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Tokyo on the defensive over Olympic allegations

Julian Ryall, TokyoMay 24, 2016

Residents of the Japanese capital are angry as French prosecutors launch an investigation into reports of millions being paid to ensure Tokyo won race to host 2020 Games - but they're not surprised. Julian Ryall reports.

Former IOC President Jacques Rogge announces Tokyo as the Olympic 2020 host city after the election at the125th IOC Session at the Hilton hotel in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 07 September 2013 (Photo: Arne Dedert/dpa)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Dedert

Allegations of massive payments to behind-the-scenes influence-peddlers in connection with Tokyo's successful bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games are being met with anger among the city's residents.

The allegations first appeared in The Guardian newspaper, claiming that transfers amounting to Y230 million (1.88 million euros) were made by the Japan Olympic Committee into the account in Singapore of a company called Black Tidings.

The company was operated out of an apartment in a residential complex in a suburb of Singapore by Ian Tan Tong Han. Han is understood to be a long-standing acquaintance of Papa Massata Diack, the son of Lamine Diack, the former president of the International Association of Athletics Federations.

Senegal-born Diack, who also served as a member of the International Olympic Committee, is under investigation after being arrested in France over allegations that he accepted bribes for deferring sanctions against Russian athletes who had tested positive for banned performance-enhancing drugs.

The IOC suspended Diack in November 2015.

The construction site for the new National Stadium, the main venue for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, with the skyscrapers of Shinjuku shown in the background, Wednesday, July 22, 2015 (Photo: Motoya Taguchi)
Japanese PM Shinzo Abe vows full cooperation in French Olympic payment probeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Taguchi

French investigation

Despite French authorities opening an investigation, the Tokyo 2020 Bidding Committee insists that its actions were appropriate and legal.

"The payments mentioned in the media were a legitimate consultant's fee paid to the service we received from Tan's company," the JOC said in a statement signed by former committee president Tsunekazu Takeda.

"The firm contracted for this work had good credentials and references and were experts on Asian and Arabic and we were fully satisfied with the service we received from them," the statement adds. "Furthermore, the amounts paid were in our opinion proper and adequate for the services provided and gave no cause for suspicion at the time."

But the city's taxpayers remain far from convinced.

"I'm very concerned that the money has not been spent appropriately, and that makes me angry," said Hiroko Moriwaki, a library manager.

"I feel very uncomfortable with the idea that some surprising information might come out after the people of Tokyo supported the campaign to host the Games," she told DW.

Return to London?

Chie Matsumoto, a translator, said she had been opposed to the city staging the Olympics and Paralympics from the very beginning, and that she would be "very happy" for Tokyo to be stripped of the right to host the event if officials were found to have knowingly and deliberately provided bribes.

"I have heard rumors that the Games here will be cancelled and that London will step in to host them again," she said. "That would make me very happy."

"As an international city, I do believe that Tokyo is capable of hosting events such as the Olympics, but as we have seen in other host cities - and we're seeing in Rio de Janeiro right now in the run-up to their Games - they tend to cause problems."

In Brazil, the debate is over the money being spent on state-of-the-art sporting facilities at the same time as millions of people are living in poverty. Similarly, Matsumoto points out, thousands of people in northeast Japan are still living in cramped temporary housing units more than five years after the Great East Japan Earthquake and the tsunami that it triggered devastated the region.

The vast amounts of money being ploughed into the Tokyo Games would be better spent assisting people who lost their homes and livelihoods, she said.

And asked if she was surprised at allegations of corruption, Matsumoto replied, "Not really."

"I think it's become a common assumption that this sort of thing goes on, but people don't talk about it," she said. "The sense is that it's in all forms of sport - the football authorities have recently been caught up in their own financial scandal - so there's a sense that it's too bad, but not surprising."

Fred Varcoe, a freelance journalist who has covered sport in Japan for more than 20 years, echoes that belief.

'Living in a dream world'

"I think many people are asking themselves if it is even possible for a sporting event to be held without corruption," he said. "The IOC claims it has cleaned up its act, but I think that anyone who truly believes that sport in general has cleaned itself up is living in a dream world."

And Japan has something of a track record of questionable financial dealings around Olympic events, although nothing has ever been proven, Varcoe points out.

Nagano Prefecture hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics, although it subsequently emerged that the mayor of the host city extended "favors" to members of the IOC committee inspecting the five cities competing to host the games.

Officials admitted paying around Y50 million (408,160 euros) to a Swiss-based agency that lobbied IOC members on behalf of the city in the run-up to the vote to decide the host city.

An aerial view shows people sitting in formation to the words "thank you" and displaying signs that collectively read "Arigato" (Thank You) during an event celebrating Tokyo being chosen to host the 2020 Olympic Games, at Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Tokyo, in this photo taken by Kyodo September 8, 2013 (Photo: REUTERS/Kyodo)
Tokyo won the rights to host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games after defeating fellow bidder Istanbul 60 to 36 votes in a second round of secret votingImage: Reuters

An investigation into the actions of the city eventually made little progress because officials burned all the documents related to the bid on the grounds that there was insufficient storage space in the city hall.

"I think it is very unlikely that the IOC will take the Olympics away from Tokyo, even if there is evidence of wrong-doing, but this just shows that the IOC still needs to clean itself up," he said.

"And as for Tokyo, nothing they have done seems to have worked out very well," said Varcoe, pointing to a scandal over the logo for the event, which had to be changed after allegations of plagiarism, and the ongoing row over the new Olympic Stadium which will serve as the center-piece of the Games.

"A lot of people are disappointed in how it has all been handled and a lot more are very angry because everything they seem to have touched has been a disaster."