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Olympic hurdles: Learning from European successes and failures

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Tokyo’s bid to host the 2016 Olympics was sunk by indifference. After years of rising economic insecurity and public debt, residents here were lukewarm about hosting the world’s costliest sporting extravaganza.

It took disaster to rekindle Tokyo’s passion for the Games: The International Olympic Committee (IOC) noted that the fresh bid was backed by 70% of the city’s population, up 14 percentage points from the period before the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

There was another reason for the successful bid: London. Japanese Olympic officials have repeatedly expressed admiration for the inspirational and efficient 2012 Games. Tokyo hired the same UK-based agency that handled London’s PR to bat for the Japanese capital at the IOC. Tokyo’s then-governor, Naoki Inose, acknowledged the influence of the British capital after his city won. “I saw first-hand how they inspired people all over the world,” he said.

Tokyo’s government has sold the idea that the 2020 Games will help Japan recover — and many believe it. But the government also said the Games would pay for themselves — and that’s being optimistic. Not a single Olympics since 1960 has met its cost target. The average overrun has been 179%. And Japan included: the 1964 Games cost multiple times more than the Rome Olympics in 1960, and triggered the beginning of Japan’s addiction to bond issuance that we live with to this day.

There are already signs of trouble. Japan’s original estimate of ¥455.4 billion is now widely considered too low. The budget did not factor in the inflationary impact of Abenomics on construction and labour costs, or this year’s consumption tax hike of 3%. Japan’s media says the city’s new calculations show the Tokyo government’s share of the costs (for building or renovating 12 facilities) is likely to be more than double its first estimate of ¥153.8 billion.

The real prospect of overrun has set up a contest between two competing versions of Tokyo in 2020. Governor Yoichi Masuzoe promised to make Tokyo the planet’s No. 1 city by the time the Olympic juggernaut rolls into town. Much like 1959–64, city planners want to use the Games as a launch pad for a great leap forward, pushing through long-delayed projects and elbowing aside obstacles. “The preparations for the Tokyo Games will act as a catalyst for a stronger economy,” Masuzoe said in his first speech to the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly.

The plans include a million hydrogen-powered Tokyo households, new luxury hotels and railway lines connecting an expanded Haneda Airport. An “Olympics road” will connect the Tokyo waterfront — where most of the new facilities will be located — to Toranomon. Mori Building — which operates the Toranomon Hills complex — will remake much of Azabu and Roppongi. Mitsui will remodel part of Ginza, Hibiya and Nihonbashi. Mitsubishi Estate also has plans for Otemachi and Marunouchi.

This growth spurt risks creating a mishmash of competing plans — with no clear vision. Hiroo Ichikawa, professor of Urban Policy at Meiji University, is one of many experts who want to create a new Cabinet post of Olympics minister to coordinate 2020. “History has taught us that the relative strength of a nation hinges largely on whether it has a major metropolis that can serve as a nucleus of growth, and how that city compares with others around the world.”

Tokyo must survive as a competitive global city, he says.

But attempting to mimic the 1964 Olympics would be a “nightmare”, insists Kengo Kuma, one of Japan’s most revered architects. He says Tokyo planners and businesses are following a path of development laid down in the rapid-growth 1950s: towers, shopping centres, open plazas — what he calls “20th century clichés”. The planners still compare Tokyo to younger cities like Beijing, he laments. At heart, he says, Tokyo is still a 20th century city struggling to become a 21st century one.

Beijing splurged nearly $43 billion on its 2008 Summer Games, partly in an attempt to replicate the transformation of Tokyo in 1964. The money paid for a new transportation system and other infrastructure, but also provided the excuse for years of official vandalism that razed neighbourhoods, disrupted old communities, and replaced much of the city’s charm with bombastic Olympic showcases.

Europe offers another lesson. The 2004 Summer Games had cost Greece €9 billion, excluding the price tag for new infrastructure, such as a metro system. Greek taxpayers were left holding the bag for about €7 billion. The cost of the Athens extravaganza has been blamed for the country’s subsequent slide into recession, poverty and economic pariah status. Many of the expensively built Greek stadiums now stand empty and unused.

Tokyo has been studying these examples carefully over the past year (after winning the bid), ahead of the presentation of final venues to the International Olympic Committee next February. The city has launched a review of its venues; and, while cagey about the results, it is clear that several will be scaled down or scrapped. “Nobody wants to see venues left to the elements, or destroyed like those in Athens,” one said, speaking off the record.

As the most recent and successful Olympics, London is the biggest influence on this review. Tokyo officials say they were impressed by the use of temporary or remodeled facilities, such as the London Aquatics Centre, which was given two new spectator wings for the 2012 Games. The officials are mulling scrapping plans to build a stadium in Yume-no-shima, near Shin-kiba, and moving basketball and badminton games to remodeled stadiums elsewhere. Others may follow.

Changing the blueprint for 2020 is not without controversy. One of the selling points of Tokyo’s bid — that all the main venues would be within 8km of the Olympic Village near Tokyo Bay — now is seen as unlikely. Cost is likely to trump that pledge: Tokyo fears the roughly ¥410 billion in cash it has set aside for the Games will run out before all the stadiums are built.

Hosting the Olympics certainly will put Japan’s gleaming, efficient capital back on the world stage. But the lead-up will also raise a key question: can the city be revamped for the Games in a way that protects its heritage — and avoids adding to the burdens of one of the world’s most indebted countries? This debate is likely to sharpen in the year ahead, especially since Japan recently passed an ominous landmark — ¥1 quadrillion in public debt.

© Japan Today

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Since many of today’s university students and recent grads will be affected by and benefit from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, let’s see what they have to say about the pros, cons and possible long-term impacts of the Games:


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