, but the situation is difficult, as only Switzerland can talk to the IOC until the end of 2027. If the bidding process is to continue, a more realistic target would be the 2042 Games.

Kentaro Minagawa, a former representative of Japan’s Alpine skiing team who is involved in educational activities to protect snow resources from global warming, suggests that if the bidding process is to be reopened, Sapporo, which has some of the world’s best snow resources, should present its vision for the Games and the significance of hosting the Games, and gain the understanding of citizens.

The IOC report also estimates that only a few candidate sites, including Sapporo, will be able to host the Winter Games in the second half of the century if no progress is made in climate change countermeasures. “Sapporo is an important city that the IOC cannot ignore. Sapporo should hold an Environmental Olympics that sends out a message of warning against global warming,” Minagawa said.

The 2042 Games are 19 years away. Can measures be established to prevent the recurrence of corruption and bid-rigging cases? Can the significance of holding the Olympics be presented in a way that satisfies the public? Sapporo Mayor Akimoto told the city council on Dec. 6 that the city needs to stop and think about its bid for the 2038 Winter Olympics. The seriousness of the Sapporo Olympic bid may well be tested on the long, long road ahead.

Political Pulse appears every Saturday.

Yuji Kondo

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