Osaka divided over Games

Officials celebrate while public worries about viability


OSAKA — Osaka took a big step forward in realizing its dream of hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics on Monday when it was listed among five final candidate cities.

The International Olympic Committee, meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, announced that Osaka, Beijing, Toronto, Paris and Istanbul would compete to host the Games; a winner will be announced next July.

Strong overseas competition, low international recognition and concern about what the Games would do to the city’s precarious finances have put a damper on public enthusiasm in Osaka, with polls showing public support for the bid lagging behind that of its competitors.

“We’re grateful for the support we’ve received to date,” Mayor Takafumi Isomura said following the IOC decision. “Now we have to figure out how to raise our international profile.”

Beijing is considered the favorite, Osaka the long shot. Every 2008 finalist except Osaka has either previously held an Olympics or bid for one.

Under new IOC rules adopted in the wake of various bribery scandals during the Sydney, Nagano and Salt Lake City bids, IOC voting members will not be allowed to visit the bid cities.

This means that of the five bid cities, Osaka is the only one that will be judged virtually sight unseen.

Such realities have created a growing mood of pessimism and apathy among residents and small businesses, who feel they are less likely to benefit economically from the Games.

A recent media poll showed just over two-thirds of Osakans still support the Olympic bid; that’s down from the nearly 80 percent the city claims supported it in 1997.

While Isomura and the city’s business leaders worry out loud about Osaka’s low international profile, others are more concerned about who will foot the bill for the bid.

Osaka has nearly 5 trillion yen in accumulated debts as well as an estimated 10,000 homeless people, half the nation’s total, wandering the streets.

Those opposed to the Olympics say tax funds should be spent on social welfare concerns, not large sports facilities.

“We simply cannot continue to keep racking up debts,” said Kazuhito Konishi, head of the Osaka Needs No Olympics Union. “The fact that Osaka has no clear strategy to compete, despite nearly six years of effort, shows the bid is just an excuse to pump money into construction company coffers at taxpayers’ expense.”

Konishi said an Olympics could cost local taxpayers nearly 1 trillion yen in additional debt, which would come in the form of bonds to pay for new roads, tunnels and sporting facilities.

His concerns are shared by some private economists. Sanwa Research Institute has noted that an Osaka Olympics would mean economic benefits of only about 500 billion yen, while Rating and Investment Information, Inc., a private Tokyo credit firm, has warned that hosting an Olympics would negatively affect the city’s finances.