Doubts on legacy and cost concerns hang over Tokyo Olympic Games
The public square outside Shimbashi station, the scene of anti-Olympic protests this summer, has resumed its usual role as an after-work rendezvous. Newspapers that juxtaposed athletic feats with a rising coronavirus caseload now wonder how Japan’s new prime minister, Fumio Kishida, will fare when voters go to the polls at the end of this month.
The recent lifting of Covid-19 emergency measures has added to the feeling that “normality” is being restored in Tokyo after months of Olympic controversy and virus-induced anxiety. Residents who were banned from attending all but a few events might be tempted to ask if the Games of the XXXII Olympiad were, in fact, a recurring theme in a long, feverish dream.
The record-breaking rush of gold medals for Japan’s athletes, the warm glow of media attention that followed and the empty venues where their heroics unfolded are proof that Tokyo 2020 did indeed happen and that, for one heady, humid fortnight, the pandemic was outdone by faster, higher and stronger human endeavours.
But this week – as the city marks two months since International Olympic Committee president, Thomas Bach, and Emperor Naruhito declared the Games over – the hosts, and the organisers who clung to the IOC message of Tokyo 2020 as a supreme act of resilience, are facing a moment of reckoning.
Are there signs, as promised, that Tokyo 2020 will leave a lasting sporting legacy for the public? Was hosting the Games in the middle of the pandemic a mistake? Crucially, did it justify the $15bn bill, most of which will be paid by Japanese taxpayers?
These are meaty questions that, just two months on, will elicit only inexact answers.
The plunge in Covid-19 cases – Tokyo recorded 149 on Wednesday compared with a record 5,773 in mid‑August – and a pick-up in vaccinations, with more than 60% of the Japanese population now double‑jabbed, has taken the heat out of the public health debate that followed the post‑Olympic spike.
“I think it was worth holding the Games,” says Michael Duignan, a reader in events at Surrey University, despite his concerns about the effect Olympic-driven gentrification can have on older, poorer neighbourhoods – including those in parts of Tokyo.
“Aside from the narrower discussion around saving face, there was something bigger and more philosophical at stake for Japan. It couldn’t have cancelled the Olympics because of the damage that would have inflicted on people’s confidence in themselves and their government.”
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There are signs, even at this early stage, that the legacy of Tokyo 2020 may not be as emphatic as the organisers hoped. The sale of operating rights to Olympic venues is unlikely to cover the cost of maintaining them, particularly those, such as the $1.6bn national stadium, that may be used only occasionally. The structure, which will cost a reported $22m a year to maintain, will host rugby and football matches and, if Tokyo’s bid is successful, the 2025 world athletics championships.
BMX and skateboarding were two of the breakout sports in Tokyo but Ariake Urban Sports Park, the scene of Bethany Shriever’s triumph for Team GB in the women’s BMX, is no more. Work began this month to dismantle temporary venues to make way for developments approved before the Olympics although the local mayor, Takaaki Yamazaki, is in talks with the Tokyo metropolitan government to spare the skateboard park.
But Masa Takaya, a spokesperson for the Tokyo 2020 organising committee, believes the “inspirational” performances by Olympians and Paralympians “sparked a passion for sport” that will be served well by Tokyo’s Olympic infrastructure. “Newly built venues were designed to meet the public needs and we all know that these venues will enrich people’s lives even more and in every possible way,” he says. “We hope that people have been able to recognise sports’ values through the 2020 Games so that sports and athletes keep playing a crucial role in building a better society.”
Organisers can only hope the sporting legacy will fare better than their commitment to sustainability, with reports that that they threw away 130,000 pre-ordered meals for staff and volunteers, along with ¥5m (£33,000) worth of supplies including medical masks and gowns.
There is a loose consensus, though, over the “coercive” way in which the IOC treated Japanese citizens in the run-up to the Games. “If the Tokyo Olympics bring a legacy, it may well be that the world has opened its eyes to the ingrained downsides of the Olympics: overspending, displacement, greenwashing, the decimation of democracy,” says Jules Boykoff, a professor of political science at Pacific University and the author of NOlympians and Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics.
Faced with an IOC immune to such quaint democratic concepts as accountability, Olympic opponents in Japan may have already registered their disapproval in contributing to Suga’s decision to stand down after his post-Olympic boost in popularity failed to materialise.
It is far too early to gauge if the second incarnation of the Tokyo Olympics, forced on a reluctant city in the depths of a pandemic, will ever match the extraordinary legacy of the first, embraced almost six decades ago by a country desperate to emerge from the shadow of war.
What we do know is that the cost of the 2020 Games promises to outstrip that of any other Olympics when the official figures are released next year. The intensity of the financial hangover will “depend on how easily Tokyo is able to absorb the cost of the Games”, says Bent Flyvbjerg, a professor at Oxford University and the IT University of Copenhagen.
“If Tokyo is rich enough to absorb the cost without generating a lack of funds for other activities, then the hangover is likely to be mild. But if hosting the Games and shouldering the large cost overruns mean that other areas have been deprived of funds, or if there is a big debt to pay back, then the hangover is likely to be substantial.”
Although they failed to repel the Olympic juggernaut this summer, campaigners in Tokyo believe the Games at least gave the lie to the IOC as a benign force. “If there is one thing that was worthwhile about Tokyo 2020,” says a spokesperson for Hangorin no Kai, “it is that it has given the people of Japan and the whole world a clear lesson in how the Olympic and Paralympic Games and the IOC disrespect the lives, livelihoods, democracy and autonomy of the people of the host cities and prioritise their own greed.”