Tokyo 2020+ In Review / IOC, Games’ host cities have different priorities

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics was held without spectators at the National Stadium on July 23.

The Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics have drawn to a close. This is the third installment in a series exploring the significance and issues of a Games held under quite unusual circumstances.

Baron von Ripper-off — this nickname for Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, spread quickly via the press and social media in Japan after it was used by a columnist of the Washington Post in May. People likely connected the nickname with common criticisms of the IOC, including the charge that it is tainted by commercialism and preys on host countries to make a profit.

This negative impression was intensified by the novel coronavirus pandemic. It even extended to the Tokyo Games themselves, as people asked who the IOC was trying to make money for by forcing the Games to be held.

Commercialism is almost always at the root of criticism of the Olympics and the IOC.

The IOC earned as much as $5.7 billion (about ¥628 billion) by hosting Olympics over a four-year period that included the Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016 Games. However, this enormous amount of revenue was also a lifeline for the international sports world for those four years.

Ninety percent of the IOC’s revenue is redistributed mainly to the international federations that are responsible for sports featured at the Olympics, and to the national Olympic committees of the countries that dispatch athletes to the Games.

Shinichiro Otsuka, vice president of the World Triathlon, said the money is “the mainstay of the budget of the international federations.”

Part of the revenue also goes to the Olympic organizing committees of each host country. Funds are also provided to support systems that preserve fairness, including half the annual budget of the World Anti-Doping Agency. Some of the money is also used to support developing countries and refugee athletes.

The Paralympics receive much less criticism regarding their cost, because the hosting of the Games is supported by an agreement with the IOC on such matters as the use of Olympic-related facilities. International Paralympic Committee President Andrew Parsons said the cooperation of the IOC has been a tremendous benefit to the Paralympic movement.

Criticism of the IOC for being “high-handed” stems from the fact that the IOC is an organization with different objectives from those of the host cities.

For the IOC, the priority is to continue the Olympic movement. For example, the IOC views Tokyo as one of its many partners in organizing the Games. When responding to problems faced by host countries, the IOC tends to make strategic decisions based on whether they will benefit its priorities.

The IOC has become like a corporate organization, said Dick Pound, the longest-serving member of the IOC.

Although it is a private body, the IOC exerts a great deal of influence on host countries through the Olympics. This paradox may be the source of the antipathy felt toward the IOC.

It is hoped that the IOC will sincerely think about why Japanese people have turned away from the Games, even though they have long been regarded as Olympic enthusiasts.

Sponsors struggled with criticism

Amid criticism of hosting the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, Japanese companies that sponsored the Games, and saw athletes they employ competed, were forced to act carefully in light of public opinion.

The costs for hosting the Games are mostly covered by corporate funding. The Tokyo organizing committee received from sponsors in Japan and overseas a total of ¥406 billion, which accounted for more than half of the budget.

Corporate sponsors are allowed to advertise products and services by running commercials related to the Games. However, they changed their approach in response to severe criticism of the event.

Notably, Toyota Motor Corp. decided not to run TV commercials related to the Olympics in Japan, and company President Akio Toyoda and other executives did not attend the opening ceremony. This had an impact on other companies.

“We ran TV commercials fearfully,” said an employee at a company in the service industry. Viewer responses were all critical, they said, such as “Why are you running commercials [related to the Games]?”

The employee said sadly: “There was no benefit for us. It was just an extra unnecessary expense.”

Corporate sponsors considered selling products related to the Games at competition venues and elsewhere, but such opportunities were lost, as most of the venues were closed to spectators.

If companies have to pay too much, they will doubt the meaning of becoming sponsors for future Games. The bitter experience of not being able to benefit from their investment may negatively affect corporate sponsorship in the future.

Supporting athletes

NTT Group is one of many companies that directly support athletes. More than 10 athletes who belong to the group, including male badminton player Kento Momota, competed in the Tokyo Olympics or Paralympics.

The company stresses that it will continue helping athletes, saying: “Athletes participating in various competitions and giving sports classes will help stimulate communities and the company.”

Some companies provide support to Paralympians, not only for their sports activities but also for building their work careers.

At Aioi Nissay Dowa Insurance Co., swimmer Chikako Ono works in the department that promotes the health of employees. Wheelchair basketballer Kei Akita works in the insurance claims payment department.

Aioi Nissay Dowa Insurance says these Paralympians are not billboards but important members of the company’s workforce. In 2015, the company launched a program to continue employing athletes even after they retire from competition.

Tough time for para sports

However, the management of para sports organizations has become more difficult.

In a Yomiuri Shimbun survey conducted in summer last year among 26 organizations, 73% (19 organizations) said their revenues were affected by the pandemic and the one-year postponement of the Games.

Asked why, 21% (four organizations) referred to the withdrawal of sponsor companies, and 11% (two organizations) referred to reduced subsidies.

Japan is still in the process of becoming an inclusive society.

According to a survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the percentage of public spending on people with disabilities was 1.1% of Japan’s gross domestic product in 2017, much lower than the OECD average of 2.0%.

In addition, the statutory employment rate for people with disabilities required of private companies in Japan is 2.3%, which is lower than the rates in France (6%) and Germany (5%).

It is hoped that the Games will be an opportunity for Japan’s government and companies to change their attitude.