Ben Hills

After driving round in circles for 30 minutes on the narrow dykes that divide the rice-paddies, the taxi-driver suddenly brakes to a halt and smacks himself on the forehead. “Over there |” he cries, pointing to a grove of gnarled apple-trees. “That must be the place.”

No wonder – in spite of agitated calls to his radio base and frequent inquiries of passers-by – he couldn’t find it. There is not a piece of machinery in sight, not a sign, not even a fence marking the spot where, in less than four years, a whole new town is supposed to rise to house the 3,000 competitors in the 1998 Winter Olympics.

Almost three years after the International Olympics Committee made the controversial decision to choose Nagano for the Games over the short-priced favourite, Salt Lake City, Utah, this untouched orchard on the city’s outskirts is a symbol of the shambles that may force their cancellation

These Games were billed as a triumph for the Nagano Prefecture, a backwater province of fast-running rivers and snow-draped 3,000-metre mountains, which sits in the heart of Japan’s main island. With its oncethriving cottage industries of silk-weaving, noodle-making and fruit-farming in decline, it has been counting on the Games to boost its image and its income as a winter sports resort.

But now, with less than 1,400 days to go, according to the countdown clock on the station, this drab little provincial capital has the air of a city under siege. Conservationists worried about the environment, residents outraged at the cost, activists suspecting corruption, are using the courts, the media, and even threatening to chain themselves to trees to stop the Games.

The most immediate problem for the local Olympic committee is the construction schedule, which is way behind. Not only has work not started on the athletes’ village, but, concedes Norimoto Komatsu, public relations director of the Games, it hasn’t even finalised the plans, nor decided on a budget.

Likewise, the media village and the communications centre for the 7,000 journalists who will be covering the Olympics. The site for the gigantic stadium, where the opening and closing ceremonies will be held, is a patch of bare earth with a pile-driver sitting on it in solitary splendour.

According to the Nagano bid document, the facilities were supposed to be 80 per cent complete by now. Instead, of the 12 major new sports centres that will have to be built from scratch, only one – the ski-jump – has been completed, and that is already crumbling because of shoddy materials.

Nagano’s mayor and deputy president of the Olympic committee, Tasuku Tsukada, claims that 40 per cent of the work has been completed … but even this is probably an exaggeration.

The reason for the slow-down is obvious to critics like Juichiro Imai, 66, a former bank manager and member of the Nagano City Council, who is campaigning against what he describes as the financial incompetence and corruption that surround the Games.

“There has been an enormous blow-out in costs,” he says. “The whole thing is a financial disaster that the residents of Nagano will be paying for for decades to come.”

Already, these Olympics – which Nagano promised would be small-scale, simple, practical and environmentally friendly – are the most grandiose ever planned, summer or winter, by many magnitudes. Not even the next summer Games in Atlanta, which expects to attract 10 times as many people, will cost as much.

If you add the 260 km/h bullet-train track that is being specially built to Tokyo, the super expressway snaking through the mountains, the local infrastructure (60 per cent of Nagano doesn’t even have sewerage) and the Games venues themselves, the bill, which will be mostly picked up by the taxpayers, will be well over $20 billion.

By contrast, the all-up cost of staging the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics in the French alps was $2.45 billion, and last winter’s environmentally cuddly Lillehammer Games in Norway cost only one-40th as much- a mere $552 million.

Part of the problem is the land boom that the Games have sparked throughout the province, where more than 1,000 smallholders have had to be persuaded to part with land that has been in their families for generations. Prices have trebled, and a tiny plot of fruit trees of less than one hectare is going for as much as $15 million.

But this is only part of it. Far more important is the way the Games contracts have been carved up by Japan’s crooked general contractors, or zenekon as they are called in Japlish. Six of the largest companies involved in the Olympics have top executives on trial for bribing mayors and governors in other prefectures. Imai believes the Nagano Olympics may be the greatest dango (bid-rigging ring) Japan has ever seen.

The new speed-skating rink, which is being constructed in spite of the fact that there are already two world-class arenas in the district, will cost a staggering $400 million – six times the cost of the Lillehammer rink and 30 times the cost of the one built in Albertville with similar capacity and facilities. The ice-hockey stadium will cost $204 million, and the short-track skating rink $168 million – three to five times what they could be built for anywhere else in the world.

As well, there is the still- unexplained $33 million Mayor Tsukada and his committee spent on the bid itself, schmoozing delegates to the 1991 IOC meeting in Birmingham at which Nagano narrowly won. In an orgy of freebies that even embarrassed the IOC, the Nagano committee outspent all the other contenders put together – they chartered planes and trains, hosted banquets where priceless delicacies like matsutake mushrooms at $2,500 a kilo were served, showered the delegates with rare art works, and mobilised everyone from Tokyo geishas to Emperor Akihito (who awarded IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch the Order of Merit, First Class).

