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IOC to remain ‘politically neutral’ toward North Korea’s involvement in 2020 Tokyo Olympics: vice president

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

International Olympic Committee Vice President John Coates stressed Tuesday that the IOC will remain “politically neutral” toward North Korea’s participation at the 2020 Tokyo Games and will not try to force the government to accept non-sporting visitors.

“We are keen to see sport be available to people in North Korea, to assist in the development of sport there, but in all of this the IOC’s position is one of political neutrality and will remain that,” Coates told reporters in Tokyo at a news conference to mark the end of a two-day IOC visit to inspect preparations for the 2020 Games.

“Under the Olympic charter, there is an obligation on a host government to allow free access to all delegations, athletes and their officials who are accredited for the games. That’s not to say, though, that a host government does not have control over who it wants to invite in terms of political leaders.”

IOC President Thomas Bach announced late last month that North Korea will take part in both the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the 2022 Beijing Winter Games, after meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang.

Athletes from North Korea competed at the Feb. 9-25 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and marched with athletes from the South under a unified peninsula flag, with Bach hailing the event as “symbolic of peace.” Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, attracted worldwide media interest for attending the games.

But North Korea’s participation at Tokyo 2020 has sparked unease in Japan, with issues such as the North Korean abduction of Japanese citizens still unresolved.

“I obviously read about particular issues for Japanese of North Koreans participating here,” said Coates. “I personally understand the terrible pain of those who were taken away and the families who were left behind.

“I also am trying to understand the burden that your prime minister so obviously feels about this. But they’re all matters that he’s doing on a political level and not something that the IOC will or should become involved in.”

U.S. President Donald Trump promised last week to raise the issue of abductees when he meets Kim in a planned summit, in response to a request from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

“In the past, we had moments where we were coming closer,” Yoshiro Mori, president of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee and a former prime minister, said on Tuesday. “However, some expectations were betrayed. Did we have this situation because of the Olympic Games? Or is North Korea looking for help because enhanced economic sanctions by the United States and other countries have put it in a predicament?

“We want this resolved in a peaceful manner. But in the past, human rights were violated. It was not because of the war. Japanese citizens were abducted, so the Japanese people have a special sentiment because of that. It is really lingering in the hearts and minds of the Japanese people, and I pray for the resolution of this matter.”

Coates described Tokyo 2020’s preparations as “very good” after concluding the IOC’s latest visit, and played down criticism by the international governing bodies of some sports at last week’s SportAccord Convention in Bangkok.

The governing bodies of sports including triathlon, judo and sailing all raised various concerns about Tokyo’s readiness — including water quality, the impact on local fishing and test events — but Olympic Games Executive Director Christophe Dubi believes all sides can come together to make a contribution.

“I think it’s fair to say that the comments that were made were that the federations would very much like to contribute to resolving issues, but they have to be kept fully appraised of the issues because they feel they can really bring something,” he said.

“So the relationship with the sport managers is incredibly important. Also to efficiently resolve problems when they surface. They want to contribute and they want fast resolution of issues. This is definitely something that Tokyo 2020 embraced. So we are getting in the right direction.”

Coates warned Tokyo 2020 organizers that the clock is ticking now that the Pyeongchang Games have finished, and also urged them to keep cutting costs wherever possible before the flame is lit on July 24, 2020.

“We experienced a wonderful Winter Games in Pyeongchang,” said the Australian. “We saw your Japanese team produce some wonderful performances. But now you are the next host city. The urgency was quite clear to us over the last two days, and that urgency is appreciated.

“Now we’re down to the little things that could mount up and save hundreds of millions of dollars. As the IOC, we want the most efficiently delivered games. We also want games that have the smallest reliance on the public purse.”