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Tuesday, May 29, 2001

Mayor feels heat as Olympic bid falters

Support for other events collapses, despite promise of 'sports paradise'

Staff writer

OSAKA -- Officially, Osaka's quest for the 2008 Olympics is not over until the International Olympic Committee meets in Moscow in mid-July to name the host city.

Osaka Mayor Takafumi Isomura speaks to the media upon his return to Kansai International Airport from an International Olympic Committee meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, earlier this month.

But only a die-hard optimist or a fool still believes Osaka has a chance, after the recent release of a harsh IOC evaluation that rated the city's bid as less than excellent.

The IOC evaluation committee rated the bids from Beijing, Paris and Toronto as excellent. But Osaka and Istanbul, the committee said, did not show they could overcome problems ranging from transportation to finance.

As even the most ardent supporters of an Osaka Olympics are now resigned to defeat, attention is turning toward the fate of Mayor Takafumi Isomura and his plans to turn Osaka into a "sports paradise." With Osaka's Olympic bid dead in the water, public support for other sports events is also collapsing.

Just days after the IOC report came out, the East Asian Games opened in Osaka to sparse crowds. Many of those in attendance on the first weekend were there only because they received heavily discounted tickets through community associations or their companies.

City officials drew heated criticism from event organizers for the low turnout, which even prompted Noriyuki Ichihara, the leader of the Japanese athlete contingent, to make the bizarre suggestion that the athletes themselves peddle tickets.

Osaka's poor management of its Olympic bid and the East Asian Games is taking a political toll on Isomura, who has spent much of his time publicly promising to turn Osaka into a major sports center.

In addition to the poor IOC evaluation, the city was dealt another blow when Olympic gold medalist marathoner Naoko Takahashi, whom Osaka officials had hoped would give a speech in Moscow to support the bid, announced she was bowing out.

Even worse was the written IOC warning Osaka received via the Japan Olympic Committee when it was discovered the city was hoping to invite IOC voting members to the East Asian Games. Such invitations are forbidden under the new selection rules.

By the end of last week, there was growing speculation among city officials as well as the general public that the mayor will soon come under pressure to resign.

Isomura claimed that part of the reason for the low evaluation was that the IOC misunderstood the real financial burden Osaka would be responsible for when it added the second-phase construction costs for Kansai International Airport to the bid file.

The city is only responsible for a small fraction of the total, and the mayor admitted there had been a "failure to communicate."

"Isomura was the one ultimately responsible for making that clear. After the IOC chooses the 2008 host city (in July), the mayor will likely have to take responsibility for that mistake," said one Osaka official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The IOC committee did not recommend that Osaka and Istanbul withdraw, but senior IOC officials did discuss the possibility after the report was released.

In the end, it was decided to let both cities stay in the race, although the IOC made it clear that decision was based on good sportsmanship and not because the city is being seriously considered.

News that their city was rated as less than excellent brought howls of protest from Osaka officials. Although the IOC has given them time to respond to the evaluations, any reply from either Osaka or Istanbul will only be officially noted and passed on to voting members. There are no plans for a second evaluation.

Since Osaka became Japan's bid city for the 2008 Games in August 1997, senior government and business leaders have trumpeted the construction of new sports facilities while ignoring warnings from those who said the city's horrible traffic jams, security concerns surrounding man-made islands and financial burdens would make hosting the Games difficult.

If the IOC's report was an official affirmation of those concerns, Osaka officials did not seem to get the message.

"I didn't think our bid was bad. We have world-class sports facilities," said Isomura upon returning from IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, where the evaluations were announced.

Isomura and other officials have been pleading their case to anyone who will listen. But they conspicuously ignore the one aspect of the IOC evaluation that is arguably the most important: public support.

Earlier this year, the IOC conducted a survey in each of the five bid cities to gauge public support. In Osaka, only 52 percent of the residents and 51 percent of all Japanese favored the bid.

The two figures are by far the lowest support rates among the five candidates and sharply contradicted Osaka officials' claims that 76 percent of the city supports the bid. Local media surveys showed anywhere between 50 percent and 60 percent of Osakans supported the bid.

Isomura had no explanation for the large discrepancy between the results of the city's poll and the IOC survey, saying only that Osaka was unaware of how the IOC arrived at its conclusions.

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