When Tokyo was competing to host the 2020 Summer Olympics back in 2013, the bid committee described itself as a “safe pair of hands.” Since then, those hands have consistently bobbled the Olympic ball. Costs have spiraled out of control, from $7.3 billion at the time of the bid to $26 billion, according to an audit by the Japanese government in 2019. The games’ postponement to 2021 has added almost $3 billion more to the price tag, bringing the total to around $30 billion. Vote-buying allegations have long swirled around the Japanese bid, with a French prosecutor investigating the matter.
The key test is whether the IOC will do the right thing and force Mori to resign. Ignoring boorish behavior only begets more boorish behavior.
Now, the president of the Tokyo organizing committee, former prime minister Yoshiro Mori, has dropped the Olympic torch. Last Wednesday, he went on a sexism spree, stating, “If we increase the number of female board members, we have to make sure their speaking time is restricted somewhat. They have difficulty finishing, which is annoying.” He added, “We have about seven women at the [Tokyo] organizing committee, but everyone understands their place.” Soon after issuing a half-hearted apology, Mori vowed to remain in his position.
After a conspicuous spell of silence, the International Olympic Committee finally issued a statement Tuesday condemning Mori’s remarks. The IOC, which is about two-thirds male, then used the debacle as an opportunity to trumpet its own gender-equality bona fides. In truth, though, the IOC has its own grim history of sexism.
The organization deserves some credit for increasing the participation of women — the Tokyo Olympics promise to have nearly 49 percent of all athletes be women, up from 45 percent at the Rio Games in 2016 — but any attempt by the governing body to suggest it’s an antidote to Mori is extremely disingenuous. Moreover, the key test is whether the IOC will do the right thing and force Mori to resign. Ignoring boorish behavior only begets more boorish behavior.
The modern Olympics were founded by a French aristocrat, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who adamantly opposed women’s participation in the games. To him, the idea of women playing sports was “impractical, uninteresting, ungainly and, I do not hesitate to add, improper.” He even said, “Woman’s glory rightfully came through the number and quality of children she produced, and that where sports were concerned, her greatest accomplishment was to encourage her sons to excel rather than to seek records for herself.”
Despite Coubertin’s sexist inclinations, a score of women did participate in the Olympics beginning in the second installation of the games, in 1900. It was not friendly territory. At the conclusion of the 800-meter race at the 1928 Amsterdam Games, some women runners collapsed on the track. While that’s common among runners of all genders, sexists pounced, arguing that women were too frail to run such distances. Citing medical “evidence,” the IOC ruled that the 800-meter run was too dangerous for women. They were excluded from the competition until the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.
In 1935, seven years after the Amsterdam Olympics and some 15 years after women won the right to vote in the United States, Coubertin was still saying things like, “I personally do not approve of women’s participation in public competitions, which does not mean that they must abstain from practicing a great number of sports, provided they do not make a public spectacle of themselves.” Even worse, he continued, “In the Olympic Games, just as in former tournaments, their primary role should be to crown the victors.”
This noxious sexist tradition was carried on by Avery Brundage, the U.S. Olympian and Chicago business tycoon who ran the IOC from 1952 to 1972. In a 1957 letter to his fellow IOC members, he noted that the group of people who believed events for women should be eliminated from the games was now in the minority. But he added that there was still “a well-grounded protest against events which are not truly feminine, like putting a shot, or those too strenuous for most of the opposite sex, such as distance runs.”
Brundage didn’t only attempt to limit what women could do. Female athletes were also forced to endure humiliating “sex tests” whereby male doctors took it upon themselves to “certify femininity,” ostensibly to prevent men from infiltrating women’s sports. As Ruth Padawer noted in The New York Times Magazine, doctors in the mid-1960s, at the behest of international sports honchos, “implemented a mandatory genital check of every woman competing at international games.”
She detailed that, “In some cases, this involved what came to be called the ‘nude parade,’ as each woman appeared, underpants down, before a panel of doctors; in others, it involved women’s lying on their backs and pulling their knees to their chest for closer inspection.”
Against this horrific backdrop, it will come as no surprise that women were not allowed to join the IOC as members until 1981. As recently as 2005, IOC member Gian Franco Kaspar said that ski jumping “seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view,” after Olympic honchos leaned on pseudoscience to block women from participating in the sport for fear it would damage their uteruses. Women were finally allowed to ski jump at the 2010 Olympics.
But the problem at hand is not limited to the IOC. Mori, whose comments tennis star Naomi Osaka rightly called “really ignorant,” is part of a much wider problem in Japan. The country ranks 121 out of 153 nations surveyed in the 2020 global gender gap report by the World Economic Forum. (The U.S. also has plenty of room for improvement, clocking in at number 53).
In just one example of the problem, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was responsible for bringing the 2020 Olympics to Tokyo, promised that by last year women would hold 30 percent of all corporate management positions in the country. Yet, today, that number stands at only 12 percent.
“Mori’s remark is emblematic of deep-seated sexism in Japanese sport communities and the society at large,” Satoko Itani, a professor of sport, gender and sexuality studies at Kansai University, told me. But Mori's sexism has generated solidarity, Itani notes: “In Japan, many women and men are standing up to say enough is enough.”
The sexist stage has long been set both in Japan and in the wider Olympic movement. Mori just flung open the curtain for the world to see. If there were ever a moment when someone deserved to lose their job for sexist remarks, it is now. There is a historical debt to pay and the bill has come due. It’s past time for Mori to step aside.