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Scandals afflict Tokyo's Olympic plans

Julian Ryall, TokyoJanuary 20, 2016

The largest sporting event in Japan's history may still be more than four years away, but Tokyo's preparations for hosting the 2020 Olympics appear to be lurching from one crisis to another. Julian Ryall reports.

Japan Kenjiro Sano Logo Tokyo 2020 Olympische und Paralympische Spiele
Image: Reuters/Y. Shino

The latest negative headlines to overshadow the showcase event involve allegations made in a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) report resulting from an investigation into the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). The report, released on January 14, claims that Japan paid either $4 million or $5 million to the IAAF, which at the time was headed by Lamine Diack.

Diack subsequently switched his support from Istanbul's bid to be the host of the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games to Tokyo's campaign, the report claims. Event organizers in Tokyo were quick to dismiss any suggestions of impropriety, with Tsunekazu Takeda, the president of the Japan Olympic Committee, saying, "We fought fairly, conforming to the rules.

"As far as the bid committee is concerned, we have no knowledge of any such payout," he added.

'Clean bidding campaign'

Daichi Suzuki, commissioner of the Japan Sports Agency, echoed that innocence, telling reporters in Tokyo, "We undertook a clean bidding campaign and that is how it played out."

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has, nevertheless, demanded that WADA provide all its evidence for a fuller investigation.

Japan Tokyo 2020 Olympiastadion
The original plan for the stadium was scrapped last summer, on the grounds of rising costsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

A very public probe into Japan's handling - or mishandling, many would argue - of the entire project is not what the organizers would have wanted. And onlookers here say much of what is admittedly a huge and complex project has been dealt with badly.

"The problem, as I see it, is that the whole thing has never had a hard-headed businessman or a no-nonsense bureaucrat in overall charge," Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs, told DW.

"There are a lot of people involved but no-one seems to be in overall charge of the process," he said, adding that it is not clear that anything illegal has taken place, but individuals "may have taken it upon themselves" to act to ensure that Tokyo won the right to host the Games in 2020.

Given the prestige and economic opportunities that have marked the Games since the Atlanta Olympics of 1996, it is understandable why the city of Tokyo and the Japanese government were keen to host the event, Okumara added.

Lack of oversight

But that lack of ultimate oversight is to blame for the other damaging debacles that have dented the Games' prestige long before they even arrive in Japan.

In September, a logo for the games that had been unveiled to much fanfare was dropped after a Belgian designer claimed it bore a striking resemblance to a design he had created in 2011 for the Theatre de Liege. Olivier Debie filed a lawsuit against the IOC and the Japanese organizers for adopting Kenjiro Sano's design.

A second allegation of plagiarism emerged in December after Kengo Kuma won a second competition to design a new national stadium to serve as the centerpiece of the entire event.

The original competition for the stadium was won in November 2012 by Zaha Hadid, the British designer who created the acclaimed Aquatics Centre for the London Olympic Games. Her design immediately attracted criticism, largely from Japanese architects, for its space-age look and for being out of keeping with the surrounding area.

The plan was finally scrapped last summer, ostensibly on the grounds of rising costs, which had climbed to Y250 billion ($2.15 billion). The architect points out, however, that she had been given no ceiling cost for her design and had met the requirements of the bid in all ways.

Now Zaha Hadid Architects is consulting with lawyers after concluding that Kengo Kuma's "new" design incorporates many of her elements.

The award-winning architect says numerous sections are identical to her original work, including the geometry of the stadium bowl, the ground level spectators' entrance, the internal planning, structural layout, landscape design, access strategies, service access and other elements.

'Certain similarities'

Quizzed on the allegations in Tokyo on January 15, Kuma conceded that there were "certain similarities" in the two proposals but insisted that the both concept and design are "completely different."

The Japan Sport Council (JSC) is also allegedly withholding a final payment to Zaha Hadid Architects for work that had already been completed. They demand that she sign a contract ceding her copyrighted work in the new design and a clause effectively telling her to stop criticizing the JSC's actions.

Hadid has refused to sign the revised contract, pointing out that her team worked on the project for two years in order to come up with the unique design elements. Kuma's team managed the same feat in just 14 weeks.

"It seems to have been one cock-up after another," agreed Professor Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University. "And that is rather surprising because Japan pulled off the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1988 fairly well - although there were also allegations of bribery back then as well.

"To me, it looks as if they have been dancing on the edge of the abyss with all the reports of massive cost overruns, the row over intellectual property rights with the logo, the stadium and now suggestions of bribery.

"But I would like to think that the worst crises are behind them now," he said. "When it comes down to it, I'm confident that Japan will pull together and make the 2020 Olympics a success. But it would have been nice if they could have avoided all this bad press."