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OLYMPICS | Sapporo’s Contributions: Beautiful City, Fast Games, Slow Vaccinations

Sapporo is hosting the Olympic marathons and walking races. The city is no stranger to the Olympics. In 1972 it staged the first Winter Games in Asia – with huge success. This time, however, the situation is more complex.

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SAPPORO, Hokkaido – Fences are up on Sapporo’s Odori Park, the green oasis in the center of town. Tents, containers and strange structures are now standing where people usually gather to enjoy sunshine and the occasional Sapporo Classic beer. 

Sapporo will host the Olympic marathons (the women’s race is on August 7, the men’s is the next day), the Olympic race walking events and eight soccer matches. Although the city is some 1,100 kilometers away from Tokyo, the competitions will be billed as the Tokyo Olympics 2020. And Odori Park will be the venue for walking and running. 

Sapporo, on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido, has been selected to stage the events because it offers better climatic conditions than Tokyo’s oppressive summer heat. However, Sapporo’s cooler climate was not the only consideration. The city is still eyeing to play host to the Winter Olympics, maybe in 2026 or 2030. It hopes that staging the Olympic marathon will increase its chances. 

But as three blocks of trees and flowerbeds on Odori Park have disappeared from view, the mood in Sapporo is far from cheerful. “I really hope the marathon gets canceled,” says Hiroya, an English lecturer at a local university. 

Notice About Construction Work Related to Olympic Games

Sapporo was one of the first places to be hit by the pandemic in winter 2020. It has not fared particularly well in 2021 either and was under a state of emergency request until recently. Hiroya’s English classes, which were held online for months, have just moved back to the classroom at the end June. 

Hiroya is still not vaccinated against the coronavirus and feels uneasy. Like many others in Sapporo he is still waiting for a voucher. “It’s not safe to hold the marathon here,” he says. 

Nanaho, his girlfriend, works at another university that serves as a support station for the Olympic marathon. She is also concerned about the safety of the event. “Thankfully, it is in August when the students have holidays and we don’t hold any classes,” she says. 

Ready – or Not

While the vaccination drive in Hokkaido has been slow, the city of Sapporo has managed to go even slower. At the beginning of July, less than 20 percent of Sapporo’s residents had received a corona-shot. Only a quarter of all inhabitants over 65 are fully vaccinated. The city is still sending out vaccination vouchers to the people over 65 years. Vouchers for people between 60 and 64 are expected to get mailed by mid-July, while vaccinations for this age group are supposed to start in late July or early August, according to the city. 

Landscape Views in Sapporo

As Olympic volunteers have been given priority in recent days, the city is now running low on vaccine supply and might actually have to suspend its vaccination drive. Hiroya, who is in his 40s, does not know when his voucher will arrive. While infection cases in Sapporo have been decreasing, the National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID) has recently warned that the occupancy rates of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients in Sapporo remains high. 

Bi Kim, a student from South Korea, has only just received her first coronavirus shot. Kim, who has just passed her N1-Japanese Language Proficiency Test, is working part time at the Prince Hotel, where most athletes, delegates and organizers for the Games will be staying from next week on. 

Kim expects to get her second vaccine dose at the end of July. She will be fully vaccinated two weeks after that ー by the time the marathon and Olympics are over. “I am happy I could get a vaccination,” says the 26-year-old. 

The Marathon Course

Sapporo’s Olympic marathon route resembles the course of the Hokkaido marathon, which is held every August. Runners will start at Odori Park, pass TV tower and follow the course south, along the Toyohira River, then turn backwards toward the city center and Hokkaido University to finish the race at Odori Park. 

The route features a large loop which is about the length of a half-marathon, followed by a second smaller loop which will be completed twice. This is probably to reduce costs for security of the race. Bridges over the Toyohira River have already been spruced up with a fresh coat of color. 

“Now people are pretty negative, but as the event gets closer, they will get more excited,” predicts Yujiro Nakamura, a ski instructor. The marathon runners will pass close by Yujiro’s house in the southern part of the city and he plans to find a place that is not too crowded to watch the runners.

However, the Tokyo 2020 Press Office sent a statement to media on Friday, July 9, advising that: “Members of the public have already been requested to refrain from spectating along the route of the Olympic Marathon and Race Walk events in Sapporo.” Therefore, it remains to be seen whether people in Sapporo will be able to see much of the marathons and the walking races. At a mock test in May, staff with cardboards walked around the venue at Odori Park asking spectators not to linger. 

Veteran Olympic City Looks to Make an Impact

Sapporo is no stranger to Olympic events. In fact, the city hosted the first Winter Olympics outside of Europe and North America in 1972. The Games proved a huge success for Japan and Sapporo. 

In 1972 Sapporo staged the first Winter Games in Asia – with huge success.

The impact of the Games is still visible today in the city. In preparation for those first Games, Sapporo city underwent massive changes. The Japanese national government invested some $500 million USD in upgrades, including a new subway system. 

The first trains ran between Sapporo Station and Makomanai, one of the main sites of the Winter Games in the south, which featured a new stadium, an ice rink, the Olympic village and a press center. Today, the Olympic village is a quiet, residential area with views of the mountains. Only the clock tower in front Makomanai Station, which bears the names of all gold medalists, pays tribute to Sapporo´s Olympic history. 

This time around, the Games are not expected to change the physical design of the city. However, people still hope they will have an impact. 

Masashi Abe, honorary director of the Sapporo Olympic Museum, believes the Tokyo Olympics can be a success. “It will be the best opportunity to show the beauty of Sapporo to the world,” he effuses. 

Abe is a former Nordic combined athlete, a competition that incorporates ski jumping and cross-country skiing. He won Olympic gold for Japan in the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer in 1994. At 55, he is still very active in sports and runs marathons in his free time. 

“I think the Olympic marathon will have a positive effect on Sapporo,” he says.

Others are less convinced.

“I really doubt that Sapporo will hold the Winter Olympics again after the controversy over the Tokyo Olympics,” says Hiroya. 

Author: Agnes Tandler (Sapporo) 

Agnes Tandler has been working as a foreign correspondent in Asia for more than 15 years. Since the start of the pandemic in 2020 she has been reporting on COVID-19 for a daily healthcare newsletter in Germany. In addition to Japan and Germany, she has been based in Thailand, India, and the UAE. She has covered health, society, the economy, wars and conflicts in those countries and in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. She holds a PhD in the history of science from the European University Institute in Florence, Italy and a MA in political science from the Free University of Berlin, Germany.