TOKYO - There is growing discontent from Tokyo's local government about the International Olympic Committee's recent decision to move the Olympic marathon and race walking events to Sapporo to avoid the capital region's extreme summer heat.
A feeling of distrust has taken hold after an opaque process led the Tokyo metropolitan government to be surprised by IOC President Thomas Bach's seemingly unilateral decision, which some argue paid little heed to the preparations already undertaken in the host city.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who said the announcement came as a bolt from the blue, is fighting to keep the events in her city. But the IOC, which apparently came up with the plan to move the events out of Tokyo very swiftly, is not backing down.
With the IOC set to formalize its plan in the coming days, the clock is ticking for Koike as well as those in the trenches of the organizing committee who have privately expressed their frustrations with the late change.
After the announcement on Oct. 16 of a plan to move the races to the host city of the 1972 Olympic Winter Games, some began questioning the motivations of the IOC and criticizing what they deem a clumsy approach which has sparked confusion and dissent with fewer than 300 days until the Summer Games kick off.
"For the most part, no one knew about this. It came as a complete surprise," one organizing official, who requested anonymity, said.
But according to several sources, the IOC began making inquiries behind the scenes with top 2020 organizing officials about a plan to move to Sapporo following a growing sense of crisis after many runners and race walkers dropped out of the road events at the Sept. 27-Oct. 6 world athletics championships in Doha, Qatar, due to the intense heat.
John Coates, chairman of the IOC's Coordination Commission for the Tokyo Games, hinted that he got a positive reaction for such a proposal a week prior to the announcement from former Olympian Seiko Hashimoto, a Hokkaido native who was installed last month as minister in charge of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.
There were also earlier signs of a venue change.
On Oct. 8, the organizing committee announced they would be postponing the second phase of the domestic Olympic ticket lottery without issuing an explanation. One source said they had received "sudden instructions from the higher-ups," an indication they may have expected the move to Sapporo was looming.
Tokyo organizing committee chief Yoshiro Mori visited Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his official residence on Oct. 9, and along with Hashimoto met with Sapporo Mayor Katsuhiro Akimoto the following day for discussions, likely regarding the IOC's embryonic plans.
The organizing committee, however, relayed the situation to the Tokyo metropolitan government on Oct. 15, just a day before the IOC announced the change to the world.
Koike, who clashed with the 2020 organizing committee three years ago over her decision to review several competition venues due to budget concerns, was kept in the dark and felt irked by the IOC's announcement.
"This change in plans was announced abruptly, and proceeding in this fashion raises questions," she said following the bombshell.
Officials familiar with the matter have said the Tokyo metropolitan government is considering proposing that the 2020 Olympic marathons and race walking events start at 5 a.m. -- or even 3 a.m. -- in an attempt to prevent them from being moved to Sapporo.
In a meeting with Coates on Friday, Koike told him, "We have made preparations up to this point, and my feeling has not changed to have the events held in Tokyo." She also stressed at a press conference earlier in the day that Tokyo has no intention of footing the bill for the events if they are held in Sapporo.
Coates recognized the great disappointment of people in Tokyo but said the decision was final, offering a consolation of sorts by saying the IOC still intends to hold the medal ceremonies in Tokyo. He also suggested the IOC might address the issue of additional expenditures, if there is a shortage of financial resources.
But Coates, who said the IOC has a responsibility to "put the health of athletes first," reiterated that the IOC will not budge on its plan to move the events to Sapporo.
"It's not a matter of if the Tokyo government insists. The decision has been taken," Coates told reporters after the meeting, adding that "The IOC is the competent authority to take a decision such as this."
Coates reportedly said during the meeting with Koike that holding the events before sunrise was a nonstarter because of visibility concerns for athletes, spectators, medical personnel and the media, who use helicopters during such events.
After the Oct. 16 announcement, Mori called the proposal "unavoidable from the standpoint of needing to consider countermeasures against the heat." He also said the proposed venue change "was not in our calculations but had come up a long time ago (among some members of the IOC)."
As concerns about the heat mounted, the IOC came to an agreement with the international governing body of athletics.
Some days following the announcement, Mori said he was told in an explanation from the IOC that "the decision was made by President Bach himself. They said there would have been a lot of pros and cons if debate had occurred, and we would have been dragged into it, making it impossible for the proposal to proceed."
The marathon is considered a valuable opportunity for the host city to showcase its charms to people watching the broadcast live around the globe, something Tokyo will now miss out on.
The Japanese capital has also been working on a wide range of measures to combat the summer heat and humidity for athletes and spectators, such as laying solar heat-blocking pavement.
Koike suggested the metropolitan government may take legal action to recoup the money it has spent on heat abatement measures, including surfacing roads along the route with the special reflective material.
"It's necessary to analyze the matter legally. Tokyo citizens should receive a satisfactory explanation," she said at Friday's press conference.
There has also been criticism from organizers that the IOC did not allow athletes the opportunity to voice their opinions while at the same time pledging to put the "interests of the athletes first."
One unnamed organizing committee staffer suggested the perception of who would take the blame if the athletes' health is jeopardized put them in an untenable position as far as accepting responsibility.
"If we hold the marathon in Tokyo and the health of athletes is jeopardized (the IOC) can always say, 'We told you at that time, didn't we?' So knowing of the risk, it's hard for us to say, 'Let's do it in Tokyo.'"
But athletes have voiced mixed reactions to the announcement, with some praising the proposal as safety-conscious and others resentful of the sudden change with less than a year to prepare. According to a survey released Monday by the Tokyo metropolitan government, residents of the capital are divided over the issue.
Recent reforms implemented by the IOC have encouraged hosts to hold events outside the games cities, and that also seems to have influenced the proposal.
Sapporo Mayor Akimoto welcomed the IOC's plan, saying the city was "surprised since it happened suddenly" but felt "honored." Since the city withdrew its bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics and is now aiming to stage the games in 2030, Akimoto said "making the 2020 games a success" would be crucial for Sapporo's bid and is prepared to give "maximum cooperation" to the IOC.
But there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done, not to mention the expected cost impact from the venue change, with one member of the organizing committee concerned there may be no hotel rooms available during the prefecture's tourist season.
And while Hokkaido has experience hosting an annual marathon, its administration will need to plan the course with the help of the police, tickets sold for Tokyo will need to be refunded and re-sold for Sapporo, and a gang of volunteers rapidly recruited to ensure the event's success by next summer.
The IOC's proposal will be discussed when its Coordination Commission holds a meeting in Tokyo from Wednesday. Tokyo will decide whether to present its alternative proposal at the three-day meeting, which will be attended by Koike.