Island disputes could cost Tokyo 2020 Olympics

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Staff Writers

With the vote to determine the host of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games less than one year away, Tokyo’s chances of landing the global extravaganza could slip away in the wake of Japan’s ongoing involvement in island disputes with South Korea, China, Russia and Taiwan.

Tokyo is vying with Istanbul and Madrid to host the Olympics, and the winner may well be determined by just a handful of votes.

A historical examination of voting by the International Olympic Committee on the awarding of the games shows that in many instances the host city was determined by five votes or fewer.

London triumphed over Paris by just four votes (54-50) in the contest to host the 2012 Summer Games, while Sochi, Russia, topped Pyeongchang, South Korea, by the same margin (51-47) to win the election for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

When Sydney edged out Beijing in the race for the 2000 Summer Games, it was by just two votes (45-43). There was even an instance where a single vote determined the winner, when Melbourne, Australia, beat Buenos Aires 21-20 for the chance to stage the 1956 Summer Games.

It is an old cliche to say that “every vote counts,” but in determining Olympic hosts that is exactly the case and the stakes could not be higher.

It is under this backdrop that the ongoing fiery rhetoric with other countries in the region could jeopardize Tokyo’s bid to host the Olympics for the first time since 1964. The vote to determine the site for the 2020 Olympics will be held in Buenos Aires on Sept. 7, 2013.

Japan has unsuccessfully bid for the Summer Games three times in the past three decades: Nagoya lost to Seoul (52-27) for the 1988 Games; Osaka went out on the first ballot when Beijing landed the 2008 Games; and Tokyo was eliminated on the second ballot as Rio de Janeiro clinched the 2016 Games.

The 2020 Summer Games would bring a projected ¥3 trillion (approximately $37.9 billion) to Japan, including ¥1.67 trillion ($2.1 billion) to the Tokyo metropolitan region, the Tokyo 2020 bid committee claims. Citing its own research, the bid organizers forecast it would create 150,000 jobs in Japan.

Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, who was the face of the capital’s failed bid to host the 2016 Games, is at the forefront of the dispute over the Senkaku Islands, known as Diaoyu in China and Tiaoyutai in Taiwan. Several times in years past he has infuriated people with his comments on other countries and cultures.

During a news conference on Friday, exactly a year before the 2020 bid voting will take place, Ishihara was questioned about whether the problems with regional neighbors could result in Tokyo losing the election.

“I don’t have much (concern),” Ishihara told reporters.

Ishihara then attempted to change the subject, lashing out at Taiwan’s IOC member, Wu Ching-kuo. Wu, 65, has been an IOC member since 1988.

“He clearly is anti-Japanese,” Ishihara said of Wu. “He said, ‘Don’t talk about Senkaku at the London Olympics. (Otherwise) you are going to have China against yourselves.’ It’s not something for Taiwan to butt in. I think he certainly won’t be voting (for Japan). I think it’s ironic such a person is the delegate of Taiwan.”

This is a perfect example of why the 2020 bid organizers have made former Mizuno Corp. chairman Masato Mizuno the face of Tokyo’s effort this time and sought to push Ishihara to the side.

Ishihara’s long history of offending others may not bother those in his own constituency, but it does not play well outside Japan.

Mizuno, heir to the sporting goods conglomerate and highly respected for his many years of involvement in the Olympic community, can’t be too pleased by the continuing escalation of regional tensions and how it might affect the Tokyo bid. He did not reply to multiple requests for comment on this story.

Best-selling author and social critic Robert Whiting, an expert on Japan, believes Gov. Ishihara has damaged the image of the metropolis as a modern and progressive city through his words and actions.

He says Friday’s press conference was a case in point.

“You can always count on Ishihara to offend someone,” Whiting told The Japan Times. “And at this latest press conference, he did not disappoint.

“Ishihara’s mouth is a big problem,” Whiting added. “Referring to the Chinese and Koreans in Japan as ‘Sangokujin’ is just one example.

