Sapporo election could restart bid for 2030 Winter Olympics

Sapporo’s bid to host the 2030 Winter Olympics has been slowed, but not stopped, by a corruption scandal still developing around the 2020 Tokyo Games.

If Sapporo Mayor Katsuhiro Akimoto is re-elected in Sunday’s showdown against two anti-Olympic candidates, as expected, the race could be restarted.

The northern Japanese city suspended its aggressive bid three months ago, hoping the damage from the Tokyo scandal would fade from view.

That’s not the case, with once-favourite Sapporo now in doubt about its Olympic future.

A January poll by the regional newspaper Hokkaido Shimbun found that 67 percent opposed hosting the Olympics.

Sapporo rejects referendum on Olympics, although the mayor’s re-election could be touted as a replacement. Public votes on hosting the Olympics almost always fail.

Victor Matheson, who studies sports economics at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, recommends a public vote before any sports are awarded.

“I think a nice simple change – which the IOC will never agree to – is that every bid should go to a referendum before it is finally awarded,” Matheson said in an email. “This increases transparency, reduces the more extravagant impulses of the IOC, and limits the ability of authoritarian countries to host the Games (although they can clearly sponsor sham elections).”

Akimoto promised a “transparent and clean Olympics,” saying the event would help the city of nearly 2 million people and the surrounding region market themselves.

Sapporo was seen as a favorite of the IOC until last summer when arrests were made for bid-rigging, vote-buying and bribery in connection with the Tokyo Games.

At the center of the scandal is Japanese advertising giant Dentsu, which is the marketing arm of the Tokyo 2020 Games and has raised a record $3.5 billion in local sponsorship — at least double that of any previous Games.

It is one of six companies accused by Tokyo prosecutors of antitrust practices.

Dentsu has a long history of cooperation with the International Olympic Committee and other governing bodies, and is a key force in the landing of the 2013 Tokyo Olympic Games. French prosecutors investigate allegations against IOC members May be bribed to vote for Tokyo.

Dentsu President and CEO Hiroshi Igarashi issued a sweeping apology at a shareholder meeting late last month.

“As CEO, I am determined to approach this with a profound sense of crisis,” he said.

Sapporo and Vancouver are the only known 2030 candidate cities. When the provincial government refused to support financing, Vancouver was sidelined and Sapporo stalled.

This prompted the IOC to recruit Stockholm, Sweden – with the help of powerful Swedish IOC member Gunilla Lindberg. Swedish officials say they are conducting a feasibility study. Vague plans for a possible Swiss bid have also surfaced.

Sweden is unlikely to call for a public vote, but Switzerland is likely to do so.

The Winter Olympics have lately become a tough sell for the IOC. There are only two bidders for the 2022 Winter Olympics, and they head to Beijing in a close vote with Almaty, Kazakhstan. The 2026 Winter Olympics in Milan-Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, are already in financial trouble. Stockholm was another finalist in that competition.

The Olympics rely heavily on public funding. At least 60 percent of the Tokyo Games will be financed with public money, and probably much more. The final official cost was reported to be $13 billion, double the cost of the Japanese government agency’s audit.

The Winter Olympics are less expensive, but receive less attention and rely on government funding.

Sapporo puts the cost of hosting the Winter Olympics at $2.6 billion, although it is impossible to accurately estimate the cost years in advance. Also, almost all Olympics are over budget.

With the turmoil in Sapporo, the IOC has delayed the selection of a host country for 2030 and is expected to take action before the end of the year. Salt Lake City is bidding to host the 2034 Olympics. The IOC has also expressed concern about the impact of climate change on future Winter Olympics venues.

Sapporo’s pursuit is reminiscent of corruption at Japan’s last Winter Olympics in Nagano in 1998. The bid committee reportedly burned records showing how millions of dollars were spent entertaining IOC officials to seal the bid. The county also has a huge debt that was paid off only a few years ago.

Kaoru Takano, a former city official and one of the opposition mayoral candidates in Sapporo, said billions of dollars should be spent on social welfare, health care and improved snow removal. His campaign literature reads in English — “No More” next to the Olympic rings.

He is running as an independent without the support of mainstream parties. All mainstream parties, including the main opposition party, as well as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party support Akimoto.

Another anti-Olympic candidate, Hideo Kibata, leads a nonprofit that deals with work-related injuries and illnesses and is backed by the Japanese Communist Party.

“I want to create a Sapporo that puts people’s lives and lives first,” Kigata said.

—Stephen Wade and Yuri Kageyama, Associated Press

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