Tokyo governor cuts through Olympic nostalgia

Photo: Toshihiro Gamo/Flickr

The construction of the new Tokyo Olympic Stadium recently began after the first design was scrapped. Photo: Toshihiro Gamo/Flickr

By 2016, the cost of preparing the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games had almost quadrupled the initial budget. But then, Tokyo got a new governor.

In the summer of 2016, Tokyo elected a new governor. It was a brisk decision. The former environment and defence minister Yuriko Koike was elected by an overwhelming majority without the backing of any of the larger political parties in the election campaign.

Soon her own decisions started dominating the newspapers’ front pages. It was revealed that the facility where Tokyo's wholesale fish market (the world's largest) would move in November was built on top of contaminated soil from a chemical plant. Expert advice on the plant’s construction had not been followed. The story turned into a huge scandal, which prompted the newly elected governor to postpone the relocation of the fish market indefinitely. It was the biggest story in the Japanese media last September – and a controversial decision that reinforced the image of Yuriko Koike as a powerful leader.

One of the issues Koike’s sharp eye has also fallen upon is the budget for the Tokyo Olympic Summer Games in 2020. The costs have only gone up since Tokyo was elected as the host city in 2013. After her appointment, Koike immediately set up a task force of experts who soon predicted that the total cost would reach 3,000 billion yen (approx. 25 billion USD) unless something was changed. That is an estimate four times bigger than the one presented to the IOC and the world back in 2013.

That would not do, the governor decided. We cannot let the expenses overwhelm us. We need to cut and we need to cut deep.

Big differences between Tokyo in 1964 and 2020
The original vision of hosting the 2020 Games was to give Tokyo – and Japan – a confidence boost after years of crisis and natural disasters during the 1990s and 2000s.

The 1964 Games in Tokyo are imprinted in Japan’s collective memory as a proud comeback to the world after the country’s war defeat in 1945, followed by the very poor years in the 1950s.

However, Yuriko Koike is not the romantic type. She is willing to cut through all of this nostalgia and recognise the huge differences between Tokyo in the year of 1964 and Tokyo in the year of 2020.

Back in 1964, the Games brought about new infrastructure, with new high-speed trains, new highways and major sports facilities being built. These were colossal investments, but they were investments that also benefitted the city and its inhabitants after the Games ended. Tokyo was going through a period of blazing economic growth. And its population was growing.

The situation leading into 2020 is the exact opposite. For demographic reasons, the population is expected to take a dramatic dive and its ageing members will consist of less physically active types. Japan’s economic development does not look too promising either. The need for new infrastructure and large stadiums after the Games is therefore likely to diminish.

“We cannot impose the negative legacy [of white elephant Olympic venues] on to Tokyo residents,” said Koike to the press when the task force’s report was presented.

Therefore, she has revised the entire project guided by a principle of creating a ’sustainable Games’.

The idea of ’sustainable Games’ is not Koike’s invention. Sustainability also forms part of the IOC’s ‘Agenda 2020’. The IOC’s representatives in the 2020 Games preparations agree with the governor that significant cutbacks to the Games’ budget are necessary.

If it becomes a common perception that costs for hosting the Olympics are always that high, it will be difficult for the IOC to find potential host cities in the future. The IOC is painfully aware of that.

“You have heard that Tokyo 2020 are putting a ceiling on the budget at this stage of $20bn. The IOC has not agreed to that amount of money. We think the Games can be delivered for significantly less than that,” IOC vice president John Coates said to the press after one of November’s crisis meetings in Tokyo.

“… I don’t want to let the international media have the impression that the costs of running the Games in a city like Tokyo, where you have so many existing venues, is $20bn.”

The CEO of the Tokyo 2020 organising committee, Toshiro Muto responded, “The figure of 2 trillion (yen, ed.) is a starting point. From there we will move to reduce it further. Mr. Coates has said it should be lower and we agree with that.”

Finding places to cut
But where can you make such big cuts to a project that is already well under way, has suffered from delays after scandals over the design of the original Olympic stadium and, later, its first logo? That question has raised panic in the Tokyo town hall where the Games are being organised.

Yuriko Koike set up her task force to come up with the answers. One of its suggestions was to drop some of the plans for new developments and use existing facilities located further away from city centre instead. At first, the governor responded positively, but the national and international sporting bodies missing out on these new facilities immediately protested the proposal.

During the preparations, the City of Tokyo had agreed with the IOC to move the cycling events to the Izu Peninsula, west of Tokyo and two hours away from the city centre, and basketball to Saitama, north of Tokyo and an hour’s train ride from where the other competitions will take place. These relocations were apparent breaches of Tokyo’s original promise to stage an earthbound and cosy ‘compact Games’, in which almost all competitions could be staged within a radius of eight kilometers from the Olympic Village.

However, the message from Koike and her advisors was that more steps were to be taken in that direction.

One idea was to cancel the new and, for environmental reasons, much debated rowing, canoeing and kayaking stadium ”Sea Forest” under the Tokyo Bay bridge. These sports would be moved to a rowing stadium by the coast of Naganuma in the Miyagi prefecture, 400 km northeast of Tokyo, according to the task force’s suggestion. This would meet another declared objective of the Games to revive the economy of the areas in Japan that had suffered from the 2011 tsunami, it was said.

