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Games left Nagano in debt

City's Olympic legacy may also include scandal

NAGANO, Japan — Thanks to the 1998 Winter Games, residents of this long-isolated city became more confident around foreigners and better connected to the rest of Japan.

Yet the Olympics have also left behind a legacy of debt due to the staggering cost of maintaining the stunning but seldom-used facilities built to welcome the world to the prefectural capital of the relatively rural, mountain region known as the "Roof of Japan."

Now, that legacy may include scandal.

There was talk of Olympic wrongdoing here long before Salt Lake bidders were accused of corruption. Local activists went so far as to take Nagano Olympic officials to court in the early 1990s, claiming the use of public funds for the bid was illegal.

But the bid committee's records couldn't be found, and the Japanese courts rejected the claim.

The mystery of the missing bid records was largely ignored by the international media until the Salt Lake scandal surfaced in late 1998, a month after the Games ended here.

Now, the new governor of the prefecture, or Japanese state, is promising to take another look at what it took to win the votes of the International Olympic Committee. Nagano's chief rival for the 1998 Games, Salt Lake City, has claimed that the Japanese gave the IOC lavish gifts.

What's been uncovered about the bid so far is that the records were burned. The new governor, Yasuo Tanaka, declined a request for an interview. His actions are being closely watched by the same local activists who have been trying to get answers for nearly a decade.

Masao Ezawa, a craftsman and head of the Anti-Olympic People's Network, worries that Tanaka received financial support in his campaign for governor from some of the same business leaders who were major backers of the bid.

"How can Mr. Tanaka be critical about the Olympics or investigate the missing account books in this situation? However, I have not yet lost hope in him," Ezawa said through Sister Monica Nakamura, a Catholic nun who is also active in the anti-Olympic effort.

Ezawa believes that Tanaka, who until the election was best known for a monthly magazine column describing his dating exploits, won because he pledged to investigate the bid and because he told voters the Olympics brought debt rather than economic benefit to Nagano.

Of course, Olympic organizers feel differently.

Makoto Kobayashi, the director general of the Nagano Organizing Committee who considered a run for governor himself, said he believes that there won't be any further investigation into the bid.

"I think all those things are finished," he said through a translator.

And, Kobayashi said, Nagano citizens benefited plenty from the Games. "The name of Nagano is well-recognized in the world," he said. "The citizens of Nagano supported the Games with their effort, and they became more confident."

In addition to confidence, Kobayashi said Nagano citizens also gained faster access to Tokyo via a new highway and bullet train line. Without the Olympics, he said it could have taken another 15 years or more to get national government funding for the projects.

But taxpayers in this small city have had to struggle with the expense of maintaining competition sites and other facilities built for the Olympics. The cost is reportedly more than $12 million a year.

Their massive scale, combined with architectural details like gigantic concrete chrysanthemum petals, were visually stunning to visitors and viewers during the Games but now seem strangely out of place.

For example, a flying saucer-shaped, shiny steel arena in the middle of a modest residential neighborhood that two years ago showcased the world's best ice skaters is now a wood-floored community recreation center.

Another arena used for skating and hockey during the Games now houses a swimming pool. A massive hall that served as a press center is now a supermarket. The downtown plaza where ceremonies were held nightly to award athlete medals is a parking lot.

And the concrete "petals," which adorned the opening and closing ceremonies stadium? Some were removed in a remodeling project, but the seldom-used baseball stadium still sort of looks like an opening flower from most angles.

There is already some talk about shutting down the bobsled and luge track located in the mountains above Nagano. The facility is closed all but two months of the year and is not accessible to visitors via public transportation.

While Nagano has been able to attract some national and international sporting events, Japan's elite athletes still prefer Sapporo, the city to the north that hosted the 1972 Winter Games.

Still, many locals say they believe the billion-dollar plus investment in the Games made by city, prefectural and national taxpayers was worth it. The true value of inviting the world to Nagano, they said, was exposing their children to international cultures.

Ezawa disagrees. "It must be an illusion if some Nagano citizens felt that they became more comfortable with outsiders because of the Olympics," he said. "Their experience was far from a real understanding of the outsiders."

Foreign workers hired to help build Olympic facilities were forced to leave in late 1997, Ezawa said. "They were were pushed out as nuisances for 'the internationalization' of the Olympics," he said.

Salt Lake can avoid some of the bad feelings Ezawa said the Olympics left in Nagano by listening to critics. Rejecting the concerns of Olympic opponents, he said, "was the biggest crime committed" by Nagano's organizers.

Not surprisingly, Kobayashi, who is now spending most of his time in Tokyo tending to business interests and helping to organize the upcoming soccer World Cup, had very different advice.

"I feel sorry about the negative news about (Salt Lake's bid), but as the time comes close to the Olympic Games, nobody will care much," Kobayashi said. "I hope you will be more confident. You should delete those negative comments by having a good Olympics."