BY ERIC JOHNSTON, STAFF WRITER
Less than six months after the conclusion of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, which were delayed one year due to the coronavirus pandemic, another Japanese city is accelerating its preparations to bid for another Games.
But while Sapporo says it can produce an affordable, sustainable Winter Games with existing facilities, questions over public support for the bid could create problems for local supporters and concerns about its viability with the International Olympic Committee.
Sapporo’s quest for the 2030 Games comes a half century after it hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics — the first time the event was ever held in Asia. Those Games drew 1,600 officials and athletes from 35 countries.
The 1972 Olympics took place amid controversy and questions about the very future of the Winter Games. Prior to the opening ceremony, Austrian ski idol Karl Schranz was suspended by the IOC for being involved in commercial advertising, in a violation of the organization’s decree that Olympic participants must be amateurs, casting a pall over the event.
At the closing ceremony, IOC President Avery Brundage fueled further controversy by saying the Winter Olympics should be stopped, as they were not universal and fostered commercialism, especially in skiing.
In an editorial the following day, The Japan Times called for the Winter Olympics to continue.
“Mr. Brundage points to the enormous costs of staging the winter games as one reason why they should be dropped. He also decries the growing commercialization involved. In a sense, the Olympic Games are a safety valve for the energy, the pride and the glory associated in the past with wars. If we regard the Olympics in this light, we cannot but come to the conclusion that the Winter Games serve as an important vent (for national pride), as do the Summer Games,” the paper said.
A sustainable Games
Sapporo’s bid plan calls for the 2030 Olympics to take place between Feb. 8 and 24 with about 2,900 athletes participating in 109 areas of competition. The Paralympic Games would take place between March 8 and 17, with 560 athletes taking part in 80 events. While most of the competitions would be held in and around Sapporo, speed skating events would be in Obihiro, Hokkaido, and bobsledding and luge competitions would take place in the city of Nagano, which hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics.
Efforts at the local and national level to build support for the 2030 bid have been picking up steam since the end of November, and on Dec. 1, ruling and opposition lawmakers formed a nonpartisan group to promote the bid. Seiko Hashimoto, who heads the Tokyo Organising Committee, is the chair.
The new group was formed after the Japan Olympic Committee approved an outline for the Sapporo bid on Nov. 29 that reduced costs by up to ¥90 billion, mostly due to plans to use existing facilities — some of which date back to the 1972 Olympics.
The total cost for holding the Sapporo Olympics and Paralympics was revised to between ¥280 billion and ¥300 billion, down from a 2019 estimate that put the amount at between ¥310 billion and ¥370 billion.
“When the Sapporo Olympics are decided, there may be some who are opposed. But we hope those views will be put aside,” said Taro Aso, former finance minister and head of a nonpartisan parliamentary group involved with sports, following the creation of the Sapporo Olympics caucus.
In Sapporo, the 2030 bid is being touted by local officials as one that is sustainable and affordable.
“Our model for a sustainable Olympics and Paralympics means the use of existing facilities. Eleven of 13 facilities we intend to use are already built and will just require renovation work. One facility doesn’t need any work, and one other place will be converted into a venue,” Sapporo Mayor Katsuhiro Akimoto said at a Nov. 29 news conference.
Operating costs are expected to reach between ¥200 billion and ¥220 billion. Facility-related costs, including renovation and maintenance, is budgeted at ¥80 billion, Akimoto added.
Selling the idea
Sapporo’s 2030 bid has much official backing. But generating enthusiastic support in Sapporo could prove harder, especially given cost concerns over the Tokyo Games. Promises made by Olympic and Japanese officials in 2013, the year the capital was awarded the Olympics and Paralympics, that the total cost would be ¥734 billion turned out to be wildly off-base. Earlier this month, JOC officials announced the actual tab had been double that figure, at ¥1.45 trillion.
In reply to a question about the high cost of the Tokyo Games and what it means for the Sapporo bid, JOC President Yasuhiro Yamashita told reporters on Nov. 30 that the Sapporo bid represents a new way of saving money, and that not building new facilities would help contribute to the organization of future Olympic and Paralympic events.
“This is an extremely important opportunity as Sapporo moves forward with the development of a sustainable city,” Yamashita said of the 2030 bid and the new plan.
