International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach is slated to visit Hiroshima on Friday. But the trip, which is officially being made to send a message of peace, has instead stirred controversy amid the pandemic and raised questions about its true purpose.

Bach will make a one-day trip from COVID-19 hot spot Tokyo to Hiroshima — where daily coronavirus cases have numbered fewer than a dozen in recent weeks — to visit the Hiroshima Peace Park, which commemorates the 1945 U.S. atomic bombing of the city. The same day, John Coates, who heads the IOC’s Coordination Commission for the Tokyo Games, will visit the Nagasaki Peace Park.

Local government leaders are welcoming the move, with Hiroshima Gov. Hidehiko Yuzaki saying that he wants Bach to send a powerful message toward realizing a world without nuclear weapons.

“It’s a valuable opportunity to spread Hiroshima’s wish for permanent world peace to the sports world,” Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui said.

But critics, including hibakusha groups, wonder if it’s merely a publicity stunt by the IOC.

“For Bach to leave Tokyo, where there is a state of emergency, and come to Hiroshima is not something that will be accepted by a lot of people. It’s inevitable that his trip will be criticized as being taken for political reasons,” the Hiroshima Congress against A- and H-Bombs said in a statement.

The Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima in March | KYODO
The Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima in March | KYODO

With coronavirus cases rising in Tokyo in recent days, the capital is once again under a state of emergency. Spectators will be banned from almost all Olympic venues and quarantine measures for those involved in the games are strict. Fears remain that the Olympics could turn into a COVID-19 superspreader event.

Recent gaffes by Bach haven’t helped win the hearts of Japanese public. On Tuesday, he mistakenly referred to the Japanese people as the Chinese people. Although Bach quickly corrected his remark, it triggered a social media backlash and made headlines in mainstream media.

The IOC may be viewing this as an opportunity to turn around a hostile atmosphere, with Bach facing protests and criticism wherever he goes, says Jules Boykoff, professor of politics and government at Pacific University and an expert on the Olympics.

“It’s clear that the Olympics needs a win right now,” Boykoff said.

Bach is not the first IOC president to visit Hiroshima. In October 1994, IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch visited the city. After a tour of the Hiroshima Peace Museum, he wrote in the guest book: “Today Hiroshima is the ‘City of Peace.’ The Olympic Movement is also enforcing peace in the world.”

The IOC has long talked about the importance of international peace efforts. It cooperates with various overseas groups, including nongovernmental organizations involved in peace efforts and with United Nations’ agencies.

IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch visits Hiroshima in 1994. | KYODO
IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch visits Hiroshima in 1994. | KYODO

During the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Bach helped realize North Korea’s participation in the games.

But it’s long been speculated that the IOC president may be getting involved in peace activities with a particular goal in mind.

“The aim of Bach’s visit is to lobby for the Nobel Peace Prize. We mentioned that to Hiroshima officials, but didn’t get a reply,” says Naruaki Kuno, who belongs to a separate group of smaller associations in Hiroshima opposed to the visit.

The IOC, for its part, has been less forthcoming. Its official reply to questions in 2018 as to whether Bach might be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the organization was that there had been no formal discussion on the matter.

However, when Bach was awarded the Seoul Peace Prize in October, he touched on the historical connections between the Olympic movement and the Nobel Peace Prize.

“When (Baron Pierre de) Coubertin founded the IOC in 1894 at the University of Sorbonne in Paris, he did so in the presence and with the full support of leading figures of the international peace movement of the time,” Bach said. “At this founding moment, six of the first 13 future winners of the Nobel Peace Prize were present to support Coubertin’s vision. This demonstrates that, for the IOC, sport and peace were intricately intertwined from its first moment of existence.”

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