Philip Barker

This week, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach has been in Tokyo for the first time since the pandemic.

It may well prove his most significant visit to the city.

It is certainly the first for which any IOC President has been obliged to enter quarantine.

IOC spokesman Mark Adams confirmed that even before travelling, the IOC President and his party had been "already subject to additional isolation for several days, in order to further minimise any coronavirus related risks."

Once in Tokyo, Bach wore a white facemask emblazoned with the five Olympic rings when pictured with the new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and in meetings with Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike.

Most other IOC Presidents have made their way to the city at least once in the years since Japan first became part of the Olympic Movement but where Bach will only spend four days, the first and most controversial visit by an IOC President lasted almost three weeks.

It came in 1936, shortly before the IOC were about to vote on the host city for the 1940 Olympics.

In Tokyo, they were putting the finishing touches to a bid for the Games which were timed to coincide with the 2600th anniversary of the first Japanese emperor Jimmu.

They had secured agreement from Italian dictator Benito Mussolini that he would defer a bid from Rome until 1944, but the Finnish capital of Helsinki was still in the running for 1940.

In those days there was no such thing as an IOC Evaluation Commission, but the Japanese invited the IOC President to Tokyo. It later emerged that the suggestion had come in part from William Garland, IOC member in the United States.

Scholar Sandra Collins has written extensively on the 1940 Tokyo Games and suggests: "The highly controversial nature of the inspection tour required the utmost discretion of the Japanese Government and the IOC President."

Great pains were taken to indicate that this was not an official visit. Even so, it was funded by the Japanese Foreign Ministry, apparently to the tune of JPY15,000 ($144,000/£108,000/€121,000).

IOC President Thomas Bach met with Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga during his visit to Tokyo ©IOC
IOC President Thomas Bach met with Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga during his visit to Tokyo ©IOC

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, IOC President in the formative years of the Olympic Movement, had even written to the Japanese consulate in Geneva.

"I make the promise to you that the utmost discretion will be kept around his trip."

Much later, the Tokyo 1940 Organising Committee produced a detailed record of their work.

"On March 20 1936, Count de Baillet-Latour, President of the International Olympic Committee, paid a visit to Japan in a private capacity and, throughout his sojourn of three weeks, inspected various sports stadiums and facilities."

He was also received by Emperor Hirohito.

There seems little doubt that an excellent impression was created by the President’s "private" visit.

Where Japanese officials had previously written that Baillet-Latour was "sympathetic towards Japan only as a curious object of exoticism", the minutes of the IOC Session that summer in Berlin recorded that he nailed his colours to the Tokyo mast before the host city election.

"The President was able to convince himself of the true situation in the country. The sporting Olympic spirit has penetrated into all classes of the population. 

"The youth not only take part in sport, but appreciate the moral character that accompanies it. The purely unselfish sporting spirit is manifest.

"The President feels justified in recommending Tokyo to the choice of his colleagues, a choice which would mean the extension of the Olympic ideals to this part of the world.”

It was estimated that the average journey time to Japan from the West at that time was 17 days. As Japanese competitors had discovered when they travelled to Europe for Olympic Games, the journey was not exactly straightforward.

The Japanese felt obliged to set aside JPY1.5million ($1,440/£1,080/€1,210) for a travel grant to the competing nations.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach pictured during his recent visit to Tokyo ©Tokyo 2020/Shugo Takemi
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach pictured during his recent visit to Tokyo ©Tokyo 2020/Shugo Takemi

Coubertin himself, delighted with the decision, said that the Games in Tokyo would "combine Hellenism, the most precious civilisation of ancient Europe with the refined culture and art of Asia."

He had come into contact with sporting authorities in Tokyo almost 30 years before. 

Anxious to spread his Olympic ideas in Asia, he had contacted Auguste Gerard, the French ambassador.

In Tokyo, Gerard was an old school friend and recommended Jigoro Kano, an eminent figure in judo as the most suitable candidate to become the first IOC Member in Japan.

Kano was duly co-opted at the 1909 IOC Session in Berlin and responded to Coubertin: "It is with genuine pleasure that I received your communication of my having been unanimously elected."

To assist with his mission, Coubertin sent Kano copies of the Olympic Review and his book "A Campaign of 25 Years”, but the two men did not meet face to face until the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.

This had involved a journey of over a fortnight and it was not until air travel became the norm that Tokyo became more accessible for the Olympic family.

In 1958, Tokyo finally staged an IOC meeting for the first time.

In any case IOC President Avery Brundage was no stranger to the city. As an enthusiastic and wealthy collector of Oriental art, he had made a private visit in the pre-war years as the guest of Count Soyeshima, then an IOC Member.

When he returned it was as leader of the Olympic Movement.

At the opening of the Session, Brundage told the gathering: "East is East, West is West, and never the twain shall meet it is said, but they do meet on the same terms, under the same rules, in friendly competition on the athletic field, with great advantage to both."

Brundage was among those who stayed on after the Session to attend the Asian Games. The organisation of both projected a very positive impression of Japan as a modern nation.

Brundage told reporters: "With what has been learnt on these occasions and in the light of a natural efficiency of the Japanese, I am sure Japan is prepared to organise an even greater international event such as the Olympic Games."

Former IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch became one of the most travelled sports administrators ©Getty Images
Former IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch became one of the most travelled sports administrators ©Getty Images

Tokyo were indeed crowned as 1964 Olympic hosts.

The Olympic world returned to Japan in 1972 for the Winter Games in Sapporo. Amongst the members of the IOC were two future Presidents. Lord Killanin and Juan Antonio Samaranch.

When Samaranch took over the leadership of the Olympic Movement in 1980, he set about visiting as many member nations as possible and soon became the most travelled of sporting administrators. In 1982 he visited Tokyo for the first time as leader of the Olympic Movement.

Whilst there he presented the Olympic Order to Hideko Hyodo, the first Japanese woman to win Olympic gold. She had won 200m breaststroke gold in 1936.

"She has been particularly devoted to ‘Olympism," said the citation.

When Samaranch returned to Tokyo in 1990, it was for the Session which decided on the destiny of the "Centennial Games."

Some 23 years later, it fell to Samaranch’s successor Jacques Rogge, like Baillet Latour a Belgian, to announce that Tokyo was once again to host the Olympics at the IOC Session in Buenos Aires.

Bach’s latest trip has been described as "campaigning" and cheerleading in some media and by his own admission, he hopes the visit will "give even more confidence to athletes about a safe environment."

He has been joined by Australian John Coates, Chairman of the Coordination Commission and after his conversations with Prime Minister Suga, Bach insisted: "This makes us all very, very confident we can have spectators in the Olympic Stadium next year."

Bach walked in the stadium and admitted "it has a lot of atmosphere already."

He also visited the Olympic Village where he was welcomed by triathlete Ai Ueda and para badminton star Sarina Satomi.

The medical facilities within the Village will assume a greater relevance than normal next year.

Bach is expected to continue the tradition and spend a night in the Village as the Games approach.

The IOC group have been confronted by protesters who used megaphones to shout "cancel Olympics."

Bach has said he hopes his visit will "change minds."