Tokyo 2020 chief Yoshiro Mori bowed to mounting pressure and resigned Friday over sexist remarks, but his replacement was not immediately clear after opposition emerged to his favored successor.
The resignation and the leadership vacuum left behind by the controversy add to the woes of organizers struggling to win over a skeptical public less than six months before the virus-delayed Games.
Mori, 83, sparked domestic and international outrage by claiming last week that women speak too much in meetings, with officials, sports stars and Olympic sponsors slamming the remarks as inappropriate.
On Friday he announced he would step down, effective immediately.
“My inappropriate statement has caused a lot of chaos. I would like to express my sincere apologies,” he told a meeting of Tokyo 2020’s executive board and council called to discuss his remarks.
“I wish to resign as the president as of today,” he said.
“What is important is to hold the Olympics from July. It must not be the case that my presence becomes an obstacle to that.”
There was confusion about who would succeed Mori, who had initially selected well known sports administrator Saburo Kawabuchi, 84, to replace him.
The transition appeared a done deal, with the former footballer granting interviews to local media describing his planned priorities in the new job.
But opposition to the selection of another octogenarian, and Mori’s control over the process, quickly mounted.
“Inside the organising committee, there are some voicing concern,” the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported.
“I don’t think an old man like him taking over will convince the public,” it cited a source involved in organising the Games as saying.
Hashtags opposing Kawabuchi’s appointment trended on Twitter in Japan, and the country’s Olympic Minister Seiko Hashimoto insisted that nothing had been decided.
“The organizing committee will make a decision while listening to opinions from a range of people,” she said.
“It is desirable to go through a formal procedure.”
By early Friday afternoon, local media reported Tokyo 2020 had come under pressure from the government over the appointment and that sources close to Kawabuchi said he had decided to turn down the job.
His withdrawal leaves the race for the key post wide open, though reports suggested Hashimoto – a former Winter and Summer Olympian and one of just two women in the cabinet – was a leading candidate.
Mori’s resignation caps just over a week of uproar after he told members of Japan’s Olympic Committee that women have difficult speaking concisely, “which is annoying.”
He apologized but then defended his remarks and told reporters, “I don’t speak to women much.”
The comments drew fire at home and abroad. Several hundred Olympic volunteers have since withdrawn and a petition calling for action against him gathered nearly 150,000 signatures.
While Kawabuchi was considered an able administrator, the appearance of Mori hand-picking his successor did not go down well.
“It makes no sense for a resigning chief to appoint his successor,” one Tokyo 2020 board member told the Mainichi Shimbun.
“There are steps to this process.”
Opposition to Games
The fallout over Mori’s remarks comes with organisers already battling public doubt about holding the huge international event this summer.
Around 80 percent of Japanese polled in recent surveys back either further postponement or an outright cancellation.
Organisers have tried to quell the disquiet by releasing virus rulebooks for athletes, officials and media, including restrictions on movement and regular testing.
But with Tokyo and other parts of the country under a virus state of emergency, doubts persist about the event’s viability.
The first Olympic test event of the year has already been postponed because of Japan’s current strict virus entry rules.
Japan’s first vaccine approval is expected over the weekend, with thousands of medical workers first in line to be inoculated, likely by the end of February.
But the broader rollout will move slowly, with vaccination of the elderly not set to start until April.