TOKYO/SAPPORO – Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, irked by the International Olympic Committee’s plan to move the 2020 marathon and race walking events to Sapporo, quipped Thursday that they should be held somewhere on the Russia-held, Japan-claimed islands off Hokkaido if cooler weather conditions are needed.
The governor’s sarcastic remark came a day after the IOC unexpectedly proposed changing the venue for the races amid growing concerns about heat reaching dangerous levels in Tokyo during the games. The plan also emerged weeks after many runners dropped out of the marathon and race walking events at the track and field world championships in Doha due to sweltering conditions, despite the races starting at midnight.
“If a cool place is necessary, I want to hear calls from Rengo, such as why not hold them in the Northern Territories?” Koike said while talking with members of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), the nation’s largest labor organization, an official said.
The dispute over the isles, which Japan calls the Northern Territories and Russia calls the Southern Kurils, has long prevented the two countries from signing a peace treaty to formally end World War II.
“It came out of the blue,” Koike was quoted as saying in apparent displeasure.
Noting that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Yoshiro Mori, president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, are close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, she said it could be possible to request that a “festival of peace” be organized on the disputed isles.
The IOC’s proposal will be discussed when its Coordination Commission holds a meeting in Tokyo from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1.
But both IOC President Thomas Bach and Mori suggested Thursday that the change of venue is unavoidable.
“It was pretty abrupt. Each municipality of the marathon course has been working hard so far,” Koike said when she met the press. “I want to think about what would be the best approach.”
Koike said she is aware that athlete-first arrangements are essential but said the matter should be addressed in the larger context of how to achieve a successful 2020 Games.
Sapporo Mayor Katsuhiro Akimoto welcomed the IOC’s proposal.
“We are surprised since it happened suddenly, but feel honored,” Akimoto told a news conference.
Given that Sapporo is trying to stage the Winter Olympics in 2030, Akimoto said that “making the 2020 Games a success” would be important for the city and that it is prepared to give “maximum cooperation.”
But the mayor of the city that hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics said the schedule is “tight” and that talks must be held with the IOC. He said the negotiations will be based on the principle that the sport’s governing body will pay all necessary costs for moving the two events to Sapporo, except for facilities to remain in the city after the games.
He also said the Sapporo Municipal Government was not notified by the IOC of its plan in advance.
“I first learned about it last night through inquiries from media organizations,” he said.
Hokkaido Gov. Naomichi Suzuki released a statement saying the prefecture would “take all possible measures for the success (of the marathon and walking events).”
The IOC said Wednesday that the proposal would mean both the men’s and women’s events could be held in “significantly lower temperatures,” about 5 to 6 degrees cooler than Tokyo.
The plan emerged weeks after many runners dropped out of the marathon and race walking events at the track and field world championships in Doha due to sweltering conditions, despite the races starting at midnight.
“Athletes’ health and well-being are always at the heart of our concerns,” Bach said. “The Olympic Games are the platform where athletes can give ‘once in a lifetime’ performances, and these measures ensure they have the conditions to give their best.”
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the central government will closely monitor further developments.
“Taking measures against the heat is an important issue from the viewpoint of putting athletes first and the government will coordinate well with Olympics organizers in this respect,” Suga said at a news conference in Tokyo.