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Politics

Japan's scandal-tarred Olympic chief to step down in June

Tsunekazu Takeda maintains innocence in face of French vote-buying probe

Embattled JOC President Tsunekazu Takeda says "it is very regrettable that I caused public concern." (Photo by Yuki Nakao)

TOKYO -- The head of the Japanese Olympic Committee said Tuesday he will leave the post when his term expires in June amid an investigation into alleged vote-buying to secure Tokyo's bid for the 2020 Summer Games.

"It is very regrettable that I caused public concern," Tsunekazu Takeda said at a JOC meeting in Tokyo. "It will be most suitable to hold the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics by giving the post to a younger person who will lead the next generation and open up the new era."

Takeda also said he will resign as a member of the International Olympic Committee, which is distancing itself from the scandal to protect the games' image.

"I will exhaust all efforts to prove my innocence, but there is a limit to what I can say," the embattled JOC president told reporters. He said he "did nothing improper."

Takeda came under investigation by French authorities on allegations of buying votes to win Tokyo's right to host the 2020 Games. Though he has asserted his innocence, there have been criticisms that he has not fully explained his position, and there could be repercussions from the French investigation.

Takeda had been expected to remain in the post beyond June, but pressure from both Japan and overseas is forcing him out early. Takeda decided to step down at the end of his term because retiring before then could have been taken as an acknowledgment of the allegations against him.

Takeda, who competed as an equestrian at the 1972 Munich Olympics and 1976 Montreal Olympics, became JOC president in 2001 and an IOC member in 2012. In 2013, he led the bid that won Tokyo the right to host the games for the first time since 1964. He concurrently serves as a vice president of the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

From early on, officials had tacitly agreed Takeda would stay on as JOC president through the 2020 Games. But then allegations surfaced that some of the more than 230 million yen ($2 million) in fees paid to a Singaporean consultancy might have been used to bribe IOC members. Takeda and the JOC say the money was legitimately spent.

It came to light that Takeda himself was under investigation in January. The JOC president would go on to hold a news conference on Jan. 15, reading from a prepared text and refusing to take reporters' questions, inviting intense criticism.

The JOC has also drawn ire for attempting to revise its retirement age to allow the 71-year-old Takeda to continue as president. Those who wanted him to stay on moved to review the age limit requiring officials to be younger than 70 when elected.

Takeda's fate in the next election had been a focal point since he was re-elected at age 69. The JOC plans to hold a councilors meeting on June 27 to elect new executive board members. These members will then choose a new president and other executive positions from among themselves on July 4.

Out of three proposed rule changes, two were concerned with prolonging the tenure of other executives near the mandatory retirement age, according to sources familiar with the matter.

JOC officials grew concerned that other executives were trying to piggyback on Takeda's attempted extension so that they could remain on the committee through the 2020 Olympics. That such a move would invite backlash is to be expected as the Japan Sports Agency prepares a governance code that includes term limits on sports officials.

Although Takeda appears to be yielding to outside pressure from the sports ministry and the JSA, his retirement is also related to the changing environment around Japanese Olympic sports under his tenure.

Japan opened the Japan Institute of Sports Sciences in 2001 and the Ajinomoto National Training Center in 2008, giving athletes places where they can stay to train throughout the year while receiving treatments and rehabilitation. The country won 16 gold medals in the 2004 Athens Games after winning no more than five since Seoul hosted the Olympics in 1988. Japan also brought home a record number of overall medals from London in 2012 and Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

Japan clinched its berth to host the 2020 Games in 2013, just two years after enacting its basic sports law. The country's sports-related budget for fiscal 2019 is 35 billion yen, with money devoted to improving athletes' performance hitting 10 billion yen for the first time, as the JOC leads the charge for such government aid.

This injection of public funds comes with greater responsibility for transparency and governance. In an era of athletes rapidly joining the professional ranks, Japanese sporting associations have failed to escape their old model that relied on volunteerism.

The U.K. aims for sports officials to serve no more than nine years, while Australia has set a limit of 10, a JSA survey of foreign sporting associations shows. The JSA, meanwhile, is moving in the opposite direction by trying to extend term limits even as it should be embarking on reforms.

Although a bribery scandal proved the immediate cause of his exit, the anachronistic mindset of the agency Takeda oversaw for nearly two decades set the stage.

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