Five-ring Circus

What Japan Really Wanted From the Olympics

Billions went into upgrading Tokyo for the Games. Was it worth it?

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 21: Tokyo Olympic stadium is pictured through a security fence on July 21, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. With just two days until the Olympics opening ceremony, Toshiro Muto, the head of the Tokyo 2020 organising committee has stated that he will not rule out cancellation of the Games as more than seventy people associated with the event have already tested positive for coronavirus. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
There won’t be much cheering happening in here. Carl Court/Getty Images

Seven years ago, the International Olympic Committee took a look in the mirror and did not like what it saw. The upcoming Sochi Olympics were being overshadowed by the event’s $51 billion price tag, and the typically stiff competition for the Winter Olympics had dwindled to just two hosts for the 2022 games—Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan. Like Sochi, those cities are both in countries ruled by autocrats. Had hosting the Games lost its luster?

The result of that momentary crisis of confidence from an otherwise corrupt and irredeemable institution was a package of reforms called “Agenda 2020,” which, among other things, promised to make hosting the Olympics more affordable. The IOC would welcome the reuse of existing athletic facilities, for example, to counter the widespread perception that the Games are a boondoggle that leaves an archipelago of decaying one-use sporting venues in its wake.

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What the IOC called the “New Norm” is reflected in the plans for the upcoming Summer Games in Paris and Los Angeles—each city’s bid reflects a kind of thriftiness, as far as megaevents go. The opening and closing ceremonies in Paris, for example, will occur in the 34-year-old Stade de France, not a billion-dollar piece of Starchitecture.

Unfortunately, the New Norm came just a bit late for Tokyo, which will open the games inside an empty national stadium designed by Kengo Kuma and built for $1.4 billion. But even that was a reaction to shifting standards at the IOC; Tokyo’s first shot was a flashy Zaha Hadid design budgeted at $1.8 billion that surely would have wound up costing far more.

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Now, with spectators forbidden and athletes and officials cowering from the delta variant, the recurring pre-Olympic Questions of Doom—can they pull this off? What ethical sacrifices made this moment possible?—are more prominent than ever. As my colleague Josh Keating observes, all this skepticism may soon be forgotten in a blaze of televised gold, but the Japanese will have many years to contemplate one question once the athletes have all gone home: Was it worth it?

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It’s a surprisingly difficult question even in a good year. Olympics boosters in Japan say the cost of projects built exclusively for the Games is low—little more than the Olympic Stadium itself—and much of the associated projects were necessary anyway. Detractors calculate differently, wind up with higher estimates, and question those justifications. The discrepancies are wide. In 2019, Tokyo organizers said they’d spent $12.6 billion on the Games, with just a fraction of that on the sports facilities themselves; Japan’s National Audit Board pegged it closer to $30 billion, and two major Japanese newspapers came to similar conclusions.

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The benefit side of the ledger for megaevents is typically split into two categories: the immediate economic boost from the Games, and the long-term utility of Olympic projects.

In this case, obviously, the first factor will come up a bust. The hotel industry, for example, spent $14 billion on upgrades in the years leading up to 2020. Now it’s facing more than half a million cancellations.

The second side is more complicated. Aside from the aforementioned National Stadium, Japan has built new venues for gymnastics, swimming, badminton, and other sports. Such facilities have a mixed record when the Games leave town.

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More importantly, this Olympics has served, as it often does, as an excuse to rally financial and political capital around a number of nonsport projects that organizers say should have happened anyway: new infrastructure for buses and trains, daylighting the river in Tokyo’s Shibuya ward, new development in a handful of neighborhoods, and the Olympic Village. The reviews for that last piece are not exactly raves. In the Observer, Rowan Moore writes, “On top of the podium for drab design is the Olympic Village, an ensemble of generic global apartment blocks, grey and gridded, microscopically enlivened by a few curvy, ribbon-like balustrades.”

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TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 21: A general view of the Olympic Village ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 21, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)
The Olympic Village. Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
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When the Games end, the apartments there will be sold off to Tokyoites—an entirely new neighborhood on the old industrial docklands. With more than 5,650 apartments, the influx will amount to nearly one-third of Tokyo’s annual new apartment supply—a number that would be an unthinkable boon in housing-strapped cities like New York or Los Angeles. But Tokyo does not have trouble building enough housing. Instead, writes the German Japan-watcher Ralph Lützeler, “there are fears that there will not be enough interested residents to move.”

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That sense of ambivalence surrounds the infrastructure, too, which includes a new Shibuya Station and a rapid bus route connecting the Olympic Village to the rest of the city. In some countries, it takes patriotic fervor and the threat of a hard deadline to motivate such investments—but Japan isn’t one of them. On the contrary, the World Economic Forum ranks its infrastructure fifth best in the world.

No, the great hope for the 2020 Olympics in Japan was not that it would be the final push to achieve much-needed public improvements. On the contrary, nearly everyone, from organizers to sponsors to the Japanese themselves, seemed to think of it primarily as a festival—a way to demonstrate the country’s charm, vigor, and know-how and to celebrate its recovery from the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster at Fukashima. Instead, the Japanese response to the prospect of a pandemic-era competition has been somewhere between dismissal and doubt.

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“This is turning out to be nothing like what I’d expected,” Michiko Saito, executive director of Utsukushima Sports Rooters, a Fukushima-based sports nonprofit, told the Japan Times. “I was hoping the Olympics would provide an opportunity to improve Fukushima’s image and thank the international community for their support by showing how far we’ve come since the disaster. But I’m afraid that message may not be delivered.”

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics loom large. Those Games set the standard for using the Olympics as a catalyst for vital infrastructure (the Shinkansen, aka the bullet train, opened that year) but their symbolic importance was also enormous. Here’s how a Times of London correspondent described his arrival, not 20 years after the cataclysm of World War II: “Out of the jungle of concrete mixers, mud and timber that has been Tokyo for years, the city has emerged, as from a chrysalis, to stand glittering ready for the Olympics. These totems of the New Japan, “all blurring into a neon haze … that will convince the new arrival he has come upon a mirage.”

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Two years ago, the Guardian’s Sean Ingle went to see how this vast act of collective affirmation might be reprised in 2020. Masa Takaya, the organizers’ spokesman, told him these Games would project soft power. Japanese corporations would show the world everything they had to offer; foreigners would be dazzled by Japanese ingenuity all over again. “Tokyo 2020 is focusing more on the softer legacy,” he said. “Of course we have a similar spirit as 1964 by leaving new sporting facilities. But we are even more keen to leave an intangible legacy for future generations, who will have a first-hand experience of the Games with a massive number of people with different backgrounds, religions and languages coming together in one place.”

It was that, more than any new train station or neighborhood, that Japan hoped to win at the 2020 Games. No such luck.

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