Nancy Gillen

As speculation surrounding the staging of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games continues, the last thing organisers needed was to find themselves embroiled in a sexism row.

It must be all the more frustrating that the person who sparked the controversy is the one supposedly in charge - Yoshirō Mori. The Tokyo 2020 President, it must be said, is no stranger to embarrassing public gaffes. He has committed a litany throughout his career, including during his time as Japanese Prime Minister in 2000 and 2001.

This time, during a conversation about female representation at a Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) meeting, Mori suggested women talk too much.

"On boards with a lot of women, the meetings take so much time,” he said, according to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. "When you increase the number of female executive members, if their speaking time isn't restricted to a certain extent, they have difficulty finishing, which is annoying.

"Women have a strong sense of competition. If one person raises their hand, others probably think, I need to say something too. That’s why everyone speaks.

"You have to regulate speaking time to some extent, or else we would never finish."

Yoshirō Mori apologised for his comments during a press conference last week ©Getty Images
Yoshirō Mori apologised for his comments during a press conference last week ©Getty Images

Mori has not denied making the comments and subsequently said he was "deeply sorry" during a hastily arranged press conference last week. Despite the apology, he then seemed to worsen the situation when asked whether he did actually think women talked too much. "I don't listen to women that much lately so I don't know," he said.

As it stands, the 83-year-old looks set to remain at the helm of Tokyo 2020. In a statement, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it considers the "issue closed" following Mori’s apology, while the man himself has claimed he wanted to resign but was convinced otherwise by colleagues such as Tokyo 2020 chief executive Toshirō Mutō.

"When I looked around, those who didn't say anything were all crying," Mori is quoted as saying by the Mainichi Shimbun. "What struck home most were Mr. Mutō 's words - 'if you step down as President, what would become of this organisation of 5,000 people?'"

Perhaps both the IOC and Tokyo 2020 officials underestimated the anger and hurt Mori’s words would cause. Maybe they thought the furore would die down in a matter of days. In fact, the issue is far from closed.

As the comments made international headlines and the criticism of Mori grew, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike described the situation as a "major issue" for the Olympic and Paralympic Games and said she had been "struck speechless" by the words of her colleague.  

It seems as though more than 130,000 people feel the same way. At the time of writing, that was the number of signatures on a petition urging for action against Mori. 

The petition has three main points of action, first calling for the JOC, Japanese Government, Tokyo Metropolitan Government and Tokyo 2020 to "properly address" Mori’s behaviour. It also asks Tokyo 2020 to adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards gender discrimination and ensure women make up at least 40 per cent of Executive Board members.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said she was
Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said she was "struck speechless" by Yoshirō Mori's remarks ©Getty Images

There are currently only seven female Executive Board members out of the 36 names listed on the Tokyo 2020 website. The JOC is also lacking in female representation with five women on its 24-member Executive Board.

Whether the petition has any success in achieving its objectives is yet to be seen, but the number of signatures show that Mori’s comments will not simply be forgotten.

Indeed, if Mori remains in his position as President, the damage will be twofold.

Firstly, it will be damaging for the image of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The event has already lost a lot of popularity among Japanese residents since it was postponed in March, likely to be a result of rising costs and the potential risks to public health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Kyodo News survey in January found 80 per cent of Japanese people wanted the Games to be cancelled or postponed, for example. More than 35 per cent of those surveyed called for the cancellation of the Games and 44.8 per cent said there should be another postponement.

Kyodo News has since conducted another poll on more than 1,000 people, this time on Mori’s comments. Nearly 60 per cent of respondents said they felt he was no longer fit to serve as Tokyo 2020 President, with only 6.8 per cent arguing he should stay in the role.

Evidently, Mori’s comments have seemed to add to the negative attitude towards Tokyo 2020 within Japan. The remarks also caused shockwaves internationally. There is the danger of the Games becoming associated with sexist and ignorant comments if action is not taken.

Naomi Osaka is among the high-profile people in Japan to have criticised the Tokyo 2020 President ©Getty Images
Naomi Osaka is among the high-profile people in Japan to have criticised the Tokyo 2020 President ©Getty Images

Secondly, inaction would also cause substantial damage to the IOC’s aim of promoting gender equality.

"As the leader of the Olympic Movement, the IOC has an important responsibility to take action when it comes to gender equality - a basic human right of profound importance and a fundamental principle of the Olympic Charter," the IOC website reads. 

"Great progress has been made in promoting gender equality in terms of balancing the total number of athletes participating at the Games, offering leadership development, advocacy and awareness campaigns, and more recently appointing more women to leadership roles within the administration and governance."

Indeed, the IOC is always keen to promote the ways in which it has increased female representation, whether that is achieving a 50-50 gender split on the programme for the Paris 2024 Olympics or welcoming more women to IOC membership.

But what happens when a key and influential figure in the Olympic world makes discriminatory comments against women? Through his remarks, Mori suggested women were unwelcome in sports administration and governance, directly undermining attempts to increase female representation in these areas. The IOC claims it has an "important responsibility to take action when it comes to gender equality", but instead responded to Mori’s comments with a dismissive "issue closed".

If Mori remains in place, would anyone be able to take the IOC’s drive for gender equality seriously? The situation is already severely undermining the organisation’s pledge to make more women feel accepted and appreciated in sport. 

It will be interesting to see how the situation unfolds in the coming days and weeks, and whether Mori manages to stay in charge of the upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games in the Japanese capital. If he does, the image of both Tokyo 2020 and the IOC will be damaged for many around the world.