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Tokyo 2020 Olympics

From bullying to Holocaust joke, scandals dog Tokyo Olympics

Controversies tarnish Games' reputation with opening ceremony just hours away

From allegations of plagiarism to bullying admissions, the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics have been rife with scandal.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- The embattled Tokyo Olympics organizing committee learned that things could still get worse.

Just days after a composer for ceremonies was forced to resign over bullying, the beleaguered organizers again found themselves in the midst of a scandal on the eve of its opening ceremony. This time the offense was a decades-old comedy skit about the Holocaust by a top member of its artistic team.

The Tokyo organizing committee quickly responded Thursday by firing Kentaro Kobayashi, the artistic director of the ceremony. Still, the latest incident is just one of many scandals that have plagued the Games, highlighting the insular culture and the lack of social awareness among its organizers.

"Many problems have come to light, one after the other," Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto said in a news conference Thursday. "I deeply regret that we've consistently been a step behind."

Kobayashi drew widespread condemnation on social media after footage of him joking about the Holocaust in an old comedy act resurfaced. A Jewish human rights organization in the U.S. slammed Kobayashi's remarks.

Hashimoto was informed early Thursday of the issue and, amid concerns it could turn into a diplomatic disaster, swiftly dismissed Kobayashi.

Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto speaks to reporters on July 22.   © Kyodo

"His comments were outrageous. They were completely unacceptable," Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told reporters that day as well.

Kobayashi was "responsible for making sure the ceremony followed a coherent and consistent theme," said Toshiro Muto, CEO of the Tokyo Organizer Committee. The committee considered altering the program in light of his dismissal, but said it would "proceed as planned," explaining that Kobayashi was not single-handedly responsible for any part of the ceremony.

Kobayashi's ouster follows a string of scandals involving organizers. In February, former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori resigned as president of the Tokyo organizing committee over remarks that women "speak too much in meetings."

Hiroshi Sasaki stepped down as creative director for the opening and closing ceremony in March after making a derogatory comment about a popular female entertainer. The organizing committee reshuffled the creative team following the incident, announcing its new members on July 14, just nine days before the opening ceremony. It gave no explanation on how they were selected.

Then, on Monday, musician Keigo Oyamada stepped down as composer after his past interviews admitting to bullying classmates touched off a storm of criticism. The organizing committee has since removed his music from the ceremonies.

The organizing committee initially had planned to keep Oyamada, also known by his stage name Cornelius, when his remarks first resurfaced, demonstrating its glaring lack of awareness about human rights issues.

"We had little time left to prepare after Sasaki departed, so the new creative team was picked from our own circles," Muto later explained. The organizing committee was not aware of the past remarks by Oyamada and Kobayashi.

The Tokyo organizing committee has faced criticism for its lack of transparency at least as far back as 2015, when allegations of plagiarism emerged over the Games' original logo, designed by an art director selected by a handful of committee members.

More recently, Mori personally asked former Japan Football Association President Saburo Kawabuchi to take his place after his sexist remark. His attempt to privately select his own successor was publicly slammed, and the post went to Hashimoto.

The Tokyo organizing committee's governance woes stem partly from its unwieldy nature. The body was launched in 2014 and counts roughly 8,000 members, including experts from the Tokyo metropolitan government, the Japanese Olympic Committee and the private sector.

There have been some attempts to increase transparency, like launching a public competition to choose the new Olympic logo.

"The event involves all of Japan, so we should have asked the country for input," an official at the time said.

But recent scandals show that fundamental issues still remain.

"It's too difficult to change the ceremony now," a source from the organizing committee said. The program has already been finalized, and rehearsals have been going on daily at the Tokyo Stadium.

Over 1 billion people across the world are expected to tune in for the opening ceremony on Friday.

"We're heading into the ceremony with a negative image looming over our heads," Hashimoto said.

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