A corruption scandal has ensnared a powerful former organizer of the Tokyo Olympics, and corporate sponsors are accused of bribing him. It’s a somber footnote to controversial games held amid a pandemic.
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The Japanese Olympic Committee has pledged to take steps to try to stem corruption. As a corruption scandal unfolds, NPR’s Anthony Kuhn reports from Tokyo that the scandal is a grim footnote to last year’s controversial Summer Games which took place amid a pandemic that rages.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Prosecutors have arrested former Tokyo Olympics organizing committee member Haruyuki Takahashi and several business leaders accused of bribing him. These include the head of a clothing retailer that made Olympic uniforms, a publishing house that printed programs for the Games, and a toy manufacturer that made stuffed Olympic mascots. Tokyo-based veteran sports journalist Nobuya Kobayashi has been following the case.
NOBUYA KOBAYASHI: (Through interpreter) Unfortunately, in Japanese society, there has always been a culture in which when you want to do something, you ask a favor from someone who is powerful. Takahashi exploited this culture.
KUHN: In exchange for the bribes, Takahashi allegedly secured corporate sponsorship deals and the right to sell Olympic-branded merchandise. Seventy-eight-year-old Takahashi is a former executive at Dentsu, Japan’s largest advertising agency. Dentsu helped raise a record $3.6 billion in corporate sponsorship for the Tokyo Games. They have played this role since the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.
JULES BOYKOFF: The 1980s was when the Olympics started to really see that flow of corporate money.
KUHN: Jules Boykoff is an Olympic Games historian at Pacific University Oregon.
BOYKOFF: And it just increases the chances of people grabbing with their paws and trying to milk the Olympic machine with two hands.
KUHN: French prosecutors also questioned Takahashi, who admitted giving gifts to a member of the International Olympic Committee to gain his support for Tokyo’s bid for the Games.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Tokyo.
KUHN: Tokyo won the Games in 2013. Prosecutors also questioned former head of the Olympic organization and former prime minister Yoshiro Mori, who brought Takahashi to the organizing committee. But Mori was questioned as a witness, not a suspect. Jules Boykoff says this bribery scandal pales in comparison to previous corruption cases, including bribes related to the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
BOYKOFF: But that doesn’t mean it’s less serious. After all, the Olympics spent a ton of public money to bring them to Tokyo, and I think there should be some accountability for that money.
KUHN: The Tokyo Games will be remembered primarily for being postponed for a year and then staged despite strong opposition from the Japanese public to their continuation amid a pandemic. Sports journalist Nobuya Kobayashi is glum about the future prospects for sports in Japan.
KOBAYASHI: (Through interpreter) The legacy of the Tokyo Olympics is that they destroyed people’s illusion of the Olympics and their unconditional admiration for sports. And this is an important lesson for Japan.
KUHN: On Thursday, the Japanese Olympic Committee announced that it would discuss anti-corruption measures. It appears to be aimed at preventing the current scandal from undermining the northern city of Sapporo’s bid to host the 2030 Winter Games.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo.
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