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Corporate sponsors of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games are voicing concerns that supporting the global sporting event during an ongoing pandemic has been made even riskier, thanks to the sexist remarks made last week by Tokyo 2020 President Yoshiro Mori.

According to the organizing committee, several sponsors raised concerns during a meeting that advertising at the games could do more harm than good, as Mori’s comments continue to draw criticism. Sponsors of the games include major companies such as Asahi Breweries Ltd., Canon Inc. and Mizuho Financial Group Inc., though it is unclear if these companies were the ones that spoke out.

Mori’s remarks were “regrettable in that they contradict the Olympic philosophy,” said one sponsor, according to a report by the Mainichi Shimbun.

Experts say the withdrawal of corporate sponsors from the postponed games, which are slated to be held during what could be an ongoing pandemic, could prove detrimental.

“If the corporate sponsors start pulling out, the financial underpinnings will just collapse,” said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Massachusetts.

Corporate sponsorship accounts for more than half of the Tokyo Games’ expected revenue, according to the organizing committee. The cost of the games continues to balloon due to COVID-19 countermeasures, which come on top of the added expenditure incurred last year when the games were postponed until this July.

Zimbalist, an expert on Olympic finances, said the public is unlikely to rise up and major television broadcasters rarely champion political issues.

“But corporations that have a lot of money can speak out,” he said. “If they’re starting to speak out, it’s important to pay attention.”

Tokyo 2020 President Yoshiro Mori speaks to reporters about his sexist remark on Thursday in Tokyo. | KYODO
Tokyo 2020 President Yoshiro Mori speaks to reporters about his sexist remark on Thursday in Tokyo. | KYODO

Public support for the Tokyo Games took a hit after Mori said during an executive board meeting earlier this month that female board members are competitive and talk too much.

“If one (female) member raises her hand to speak, all the others feel the need to speak too. Everyone ends up saying something,” Mori said during an executive board meeting on Feb. 3. “If we increase the number of female board members, we have to make sure their speaking time is restricted somewhat, they have difficulty finishing, which is annoying.”

On Thursday, Mori apologized for his remarks, but what was seen by many as a nonapology only seemed to stoke the fire.

Tokyo organizers confirmed Tuesday that about 390 volunteers and two runners in the Olympic torch relay had withdrawn from participating in the games, presumably because of Mori’s remarks.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has been reaching out to volunteers by email to apologize for Mori’s comments and to ask for their continued participation in the games.

More than 80,000 volunteers were selected from over 200,000 applications to help with all manner of tasks — traffic safety, crowd control, athlete support and community outreach, among others — meant to streamline competitions and raise spirits during the games.

On Sunday, a Kyodo News poll found that nearly 60% of respondents to a phone survey believed Mori was no longer qualified to serve as head of the organizing committee, while less than 7% said he was qualified.

As of Tuesday, more than 140,000 people had signed a petition that effectively calls for Mori’s resignation and demands the organizing committee take measures to improve gender diversity.

Dozens of foreign embassies, governing bodies and individual athletes have chimed in to categorically denounce Mori and the culture of gender discrimination they say he embodies.

Although Mori’s remarks exposed an unfortunate truth about Japanese society that is often ignored or dismissed, the fallout spurred a public conversation, “one that’s a lot bigger than anyone could have expected to happen in Japan,” said freelance sports journalist Aaron Bauer.

The Tokyo Organising Committee is reportedly planning to hold an executive board meeting later this week to decide how best to respond to the scandal.

It remains unclear whether more criticism could lead to Mori’s resignation, or to what degree volunteers quitting en masse would impact the operations or spirit of the games.

“For the Olympics to happen, they would need a strong leader in charge,” Bauer said. “I can’t think of a worse time for something like this to happen.”

Corporate sponsorship accounts for more than half of the Tokyo Games' expected revenue. | KYODO
Corporate sponsorship accounts for more than half of the Tokyo Games’ expected revenue. | KYODO

Mori, 83, is a former prime minister who was appointed chief of the Tokyo Organising Committee when the organizing body was founded in 2014 by then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The political patriarch’s proclivity for gaffes is well documented, but his latest remarks have ignited a particularly powerful public dialogue on gender discrimination in Japan.

Top government officials have condemned Mori for his remarks but few have gone so far as to call for his resignation.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Monday that Mori’s comments “were not desirable for the country’s national interests.” But Suga stopped short of saying the former prime minister should step down, instead pointing out that the Tokyo Organising Committee is independent of the central government.

Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said during a news conference Monday that it will not be a problem for Mori to stay on as president since he already retracted his offensive remarks.

Mori’s remarks came as public debate re-emerged over whether the Tokyo Games should proceed as planned amid the pandemic.

The Kyodo News poll found that more than 80% of respondents believed the games should be postponed again or canceled altogether, while just 14.5% said the event should go forward as planned.

A state of emergency is in effect in 10 prefectures after Suga extended the order earlier this month over what is the third and largest wave of COVID-19 that Japan has faced since the virus emerged more than a year ago.

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