Another idea was to drop plans for a new swimming stadium in Tatsumi in eastern Tokyo and use an existing stadium elsewhere in the city.

A third suggestion was to let go of one of the Games’ architectural symbols, the Ariake Arena, a volleyball venue planned to be built at a diked area in the Tokyo Bay very close to the city centre. The volleyball competitions could easily be staged in an existing stadium in a neighbouring city, the task force said.

These suggestions were laid out for public debate in accordance with Koike’s modern and very open approach.

The protesting sports federations, who had been looking forward to fancy new facilities, were met with many counterarguments – some of them from heavyweights. At many of the alternative locations proposed, new infrastructural systems and environmental assessment were necessary for the existing facilities to meet the IOC’s requirements. This risked prolonging and increasing the cost of the process even more than if they stuck with the original plan.

Cutbacks achieved by downsizing spectator capacity
The Tokyo city council, the IOC, the organising committee and members of the Japanese government called a meeting towards the end of November 2016. The participants were shocked to find the press present – another demonstration of Koike’s open style – and they decided to stick to the plan to construct both the ‘Sea Forest’ and the swimming stadiums but to decrease their capacity, thereby making significant savings.

The Sea Forest venue’s capacity will be reduced from 20,000 to 15,000. In return, the venue will be kept ‘as is’ after the Games, which will eliminate the expense of tearing down parts of the complex post-Games. This manoeuver releases 17 billion of the project’s initially budgeted 58 billion yen. Diplomatically, the Naganuma complex in the northeast will be maintained as a training facility during the participants’ preparations for the Games.

The IOC’s John Coates, a former rower himself, was satisfied. And the president of the International Rowing Federation Jean-Christophe Rolland’s relief was obvious when he declared that “We are pleased to have this venue confirmed as it will be another very picturesque venue to feature rowing near the heart of the Olympic Games”.

The new swimming stadium in Tatsumi will also be built as planned, but its capacity will be reduced from 20,000 to 15,000, which saves the budget 14 billion yen.

And after a few weeks of further deliberation, Koike and the IOC decided to let the construction of the Ariake Area continue in spite of the project’s hefty 40 billion yen price tag. The alternative in Yokohama caused too much trouble. There will, however, be cutbacks to the project bringing the budget down to around 33 billion yen. When announcing this decision, Koike also aired plans to let private investors buy and run the complex after the Games.

Outrage over Olympic budgets makes way for public support for cutbacks
At first glance, these decisions look like a series of significant setbacks for Koike, who had initially wanted more radical cuts. But she ran the entire process so openly that no one in Tokyo doubted that she had done all she could at that point in time. The events do not seem to have harmed her image as a tough and brisk governor. At the moment, she is practically walking on water in Japanese politics.

Many Tokyo residents are deeply shocked by the expenses that have come out into the open, and the cutbacks to the Olympic project have gained wide support among voters.

As a result of the November negotiations, there will also be a large cut to the budget for security and terror prevention. Before the budget was revised, this was planned to be 239 billion yen (eleven times more than the original budget). Cuts will also be made to the construction of new roads through the city, which had been budgeted to 168 billion yen, seven times the original amount.

In other words, there will be fewer security cameras in the city than first planned. And there will be perhaps be fewer shuttlebuses for athletes and officials travelling between the Olympic village and the venues than there would have been.

"We think that they can make significant savings even in security and many other areas if the procurement starts earlier,” Coates underlined to Reuters after the November meetings in Tokyo. “The longer you leave entering into contracts, the more expensive the contracts are inevitably going to be because of scarcity of labour and materials."

It is important to note that the original plan was to have a significant number of Olympic competitions take place in existing venues – and quite a few of them will. 

Boxing will take place in Tokyo’s national sumo stadium, and Judo in the honourable Budokan stadium that was built for the 1964 Games. And the handball matches will get underway under the suspension roof of the old 1964 Games swimming complex, often used as a symbol for the City of Tokyo.

More sports and more cuts
When, during the course of 2016, it was decided to add another five sports to the Olympic programme, it was also clear that existing facilities had to be found – sometimes far from Tokyo. There was neither the funds nor the political will to construct new ones.

Karate will move in with the judo fighters in the Budokan. The skateboarders will be riding through Aomi in Tokyo’s Koto area. And surfing will take place at Tsurigasaki beach in the Chiba prefecture east of Tokyo.

Baseball and softball matches will be played in a stadium in the neighbouring city Yokohama, and – if the IOC approves the facilities – a few of these matches might be transferred to diamonds in the Fukushima prefecture, which suffered severely from the nuclear disaster after the 2011 tsunami.

It is still uncertain whether all of this is enough to get the budget below 2,000 billion yen. Many savings have been found – and more need to be identified.

In the old days, one might just have allowed the expenses to flow and deal with the consequences later.

That won’t be an option this time around.

  • Scott Bennett, 09.01.2017 15:44:

    At this stage of things - Olympic budgets, IOC expectations of massive gifts, and leaving host cities with incalculable and irredeemable debts, why don't cities actively fight back against the IOC? You want an Olympics? the perks are gone and you are helping to pay or it's not happening. Good luck finding another city to take it at short notice, especially with the reputation of IOC being a parasite that sucks all the good out of the event and carries it back home. In 2017, after a number of Olympic Games where reality and projection didn't come close to each other, host cities have way more power than they realize. SB


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