Scandal in Japan could bring the Winter Olympics to Utah earlier than expected

But the official announcement will be made later than planned due to concerns over corruption in India.

(Issei Kato | Pool) Haruyuki Takahashi, executive board member of the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games attends the Tokyo 2020 Executive Board Meeting in Tokyo on March 30, 2020. Criminal allegations against a former Tokyo Olympic organizing committee board member widened Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022, as Japanese prosecutors “re-arrested” Takahashi in suspected payments from a publisher that became a sponsor for the Games.

A bribery scandal marred Salt Lake City’s Olympics in 2002. Now another one might result in the Winter Games returning to Utah sooner than expected.

Sapporo, Japan, emerged in recent months as the International Olympic Committee’s frontrunner to host the 2030 Olympics over candidates Salt Lake City and Vancouver, Canada. But reverberations from investigations into bribery at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games appear to have shaken the country’s confidence in the Olympics and could deter the IOC from selecting Sapporo.

Citing a report in Japan’s Jiji Press, the website GamesBids.com said rising public opposition to Sapporo’s bid caused the city’s mayor and the head of the Japanese Olympic Committee to cancel a joint trip this month to IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland. That announcement came Monday, the day before two top executives at publishing company Kadokawa were arrested for allegedly bribing Haruyuki Takahashi for favored status as a Tokyo Games sponsor, including receiving the rights to publish official Olympic programs.

Takahashi, a Tokyo Olympic organizing committee executive, was arrested late last month on suspicion of taking bribes from another company, Aoki Holdings. The little-known clothing company was a surprise pick when it was commissioned to provide opening ceremony outfits for Japanese athletes. The offices of a third company, Daiko Advertising, were searched Monday on suspicion of bribery in a related case.

Yasuhiro Yamashita, the president of the Japanese Olympic Committee, said his and mayor Katsuhiro Akimoto’s trip to meet with IOC president Thomas Bach to discuss Sapporo’s bid was called off because of scheduling conflicts. IOC spokesperson Mark Adams corroborated that statement in a media call Thursday.

In a statement, Yamashita said the cancellation “has nothing to do with the bribery case surrounding the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.”

Still, leaders in that country are taking measures to create a disconnect between Tokyo’s corruption issues and Sapporo’s bid.

Yamashita and Akimoto released a joint declaration Wednesday pledging Sapporo would host a corruption-free Games. They also pledged to review and clarify their policies around conflicts of interest and the roles and powers given to advertising agencies.

(Tsuyoshi Ueda | Pool photo) Kyra Condie, of the United States, during the speed qualification portion of the women's sport climbing competition at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, in Tokyo.

The IOC has made a number of changes in recent years in an effort to clean up an image that had been badly tarnished by bribery scandals, including the one in Salt Lake City. In that case, investigations into gifts given to IOC members to secure the right to host the 2002 Winter Games resulted in the Department of Justice handing down 15 charges of bribery and fraud. Top organizing executives Tom Welch and David Johnson were forced to resign. They were replaced by Mitt Romney, who now represents Utah in the United States Senate.

The IOC is just starting to rehabilitate its image and might not be keen on potentially putting itself back in the muck by rewarding a Games to a nation embroiled by an Olympic scandal.

Adams, speaking to the media following the first day of a two-day IOC executive board meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, said the bribery allegations had not been discussed during Thursday’s session.

“We have full confidence in the Japanese authorities,” he said. “The IOC has every interest in the full clarification of that case.”

Former Olympics Minister Toshiaki Endo voiced concern with the public broadcasting station NHK that the bribery accusations would end up “watering the Sapporo bid activity.”

If that’s the case, it could bring another Olympics to Utah sooner than expected.

The Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games originally focused on hosting in 2030 but has changed its stance in recent months. Climbing inflation and the possibility of a recession, combined with the financial hurdles of convincing sponsors to contribute 18 months after they helped Los Angeles host the 2028 Summer Games, made 2034 more attractive. However, the Salt Lake committee has continually said it is “ready, willing and able” to host whenever called upon, and CEO Fraser Bullock said Tuesday that it still stands by that promise.

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune A steady line of former Olympic volunteers asked for photos with Mitt Romney at the 15th Anniversary of the 2002 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games at Utah Olympic Park, Soldier Hollow Nordic Center, Saturday, February 4, 2017.

Bullock does not comment on other candidate sites’ bids, so he would not speculate on how Tokyo bribery accusations might affect Sapporo’s bid. He also declined to discuss how Salt Lake City succeeded in rubbing off the tarnish from its own scandal. Of the candidate cities, Salt Lake has the most community support with about 80% of registered voters in favor of bringing the Olympics back.

Prior to the bribery accusations, about 60% of Hokkaido province residents supported Sapporo’s bid, depending on the demographic asked, according to GamesBids.com, and 26% opposed it.

Vancouver’s city council in July voted down a proposal to hold a vote on the bid in October. At that same city council meeting, Deputy City Manager Karen Levitt warned there were too many questions about cost and risk and not enough time for overburdened city staff to answer them for her to recommend Vancouver back an Olympic bid. The city’s partners in the Host Nations Exploratory Assembly have also not formally backed the bid.

Vancouver is expected to submit the first Indigenous-led bid in Olympic history.

Even if Salt Lake City hosts earlier than expected, it will have to weather a delay in the announcement.

The IOC still plans to announce the 2030 host at its 140th general session, but that event has been rescheduled from late May to September or October and may be moved from Mumbai, India. The change was announced Thursday as the IOC reprimanded the Indian Olympic Association for governance and election disputes. If India’s national Olympic committee can’t resolve its issues by December, it will be banned by the IOC and the country’s athletes will not be allowed to compete in upcoming Games or sanctioned contests.

Adams said he expects the 2030 host will still be announced at the rescheduled general session but that should not disrupt the rest of the 2030 bid timeline. The IOC’s Future Host Commission will make its recommendations in November and in December the executive committee will select a site or sites for a “targeted dialog.” That site is virtually guaranteed hosting duties as long as it can prove to the IOC that it can actually produce all of the guarantees required to pull off hosting the Games.