Tokyo 2020: Japan to appoint Olympic medallist to run Games committee after sexism row

Japan’s Olympics minister, Seiko Hashimoto, intends to accept the job of leading the Tokyo 2020 organising committee, just five months before the delayed Games are due to open, according to media reports.

Hashimoto, who has represented Japan at seven Olympics, is expected to replace Yoshiro Mori, a former Japanese prime minister who resigned last week over derogatory remarks he made about women.

An eight-member panel formed by the organising committee reportedly agreed on Hashimoto – one of only a few prominent female politicians in Japan – after a frantic round of meetings held to search for a someone to draw a line under the Mori sexism row and address a host of problems threatening the event.

Hashimoto has conveyed her intention to accept the offer, public broadcaster NHK said, but did not give further details.

At the start of a Tokyo 2020 executive board meeting on Thursday, the organising committee’s vice-president, Toshiaki Endo, said Mori’s remarks had been inappropriate and a new president should be selected as quickly as possible.

“With only five months to go, his resignation inflicted indescribable damage on preparations for the Olympic Games,” Endo said. “I hope we can form a consensus on a good candidate to become the next president at this meeting.”

Organisers said the next Tokyo 2020 president should meet several criteria, including a deep understanding of gender equality and diversity, and an ability to promote those values during the Games.

Hashimoto’s first task will be to address strong opposition to the Tokyo Games among the Japanese public and growing doubts about the wisdom of holding the event during the coronavirus pandemic.

Born in Hokkaido in Japan’s far north days before Tokyo hosted the 1964 summer Games, Hashimoto took part in four winter Olympics as a speed skater – winning a bronze medal at the 1992 Games in Albertville, and three summer Olympics as a track cyclist.

The first character in her given name, Seiko, comes from seika – Olympic flame in Japanese.

As an MP representing the ruling Liberal Democratic party, Hashimoto, has been Olympics minister since 2019 – and is in charge of the gender equality and women’s empowerment portfolios – but will have to leave the post to lead the Tokyo 2020 organising committee, reports said.

Mori, 83, was forced to step down after saying that women made meetings “drag on” because they “talked too much”. He initially refused to resign and then attempted to appoint his own successor, Saburo Kawabuchi, a former head of the Japan Football Association.

Organisers and the International Olympic Committee had only just released the first of a series of “playbooks” on coronavirus prevention measures for tens of thousands of athletes, sponsors, journalist and officials expected in Tokyo when Mori’s comments, and the global backlash that followed, dominated the headlines.

Hashimoto’s appointment comes at a delicate time for the 2020 Games. Around 80% of the Japanese public say the event – the first to be postponed in the modern Olympics’ 124-year history – should either be cancelled or delayed again.

Tatsuya Maruyama, the governor of Shimane prefecture, said on Wednesday that it was considering withdrawing from the torch relay, to begin late next month, due to concern over the spread of the coronavirus.

“Should the present conditions continue, I think holding the Olympics should be avoided,” he told reporters. “But given this situation where those who were meant to create an environment where we could safely enjoy the Olympics have not done what they need to do … I can’t help but say that it would be hard for Shimane to contribute to the hosting of the Olympic torch relay.”

Two thirds of Japanese firms are opposed to holding the Olympics as planned.
Two thirds of Japanese firms are opposed to holding the Olympics as planned. Photograph: Eugene Hoshiko/AP

About 10,000 runners are expected to carry the torch through Japan’s 47 prefectures, passing through 859 locations over 121 days before the opening ceremony at Tokyo’s national stadium on 23 July.

And on Thursday, a Reuters poll showed that nearly two-thirds of Japanese firms opposed holding the Games as planned, in another sign that anti-Olympic sentiment is hardening in the host nation.

It found that 36% of companies wanted a second postponement, with 29% demanding cancellation. The remaining 35% wanted the Games to go ahead.

Asked how much impact the Games could have on the Japanese economy, 88% of the firms said they expected to feel either limited or very little effect, and only 5% expected a significant boost.

“If the Olympics can wait another year, we could then see vaccines become widely available,” an electric machinery maker manager said in the survey. A transport company manager wrote: “No one wants it to be held forcibly now.”

Japan only began its Covid-19 vaccine rollout this week, and large sections of the population will still not have been inoculated by the time the Games open.

Hashimoto’s only brush with controversy came in 2014, when a magazine ran photographs of her making apparently unwanted advances towards the figure skater Daisuke Takahashi during a party after Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Hashimoto denied any wrongdoing, claiming she had simply shown Takahashi the same affection she would other athletes, who often “hug and kiss each other very naturally”.

But she added: “If this invited misunderstanding from other people, I regret it and think I should be careful.”

Takahashi did not lodge a formal complaint and did not think he had been a victim of power or sexual harassment, his agent said at the time.