BUENOS AIRES – What should have been a resounding kickoff for the Tokyo 2020 bid with the International Olympic Committee’s vote coming Saturday turned into a fencing match as bid chief Tsunekazu Takeda tried to parry questions from the media about the Fukushima nuclear crisis.
Takeda, who is president of the Japanese Olympic Committee, and Fujio Cho, president of the Japan Sports Association and honorary chairman of Toyota Motor Corp., held a media event Wednesday in Buenos Aires to pitch Tokyo’s proposed marketing program and emphasize the capital’s certainty to deliver the games in first-class style.
A space-aged, 34-cm robot called Mirata, was brought on stage as a symbol of Japan’s technological excellence. It demonstrated exercises, stretches and fencing maneuvers with Yuki Ota, winner of two Olympic silver medals in fencing and a delegate for Tokyo 2020.
But it was Takeda, speaking in English for most of the news conference, who appeared to be doing a robot act as he repeatedly delivered the same talking points. Four of the six questions asked by reporters were about Fukushima.
Takeda sent a letter to IOC members on Aug. 27, reassuring them that Tokyo is “completely unaffected” by the problem of radiation-contaminated water at Fukushima No. 1.
Asked whether he is more concerned privately than he is letting on publicly, Takeda said, “I sent a letter to IOC members, I think last week, and I mentioned Fukushima. Now, Tokyo is very safe. The water, the seafood and also the radiation is absolutely safe. Our prime minister, Mr. (Shinzo) Abe, officially announced the government’s response for this problem and already started the project.”
Takeda was referring to the government’s announcement to provide ¥47 billion for measures to deal with the huge volume of radioactive water accumulating at the plant, but he failed to answer the question of how it might influence the vote. Abe is scheduled to give an explanation to IOC members on the day of the vote.
“The radiation level in Tokyo is the same as London, New York and Paris, like the major cities in the world. It’s absolutely safe,” Takeda said. “There are 35 million people living there in very normal conditions with no worries about this problem.”
Asked whether worries from IOC members could weigh against the bid, Takeda again said: “I already explained the radiation level in the water or food is absolutely safe. Same as here (in Buenos Aires). We’re not concerned about this problem in Tokyo and also 2020 Tokyo.”
Finally, he was asked whether IOC members, who will vote Saturday on the host city, are questioning him about the crisis, irrespective of the safety of radiation levels, and he answered in Japanese.
“The prime minister will explain in a way that reassures people in the presentation,” he said. “The water and food is absolutely safe. The radiation levels are the same as in London, Paris, New York or here.”
He added that Fukushima is more than 200 km from the capital and in that sense there is no reason for alarm.
“They’re not dealing with the issue,” said Duncan Mackay, founder and publisher of insidethegames, a publication that features in-depth analyses of all things Olympic. “The issue isn’t whether the (radiation) situation is the same as London, New York or Paris. London, Paris and New York aren’t bidding for the games. Tokyo is. The perception internationally and among some IOC members is that Fukushima is an issue.”
Fukushima was so much of a distraction that Tokyo’s real agenda became almost an afterthought. Cho said Toyota is ready to become a sponsor of the 2020 Games if Tokyo, which is competing against Madrid and Istanbul, is selected as the host.
“Of course, if the Olympics come to Tokyo, Toyota plans to be a sponsor,” he said. “We have already been helping the bid. You can be sure that Japanese companies will be lining up to become business partners of the 2020 Games.”
Meanwhile, representatives of Istanbul and Madrid, the two other cities bidding for the games, were themselves forced to fend off criticism over various aspects of their bids. The Istanbul officials were grilled about a string of doping cases that have embarrassed the bid, while Madrid’s envoys were also quizzed about doping, as well as Spain’s 27 percent unemployment rate.
All three cities present liabilities and IOC members voting Saturday may settle for the location with the fewest question marks over it. Though Tokyo is seen as the slight favorite by some, for most the race is considered too close to call.