Tokyo Olympics chief Yoshiro Mori resigned Friday after making derogatory remarks about women last week, in yet another complication for a games already imperiled by the coronavirus pandemic.
With less than six months until the Olympics are due to begin in the Japanese capital, the leadership transition at the organizing committee will take place amid lingering uncertainty over whether the postponed games will go ahead at all. But who will be Mori's successor is still not clear.
"What is important is to hold the Olympics in July, so I cannot stand in the way of preparations," Mori, 83, head of the committee since 2014, said when he made the announcement at a special meeting of its executives. "If I cause trouble by remaining in the job, our efforts will all be wasted."
However, Mori said he had not intended to demean women, saying the comments were "a matter of interpretation," and blamed the media for fueling public anger.
Attention has now shifted to who will be the organizing committee's new president. Toshiro Muto, the body's CEO, told a press conference it will choose Mori's successor "as soon as possible" but did not specify a deadline.
To ensure transparency in the screening process, Muto said a selection panel led by Fujio Mitarai, chairman of Canon Inc., who also serves as honorary president of the organizing committee, will be established.
Asked about the qualities the committee will be looking for in a new leader, Muto said experience with the Olympics or Paralympics and an understanding of diversity and gender equality would be desirable.
Olympics minister Seiko Hashimoto is being considered as one of the candidates to replace Mori, an official familiar with the situation said. But the 56-year-old former Olympian denied any request has been made to her.
"The government will make further efforts to restore trust and firmly disseminate the big concept of diversity and harmony, both domestically and internationally," Hashimoto said at a press conference.
Saburo Kawabuchi, a former head of the Japan Football Association and a councillor of the committee, told reporters on Thursday he was asked by Mori to take over as the head of the committee.
But the prospect of a new president being selected without much debate and behind closed doors drew criticism and calls for greater transparency in the process.
Kawabuchi said Friday that he would not accept the request and wants the new president to "make the utmost efforts" in the lead up to the games, in a sharp turnaround from his comments the previous day.
In his first public comments on Mori's resignation, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told reporters that he believes the next Olympics chief will be decided "with transparency based on rules. The government hopes that a new organization, which will be welcomed by people in the world, will be created as soon as possible."
In a press conference, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike also called for "transparency" in the selection process.
Mori said at a Japanese Olympic Committee gathering on Feb. 3 that meetings with many female participants "drag on" as women have a tendency to talk too much.
He apologized and retracted the comments the following day but said he would not resign, and public anger and debate about gender equality have intensified since then.
Mori's comments were made in reference to the JOC's plan to increase the number of women on its board.
He also said in his roughly 40-minute speech that seven women on the 35-member board of the organizing committee "understand their place" -- apparently exempting them from his claim about women in general -- and that their remarks are "to the point and extremely useful."
The International Olympic Committee initially said the controversy was closed after Mori apologized, but it issued a fresh statement Tuesday calling the remarks "absolutely inappropriate."
Following Mori's resignation, IOC President Thomas Bach said the organization "fully respects" his decision to step down and "understands his reasons for doing so."
Bach said the IOC will "continue working hand-in-hand with his successor," adding that Mori's ability to cooperate during his time as chief of the Japanese organizing committee had been "outstanding."
The International Paralympic Committee issued a similar statement.
Mori's resignation came as the organizing committee nears the final stages of preparations. The domestic leg of the torch relay is scheduled to begin next month. A series of test events, which are held to allow the organizers to review their operations, is scheduled to take place in the spring.
The sexism row has undermined the image of the games, whose fate hinges on whether the number of coronavirus infections falls sufficiently around the world, although Olympic and Japanese government officials have insisted that the games will go ahead as scheduled regardless of the situation.
A Kyodo News survey conducted over the weekend found that 47.1 percent think the Olympics and Paralympics should be postponed again due to the coronavirus pandemic, while 35.2 percent believe the games should be canceled. Just 14.5 percent said they should be held as planned.