(CNN) — Yoshiro Mori, the president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, apologized Thursday after comments he made suggesting women talk too much during meetings were leaked to the Japanese media.

Mori, a former Prime Minister, made the comments at an Olympics board of trustees event Wednesday. When asked about the Japan Olympic Committee’s goal of increasing the number of women on its board of directors from 20% to 40%, Mori said he was concerned about how that would affect the length of meetings.

He reportedly said “board meetings with lots of women take longer” because “women are competitive — if one member raises their hand to speak, others might think they need to talk too,” according to reports in the Japanese press. “If you want to increase female membership, you would be in trouble unless you put time limits in place,” he is reported to have added.

Speaking at a news conference Thursday, 83-year-old Mori confirmed he made the remarks behind closed doors and said he was sorry for doing so.

“I recognize my comment yesterday was an inappropriate expression and went against the spirit of the Olympics and Paralympics. I profoundly regret it,” he said. “I’d like to withdraw my comment and apologize to the people whom I made to feel unpleasant.”

The comments set off an immediate firestorm in Japan, where women regularly face gender discrimination in the workplace and when seeking positions of power.

Japan’s gender gap is “by far the largest among all advanced economies,” according to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Report. The report ranked Japan 121 out of 153 countries, in part due to its findings that women only make up 5.3% of board members on listed companies and only 10% of parliamentarians, one of the lowest levels of female political representation in the world.

Mori said he was not considering stepping down, but the debacle will likely be a major distraction for the organizing committee, which faces the daunting task of putting on the Games in less than six months as Japan struggles to rein in rising coronavirus case numbers. The Summer Olympics were delayed last year due to Covid-19, and experts have said it may not be possible to postpone the event again.

A poll last month by national broadcaster NHK found that 77% of people in Japan think the games should be canceled or further postponed. Japan’s leaders have vowed the Games will be held, however. The bullish attitude comes despite rumors of their cancellation and the logistical hurdles that stand in the way of hosting such a massive event in the middle of a public health crisis.

The country’s medical system has been overwhelmed in recent days due to a spike in Covid-19 cases, with 10 hard-hit prefectures in a state of emergency. As of Wednesday, more than 8,700 people who tested positive for Covid-19 in those areas were waiting to be moved to a hospital or an isolation facility because authorities have run out of space. Some of those waiting to be moved have mild symptoms, or none at all.

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