In Sapporo, the mayor has attempted to ease concerns by saying that holding the 2030 Games would not be a drain on the public purse. “No new facilities will be built, and through money received through things like corporate sponsorships, operation costs will be covered. The plan, in principle, is not to use tax money.” Akimoto said.
To drum up support, Sapporo plans to hold three town hall meetings in February to promote the bid, the first two of which will be held online. All three are open to residents 18 years of age and older, but each meeting will be limited to 50 participants.
Akimoto said the city will conduct a survey in March on how residents feel about the bid. The last Olympic bid-related survey by the city was conducted in October 2014, when residents were asked about Sapporo possibly going for the 2026 Winter Olympics. Of the 10,000 people polled, 67% of those who responded said they were in favor.
Then, after the September 2018 Eastern Iburi earthquake south of Sapporo, which killed 41 people, the bid plan changed and Sapporo decided to pursue the 2030 Winter Olympics instead.
More recent local media polls, however, indicate that enthusiasm is now a long way from 2014 levels. An April 2021 survey by the Hokkaido Shimbun found Sapporo residents almost evenly split on holding the 2030 Olympics, with 50% opposed and 48% in favor. A similar Hokkaido Shimbun poll in October 2018 had shown 55% in favor and 45% opposed.
Respondents to the April poll who were opposed to the event said there were other, more important policy areas to concentrate on, and that efforts should first be made to battle the coronavirus. Others did not want money spent on the bidding process or building and maintaining facilities for the Games.
Those who supported holding the 2030 event said they thought it would lead to regional economic growth or that they wanted to inspire local young people.
Hokkaido media quoted anonymous city officials in November as saying the city hoped March’s survey results would show a bid support rate of at least 60%. But asked about this figure at his Nov. 29 news conference, Akimoto sidestepped the question.
“The first step is to get as many people as possible to understand the bid plan. If there are further concerns or anxieties, we’ll take them into account and discuss whether they can be resolved through further dialogue with local residents,” the mayor replied.
On Dec. 11, eight anti-Olympics citizens groups based in Hokkaido, Nagano and Tokyo launched a petition campaign against the Sapporo Olympics. In a statement in Japanese and English, the groups cited cost concerns and the IOC itself as reasons why they are calling for the bid to be stopped.
“Given that the Olympics always run over budget, will local residents (in Sapporo) really be willing to accept spiraling costs? And in the contract made with Olympic host cities, the power to cancel or postpone resides solely with the IOC. The host city has to put up the money but doesn’t get any say in the matter. Now, Sapporo wants to commit itself to this incredibly unfair arrangement,” the statement said.
Taka Yamaguchi, a former Sapporo Municipal Assembly member opposed to the bid, says that while Sapporo will conduct a public survey, the city won’t cancel the bid even if the result shows a lot of opposition.
“The 2030 bid decision was made at the strong urging of the business community and the city council. Akimoto is backed by all the ruling parties (which favor the bid), so he won’t overturn the decision,” Yamaguchi said.
The degree of public support, however, could affect how the IOC views Sapporo’s chances compared with other candidates. At present, Barcelona and sites within the Spanish Pyrenees; Salt Lake City, which hosted the Winter Games in 2002; Vancouver, which hosted them in 2010; and Ukraine are the other likely contenders.
The IOC has not yet said when the 2030 host city will be selected, but the decision is expected to come sometime during 2023 at the latest. With Sapporo mayoral and city assembly elections due to be held by May of that year, however, the city’s Olympic supporters hope for an IOC decision before then, as winning the bid would boost the incumbent candidates and a loss would remove it as a major campaign issue.
If Sapporo were awarded the 2030 Winter Olympics and Paralympics, Japan would have won the rights to three major international events for a second time: a Tokyo Summer Olympics (the first one having been held in 1964), an Osaka-based World Expo in 2025 (after the first one in the city in 1970) and a Sapporo Winter Olympics, 58 years after the 1972 Sapporo Winter Games.
The Tokyo Olympics, however, may be remembered as little more than a costly and over-budget event that was delayed a year. The legacy of the Osaka Expo in 2025 has yet to be written, but local officials caution that it will not have the same popular impact as the 1970 Expo.
What the legacy of a 2030 Sapporo Olympics might be is anyone’s guess. Nonetheless, unlike the aftermath of the 1972 Sapporo Olympics, calls to cancel the Winter Olympics — especially from IOC officials — are hard, if not impossible, to envision.