Olympic Games 2020: Once-hesitant Tokyo is finally onboard with bid

Japan's capital is now in support after last year's low numbers but the 2011 earthquake and tsunami are still fresh on minds.
In this artist rendering, the new National Stadium could become the main venue for the 2020 Summer Olympics if Tokyo is chosen as the host city. AP Photo
In this artist rendering, the new National Stadium could become the main venue for the 2020 Summer Olympics if Tokyo is chosen as the host city. AP Photo

Tokyo knows better than most how an Olympic Games can rebrand a city. It did it once at the 1964 Games, shaking off a war-ravaged reputation and showing a modern face to the world.

Fifty years later, Japan's capital wants to show that it is back, showcasing a new energy and dynamism after two lost decades, by hosting the 2020 Games.

As the clock ticks down to choosing the host city and the government touts the games as everything from more stimulus for an economy tiptoeing back from economic stagnation to the final step of recovery from 2011 disasters, once-reluctant Tokyo residents are finally coming around to support them as well.

Even people like grocer Toshiyuki Utsumi, 83, who runs a tiny corner shop in the Higashi Azabu neighbourhood not far from the Tokyo Tower, an Eiffel Tower look-alike, are in favour.

"This will boost Japan in the eyes of the world," Utsumi said, sorting bananas.

But others, like neighbour Eiko Wada, are less happy.

"For the time of the Olympics, it's good – you bring in lots of people to build things," said Wada, 60, who runs a pub. "But it creates an economic bubble and after it's over, people end up out of work. That happened in 1964."

Lukewarm support was one of the factors that sank Japan's bid for the 2016 Olympics that were awarded to Rio de Janeiro. As recently as mid-2012, only 47 per cent were in favour of Tokyo hosting the 2020 games, the bid committee says.

According to a late-August poll by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, though, 74 per cent said they supported the games.

"We'd get a lot of economic benefits in this area," said Sei Hara, who runs a stationery shop in Nishi-kasai, which would host the canoe/kayak slalom. "The economy has been stagnant for a long time, so it's a good idea to do something to boost it."

Most of those opposed, like Wada, speak of wasted money.

Olympic organisers are quick to point to a US$4.5 billion (Dh16.5m) war chest already in the bank, with further support as needed promised by the government. "The games are in a safe pair of hands," said Tsunekazu Takeda, head of the Japanese Olympic Committee.

Pluses for Tokyo include the fact that 85 per cent of events will be within 8km of each other, most connected by a public transport system so reliable that conductors apologise for minor delays.

A number of venues already exist, such as sumo's hallowed Kokugikan, to be used for boxing, as well as the Budokan, built for 1964 but known now more as a concert hall.

Land for the Olympic Village, a 44-hectare plot on the Tokyo waterfront currently in use as a car park where motorcycle policemen also train, is already owned by the government.

Working against Tokyo, though, are safety concerns in one of the world's most seismically active nations, with memories of the March 2011 quake and tsunami still fresh.

Government officials have also downplayed worries about the nuclear crisis at the crippled Fukushima reactor just 200km (150 miles) north of Tokyo. On August 26, chief government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said it would have no effect on the bid to bring the games.

Tokyo beat Detroit, Vienna and Brussels to host the 1964 games that are remembered with such pride that the anniversary of their October 10 opening is a national holiday.

A building boom transformed Tokyo before the games, the high-speed Shinkansen train began to run and a growing middle class snapped up refrigerators and other appliances, including televisions to watch the games.

"Tokyo was turned absolutely upside down," said Ayako Abe, a social commentator who was a university student in 1964.

"Tram lines disappeared and they buried rivers in concrete to build highways, which has led to hotter summers. But it really got the country going as a consumer society."

To produce a lasting legacy of the games this time requires a long-range vision that some are unsure exists.

"Even just campaigning for the Olympics means you have to use a lot of money," said civil servant Shuji Nakajima, 27. "If it succeeds, that's fine, but if it doesn't, the money's gone."

Tokyo planners may have their eyes on making the games a technological show, highlighting advances in disaster prevention and environmental sectors like alternative energy, Sakai said.

"But there needs to be a much more comprehensive plan to sell Tokyo and sell Japan, to bring businesses here, bring tourists here," he said.

"If the goal is only to host the Olympics, I think they should just give up."


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Published: September 5, 2013 04:00 AM


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