When Samaranch visited Nagano, his imperial procession went past a Potemkin Village – streets were specially closed off and paved, ugly festoons of overhead electric wiring hurriedly buried, even an art museum specially built in honour of the visitor. To make it an offer the IOC simply could not refuse, Japan’s Seibu leisure group agreed to spend millions on the proposed Olympic museum at Lausanne, Switzerland. On top of all this largesse, there is an on-going police investigation in the Val D’Aosta into a mysterious $250,000 found in the Swiss bank account of one of the Italian IOC delegates.

Masao Ezawa, another critic of the Games, believes that as many as 15 of the delegates may have been given outright bribes to switch their votes to Japan after Italy was eliminated in the first round of balloting.

Mayor Tsukada, brimming with bonhomie in his tennis court-sized office and boasting about the wombat he is about to get from Australia, assures me that the books were all audited and everything was above board. Unfortunately, he says, the ledger recording exactly how the money was spent has disappeared. Ezawa has petitioned for an investigation by the public prosecutor.

But even the financial woes of the Nagano Olympics are nothing alongside the chaos that has been caused by the committee’s failure to have proper environmental impact studies done.

“They thought they could just ride roughshod over the environment and ignore our protests,” says Ezawa.

Ezawa, 44, is a weaver and dyer who collects plants and bark in the hills around Nagano for his craft. He became concerned about the impact of the Games almost a decade ago, and now heads a coalition of 35 conservation, wildlife, consumer and taxpayer organisations which has been fighting in the courts -and the streets – to stop them.

And it is not just the 16 days of the Games he is worried about. Nagano, he says, is already overdeveloped, with more than 100 ski-slopes, 60 golf courses, and countless hot spring resorts. “The new roads and highways and the shinkansen (bullet-train) will mean that we are only 90 minutes from Tokyo … the local governments already have applications to double the number of resorts. We will be overwhelmed.”

After the general contractors, the main beneficiary of all this is a man whose name comes up in every conversation about the Games – Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, the world’s richest man (according to Forbes magazine he is worth $12 billion)and Japan’s – and Nagano’s – biggest landholder. He is head of the aforementioned Seibu leisure group.

As chairman of the Japan Olympic Committee (until he was forced to resign in a row over the conflict of interest), and helped by his cronies in the LDP Government, Tsutsumi has been the driving force behind the campaign to get the Games for Nagano. The infrastructure the Government is building will add more billions to the value of his chain of hotels, golf clubs, ski resorts, housing subdivisions and railways.

The direct impact of the Games facilities will be serious enough. Several of the venues – particularly the biathlon trails which were to be cut through virgin forest – have had to be shifted holus-bolus to minimise damage to the habitat of endangered species. The bobsled run will be the first in the world to run uphill in places to avoid wrecking a mountainside.

But the protesters are still not placated. They say that the nesting grounds of buzzards and a rare goshawk are threatened; the Japan lepidopterists’ society is up in arms because two unique swallowtail butterflies are in danger; the rock formations where some of the facilities are to be built is a type of serpentine which releases asbestos fibres when it is disturbed.

Two hours’ drive away (the locations for the Games are spread out over 135 kilometres, a logistical nightmare in itself), near the pretty vacation village of Karuizawa, Kaoru Iwata is warning that there may be bloodshed if the Government tries to push a bullet-train track through a local wood.

There are 500 pine and chestnut trees on the patch of land which Mr Iwata, a local councillor, has leased from its owners. Each carries a wooden plaque, dangling like an exotic fruit from its branches – the trees have been”adopted” for $20 each by activists all over Japan and even some overseas.

“If they try and chop them down,” says Mr Iwata, who wants the railway to be put in a tunnel under the forest, “It will be like Narita airport all over again.” At Narita, extensions to Japan’s main international gateway have been held up for 20 years by six vegetable farmers who refuse to sell. Six demonstrators and police were killed when riot police tried to evict them.

As well as the threat to the environment, there is the very real risk to the human inhabitants of Nagano that excavation work on the precipitous mountainsides will increase the risk of landslides. All around, the alps display their man-made wounds, raw white scars like quarry-sites. A taxi-driver points out the spot where a few years ago an avalanche of earth and rock swept away a nursing home, killing the 28 occupants.

Mayor Tsukada, naturally, won’t hear a word of criticism. Mr Imai, he says, is politically motivated – he was soundly beaten when he opposed him in the mayoral elections a few years ago. As for the environment: “We have had school children replanting the flowers the butterflies like … as far as the environment is concerned, we could teach Sydney a thing or two.”

The opponents are not convinced. They are hoping that, like Denver in 1976, public opinion will force the cancellation of the Games. “We have two years to go – we are not giving up yet,” says Ezawa.

Publishing Info

Pub date: Saturday 14 May 1994
Edition: Late Section: Spectrum
Sub section: Page: 5
Word count: 2106
Keywords: Olympic Games 1998
Photography: Mayu Kanamori
Caption: 1. Up and down … the ski-jump steps are crumbling because of shoddy materials
2. Complete disaster … protester Ryoitsu Oikawa stands at the only finished Olympic facility, the ski-jump, which is falling apart.
3. Fast-track to Tokyo … Kaoru Iwata protests against the bullet-train which will destroy a local wood.
Map: Japan