Osaka aims for 2008 Olympics under Nagano's cloud

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Young men pounded traditional "taiko" drums and the crowd sang a tune praising the Olympics. Athletes recalled the glory of matching talents with the best in the world.

Osaka, Japan's second-largest metropolitan area, wants to hold the 2008 Summer Olympics. The city began a campaign for the games last month with a festive ceremony, proclaiming itself an international "sports paradise."

But Osaka faces another challenge: avoiding the accusations of corruption that plagued Nagano, the last Japanese city to hold an Olympics.

"We will work to get the Olympics fair and square in a clean manner," Osaka Mayor Takafumi Isomura pledged at the bid ceremony.

Scandal aside, Osaka has a tough road ahead. There are nine other applicants - Beijing, the early favorite; Bangkok, Thailand; Cairo, Egypt; Havana; Istanbul, Turkey; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Paris; Seville, Spain; and Toronto.

The executive board of the International Olympic Committee will pare the list to four or five "official bidders" at an August 28-29 meeting. The winner will be chosen in July 2001.

The experience of Nagano, the 1998 Winter Olympics host, was bitter for Japan. The games' euphoria was followed by widespread accusations of inappropriate wining and dining of visiting IOC officials.

An inquiry by the Japanese Olympic Committee turned up no evidence of wrongdoing, but critics said the results were compromised by the inclusion of members of the Nagano bidding committee on the investigative team.

The investigation also was stymied because the bid committee burned all records about how Nagano's winning campaign was conducted.

The doubts about Nagano were part of a wider bribery scandal that engulfed Salt Lake City over money, gifts and scholarships given to IOC members by organisers before their successful bid for the 2002 Winter Games.

Ten IOC members were expelled or forced to resign for their part in the scandal and the IOC set up new rules, including banning its members from visiting bid cities.

Despite the new rules, the money Osaka is planning on spending for the Olympics already is drawing attention to the city about 250 miles west of Tokyo.

Critics accuse Osaka of using the Olympics as a pretext for pork-barrel construction projects, and one group recently filed a request for an audit of all games-related spending.

The city expects the cumulative bill for its bid committee to reach $25 million by the end of next year. Officials also plan to spend another dlrs 760 million on Olympics-related facilities, including a stadium and pool.

Early skepticism has concentrated on another costly project: a $1.8 billion subway line linking the city with Olympics facilities on artificial islands in the bay.

Critics accuse the city of moving up the starting date of construction of the line from 2005 to this year so it coincides with the Olympics bid, making it easier to get approval for the spending.

"They're using the Olympics bid as an excuse for a lot of construction," said Yutaka Kuwagaki, a leader of We Don't Need the Osaka Olympics. "And they're going to use an awful lot of money - that's the goal."

While city officials acknowledge they are eager to start building the subway soon so that it will be done for the Olympics, they insist the city's needs - not the Olympics - are the main impetus behind the project.

"Even without the Olympics, the islands need the subway as part of their town planning," said Shunji Oue, an official at Osaka's Port Planning Division.

While the Osaka bid heats up, the legacy of Nagano persists.

IOC vice president Anita DeFrantz acknowledged last month that she accepted a gold and garnet necklace from the wife of a Nagano bid committee member in 1990. DeFrantz said the necklace was a personal gift and had nothing to do with the Olympics.

Kaoru Iwata, head of a group that filed a failed lawsuit against Nagano over the taxpayer money used in the bid, said he doubted officials learned their lesson from Nagano.

"Japan has the mistaken notion that you can do everything by spending money," he said.