Tokyo Olympics scandal fouls hopes for a Sapporo Winter Games

Public opinion has turned against the 2030 bid.

(Joshua Mellin | The New York Times) Two people on snowboards at the Sapporo Teine ski resort, in Sapporo, Japan on March 25, 2023, which was a venue for the 1972 Winter Games. The International Olympic Committee was already struggling to find hosts for the Winter Games. Sapporo’s flailing 2030 bid has added another headache.

In recent years, the already shortlist of possible candidates to hold the Winter Olympics has become even shorter. Headline-grabbing cost overruns and humbling defeats in public referendums have made cities wary of building venues for sports like ski jumping and bobsled with limited appeal beyond the Games, while climate change has rapidly shrunk the number of potential hosts that can promise real snow.

Those challenges had made Sapporo, in Japan’s frigid north, especially appealing as Olympic organizers seek a home for the 2030 Games. The city seemed to have it all: an Olympic legacy as the 1972 host; most of the necessary facilities; an eager public; and consistent, powdery snow. Its only serious rival, Salt Lake City, preferred to wait until 2034 to host the Games.

What Sapporo wasn’t counting on was a still-unfolding corruption scandal linked to the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, which has turned public opinion sharply against Sapporo’s bid and complicated Japan’s ability to stage large events in the coming years. The turmoil has thrown the 2030 selection process into uncertainty, with both Sapporo and the International Olympic Committee pausing their efforts as officials court alternative bidders.

The slow drip of allegations of bid-rigging in the run-up to the Tokyo Games, which were delayed until 2021 because of the pandemic, has ensnared some of Japan’s top companies. The most prominent is Dentsu, one of the world’s most powerful sports marketing firms and a key force in arranging everything from the initial Tokyo bidding process to the event’s tiniest details.

Arrests began last summer, toppling the heads of one of Japan’s largest publishers and a major clothing retailer. In February, prosecutors accused Dentsu, as well as Japan’s second-largest marketing firm, Hakuhodo, of forming a cartel to skirt rules on bidding for public contracts related to the Tokyo Games.

In response to the scandal, Tokyo and Osaka, among other cities, have pledged that — at least in the short term — they will exclude Dentsu and its alleged conspirators from bidding for public contracts. That has been an especially bitter pill for Osaka, which is hosting the 2025 World Expo and was counting on the advertising giant’s support to pull off the event.

In early March, Sapporo announced several shorter public bidding bans on smaller companies named in the indictments. It has not yet announced whether it will work with Dentsu and Hakuhodo, but the city’s relationship with a local Dentsu subsidiary that helped lay the groundwork for the Olympic bid is on hold, said Sapporo’s mayor, Katsuhiro Akimoto.

While the city still hopes to host the 2030 Games, Akimoto said, he believes it will be difficult to secure the necessary sponsorships without the involvement of Dentsu, which hauled in a record-shattering $3.6 billion in domestic sponsorship money for the Tokyo Games. The firm controls nearly 28% of Japan’s advertising market.

The fallout from the Tokyo Olympics has created an unexpected headache not just for Sapporo but also for the IOC, which has found it increasingly difficult to secure hosts for the Winter Games as cities decide the costs and hassles aren’t worth it.

For the 2022 Winter Olympics, the IOC was forced to choose between two candidates from authoritarian countries, after all eight democratic countries that had expressed interest pulled out. Beijing edged out Almaty, Kazakhstan, and the Games came under fire both for China’s abysmal human rights record and its dependence on artificial snow.

In an effort to attract more candidates, the Olympic committee has worked to make bidding for and hosting the Games less expensive and onerous. Even so, few countries have applied. Only Sweden and Italy, the winner, were finalists for the 2026 Winter Games.

Sapporo’s flailing effort does not endanger the Games’ future, analysts said. But it has had a domino effect. In December, the IOC announced that it would push back the timeline for selecting a host, saying it needed time to consider the impacts of climate change on the Games’ future. Sapporo paused its bid soon after.

Salt Lake City; Vancouver, British Columbia; and Stockholm have since been suggested as possible destinations. Salt Lake City has said it prefers to host in 2034 so it won’t have to fight for sponsors with the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles.

Sapporo’s chances of hosting the Games largely depend on its ability to revive public interest, said Olympic historian David Wallechinsky. From the IOC’s perspective, “the corruption issue isn’t as important as the lack of public support,” he said.

In a January poll by The Hokkaido Shimbun, a regional daily newspaper, nearly 70% of those surveyed said they opposed hosting the Games. The turnabout is evident even in once enthusiastic residents like Masako Ishibashi, who attended the opening ceremony of the 1972 Sapporo Olympics as a child and whose daughter has ambitions of becoming a pro alpine skier.

In the wake of the scandal, “the feeling that we should definitely, definitely do it is gone,” she said as she walked her dog near the outdoor skating rink where the Olympic kickoff was held five decades ago.

Even if Sapporo’s 2030 bid collapses, it will remain a tempting Olympic candidate as the IOC emphasizes making the Games more environmentally and economically sustainable. A 2022 study projecting the impact of climate change on the Winter Olympics’ future said that, by midcentury, Sapporo may be one of the last former hosts in Asia capable of reliably holding the Games without resorting to artificial snow.

But for that to happen, Sapporo is going to have to repair the damage done by the Tokyo scandal, said Ryuichi Kasuga, a sports consultant who worked on the 1998 Nagano Olympics.

“They need to demonstrate that they can make a bid and hold an Olympics properly,” he said. “Otherwise, Japan’s Olympics movement is over.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.