Newspapers as Olympic Sponsors: How Well Will the Japanese Fifth Estate See with Rose-Colored Glasses?

rose colored glasses

When I heard that four newspaper companies joined the growing number of local sponsors Dentsu has been signing up for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, I couldn’t believe it.

The independence of the press, as far as I am concerned, is paramount. And yet, Yomiuri Shimbun, Nihon Keizai (Nikkei) Shimbun, Mainichi Shimbun and Asahi Shimbun all signed a contract with the Japan Olympic Committee to be sponsors.

Right after the Nagano Winter Games ended in February, 1998, the Japanese press reported on a bribery scandal of Olympian proportions. Eventually there were stories of how the Japanese authorities and Olympic officials wined and dined IOC members, particularly its leader, Juan Antonio Samaranch.

As explained in this article entitled “The Olympic Bribery Scandal” from the organization The International Society of Olympic Historians,

It was reported in the Japanese media that the Nagano bid committee spent an average of $22,000 on 62 visiting IOC members. But further investigational efforts were forestalled when it was discovered that Nagano had destroyed all the records of their bid committee. If they had a smoking gun, it had been put out. Samaranch attempted to elicit information on other bid committees by writing to each bid committee or relevant National Olympic Committee going back to 1990, and requesting evidence of IOC Member wrongdoing.

So here’s the question: Will Japan’s major newspapers, which are now paying for the right to be Olympic cheerleaders, going to have the guts to look in the shadows? Will they ask uncomfortable questions about freaky financing, suspicions of doping, backroom discussions?

A popular tabloid, Nikkan Gendai (日刊ゲンダイ), not an Olympic Sponsor, recently raised this issue, referring to renown sports journalist Gentaro Taniguchi. The Japan Times quoted Taniguchi’s interview in Nikkan Gendai:

(Sports journalist Gentaro Taniguchi) told tabloid Nikkan Gendai that the job of journalism is to “monitor those in power,” and here we have four such monitors “boosting an event in partnership with the state.” There’s nothing much you can do about TV, since broadcasters have to purchase rights to the Olympics in order to air the games, so they are already “part of the cheerleading team.” But print media? For the simple reason that they paid to be sponsors, these four newspapers, which are also profit-making organizations, will expect a “return on their investment,” meaning they will do what they can to guarantee that the Olympics are successful — so no negative coverage.

The Gendai article, which ran on Jan. 29, attempted to detail what it viewed as the hypocrisy involved. Together, the four newspapers paid the JOC ¥6 billion for the privilege of calling themselves official sponsors, which is one rank down from “gold partners,” who pay ¥15 billion each, but one rank up from “official supporters,” who pay between ¥1 billion and ¥3 billion.

Having said all that, newspapers being Olympic sponsors isn’t unprecedented. At the Vancouver Winter Games in 2010, 10 Canwest newspapers signed up as sponsors. Said the President and CEO of Canwest Publishing: “We’re still going to preserve the most important part of all of our mastheads, and that’s the integrity of the journalism that we publish every day.”

I hope they did.