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Plan to move Olympic marathons north 'out of blue' for Tokyo, hailed by Sapporo

Artificial snow falls on spectators as part of an anti-heatstroke experiment during a canoeing event trial for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, in Tokyo's Koto Ward on Sept. 13, 2019. (Mainichi/Junichi Sasaki)

The International Olympic Committee (IOC)'s announcement that it is considering moving the 2020 Tokyo Olympic marathons and race walking events far up north to Sapporo amid summer heat concerns has sent shockwaves throughout concerned communities in Japan, with many calling the move "a bolt from the blue."

"The news came out of nowhere. Our schedules have suddenly changed in many ways since this morning and we've been bustling around," said a senior official of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. "Would we be able to design the courses and gather volunteer staff in time?" questioned an official related to the Tokyo Games.

The IOC's move also surprised officials and locals in Sapporo, the host of the 1972 Winter Olympics in the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido.

"There wasn't even a rumor about such a change. We are utterly shocked. We'll confirm with the IOC via the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee," said a bewildered Mitsuru Yoshida, head of the section in charge of international events at the Sapporo Municipal Government's sports bureau. He said he learned about the content of the IOC's announcement via media reports on the evening of Oct. 16.

Sapporo Mayor Katsuhiro Akimoto hailed the IOC's move in a comment he released, stating, "I am very surprised at the abrupt news. We, as a city, would very much appreciate it. We should pay our utmost respect to the plan as it is out of consideration for the athletes."

However, for the games' host city Tokyo, the IOC's Sapporo plan was a total shock. IOC President Thomas Bach had raved about Tokyo in July at a ceremony marking one year ahead of the event, saying, "I can truly say I have never seen an Olympic city as prepared as Tokyo with one year to go before the Olympic Games." A senior Tokyo Metropolitan Government official fumed, saying, "The venue change would undermine our relationship of trust that we have built thus far. Tickets are already on sale. There's no way the venue can be moved to Sapporo after all that's happened."

The metropolitan government has heretofore taken all steps possible to counter the expected scorching heat during the marathon and race walking events in the Tokyo Games, including introducing heat insulation pavements and mist showers and repeatedly carrying out anti-heatstroke measures in this summer's trial events. "I'd like to take the announcement as a message that we should take our heat countermeasures more seriously," the senior metropolitan official stated.

Another metropolitan government official, meanwhile, welcomed the proposed shift. "When I went to Olympic venues in Tokyo's waterfront areas, I couldn't keep standing due to the heat. I don't think there's any way we can deal with the heat (in the capital)," the official said.

As the ongoing Rugby World Cup 2019 is bringing much joy and excitement to regional cities hosting the matches, the metropolitan official said, "We don't have to force ourselves to hold the (Olympic) events in Tokyo and its surrounding areas. We should let regional areas have the stage more, as Tokyo is often under fire for taking it all."

The IOC's plan also shocked the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), which will be tasked with security measures during next year's games.

"I didn't know about it. It's a bolt from the blue, a burning bolt," commented a senior MPD official.

"If it is going to be held in Sapporo, we have no choice but to consider responses for that scenario. We will share with Hokkaido the know-how we have acquired through the Tokyo Marathon and the Marathon Grand Championship (a trial race for next summer's competition) so both of us can implement effective security measures," the official said.

(Japanese original by Akira Matsumoto, Sports News Department; Junichi Tsuchiya, Hokkaido News Department; and Yoshikazu Takeuchi, Tokyo City News Department)

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