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Nagano headaches ominous sign for future Olympics

July 18, 1997

YOKOHAMA, Japan (AP) _ The Tokyo Games of 1964 were a symbol of Japan’s recovery from the devastation of World War II; the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics were proof of Japan’s arrival as an economic powerhouse.

But as yet another Olympics heads for Japan, officials in host city Nagano aren’t basking in the respect of their countrymen but floundering in a sea of disputes.

And that’s not the worst of it.

Nagano’s headaches are beginning to look contagious _ and threaten to have serious implications for billion-dollar bids by two Japanese cities vying furiously to get the Summer Games in 2008.

In Nagano, where the 1998 Winter Games begin Feb. 7, high-profile arguments continue over many issues, from the impact of the Olympics on the environment to the burden on taxpayers.

Hoping to get out of their rut, Nagano officials have hired a new publicity chief and are getting lessons on public relations from specialists in the United States.

As they approach the 200-days-to-go mark on July 21, organizers do have some cause to celebrate. According to the latest count, more than 70 countries have signed up to participate in the games, which are expected to be the largest Winter Olympics ever. Tickets are reportedly selling well.

But media coverage so far has been so negative that Olympic advocates fear more bungling in Nagano could hurt a Japanese bid for 2008, which is already shaping up to be one of the most hotly contested Olympics ever.

The two Japanese hopefuls for 2008 are Yokohama, a port city just south of Tokyo, and Osaka, a major metropolis in western Japan. The Japan Olympic Committee is expected to select one of the two next month. The final vote to decide the venue is five years away.

Yokohama city officials, however, are fighting unexpectedly strong opposition _ much of it fanned by concerns over the troubles dogging Nagano.

``There has been an increase in opposition here as more people see the banners around town and realize Yokohama is making a bid,″ city councilwoman Rinko Umeno said.

``The main question is whether the Olympics are really something we want to spend our money on,″ she said.

Yokohama’s leaders _ who have already put $14 million into their bid _ got a much-worse-than-expected reaction to plans to turn one of the city’s premier parks into the 2008 Olympic equestrian venue.

City officials say the plan would involve extensive changes to the park and a seven-month closure. They claim that once the games are over the park will be restored to its original condition.

``I don’t think they have really thought seriously about whether that is even possible,″ said Yokohama resident Nori Wada, leader of a group that has gathered nearly 16,000 signatures on a petition opposing the plans.

The rising opposition reflects larger questions about the public’s assessment of the value of the Olympics to begin with.

More confident in their international role, the Japanese have less to prove to the world and less need to borrow Olympic prestige, Umeno said.

``I can’t see any reason why we need the Olympics,″ she said. ``Having the games in South Africa or some other Asian city would seem much more meaningful.″

Even so, Japan’s infatuation with the Olympics runs deep. The Tokyo Games were the first Olympics ever held in Asia. Sapporo was the first Asian venue to play host to the Winter Olympics.

With Nagano, Japan trails only the United States and France as the most frequent Olympic host.

The road to Nagano, however, has been full of potholes.

Shortly after winning the games, Japan’s economy slowed and Nagano backed away from a promise to cover airfare and other expenses of visiting officials and athletes.

The city has since been fighting environmental groups that claim the games will harm the area’s alpine countryside, politicians who warn of post-games costs and international sports organizations that have complained about the venues and hotels.

The International Olympic Committee picks the host of the 2004 Summer Games in September, with Athens, Greece; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Cape Town, South Africa; Stockholm, Sweden; and Rome as the finalists.

The losers in that race are expected to run again for 2008, along with expected bids from London; Oslo, Norway; Pusan, South Korea; Dublin, Ireland; Madrid, Spain; Copenhagen, Denmark; Paris; Toronto; and Vancouver. Beijing or another city in China could also enter, and that bid probably would become the front-runner.

End Adv for release weekend editions, July 19-20.

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