The largest city on Japan’s northern Hokkaido Island is hosting the marathon and race walking events for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. But nearly 50 years ago, it also hosted the Olympic Winter Games 1972.
Back then, the flame was held by a young girl who skated into the arena for the Opening Ceremony. A crowd of 50,000 people celebrated as guns boomed, bands played, athletes marched and coloured balloons were released into the sky.
“Sapporo 1972 changed perceptions of winter sport in Asia,” said Yasuhiro Yamashita, President of the Japanese Olympic Committee. “It wasn’t just that Japanese athletes were now competing against Europeans and North Americans; it was also that they were competing in world-class facilities, and that they were winning.”
Until February 1972, Japan had only ever won one single medal at the Olympic Winter Games. But then Yukio Kasaya, a Japanese ski jumper, won his event and was joined on the podium by two compatriots, Akitsugu Konno and Seiji Aochi.
Even before the Games had begun, however, their impact was being felt, as they helped accelerate much-needed developments in the area. In anticipation of the Games, Japan had invested some JPY 200 billion as part of a five-year urban upgrade, from 1967 to 1971, to build a new subway and improve the local roads, as well as the Sapporo Okadama and Chitose airports.
The upgrades were long overdue. Japan had enjoyed a period of rapid economic growth in the 1960s, and people were coming to Sapporo from all over the island. By 1970, the city’s population exceeded a million people, and the pressure on transport systems was growing.
“Today, the IOC doesn’t require cities and regions to build in preparation for the Games,” says Christophe Dubi, IOC Olympic Games Executive Director. “Projects are designed to maximise legacy with sustainability at their heart. Back in the 1970s, the Olympic Games were considered an opportunity to grow cities’ brands, as was the case with Sapporo, and to accelerate the development of the infrastructure they needed.”
The new subway system eased the burden on Sapporo’s roads, which were also disrupted by snow, while upgrades to the airports eased access into the city and raised its profile in the region.
According to the Hokkaido Bureau of International Trade and Industry, Sapporo’s infrastructure investments boosted resident incomes by 3.2 per cent per year for the period 1967 to 1972.
As for the sporting facilities developed for the Games, their quality allowed Sapporo to train up future athletes, while locals and people from elsewhere in Japan had a new opportunity to use world-class ice rinks, ski slopes and ski jumps, as well as the bobsleigh and luge courses on Mount Teine.
Many of these facilities are still in use today. The Okurayama and Miyanomori ski jumping hills have hosted several FIS World Cup and World Championship events since, while Makomanai Park has become a sports centre popular with local communities. Mount Teine itself has become a popular ski destination, used twice for the Asian Winter Games since.
To learn more about the legacy of the Olympic Winter Games 1972, click here.