October 2022 | Letter From Hokkaido

Tokyo scandal could derail Sapporo’s bid for the 2030 Games

Artwork by Julio Shiiki

The best laid plans, how far they have gone astray. That’s the feeling among Sapporo 2030 Winter Olympics supporters this month as they watch, with mounting dismay, their chances of winning the event decline with each passing day.

The Tokyo Olympics bribery scandal involving former Dentsu man, Tokyo Games organizing committee member and powerful behind-the-scenes fixer Haruyuki Takahashi showed no sign of slowing as the first autumn winds blew through the streets of Sapporo in late September. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), fearing Tokyo’s Olympic mud might stick to its top officials, nixed a proposed mid-September meeting between Sapporo mayor Katsuhiro Akimoto and IOC president Thomas Bach at the IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland.

It would be tempting to blame Sapporo’s increasingly pessimistic mood about its 2030 bid on only the bribery scandal. Yes, journalists and pundits are saying publicly that the city’s chances are now damaged, mirroring comments that the Sapporo government and the business community are making privately. Yet in a Hokkaido Shimbun interview, Jean-Loup Chappelet, an honorary professor at the University of Lausanne who has followed the IOC for four decades, warned that, while the scandal might impact the IOC’s decision, the key to deciding the host lies in the level of local support for each city’s bid. Or at least the IOC’s perception of that support.

That still puts Sapporo at a disadvantage compared with its main rivals, Vancouver and Salt Lake City. A city survey in March, worded in a way to maximize support and minimize opposition, showed only 52% of residents favored the bid. Nobody in city hall wants to think about what that figure might have fallen to now. Vancouver, which contracted its survey out to a private firm, was about the same level as Sapporo, with a 54% support rate. But 79% of Salt Lake City residents want the Games, according to a local media poll.

At this point, who in Sapporo still wants the 2030 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics? As far as I can tell, it basically comes down to three groups of people.

The first is not in Sapporo but in Niseko: real estate firms and luxury hotels headquartered in Tokyo or overseas that built large, expensive facilities in Niseko but have been badly burned by the lack of foreign and domestic tourists during the Covid-19 pandemic. They hope a Sapporo Olympics, with some events in Niseko, will help make the area wildly popular again beginning not in 2030 but in autumn 2023. That’s when the IOC selects the 2030 host, and by which time the pandemic will be over. Or so they hope. With a bit of luck, they believe, Sapporo’s winning the 2030 Games will lead to a bump in the number of ski bums who hit the slopes of Niseko in late 2023, which, in turn, will kick off a return to the pre-Covid tourist boom. 

The second group comprises Sapporo politicians and businesses who see an Olympic bid as form of deus ex machina. With major urban renewal projects taking place around Sapporo station as well as the area where the Nippon Ham Fighters, new businesses and local residents - from other parts of Japan and overseas – are needed. A Sapporo Olympics, they hope, will help attract people and help slow population decline and shore up the local economy and tax base.

The third group includes many younger Sapporo residents (under, say, 50). Nervous about getting stuck with higher local taxes to support rising numbers of elderly residents amid overall population decline, they see a Sapporo Olympics as both a source of civic pride and economic support for the future social welfare system. They tend to believe the mayor’s assurances that the Games won’t be a financial burden.

But at this point, Sapporo Olympic opponents, which seem to be the majority, may not have to do much in the coming months to push the IOC into giving the event to another city. Word of the Tokyo bribery scandal and Sapporo’s anxiety is now receiving international as well as domestic attention.

Satirist Harry Shearer (Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind, and a voice actor in The Simpsons) has his own nationally syndicated radio show in the US called Le Show. In his September 11 broadcast, he took aim at the Tokyo Olympic scandal and Sapporo’s bid. Sure, 2030 bid supporters may yet have the last laugh come next autumn if the scandal fizzles out soon. But that’s in the future. For the moment, while Shearer might be drawing guffaws or snorts of derisive laughter over the scandal from a US audience, nobody in Sapporo is chuckling.

Eric Johnston is the Senior National Correspondent for The Japan Times. Views expressed within are his own and not necessarily.