Games in Crisis: Olympics opening ceremony director sacked for Holocaust joke

Organisers hold up a photo of Kentaro Kobayashi. Kyodo Photo via Credit: Newscom/Alamy Live News
A photo of Kentaro Kobayashi is held up in 2019 by Tokyo 2020 organisers

The show director of the Olympics opening ceremony has been dismissed, one day before the event is due to be held. Footage of Kentaro Kobayashi from the 1990s recently emerged in which he seems to be making jokes about the Holocaust.

Japan’s Olympic chief Seiko Hashimoto said the video ridiculed “painful facts of history”. The dismissal is the latest in a string of scandals to hit the Games. It comes days after a composer quit the team creating the ceremony after it emerged he had bullied classmates with disabilities at school.

In March, creative chief Hiroshi Sasaki quit after suggesting that plus-size comedian Naomi Watanabe could appear as an “Olympig”. He later apologized. And in February, Yoshiro Mori was forced to step down as the head of the organizing committee after he made remarks about women that were criticized as “inappropriate”. Mr Mori was quoted as saying women talked too much and that meetings with many female board directors would “take a lot of time”.

This latest sandal has seen former comedian Kobayashi strongly criticised for a sketch he performed 23 years ago, in which he and another comedian pretend to be a children’s entertainers. Mr Kobayashi then turns to his colleague, referring to some paper dolls, saying they are “the ones from that time you said ‘let’s play the Holocaust'”, according to news agency AFP.

“Any person, no matter how creative, does not have the right to mock the victims of the Nazi genocide,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean and global social action director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), said. Mr Kobayashi also issued a statement responding to his dismissal.

“Entertainment should not make people feel uncomfortable. I understand that my stupid choice of words at that time was wrong, and I regret it,” it said. The scandals have done little to stop rising unease about the Games, which were postponed from last year due to the pandemic.

A Mexican player throws the ball during the opening match against Japan
Despite concerns, the first events are under way – opening on Wednesday with a softball match between Japan and Mexico

A recent poll found some 55% of people in Japan were opposed to holding the Games, amid fears it could become a super-spreader event, news agency Reuters reports. Already, organizers are dealing with rising Covid-19 case numbers among athletes and officials. On Thursday, they said 91 people accredited for the Games have now tested positive for the virus.

An increase in cases among Japan’s population – only of a third of whom have been vaccinated, has also led to a state of emergency being declared for the duration of the Games. But Tokyo 2020 is now under way, with the hosts Japan winning their softball match on Wednesday.

The opening ceremony will officially kick off two weeks of competition. However, after the removal of Mr Kobayashi, organizers are now re-assessing how to hold Friday’s event – which will only be attended by 950 people, in order to minimize risks. “With the opening ceremony being so imminent, we apologize for causing concern to those involved in the Olympics, to the citizens of Tokyo and the Japanese public,” Ms Hashimoto said in a statement.

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