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Silence is golden

Newly installed as favourite to host the 2020 Olympics, Tokyo is taking a softly softly approach ahead of the September 7 decision as turmoil takes its toll in rival cities Istanbul and Madrid, writes Julian Ryall.

 

Pictures of heavy-handed Turkish policemen manhandling peaceful protesters in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, of water cannons and tear gas being unleashed, have failed to prompt comment from Tokyo. Barely a peep has been uttered over the increasingly depressing Spanish unemployment figures coming out of Madrid. And at the headquarters of the Japanese Olympic Committee, the silence is at its loudest.

The team that has been meticulously putting together Tokyo’s bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games is painfully aware of just how much is riding on the decision that will be taken in Buenos Aires on September 7. That is when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will reveal whether the XXXII Olympiad will be staged in Tokyo, Istanbul or Madrid.

The campaign for the Japanese capital to host the largest sporting event on the planet in seven years’ time came close to being derailed in April by ill-judged comments from Tokyo governor Naoki Inose. In an interview with The New York Times during a visit to the United States, Inose carried on something of a tradition among Japanese political leaders of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Asked his opinion on Rio de Janeiro hosting the next Games and Tokyo’s chances in 2020, Inose said: “So, from time to time, like Brazil, I think it’s good to have a venue for the first time. But Islamic countries, the only thing they share in common is Allah and they are fighting with each other, and they have classes.” (Japan prides itself on being a classless society, the imperial family excepted.)

After initially claiming his remarks had been taken out of context, Inose apologised and admitted his comments were “inappropriate”.

The IOC took a dim view and wrote to the Tokyo 2020 bid committee to remind them of the rules, which state that each city must “refrain from any act or comment likely to tarnish the image of a rival city or be prejudicial to it”.

The governor’s faux pas seems to have been forgotten, but with scenes of violence having so recently emerged from Turkey, to be viewed as trying to leverage political advantage – or, even worse, gloating – over the misfortunes of a rival city would be even more damaging.

So Tokyo is officially mute, yet one cannot help but wonder whether the presentations made on June 15 to the Association of National Olympic Committees’ General Assembly in the Swiss city of Lausanne were tweaked at the last moment. In the penultimate round of presentations to the panel that will decide which city will host the event, Tokyo vowed to hold “an incredible city-centre celebration with the Games in the very heart of one of the world’s most safe and secure cities”.

Rie Tanaka, a gymnast and one of the photogenic athletes supporting the bid, reiterated the strengths of Tokyo’s campaign, saying, “I know hosting the Games in the heart of the city will provide an extremely safe and exciting environment for my fellow athletes, with the Games Plan and Olympic Village design ensuring they are empowered to compete at their very best.”

The emphasis, in case any of the panel missed it, was very much on “safe”.

And if media reports in Japan are to be believed, that message has been heard – Japan appears to have edged ahead of Istanbul in the race to be host. A long-standing member of the IOC from Europe told Kyodo News, on condition of anonymity, that Tokyo was “within reach” of winning, while another reportedly said the city would be selected as long as it did not make any major mistakes in the run-up to the vote.

Istanbul had been the favourite just a few weeks previously, they intimated, in part because there was a desire to make it the first Islamic city to host the Games, but Turkey’s chances have been dented by the violent crackdown on anti-government protests. Madrid’s bid, meanwhile, has been undermined – probably to a fatal degree – by Spain’s ongoing economic troubles.

Political and economic considerations apart, Tokyo’s Olympics plans are impressive. The bid committee is proud of the exceptionally compact design it has come up with, with 85 per cent of the venues located within eight kilometres of the Olympic and Paralympic Village. Fifteen existing world-class venues would be used, no fewer than three of them legacies of the last time Tokyo hosted the Olympics, in 1964.

The Yoyogi National Stadium – which won plaudits for its ground-breaking suspension-roof design when it was built in the run-up to the 1964 Games – would host handball matches and the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium table tennis. The Nippon Budokan hosted the judo in 1964 and will do so again in 2020, if Tokyo is successful.

Eleven of the 22 venues that would be built for 2020 would be retained after the Games. These include the Sea Forest Waterway, which would stage rowing and kayak sprints; the Wakasu Olympic Marina, for sailing events; and the Seaside Park Hockey Stadium.

The crowning glory for the hosts would be a stunning new 80,000-seat national stadium on the site of the primary venue for the 1964 Olympics, which is now very clearly showing its age. After an international competition to design the stadium, Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid was selected from a field of 45 competitors, with the judging panel praising her plans for their dynamism.

The sleek, elongated shape of the 130 billion yen (HK$10 billion) structure, its flowing lines covered by translucent membranes, will make the stadium – which will be built regardless of what is announced on September 7 – a worthy addition to Tokyo’s skyline.

“The stadium will become an integral part of Tokyo’s urban fabric, directly engaging with the surrounding cityscape to connect and carve the elegant forms of the design,” said Hadid, in a statement. “The unique structure is both light and cohesive, defining a silhouette that integrates with the city.”

