A Bribery Scandal Hits the ‘2020’ Tokyo Olympics

Several lifetimes ago, in 2013, when the Tokyo bid committee presented its case to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to host the 2020 Summer Games, it positioned itself as “a safe pair of hands,” in contrast to more protest- or scandal-wracked regions of the world. This pitch resonated with Jacques Rogge, the Belgian count who ran the IOC at the time. Recent disclosures, however, reveal that Tokyo Olympic officials were not so much “a safe pair of hands” as an extraordinarily corrupt pair of claws that, according to new allegations by French prosecutors, were busy buying IOC votes.

The last few weeks have brought a dizzying spate of events around what are now the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics (although, as if channeling their inner Orwell, Olympic bigwigs insist the Games will still be called Tokyo 2020). The IOC went from professing that its executive board would never utter the words “postponement” or “cancellation” because of the coronavirus to admitting that postponement was in fact on the table, to officially postponing the Games after a remarkable upsurge of athletes demanded that the Games be delayed.

Now we have the thorny issue of a gentleman named Haruyuki Takahashi. According to Reuters, Takahashi became a high-flying bagman, armed with $8.2 million from the Tokyo bid committee to help secure IOC votes. The former executive at the powerful Japanese advertising agency Dentsu has denied wrongdoing, although he admitted that he lobbied voting IOC members like Lamine Diack, the former head of the international governing body for track and field who has been under house arrest in France since 2015 on corruption charges and accusations that he concealed failed drug tests and blackmailed athletes. Takahashi has only conceded that he provided humble presents to Diack like cameras and a Seiko watch.

Takahashi maintains that providing fancy gifts to people like Diack and other members of the IOC was just business as usual. “You don’t go empty-handed,” he told Reuters. “That’s common sense.”

French prosecutors have long been investigating whether such “common sense” actually crossed the line into illegality, as investigators in France have considered whether people involved with the Tokyo 2020 bid were involved in a payola scam to secure the Olympics.

The Tokyo bid certainly looks suspicious. Takahashi was brought on to the Tokyo bid team as a consultant by Tsunekazu Takeda, who headed the Tokyo 2020 bid and who also is the son of Prince Tsuneyoshi Takeda—an IOC member from 1967 to 1981—and the great-grandson of the Emperor Meiji, ruler of Japan from 1867 to 1912. Takeda was indicted in January 2019 on corruption charges linked to $2 million in payments that he allegedly authorized for a Singapore-based company called Black Tidings. While he has maintained that these payments were for consulting work, French authorities believe they were bribes shunted to Papa Massata Diack—who is linked to the Black Tidings account and who is the son of the aforementioned Lamine Diack, the focus of Takahashi’s courting. Prosecutors allege that the payments channeled through the Black Tidings account were meant for the elder Diack. In mid-2019, Takeda resigned his post at the Japanese Olympic Committee. He insists he is innocent. The legal machinations continue.

Meanwhile, the IOC is positioning itself as victim. Unbelievably, as a “partie civile” to the proceedings, it might even pursue compensation for damages.

Takahashi insists that he need not reveal what he did with the $8.2 million he received from the Tokyo bid committee. “One day before I die, I will tell you,” he told Reuters. French prosecutors may force that day of public reckoning to come sooner than later.

It should be noted that Japan is no stranger to Olympics-related corruption allegations. When Nagano was bidding for the 1998 Winter Games, its team flooded voting IOC members with gifts, spending $22,000 per member in the quest for 62 IOC votes. Even though the IOC had placed a $200 limit on gift-giving to IOC members in 1991, Nagano bidders brazenly pressed ahead. We might know even more details, if the Nagano bid committee had not incinerated all its records after the Olympics, likely destroying evidence of additional trickery.

Of course, Japan is not alone when it comes to Olympic bribery. The Salt Lake City Olympic bid scandal of 2002 set the bar plenty high, doling out nearly $3 million in bribes and other inducements such as shopping sprees, tickets to NBA basketball games, and even a knee replacement for an IOC member’s mother-in-law.

Reuters unspooled new details that Olympic mavens have long craved. But it doesn’t take a monomaniacal Olympics watcher to see that the IOC is overseeing a thoroughly corrupt process. Wall-to-wall media coverage contemplating the possibility of Tokyo 2020’s postponement or cancellation has redirected attention away from the flabbergasting bribery allegations that paved a path for Tokyo’s “safe pair of hands” to grab the Games in the first place.

The IOC is already running on reputational fumes at this point. It’s a wheezing behemoth that continues to make the case for its own abolition. Let those games begin.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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