The past few weeks in international sports have been dizzying, with the Lance Armstrong affair, the match-fixing scandals and the recent revelations from Australia. Amid the negative attention, the people behind Tokyo’s bid for the 2020 Olympics probably hoped that any damaging news from that country’s sporting scene could pass unnoticed.
But it didn’t quite work out that way. Last week it was revealed that the head coach of the women’s Judo Olympic team, Ryuji Sonoda, had physically abused some of the team members with a bamboo stick.
In response, fifteen athletes wrote to the Japanese Olympic Committee to complain about Sonoda, a former world champion.
"I deeply regret that I have caused trouble with my behavior, words and actions. It will be difficult for me to continue coaching the team,” Sonoda said at a press conference in Tokyo, explaining that he had been under pressure to produce a team capable of winning gold medals in London last summer.
Echoing the words of the Justice Minister in Australia with regards to doping Down Under, Japan Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura said the scandal was the worst crisis in the country’s sporting history.
"The sports community must make concerted efforts to go back to the fundamental principle that violence should be eradicated from sports instruction," Shimomura said.
Around the same time, former two-time Olympic judo champion Masato Uchishiba, who won gold in Athens and Beijing, was found guilty of raping a member of a university judo club and sentenced to five years in prison.
With Japan thought to be ahead of Istanbul and Madrid in the bidding race for the 2020 Olympics and the vote to be held in September, there is much at stake. Further, the International Olympic Committee will visit Tokyo in March.
The scandals came at a time when the mood in the camp was good. A poll in January found that 73 percent of Tokyo’s residents supported the bid, up 26 percent from a survey conducted in May 2012.
This increased support was a real shot-in-the-arm for the city, which was hampered in its bid for the 2016 games by a perceived lack of enthusiasm for the games returning to the city for the first time since 1964.
“We know public support was a challenge for us last time,” Tokyo 2020 president Tsunekazu Takeda said, although both Istanbul and Madrid are ahead in this regard with 90 percent and 80 percent approval, respectively. “So we are delighted by this very strong result.”
At this point most do not expect major fall-out from the judo scandals. But if further revelations come to light they could damage the capital’s chances of throwing a big party in the summer of 2020.