Announcing their decision on November 15, the chair of the panel of judges, architect Tadao Ando, said, “[Hadid’s] dynamic and futuristic design embodies the messages Japan would like to convey to the rest of the world. I believe this stadium will become a shrine for world sport for the next 100 years.”

The stadium is scheduled to be completed in 2018, in time to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup, which could serve as a dry run for the meticulous organisation that would go into the Olympics the following year.

As well as wowing the IOC selection panel, Tokyo is attempting to tug on its heartstrings. The bid promises to involve parts of northeast Japan that were devastated by the magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. Early suggestions for the Tohoku region include having the torch relay take in parts of the coastline that still bear the scars of the tsunami and the football competition could be staged in the region.

The bid team is also upbeat about the social and economic benefits hosting the Games would have on Tokyo and the rest of the country – despite overwhelming evidence that suggests staging the Olympics tends to result in massive debts, with organisers underestimating the costs.

Nonetheless, the Tokyo team believes the Games would generate economic activity across the country to the tune of three trillion yen and create more than 150,000 jobs. Of that total, about 1.67 trillion yen would directly benefit the Tokyo Metropolitan District, the committee has estimated.

“[Our] report envisions the Tokyo 2020 Games having a powerful economic impact in numerous sectors, including supplier contracts for local and international businesses, administrative activities [opening and closing ceremonies, competition management, transport and security] and the short- and long-term benefits of tourism and job creation,” it says.

The economies of the city and the country would be stimulated by improved public transport, attractive new sports facilities and a variety of other valuable public amenities, the report claims, adding that, “As the world’s most forward-thinking city, Tokyo looks to deliver spectacular yet sustainable Games that are fully integrated with the city, its people and their future.”

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has put aside a cash reserve fund worth US$4.5 billion to back the bid.

While that all sounds undeniably positive, the reality of hosting an Olympics is decidedly different. In a 2009 interview with Canada’s NPR radio network, Robert Barney, director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario, said no Games had ever earned a profit.

When all the costs and revenues are finally tallied, he said, “including federal allotments, municipal allotments, provincial or state allotments, it has always been that a debt has to be paid somewhere”.

That is a concern shared by some in Tokyo, including office worker Yoko Kobori. “I would not say I’m a strong supporter of the Games because we still have a lot of problems caused by the earthquake and tsunami more than two years ago,” she says. “There is still a lot of work that needs to be done in the worst-affected areas and I think we should be focusing our efforts on the people there.

“There are also still concerns about nuclear energy and radioactivity, so I do not know if now is a good time for Tokyo to host the Games.”

Still, she seems to be in a minority, with figures released by the IOC suggesting that as many as 70 per cent of Tokyo’s residents support the effort.

“It would be wonderful if Tokyo could put on an event like London did last year,” Kanako Hosomura, a 30-year-old housewife, tells Post Magazine. “Even though the time difference between Japan and Britain made it difficult, I watched lots of the events on television – but I wish I could have been there.

“I particularly enjoyed the opening ceremony because it was so spectacular,” she adds. “I am also a big fan of Mr Bean and I thought it was great that he was involved.”

He may not be able to find a Japanese Rowan Atkinson (the actor who plays Mr Bean, the British television comedy character) but, as the campaign enters its last few months, Tsunekazu Takeda, president of the Japanese Olympic Committee and head of the bid committee, is leaving few stones unturned in the quest to have Tokyo named host city.

Takeda represented Japan in the equestrian events at the 1972 Olympic Games, in Munich, and again four years later, in Montreal, and has said that, “Tokyo 2020 will renew and reinforce the Olympic values in this rapidly changing world, by leveraging our unique national character and values.”

The three “core strengths” of the bid – which has “Discover tomorrow” as its slogan – are delivery, celebration and innovation. “Delivery” refers to Tokyo providing a top-quality event based on financial security, infrastructure that is the best in the world and experi-ence in hosting safe and successful events. Takeda has vowed to serve up a “dynamic and welcoming party” that would “inspire the youth of the world”. The “innovation” would come in the form of harnessing the creativity of the world’s “most advanced city” for the benefit of sport worldwide.

“I would like the visitors to experience real Japanese hospitality, what we call ‘omotenashi’,” Takeda says. “We want to showcase Japan’s unique culture and traditions during the 2020 Games.

“Our youth culture will also be put forward,” he adds. “Sport and Olympism will be centre stage in the city that sets global trends and I promise that in Tokyo in 2020, the world will ‘discover tomorrow’.”

Perhaps the biggest indicator of confidence that host city status is within Tokyo’s grasp came on June 21, when media reports, citing an unnamed government source, suggested that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would cut short a two-day meeting of the Group of Eight leaders in St Petersburg, Russia, in order to be in Buenos Aires on September 7. The bid team will no doubt be hoping he and other politicians can keep their counsel regarding rival cities between now and then.

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