Japanese not allowed to get on a bus on the grounds that “people from Tokyo are contaminated”

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By KAMOME FUJIMORI / Staff Writer
Tokyo’s 2020 Olympic bid organizers were hoping that the international community would rally around the bid in a show of solidarity as the nation rebuilds after the events of March 11, 2011.

It now seems, however, that it may have been a flawed strategy to play the “sympathy” card as concerns over radiation are still very much on the minds of many Europeans.

After last year’s nuclear accident, Tokyo, which is bidding again after an unsuccessful attempt to land the 2016 Summer Olympics, is fighting an uphill battle–both within and outside of Japan–to host the 2020 Games. The fate of Tokyo’s 7.5-billion-yen ($93.75 million) bid appears murky as many countries have expressed unease over radiation contamination from the Fukushima accident.

The theme of national rebuilding from the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami has drawn mixed reactions, with critics claiming that the Tokyo metropolitan government is using the plight of people in the disaster-hit Tohoku region to win over the International Olympic Committee. Some have found the strategy distasteful while others say it is simply ineffective.

Tokyo, the venue for the 1964 Olympics, is vying with four other cities–Madrid, Istanbul, Baku in Azerbaijan and Doha–for the 2020 Games. The IOC will pick the 2020 host city at a meeting in Argentina in September 2013.

The Tokyo metropolitan government, led by outspoken Governor Shintaro Ishihara, and the 2020 Olympic bid committee became aware of the serious implications of the nuclear disaster last fall when a Paris-based consulting firm said concerns were growing in Europe about the possible contamination of Tokyo.

Japanese officials explained that the capital is more than 200 kilometers from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. However, a representative of the consulting firm pointed out that to Europeans, Tokyo appears to be situated quite close to the stricken facility.

In a closed-door teleconference with officials at IOC headquarters in Switzerland last month, the Tokyo 2020 bid committee had to reassure the IOC that Tokyo was safe when asked about the impact of radiation, according to sources familiar with the meeting. When Tokyo officials submitted their bid to the IOC in February, they emphasized that the city is clear of any radioactive contamination.

“No radioactive particles have been detected in Tokyo’s tap water since July 2 last year,” proclaimed the bid files.

Unease abroad over the post-3/11 situation in Tokyo is hardly new, however. Sports officials have had to deal with the reassignment of several events scheduled for Japan and some cancellations after the nuclear disaster.

One example was the 2011 World Figure Skating Championships, originally scheduled to be held in Tokyo in late March, but later reassigned to Moscow. The 2011 World Gymnastics Championships in Tokyo in October also appeared to be in danger at one point, but the Japan Gymnastic Association waged a successful campaign to reassure officials in other countries that Tokyo was safe enough to host the event as scheduled. It should be noted, however, that when some members visited Germany as part of that campaign, they were not allowed to get on a bus on the grounds that “people from Tokyo are contaminated.”

The association invited German gymnasts to Tokyo and uploaded a video on its website of the visit to try to dispel the concerns of Germans and other Europeans.

The Tokyo metropolitan government and the bid committee are particularly keen to appease European officials because they have a lot of clout over the selection of Olympic host cities. One factor working against Tokyo is that among many Europeans, memories of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident are still quite vivid.

Lately, rather than constantly trumpeting the safety of Tokyo, the Japanese delegation has revamped its approach. Some felt that airing the contamination issue over and over again would only end up fueling worries among foreign officials. So now, the Japanese delegation discusses the issue in a separate meeting at international sporting events.

The theme of “national rebuilding” the committee stressed initially has proved not to be a wise approach. Tokyo officials said discussing the issue of rebuilding abroad would allow them to convey the Japanese public’s gratitude for international assistance after the quake and tsunami. The Paris-based consulting firm said that tactic might appeal to a domestic audience, but not to a global audience.

Even some in the affected region are critical of the rebuilding theme.

“(Tokyo) is trying to cash in on the disaster for its own purposes,” complained one person.

In an IOC-related meeting in Moscow in April, the Tokyo bid committee members switched the focus of their presentation to the convenience of having the Games in the center of a major metropolis.

“Underscoring the allure of our city will play in our favor abroad,” said a senior official of the metropolitan government. “The theme of rebuilding may still resonate with the public in Japan, though.”

Tokyo’s attempt to land the Games is an expensive project, and a potentially divisive one. The metropolitan government will shoulder about 3.7 billion yen of the 7.5 billion yen tab and, for the rest, solicit contributions from the corporate world. When Tokyo splashed out nearly 15 billion yen on its unsuccessful 2016 bid, it came under heavy fire at the metropolitan assembly. The metropolitan government is refusing to provide details on the spending on “strategic grounds.”

Citizens groups have raised doubts about the wisdom of laying out so much money to land the Games when Japan is still reeling from the disaster and Tokyo is facing the looming prospect of a devastating earthquake.

“If they want to tout rebuilding, the venue should be in the Tohoku region,” said a member of Tokyo ni Olympic wa Iranai Net, a group that opposes Tokyo’s bid. “It does not make sense that Tokyo is willing to shell out huge sums of money when it is reviewing its disaster response plans in preparation for a major earthquake.”

By KAMOME FUJIMORI / Staff Writer

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