“His controversial remarks about the Japanese occupation of Korea (‘it was justified’), the rape of Nanking (‘a myth’) and the French language (‘a language in which nobody can count’) may make some people wonder how friendly Tokyoites really are to foreigners, if they keep re-electing someone like Ishihara as Tokyo governor by overwhelming margins.

“Thankfully, he is not the prime minister of Japan.”

Concerning the 2020 Olympic bid, Whiting said IOC members will need to ask themselves two questions regarding Ishihara:

— “Do they really agree with his anti-foreign sentiments?”

— “If so, why should Tokyo be awarded the Olympics?”

The Takeshima Islands, located nearly equidistant from mainland Japan and South Korea, have also triggered an intense row between the nations. South Korea administers the islands, called Dokdo in Korean. North Korea also claims territorial rights to the islands.

The dispute with Moscow centers on the Northern Territories, referred to as the Kuril Islands by Russia.

With Spain’s economy in crisis and Turkey’s proximity to Syria, which is currently in the throes of a civil war, it would appear that on the surface Japan has the upper hand in voting for the 2020 Games. It comes across as the safest choice in the short term with regards to infrastructure and financial muscle.

But on Friday, the same day as Ishihara’s press conference, AFP cited a source close to the IOC as saying that with Madrid not a viable option for economic reasons, the choice between Tokyo and Istanbul could go either way.

“Tokyo would still be ahead as there are no worries about their ability to complete the work required on time and with the financing of the games,” said the source in the AFP story.

“Plus there are many IOC members who are swayed by voting for them because they see it as a way of helping the process of rebuilding the Japanese people’s morale and giving them something to look forward to and a goal to achieve (following the March 11 disaster).

“Istanbul on the other hand has steadily built up momentum. It has somehow managed to ride out the storm over also bidding to host the Euro 2020 (soccer) championship (under IOC rules no country can host another major championship in the same year), and has serious appeal.”

Investigative journalist Andrew Jennings, author of the best-selling 1992 book “Lords of the Rings” about widespread corruption within the IOC, notes that there are other factors at work that could influence the vote for the 2020 Games.

“It’s so hard to call these IOC contests,” Jennings wrote in an email to The Japan Times. “So it’s too simplistic to state that these regional political differences might cost Japan IOC votes. All but Russia of the countries named are members of the Olympic Council of Asia.

“There will be an expectation that if Japan wins there will be ‘jobs for the boys’ throughout the region. This factor might outweigh specific differences.”

Jennings also wonders whether corruption has been entirely eliminated from the IOC voting process.

“You must ask if bribes for votes is really extinct at the IOC. Certainly many of the crooks were thrown out in 1999,” he told The Japan Times. “But all?”

Presently, there are 109 IOC members, 32 honorary members and one honor member.

China and Russia both have three IOC members. South Korea has two. Hong Kong and Taiwan have one each. All possess clout with powerful forces in government and business in their respective countries.

Japan’s IOC member (Japan Olympic Committee president Tsunekazu Takeda) can’t vote in the election for the 2020 host, nor can Turkey or Spain’s IOC members.

China could be the key player in the outcome of the 2020 Olympic vote, as the nation with the world’s second-largest economy has far-reaching ties in commerce with those around the globe. If it pressures those in other parts of the world (particularly Europe and Africa) to vote against Japan, that could tip the election in favor of Istanbul.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s planned purchase of three of the five uninhabited Senkaku Islands, also claimed by China and Taiwan, in the East China Sea for ¥2 billion, has provoked anger in Beijing.

Japan’s central government announced Friday that it has agreed to buy the islands. The Chinese government has blasted Japan for its planned purchase, calling it illegal and invalid.

In the final analysis, the saber-rattling by Japan could prove costly in its attempt to bring the world’s most lucrative sporting event back to the capital for the first time in 56 years.

Staff writer Mizuho Aoki contributed to this report.