Tokyo Olympics Scandal Fouls Hopes for a Sapporo Winter Games

In recent years, the already short list of possible candidates to hold the Winter Olympics has become even shorter. Headline-grabbing cost overruns and humbling defeats in public referendums have made cities wary of building venues for sports like ski jumping and bobsled with limited appeal beyond the Games, while climate change has rapidly shrunk the number of potential hosts that can promise real snow.

Those challenges had made Sapporo, in Japan’s frigid north, especially appealing as Olympic organizers seek a home for the 2030 Games. The city seemed to have it all: an Olympic legacy as the 1972 host; most of the necessary facilities; an eager public; and consistent, powdery snow. Its only serious rival, Salt Lake City, preferred to wait until 2034 to host the Games.

What Sapporo wasn’t counting on was a still-unfolding corruption scandal linked to the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, which has turned public opinion sharply against Sapporo’s bid and complicated Japan’s ability to stage large events in the coming years. The turmoil has thrown the 2030 selection process into uncertainty, with both Sapporo and the International Olympic Committee pausing their efforts as officials court alternative bidders.

The slow drip of allegations of bid-rigging in the run-up to the Tokyo Games, which were delayed until 2021 because of the pandemic, has ensnared some of Japan’s top companies. The most prominent is Dentsu, one of the world’s most powerful sports marketing firms and a key force in arranging everything from the initial Tokyo bidding process to the event’s tiniest details.

Arrests began last summer, toppling the heads of one of Japan’s largest publishers and a major clothing retailer. In February, prosecutors accused Dentsu, as well as Japan’s second-largest marketing firm, Hakuhodo, of forming a cartel to skirt rules on bidding for public contracts related to the Tokyo Games.

In response to the scandal, Tokyo and Osaka, among other cities, have pledged that — at least in the short term — they will exclude Dentsu and its alleged conspirators from bidding for public contracts. That has been an especially bitter pill for Osaka, which is hosting the 2025 World Expo and was counting on the advertising giant’s support to pull off the event.

In early March, Sapporo announced several shorter public bidding bans on smaller companies named in the indictments. It has not yet announced whether it will work with Dentsu and Hakuhodo, but the city’s relationship with a local Dentsu subsidiary that helped lay the groundwork for the Olympic bid is on hold, said Sapporo’s mayor, Katsuhiro Akimoto.

While the city still hopes to host the 2030 Games, Mr. Akimoto said, he believes it will be difficult to secure the necessary sponsorships without the involvement of Dentsu, which hauled in a record-shattering $3.6 billion in domestic sponsorship money for the Tokyo Games. The firm controls nearly 28 percent of Japan’s advertising market.

In the past, the authorities had “just let the places with know-how handle everything,” he said in a recent interview in his office as fat, powdery snowflakes fell outside. That, he said, had made the system a “black box.”

Now, “the assumptions underlying that framework have been completely destroyed. We’re in a place where we have to rethink even the most basic things,” Mr. Akimoto said.

The fallout from the Tokyo Olympics has created an unexpected headache not just for Sapporo but also for the I.O.C., which has found it increasingly difficult to secure hosts for the Winter Games as cities decide the costs and hassles aren’t worth it.

For the 2022 Winter Olympics, the I.O.C. was forced to choose between two candidates from authoritarian countries, after all eight democratic countries that had expressed interest pulled out. Beijing edged out Almaty, Kazakhstan, and the Games came under fire both for China’s abysmal human rights record and its dependence on artificial snow.

In an effort to attract more candidates, the Olympic committee has worked to make bidding for and hosting the Games less expensive and onerous. Even so, few countries have applied. Only Sweden and Italy, the winner, were finalists for the 2026 Winter Games.

Sapporo’s flailing effort does not endanger the Games’ future, analysts said. But it has had a domino effect. In December, the I.O.C. announced that it would push back the timeline for selecting a host, saying it needed time to consider the impacts of climate change on the Games’ future. Sapporo paused its bid soon after.

Salt Lake City; Vancouver, British Columbia; and Stockholm have since been suggested as possible destinations. Salt Lake City has said it prefers to host in 2034 so it won’t have to fight for sponsors with the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles.

Sapporo’s chances of hosting the Games largely depend on its ability to revive public interest, said the Olympic historian David Wallechinsky. From the I.O.C.’s perspective, “the corruption issue isn’t as important as the lack of public support,” he said.

In a January poll by The Hokkaido Shimbun, a regional daily newspaper, nearly 70 percent of those surveyed said they opposed hosting the Games. The turnabout is evident even in once enthusiastic residents like Masako Ishibashi, who attended the opening ceremony of the 1972 Sapporo Olympics as a child and whose daughter has ambitions of becoming a pro alpine skier.

In the wake of the scandal, “the feeling that we should definitely, definitely do it is gone,” she said as she walked her dog near the outdoor skating rink where the Olympic kickoff was held five decades ago.

When Sapporo became the first Asian city to host the Winter Olympics, it was little known abroad. Today, the city of two million is an international gateway for travelers headed to famous ski destinations like Niseko, a high-toned village catering mostly to foreigners.

With tourism on the rise, a second Winter Olympics seemed like a good bet for the city’s brand, and in 2014 local officials announced their ambition to host the event in 2026. An earthquake four years later derailed the plans, and the Games went to Italy.

When Sapporo revived its bid in 2020, local enthusiasm was strong. A decision to move the Tokyo Olympics’ marathon to Sapporo because of the capital’s suffocating summertime heat added to the Olympic momentum.

The following year, Sapporo officials persevered as public opinion turned against the Tokyo Olympics, with many fearful that the Games could become a superspreader event. Spectators were mostly barred, and an ambivalent nation watched the competition on television.

Sensitive to the high costs of the Tokyo Games, Sapporo put together a bid proposal that largely relied on existing facilities, including an ice rink from the 1972 Games. Sledding events would be held at old Olympic facilities in faraway Nagano, and the event would, “in principle,” be entirely paid for by the I.O.C. and private funds. Posters went up around the city promoting the bid. Officials were modestly confident it was a done deal.

Now, with opposition widespread, it is anything but. Sapporo has so far refused to hold a referendum on the issue, but it may have the next best thing on April 9, when the mayor, Mr. Akimoto, comes up for re-election.

Kaoru Takano, a former city official who opposes Sapporo’s bid, is running for the post, hoping to make his candidacy a proxy vote on the Games, which he believes will cost the city time and money better spent elsewhere.

While supporters of Sapporo’s bid have played down concerns about a ballooning bill, Mr. Takano points to the massive budget overruns that are nearly synonymous with Olympic events: Tokyo’s Games came in at nearly double the initial estimates.

Mr. Takano recognizes that he has little prospect of winning, but hopes to attract enough votes to show that the city is definitively against the Games, he said in an interview.

Even if Sapporo’s 2030 bid collapses, it will remain a tempting Olympic candidate as the I.O.C. emphasizes making the Games more environmentally and economically sustainable. A 2022 study projecting the impact of climate change on the Winter Olympics’ future said that, by midcentury, Sapporo may be one of the last former hosts in Asia capable of reliably holding the Games without resorting to artificial snow.

But for that to happen, Sapporo is going to have to repair the damage done by the Tokyo scandal, said Ryuichi Kasuga, a sports consultant who worked on the 1998 Nagano Olympics.

“They need to demonstrate that they can make a bid and hold an Olympics properly,” he said. “Otherwise, Japan’s Olympics movement is over.”

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