Tokyo2020 1 Year to Go signage

I was asked by Stephen Wade of the Associated Press a question:

Why the massive demand for tickets for these games? Did you expect it?

Personally, I didn’t expect the massive demand we saw in the ticket lottery the organizing committee held in May. My only experience for buying Olympic tickets was PyeongChang, which was pretty easy. I thought that if I applied for the most expensive tickets for 2020, I’d have a good chance of getting the tickets I wanted. But that clearly wasn’t the case. Over 3 million tickets were sold, but I got nothing.

The high demand appeared to surprise everyone, Japanese and non-Japanese alike.

To be honest, many people I’ve talked with had the impression that the Japanese in general were blasé about the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. Foreigners often told me that the Japanese didn’t seem to be excited, even now as we approach a year out.

But in hindsight, that perception may be due to a cultural tendency for Japanese to be more measured in their demeanor, towards anything.

For example, when global multi-nationals measure employee engagement in an annual survey, Japan often scores the lowest of all the countries. It may not be because the engagement or morale levels are low in Japan. It could be because Japan will commonly respond to questions on a 5-point scale with the middle rating of 3. Such a tendency will result in a lower overall score compared to other cultures which score more easily to the edges. Tending to ratings of 3 doesn’t mean the Japanese aren’t happy. They may in fact be simply defaulting to a cultural norm of restraint.

The reality, as we are learning, is that the Japanese are quite passionate about the upcoming Olympics. In addition to 7.5 million people registering for the oversubscribed ticket lottery in Japan, more than 200,000 people  applied for the Tokyo 2020 Games Volunteer Program, 120,000 more than was needed.

And that passion will continue to grow since entering a cycle of three consecutive Olympiads in Asia: PyeongChang, Tokyo and Beijing. The ability to watch events in their own time zone has had an impact on the Japanese. Dentsu reported that the percentage of Japanese who watched the Olympics grew considerably from the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics to the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

Dentsu also reported a significant rise in “pride as a Japanese” from the 2016 to the 2018 Olympics, which may be due to a growing belief that Japanese talent is rising, boding well for hometown success in 2020.

As we approach the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the international sports federations are more frequently holding world championships in Japan, and the national teams of all the Olympic sports are making trips for look-and-see tours and training camps. Thus the number of opportunities for Japanese across the country to see their current and emerging heroes has increased dramatically, not just in the traditionally popular sports of swimming, wrestling, gymnastics and volleyball, but also in the increasingly popular sports of table tennis, basketball, badminton and sports climbing.

As for scandals, perhaps people feel such practices are the norm in today’s world,  that the limited facts available regarding the Black Tidings payment do not make for a definitive case, and thus the stench of scandal may not be so distinct. Besides, the head of the JOC took responsibility by stepping down so the party could go on.

The whiff of scandal, it appears, was only that. A whiff. The Japanese are smelling something else in the air – smells like….victory.

Here is the AP article where I was quoted.

Dentsu CEO Tadashi Ishii
Dentsu is a $15 billion company, with a 25% share of the Japanese advertising market. It’s #1 in Japan, but not dominant, at least in terms of revenue. That’s fine, because Japanese companies, even large ones, don’t like to draw too much attention to themselves.

And yet, you can argue that Dentsu has become one of the most influential sports marketing companies in the world. Currently, Dentsu represents Tokyo2020 as exclusive agent to secure Japan sponsors for the upcoming 2020 Summer Games, signing up over 40 sponsors. It represents such international sports agencies as the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), the International Football Association (FIFA), the International Swimming Federation (FINA), the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB), as well as the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), among many other sports organizations.

As sports marketing authority, David Cushnan, once told me, “if you are an international sports federation, or an international sports league that wants to go to Japan, then your first call is Dentsu. They can get you access.”

And as the Financial Times puts it, once you’re a client, they are so powerful it’s sometimes hard to tell who the client is. “It is not like any company in the world,” says a board member at one of Dentsu’s biggest clients. “You are the customer, but they are the master. Nobody ever says it, but over the years, you need them more than they need you. It is like an addiction.”

Dentsu may be glad to see 2016 over, however, as it was a tough year, nearly impossible to avoid the glare of the red-hot spotlight.

