Sapporo election could restart bid for 2030 Winter Olympics

Sapporo's bid for the 2030 Winter Olympics has been slowed — but not stopped — by fallout from the still-developing corruption scandal around the 2020 Tokyo Games. The pursuit could resume if Sapporo Mayor Katsuhiro Akimoto is re-elected on Sunday, as expected, against two anti-Olympic candidates.

Japanese city's current mayor faces 2 anti-Olympic candidates

A large display of Olympic rings, partially covered in snow, is scaled by people wearing blue snowsuits.
In June of 2022, Japan's northern city of Sapporo turned down having a referendum to give voters a choice to bid for the 2030 Winter Olympics. (Dmitri Lovetsky/Associated Press/File)

Sapporo's bid for the 2030 Winter Olympics has been slowed — but not stopped — by fallout from the still-developing corruption scandal around the 2020 Tokyo Games.

The pursuit could resume if Sapporo Mayor Katsuhiro Akimoto is re-elected on Sunday, as expected, against two anti-Olympic candidates.

The northern Japanese city suspended actively promoting the bid three months ago, hoping damage from Tokyo's scandal would fade from view.

It hasn't entirely and Sapporo, once the favourite, now has an uncertain Olympic future.

A January poll by the regional newspaper Hokkaido Shimbun showed 67 per cent were opposed to holding the Olympics.

Sapporo has declined to call a public referendum over the Olympics, although the mayor's re-election could be touted as a substitute. Public votes over staging the Olympics almost always fail.

Victor Matheson, who studies sports economics at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, suggested a public vote before awarding any Games.

"I think a nice simple change — that the IOC would never go along with — is that every bid should be required to hold a popular vote before being finally awarded," Matheson said in an email. "That promotes transparency, reduces the more extravagant impulses of the IOC, and limits that ability of autocratic countries from hosting the games (although they could obviously sponsor sham elections)."

Akimoto is promising "transparent and clean Games," saying the event will help the city of nearly 2 million and the surrounding region market itself.

Sapporo was viewed as the favourite of the International Olympic Committee until arrests began last summer connected to bid-rigging, vote-buying, and bribery around the Tokyo Olympics.

At the heart of the scandal is the giant Japanese advertising agency Dentsu, which was the marketing arm of Tokyo 2020 and raised a record of $3.5 billion in local sponsorships — at least twice as much as any previous Games.

It was among six companies charged by Tokyo prosecutors with anti-monopoly practices.

Dentsu has a long history of working with the IOC and other governing bodies, and was a key force in landing the Olympics for Tokyo in 2013. French prosecutors have looked into allegations that IOC members may have been bribed to vote for Tokyo.

Dentsu President and CEO Hiroshi Igarashi offered a boiler-plate apology late last month at a shareholders' meeting.

"As chief executive, I am determined to deal with this matter with a deep sense of crisis," he said.

Sapporo and Vancouver were the only known candidates for 2030. 

An Indigenous-led bid to bring the Games to British Columbia hit a snag in October when the province announced it would not support the endeavour. However, the bid group, which is led by the Lil̓wat7úl (Líl̓wat), xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) nations and also includes the Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC) and the municipalities of Vancouver and Whistler, has not yet conceded defeat.

This prompted the IOC to recruit Stockholm, Sweden — aided by powerful Swedish IOC member Gunilla Lindberg. Swedish officials say they are doing a feasibility study. Vague plans have also surfaced for a possible bid from Switzerland.

Sweden is unlikely to require a public vote, although Switzerland is likely to.

The Winter Olympics have become a tough sell recently for the IOC. There were only two bidders for the 2022 Winter Games, which went to Beijing in a close vote against Almaty, Kazakhstan. The 2026 Winter Games in Milan-Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, are already a financial quagmire. Stockholm was the other finalist in that bid.

The Olympics depend heavily on public money. The Tokyo Games were financed by at least 60% public money, and likely more. The final official cost of $13 billion was reported to be twice that in an audit by a Japanese government agency.

The Winter Games cost less, but get less attention and also depend on government financing.

Sapporo has placed the cost of staging the Winter Olympics at $2.6 billion, although accurately estimating costs years in advance is impossible. In addition, almost all Olympics run over budget.

With the turmoil around Sapporo, the IOC has postponed selecting a 2030 host and is expected to act before the end of the year. Salt Lake City is bidding for the 2034 Olympics. The IOC has also expressed concerns about the impact of climate change on future Winter Olympic venues.

Sapporo's pursuit is a reminder of the corruption around Japan's last Winter Olympic held in 1998 in Nagano. The bid committee reportedly burned records showing how millions were spent to wine and dine IOC officials to land the bid. The prefecture also ran up a massive debt that was only paid off a few years ago.

One of the opposition mayoral candidates in Sapporo, former city official Kaoru Takano, said the billions should be spent on social welfare, health care, and improved snow removal. His campaign literature says in English — "No More" alongside the five-Olympic ring symbol.

He is running as an independent without backing from mainstream parties. All the mainstream parties, including the leading opposition groups, as well as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, support Akimoto.

The other anti-Olympics candidate, Hideo Kibata, heads a non-profit 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 living first," Kibata said.

With files from CBC Sports

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