Olympics: Tokyo 2020 chief Yoshiro Mori resigns over sexism row, but successor unclear

Mr Yoshiro Mori sparked domestic and international outrage by claiming last week that women speak too much in meetings. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (AFP, REUTERS) - Tokyo 2020 chief Yoshiro Mori bowed to mounting pressure and resigned Friday (Feb 12) over sexist remarks, but his replacement was not immediately clear after opposition emerged to his favoured successor.

The resignation and the leadership vacuum left behind by the controversy add to the woes of organisers struggling to win over a sceptical public less than six months before the virus-delayed Games.

Mori, 83, sparked domestic and international outrage by claiming last week that women speak too much in meetings, with officials, sports stars and Olympic sponsors slamming the remarks as inappropriate.

On Friday, he announced he would step down, effective immediately.

"My inappropriate statement has caused a lot of chaos. I would like to express my sincere apologies," he told a meeting of Tokyo 2020's executive board and council called to discuss his remarks.

"I wish to resign as the president as of today," he added.

"What is important is to hold the Olympics from July. It must not be the case that my presence becomes an obstacle to that."

There was confusion about who would succeed Mori, who had initially selected well-known sports administrator Saburo Kawabuchi, 84, to replace him.

The transition appeared a done deal, with the former footballer granting interviews to local media describing his planned priorities in the new job.

But opposition to the selection of another octogenarian, and Mori's control over the process, quickly mounted.

"Inside the organising committee, there are some voicing concern," the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported on Friday morning.

"I don't think an old man like him taking over will convince the public," it cited a source involved in organising the Games as saying.

Leadership vacuum

Hashtags opposing Kawabuchi's appointment trended on Twitter in Japan, and the country's Olympic Minister Seiko Hashimoto insisted "nothing has been decided".

"The organising committee will make a decision... while listening to opinions from a range of people," she said. "It is desirable to go through a formal procedure."

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By early Friday afternoon, local media reported Tokyo 2020 had come under pressure from the government over the appointment and that sources close to Kawabuchi said he had decided to turn down the job.

His withdrawal leaves the race for the key post wide open, though reports suggested Hashimoto - a former Winter and Summer Olympian and one of just two women in the cabinet - was a leading candidate.

But Hashimoto said she had not been asked to replace Mori and that Japan would stay focused on preparations.

A selection committee made up of an equal number of men and women, and centred around athletes, would choose a new president for the Tokyo 2020 organising committee, the group's chief executive Toshiro Muto told a news conference.

"We need to pick the next president urgently," Muto said, without saying when. The new president needed experience in the Olympics or Paralympics and a "really high-level understanding" of gender equality, diversity and inclusion, he said.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who has seen his government's popularity plunge over its handling of the coronavirus crisis, said the selection process should be based on rules and transparency.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it was "as committed as ever" to staging the Games, which are due to open on July 23.

"The IOC will continue working hand-in-hand with his successor to deliver safe and secure Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 in 2021," IOC President Thomas Bach said in a statement.

Mori's resignation caps just over a week of uproar after he told members of Japan's Olympic Committee that women have difficulty speaking concisely, "which is annoying."

He apologised but then defended his remarks and told reporters: "I don't speak to women much."

The comments drew fire at home and abroad. Several hundred Olympic volunteers have since withdrawn and a petition calling for action against him gathered nearly 150,000 signatures.

While Kawabuchi was considered an able administrator, the appearance of Mori hand-picking his successor did not go down well.

"It makes no sense for a resigning chief to appoint his successor," one Tokyo 2020 board member told the Mainichi Shimbun. "There are steps to this process."

Opposition to Games

The fallout over Mori's remarks comes with organisers already battling public doubt about holding the huge international event this summer.

Around 80 per cent of Japanese polled in recent surveys back either further postponement or an outright cancellation.

Organisers have tried to quell the disquiet by releasing virus rulebooks for athletes, officials and media, including restrictions on movement and regular testing.

But with Tokyo and other parts of the country under a virus state of emergency, doubts persist about the event's viability.

The first Olympic test event of the year has already been postponed because of Japan's current strict virus entry rules.

Japan's first vaccine approval is expected over the weekend, with thousands of medical workers first in line to be inoculated, likely by the end of February.

But the broader rollout will move slowly, with vaccination of the elderly not set to start until April.

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