TOKYO (Bloomberg) - Japan's ambition to hold a successful Olympic Games in the face of the pandemic looks increasingly imperiled, after a top official's sexist remarks undercut public support and sparked rare criticism from sponsors.
With less than six months to go until the planned opening ceremony on July 23, Japan is pressing ahead with an event meant to draw attention back to an Asian power often overshadowed by China.
But anger is simmering over Yoshiro Mori, the 83-year-old head of the organising committee, who last week publicly disparaged women for talking too much.
Despite calls for the gaffe-prone former prime minister to step aside, he remains on the job. The Tokyo Olympics organising committee announced it would hold a meeting of its council and executive board Friday to discuss the latest setback for the virus-delayed event, which the government hopes won't become the first Olympics cancelled since World War II.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said Tuesday (Feb 9) that Mori's comments were "absolutely inappropriate."
"The public relations mishandling of Tokyo 2020 is legendary," said Andrew Zimbalist, a professor at Smith College, in Massachusetts, and author of several books on sports economics.
Problems include alleged bribery over the bid itself, followed by logo plagiarism accusations, a U-turn over a stadium design and worries about the safety of holding events in the nuclear-disaster-hit Fukushima prefecture. These events took place even before the pandemic broke out and forced the first postponement since the modern Olympics began in the 19th century.
Japan's struggles have raised new questions about the sustainability of the Games, with host countries finding it more difficult to meet their lofty goals. A successful Olympics was meant to help Japan reach its target of 60 million inbound tourists a year and bolster Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's support in an election year.
The event now seems far from achieving its objectives, and its "Unity in Diversity" slogan rings hollow. Sponsors, who have been forced to cough up 22 billion yen (S$278.9 million) to help fund the postponement, have few advertising opportunities yet to show for it and are expressing frustration.
"We are disappointed by the recent comments," Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota Motor Corp., said in a statement released to reporters Wednesday. Toyoda added that Japan's largest company shared the Olympics' ideals of inclusiveness without discrimination and that the remarks run "contrary to the values that Toyota respects and supports."
Public broadcaster NHK said 36 of 70 sponsors it contacted saw Mori's comments as "unacceptable," while nearly two dozen firms had received complaints from clients.
Hiroaki Nakanishi, the head of the Keidanren major business lobby, said the "true feelings" of Japanese society had leaked out, and that the country's treatment of traditionally disenfranchised groups remained an issue.
Privately, some sponsors were upset at how plans to strengthen their own brands were suffering further damage, although none have yet threatened to withdraw. One representative of a sponsor, who asked not to be identified, was angry at the fresh blow to his organisation, which is already hard-hit by the pandemic.
Some 390 of the 80,000 volunteers recruited to help with the Games have resigned since Mori's comments. Recent surveys have found about four-fifths of Japanese want the Games postponed again, or cancelled altogether.
The latest scandal prompted the Mainichi newspaper - also a sponsor of the event - to call for Mori's resignation in an editorial Tuesday. A poll published by the newspaper over the weekend found that 60 per cent believed Mori wasn't an appropriate person for the job.
"This is not a matter that can be smoothed over with an apology and a retraction," the paper said. "The Olympic charter bans all forms of discrimination. A person who holds the opposite view should not be allowed to stay in the top job."
Senior officials in Suga's Liberal Democratic Party have so far avoided turning on one of their own. But Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, one of the most prominent women in Japanese politics, on Wednesday said she wouldn't attend a meeting with Mori, Olympics Minister Seiko Hashimoto and IOC chief Thomas Bach that is being planned for Feb 17, the Asahi newspaper said.
Many host countries have found themselves in disarray before the Games. Brazil was caught in a massive political crisis and funding problems ahead of the Rio Games in 2016, while there were serious doubts over whether Greece would be able to finish venues before the Athens Games in 2004.
No matter how many worries there are before the opening ceremony, the sports spectacle typically stirs positive emotions by the end. The pandemic has made that harder for Tokyo, with politicians beginning to hint at events with limited spectators, or even none.
Jules Boykoff, a professor at Pacific University Oregon and author of a political history of the Olympics, said Japan's struggles were a symptom of deeper environmental, social and financial issues that have plagued the Games.
"The Olympics suffer from deep, ingrained problems that transcend the botched responses of Tokyo organisers and its sexist president," Boykoff said. "Although all these dynamics are unfolding in Tokyo, they are not merely Tokyo problems - they are Olympic problems."