What 2030 Winter Games bid pause by Sapporo means for Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City’s main competitor to host the 2030 Winter Games is taking a bid pause.

The mayor of Sapporo and other officials recently announced the pause to deal with the fallout from Japan’s growing Olympics bribery scandal, which involved payments to organizers of the 2020 Summer Games, held in Tokyo last year.

“We recognize that unless we review our activities for the 2030 Games and show that to the world, we cannot move forward,” Sapporo Mayor Katsuhiro Akimoto told reporters Dec. 20, according to The Associated Press.

Regarding bidding, the mayor said Sapporo will “cease any aggressive efforts in such activities for a period of time. We will review our offer to get the true understanding of the people of the city.”

But that doesn’t mean Sapporo is out of the running.

The one-time leader in a race that may also include Vancouver, Canada, is expected to be back after struggling to rally public support across Japan for more Olympics in Sapporo, host of the 1972 Winter Games, the first in Asia to rebuild.

The announcement of Sapporo comes after International Olympic Committee leaders took a surprise move earlier in December to postpone the election of a 2030 host. The final selection, to be made next fall, is unlikely to come until 2024 and could also include the host of 2034.

While the IOC said the reason for the delay was the need to assess the impact of climate change on the Winter Games and explore the possibility of eventually establishing permanent, rotating host cities, some see intentions in supporting Sapporo’s bid.

“Sapporo officials see another reason for the postponement. It was believed that the city’s bid had a great chance,” NHK Sapporo correspondent Santo Shino said during a recent segment on the Japanese channel’s English-language world broadcast.

But that was before the Tokyo Games corruption scandal broke, she said, noting that many people she interviewed in Sapporo are not in favor of the bid, suggesting that already limited support has eroded further.

“Some city officials say that the IOC would like to give them and the JOC (Japan Olympic Committee) more time to turn the tide on these two issues,” Shino said, adding that the application process is ongoing.

What has changed, she said, is that “before, a lot of the work was convincing the world that Sapporo should host the Games. Now officials are “focusing inward” to ensure the public is on board.

Canada’s CBC News reported that Nao Masumoto, a visiting professor of Olympic studies at Tokyo Metropolitan University, believes the IOC still wants Sapporo to host the 2030 Games and is waiting for the issues to “settle down”.

Masumoto told the national broadcaster that while public support in Sapporo for the bid has waned, that could change once Japan’s Olympic corruption story no longer dominates Japan’s news cycle.

People will forget, the professor said, adding: “The IOC forgets too.”

Salt Lake City seems to be getting a boost from the situation in Sapporo.

The Daily Mail, a British tabloid, recently headlined: “Salt Lake City could become de facto host of 2030 Winter Olympics as Japan deals with Tokyo Games-related bribery scandal.”

According to Front Office Sports, the story goes, “Salt Lake City emerges as Winter Olympics favorite.” The New York City-based online publication said, “If Japan’s bid is in doubt, Salt Lake City could end up as the last potential host.”

Salt Lake City, site of the 2002 Winter Games, is bidding for both 2030 and 2034. It is preferable to wait until 2034 as Los Angeles is the site of the 2028 Summer Games and two consecutive US Olympics could hurt sponsorship revenues.

Mark Conrad, director of the athletic program at Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business in New York City, said Salt Lake City is clearly benefiting from the break in Sapporo’s bid.

“It strengthens their hand,” Conrad said, adding that the likely 2030 election could result in Salt Lake City having a rare hold on negotiating a host city deal with the IOC.

These negotiations were scheduled to begin, but no candidate cities were advanced to the contract negotiation stage as part of the new, less formal bidding process. This was originally planned for early December.

Conrad agreed that the IOC Executive Board’s decision not to hold a final vote on the 2030 host next fall as planned gives Sapporo’s bid “some breathing room”. But he said there was still work to be done before the city could be chosen.

“You could say it could theoretically help Sapporo, but there’s no guarantee it will,” he said, as the Olympic bribery scandal, which has already led to multiple indictments, could continue to grow and a skeptical public is hard to turn around.

“I think the IOC morally owes Japan a seat, I would argue, because of Tokyo,” Conrad said, unless “it’s going to be too hot to handle.” The Tokyo Games were canceled due to COVID-19 delayed by a year and ended up costing nearly double the original estimate of $7 billion.

Fraser Bullock, president and CEO of the Salt Lake City-Utah Games Committee, had little to say about a Sapporo withdrawal.

“The bid to host the Games is always a fluid process with changing dynamics,” Bullock said in a statement. “It is a challenge to put together all the elements of an offer. While we monitor the other bidders, we focus on putting together the best possible offer.”

He said that this “requires an enormous amount of work and we remain very committed to completing our work on the bid file in the spring of next year. We believe we have all the makings of being a fantastic host of the Games, either 2030 or 2034.”