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Yoshiro Mori announced on Friday his resignation as president of the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, finally succumbing to an onslaught of criticism triggered by sexist comments he made earlier this month.

“There has been much turmoil in recent weeks due to my inappropriate behavior, and for that I apologize,” Mori said Friday during the opening remarks of an emergency meeting between Tokyo 2020 executive board members.

“What’s most important is successfully holding the Tokyo Games in July,” he said. “There can be no interruptions to those efforts.”

The 83-year-old former prime minister stepped down having served in the post for seven years, after being appointed president of the organizing body by then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Seiko Hashimoto, the minister in charge of the Tokyo Games and a former Olympian, has been floated as a possible replacement after Mori’s pick fell through.

Seiko Hashimoto, the Cabinet minister in charge of the Tokyo Games and a former Olympian, has been floated as a possible replacement to Yoshiro Mori as President of the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. | KYODO
Seiko Hashimoto, the Cabinet minister in charge of the Tokyo Games and a former Olympian, has been floated as a possible replacement to Yoshiro Mori as President of the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. | KYODO

Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto said during a news conference Friday evening that a “gender project team” as well as a selection committee to pick Mori’s successor will be formed, though it’s unclear when a selection will be made. “We need to select a replacement as quickly as possible,” Muto said.

The selection committee will consist of less than 10 members of the Tokyo 2020 executive board, Muto said, half of whom will be women.

Mori had tapped Saburo Kawabuchi, the 84-year-old former president of the Japan Football Association, as his replacement, but central government officials reportedly opposed the decision, arguing that Mori shouldn’t be able to choose his own replacement. Just before Mori spoke publicly on Friday, Kawabuchi said he would not be assuming the position.

Mori provoked a wave of outrage at home and abroad by making a number of sexist remarks about women during a meeting on Feb. 3 with members of the Japanese Olympic Committee.

“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 the meeting. “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.”

His attempted apology the following day fell short of expectations and seemed to only make things worse. Since then, more than 500 volunteers have reportedly withdrawn their participation in the games — presumably due to Mori’s remarks — and a number of corporate sponsors have voiced concern over supporting the event after so much controversy.

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

The resignation comes on the heels of dwindling support for Mori. According to a Kyodo News poll published Sunday, nearly 60% of respondents thought he was no longer qualified to serve as head of the organizing committee, while less than 7% said he was qualified.

Yoshiro Mori, president of the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, announces his resignation Friday at the committee headquarters in Tokyo. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Yoshiro Mori, president of the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, announces his resignation Friday at the committee headquarters in Tokyo. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

At least three runners in the Olympic torch relay have also withdrawn.

As the furor unfolded, several top government officials condemned Mori, but most stopped short of calling for his resignation.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has been largely absent from the conversation, repeatedly deflecting related questions by stating that the organizing committee is an independent body responsible for its own personnel decisions.

However, not only did Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato and Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto reportedly hold a secret meeting Wednesday to discuss the matter, Mori himself called a number of lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to inform them of his plans to step down.

Mori reportedly told Kawabuchi during a home visit Thursday that Suga thought it would be best to replace him with a woman or someone much younger, while Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, floated the idea of appointing a woman to serve alongside Mori as co-president.

Bach said Friday that he fully respects Mori’s decision to step down and thanked him for “his outstanding contribution to the organization of the postponed Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 over the course of the past years.”

“The IOC will continue working hand-in-hand with his successor to deliver safe and secure Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 in 2021,” the IOC president said in a statement.

Corporate sponsors of the Tokyo Games began to voice concerns earlier this week that supporting the global sporting event during an ongoing global pandemic had been made even riskier due to Mori’s sexist remarks.

Yoshiro Mori, president of the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, holds a news conference in Tokyo in March 2020. | REUTERS
Yoshiro Mori, president of the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, holds a news conference in Tokyo in March 2020. | REUTERS

According to the organizing committee, several sponsors raised concerns during a meeting that, with Mori’s comments continuing to draw criticism, advertising at the games could end up doing more harm than good to their brands. Though it’s unclear which companies raised the concerns, domestic sponsors include major firms such as Asahi Breweries Ltd., Canon Inc. and Mizuho Financial Group Inc.

Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota, a major domestic sponsor of the games, released a statement Wednesday in which the executive described it as “very regrettable that the comments made by the leader of the organizing committee differ from the values that Toyota holds.”

Corporate sponsorship accounts for more than half of the Tokyo Games’ expected revenue, according to the organizing committee. The cost of the games rose last year when they were postponed until this July due to the spread of the novel coronavirus. The withdrawal of corporate sponsors would compound the financial situation.

Organizers hope to put the scandal behind them by replacing Mori, but it’s unclear that doing so will fix the damage dealt to morale over the Tokyo Games. The global sporting event, now scheduled to kick off in July during what will likely be an ongoing pandemic, is facing ballooning costs due to countermeasures needed to protect athletes, staff and spectators from COVID-19 during the games.

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.

Media reports say Mori will remain on the organizing committee in an advisory role after stepping down from the post of president.

Former Japan Football Association President Saburo Kawabuchi | KYODO
Former Japan Football Association President Saburo Kawabuchi | KYODO

Kawabuchi, who had been serving on the Tokyo Organizing Committee as mayor of the Olympic Village, has been criticized in the past for his controversial beliefs on historical revision, racist remarks toward South Koreans and connections to Japan’s far right.

A native of Osaka Prefecture, Kawabuchi is a staple of the Japanese footballing world. He debuted for the Japanese national team in 1958 and represented his country during the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Reports that Kawabuchi would replace Mori drew a swift backlash on social media, where critics voiced concern over his contentious beliefs on politics, history and race.

They also pointed out the irony of replacing an older man known for his tone-deaf remarks on gender representation with an even older man. Some also questioned Mori’s involvement in selecting his own predecessor, or his continued role on the organizing committee as an advisor.

As of Friday, more than 147,000 people had signed a petition calling for Mori’s resignation and for greater gender representation in the organizing committee.

Tennis superstar Naomi Osaka said earlier this week that Mori’s comments were “really inappropriate.” A number of Olympic and Paralympic athletes as well as foreign embassies also expressed their condemnation.

On Feb. 17, a meeting will be attended by IOC President Bach, Tokyo Games Minister Hashimoto and a representative of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who was supposed to attend, said Wednesday she would not because “nothing positive will come of it.”

“All eyes are on the transparency of the selection process,” Koike said Friday during a news conference. “The result will largely impact the image Tokyo broadcasts to the rest of the world.”

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