  • Black Tidings and AMS: In May, 2016, The British newspaper, The Guardian, revealed that a USD1.5 million payment was made in July, 2013 from a Japanese bank to an account with a person in a company called Athlete Management Services, affiliated with both the IAAF and Dentsu. This payment was prior to the vote for selection of the 2020 Olympic host city. After Tokyo was selected as the winning city in September, 2013, a second payment was made to the same account for another USD2 million.
  • Caught Overbilling: Toyota raised an alarm that they suspected Dentsu, hiding behind a notorious curtain of opaque transactional costs for online advertising, was overcharging them for ad placements. They were right. Not only that, over a 100 other companies were cheated as well, resulting in an announcement in late September, 2016 that Dentsu will reimburse an estimated 230 million yen ($2.3 million) back to customers.
  • Working Employees to the Extreme: Dentsu recently received the odious recognition being labeled the worst of the “Black Companies” in Japan. A “Black Company” in Japan is one considered a firm that blatantly exploits its employees. Much of this recognition was due to the horrible news that a first-year employee at Dentsu committed suicide. According to this article, the 24-year old woman, Matsuri Takahashi, jumped from the top of her company dormitory on Christmas Day in 2015, after working 100 hours of overtime the previous month.

Apparently, the notoriety around being considered a horrible place to work was the last straw. Dentsu’s president, Tadashi Ishii, announced last week that he would resign in March, 2017.

Matsuri Takahashi and parents
Papa Massata Diack
Papa Massata Diack

The recent allegations that payments were made in connection to the bidding process for the 2020 Olympic Games is concerning. In order to understand who, what, where, when and why, I have looked into the reports available on the internet, and have tried to put together a timeline with explanations. I have tried to include links, many of which are from The Guardian, a newspaper based in London.

It doesn’t look good.

  • Sometime between 2010 and 2014: Likliya Shobukhova, a top marathoner from Russia, had paid€450,000 in exchange for covering up doping violations. In other words, Shobukhova was extorted.
  • July 2013: A payment of €1.3 million (USD1.5 million) called “Tokyo 2020 Olympic Game Bid” was sent from a Japanese bank to a bank account in Singapore, under a company called Black Tidings. The Black Tidings account is under the name of a Singaporean, Ian Tan Tong Han, who was a consultant to a company called Athlete Management Services, a company that “was set up to market and deliver the commercial rights granted to it by the IAAF“. According to the article referred to by the link, Tan was very close to Papa Massata Diack, the son of then-IAAF president and IOC leader, Lamine Diack. The article also alleges that Papa Massata Diack was part of an “informal governance system for the IAAF.”  Lamine Diack was a voting member of the IOC during the 2020 Olympic bidding process in 2013, so people can only wonder if the payments had an impact on the vote.  Additionally, French authorities are currently investigating Papa Massata’s request for USD5 million from the Qatar Olympic committee in exchange for support in their bids in the 2017, 2019 and 2021 World Athletic Championships.
  • September, 2013: On September 8, 2013, it was announced that Tokyo won the bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games.
  • October, 2013: A second payment was made from Japan to the Black Tidings account, making the estimated total payment from a bank account in Japan to Black Tidings “at least US$2m (1.4m pounds)”.
  • March, 2014: An arrangement was agreed upon in which Shobukhova would accept a suspension in exchange for a “refund” of €300,000, off of the original €450,000 extortion payment, primarily because the cover up failed. This payment was made from a bank account in Singapore, listed under Black Tidings.
  • December, 2014: Diack Sr was arrested for alleged acceptance of more than €1 million in bribes to cover up doping violations. He is currently being investigated by French authorities.
  • January, 2016: The Guardian reported on the contents of leaked emails that Papa Massata Diack arranged to have “parcels” delivered to influential members of the IOC in May, 2008 in an attempt to gain support for Qatar in its bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics.
  • May, 2016: The head of Tokyo 2020, Tsunekazu Takeda, has admitted that such payments were made to Black Tidings, but states that the payments are for legitimate services rendered. Takeda has launched in an investigation into these payments.

In other words, there is a consistent set of allegations of payments connected to Papa Massata Diack, an influential figure in international sports, to cover up illegalities or quietly provide support. The vehicle connected to Diack is a company called Black Tidings, which has been linked to the doping cover up of marathoner, Shobukhova, and the Tokyo bid for the 2020 Olympics.

These reports sadden me. What will we learn next?