Media watch: Press wonders if 2030 Sapporo Olympics is already in the bag

Soliciting for Sapporo 2030 survey (Hokkaido News)

In case you weren’t aware, Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, is gunning for the 2030 Winter Olympics, a goal that has been met with mixed feelings by not only many Japanese but, seemingly, many residents of Sapporo. Given the trauma exacted on the citizenry by the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, what with its postponement and huge financial overruns, the hesitation to go through all that again is understandable, but often the people behind such campaigns work as if they were an irresistible force. This time, the media is ready if not necessarily able.

A March 30 article in Toyo Keizai outlined in detail doubts provoked in the press by a survey whose results were announced by the Sapporo municipal government on March 16. One of the requirements for selection by the International Olympic Committee to host the games is the support of residents, so the city government is trying to get at least that part of the effort out of the way. Toyo Keizai hints that the bitter memory of Tokyo may be too fresh in people’s minds. Consequently, the media had questions when the results showed a majority of Sapporo citizens said they wanted to bring the Winter Olympics to their city in 2030. 

A day before the announcement, Sapporo Mayor Katsuhiro Akimoto went to Tokyo to promote the bid in cooperation with ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers from Hokkaido, saying that “by working with bureaucrats and citizens to develop the local area, we can look forward to business opportunities for the prefecture, so we hope to host the games with your cooperation.” Meaningfully, he received the support of Seiko Hashimoto, the former chairman of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, who pointed out that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the last time Sapporo hosted the Winter Olympics, though, somewhat ominously, she also pledged to help Akimoto by “using the experience we gained from Tokyo 2020.” Two days later, Hashimoto met with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Japan Olympic Committee President Yasuhiro Yamashita, eliciting their support for 2030 as well. 

Toyo Keizei interpreted these developments as suggesting that the people working on the bid think it’s a done deal, but a close look at the survey results would seem to indicate that they may be getting ahead of themselves. The survey involved 17,500 respondents who were asked their feelings about hosting the Olympics. The survey was carried out by snail mail, through the internet, and on the street. Responses through all three methods showed a positive response, with between 52 and 57 percent of respondents saying they support the bid process. However, when this contingent was broken down further, the results seem slightly less positive, with half saying they definitely support the bid and the other half saying they “might” support the bid. More significantly, Hokkaido residents seem more inclined to support the bid than do Sapporo residents exclusively, and the share of Sapporans who said they definitely don’t want the Olympics was higher than the share of negative responses from residents of the rest of the prefecture. This reaction is easy to understand, says Toyo Keizai, since the people of Sapporo think they are going to have to pay for the preparations. 

Local media’s reaction to the survey was mixed. An editorial in the Hokkaido Shimbun on March 22 thought the timing had led to misleading results, since in early March the good vibes that had reverberated through the populace after Japan won lots of medals at the Beijing Winter Olympics were still having a positive effect. In addition, the street survey in Sapporo was conducted in a comfortable underground space where the bid campaign had been going full steam for some months. “It was hardly a neutral environment,” said the newspaper, which assumed the location was chosen “deliberately” to elicit the most positive responses

Yahoo News did its own survey, but on a national level, and the differences couldn’t have been more obvious. Questioning more than 17,000 people nationwide, the survey found that a whopping 87 percent of respondents thought it was not a good idea for Sapporo to host the 2030 games. And while Toyo Keizai pointed out that the methodology used for and target of the survey were much different from those of the Sapporo query, it showed how the Japanese people didn’t have much stomach left to think about another Olympics bid so soon after Tokyo. 

Perhaps the most honest survey was one carried out by Hokkaido Shimbun last year of 201 Hokkaido businesses, which found that 34.3 percent fully supported the bid, 30.3 percent partially supported it, and only 13 percent were against it. The reasons supporters gave for their answers were predictable: the Olympics would stimulate the economies of both Hokkaido and Sapporo, as well as spread the region’s name internationally. But as Toyo Keizai points out, this kind of financial windfall has almost never materialized for cities that have hosted the winter games. The “done deal” mentality seems already to have taken hold, with all the fantastical prejudices that come with it.

The confidence is born of preparation. Originally, Sapporo was trying to secure the 2026 games, but decided it was premature and pulled out of the running in 2014. The following year, a group of Sapporo merchants established a fully operational Olympics organizing committee to work on the bid full time and have been at it ever since. The main problem faced by the supporters is the fact that Sapporo may be losing population. Up until only a few years ago, the city was absorbing migrants from other parts of Hokkaido, thus swelling its population, but this year the city will likely lose residents, the first time that has happened since it was designated a city in 1972, the year of the last Sapporo Winter Olympics. The reason for the drop is that there were more deaths than births last year, and while people are still leaving their towns and cities in Hokkaido, they are no longer moving to Sapporo. They’re moving out of the prefecture altogether. Last year the prefecture lost 47,000 people, the biggest decrease in a decade. COVID is mainly to blame, since it cut deeply into Hokkaido’s tourist industry, which is economically important to the area. 

1972 marks another anniversary for the city. Sapporo was founded in 1922, so the double-dip of declining population and economic stagnation is especially troubling to city leaders, and, like many cities before them, Sapporo think the Olympics will provide a needed shot of stimulation, mainly in the area of infrastructure, which Sapporo needs. Most of the city’s infrastructure hasn’t been properly updated since 1972. The new Hokkaido extension of the shinkansen super express is supposed to reach Sapporo by 2030, though Toyo Keizai and other media seriously think that’s not going to happen. And even if it does, the benefits will probably be slight since it will be cheaper to fly to Sapporo from other locations in Japan and few people use the shinkansen for local travel.

Nevertheless, the done deal mentality is at least partially behind the rush of redevelopment in the city. There are at least 30 construction projects in the works, including an expansion of the subway system, a new train station to accommodate the shinkansen, a 46-story hotel tower at the south end of Sapporo Station, and another 48-story building at the north end. In addition, the athletes village is practically a done deal in and of itself. Farther afield, the Niseko resort region, which already receives a good amount of foreign investment and would host the Alpen competitions, is set to see construction of several high-rises. The idea that all these projects will attract greater investment in the area is both predicated on the bid process and considered a consequence of it. The bid itself gains momentum as a kind of perpetual motion device. 

But businesses don’t always reflect the expectations and anxieties of the general public, and Toyo Keizai found, by asking random people on the streets of Sapporo, that many were just confused. One man said he hadn’t heard anything about the bid and now, suddenly, it was as if Sapporo was guaranteed to get the games, adding that, after Tokyo, he was predisposed “to be against it.” He was particularly shocked to learn that half the residents surveyed supported the bid. A woman said there are so many other things the city needs before it starts working on the Olympics—and what about Sapporo’s pledge to achieve zero net carbon? It would be great if the Olympics could help toward that goal, but nobody seems to be talking about that aspect. Of course, Sapporo 2030 is not a done deal until the deal is actually done, but, based on the way the media is reporting the bid, believing it is seems to be essential to its realization. 

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