The Shinjuku neighborhood bustles at midday, its streets
filled with tourists and shoppers and subway riders emerging from an
underground station. Everyone goes about their business, paying no mind to the
immense construction site in their midst.
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Not so long ago, the new Olympic Stadium a centerpiece for
the upcoming Summer Games was a lightning rod for criticism in this city, with
residents pushing back against its original, $2-billion versions.
The first design was scrapped and replaced by one about half
the price. It was part of an overall effort to control rising costs that had
organizers and the government combining to spend an estimated $30 billion.
“We have been able to cut the budget,” Masa Takaya, a
spokesman, said during a meeting at organizing committee headquarters last
week. “We can say that Tokyo has been doing its best to deliver the Games in a
Now, with the opening ceremony scheduled for a year
from Wednesday, Tokyo Olympic can point to good news as fans clamor for tickets
and corporations pledge billions of dollars in sponsorships.
At the stadium site, the clanging of heavy machinery is
merely an echo from somewhere inside. Workers have finished the exterior,
installing wooden slats and greenery meant to evoke the serenity of a
traditional Japanese temple. But some Olympic scholars continue to wonder about
“They have tried to scale back in a bunch of ways,” said Victor Matheson, a sports economist at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. “We’re still looking at unofficial costs which would make this the second-most-expensive Olympics in history.”
Timing is part of the issue. When the International Olympic Committee selected Tokyo in 2013, its members had a reputation for choosing cities that promised to spend the most. This tendency scared away some potential hosts. It didn’t help when Russia poured an estimated $51 billion into the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.
As Matheson noted: “Fifty-one billion makes it hard for the IOC to sell the Olympics to anyone.”
Later that year, the IOC passed Agenda 2020, the first step
in a campaign to make hosting more affordable, in part by encouraging the use
of existing venues. Leaders referred to this as the “New Norm.”
Paris and Los Angeles reacted by submitting
relatively economical bids that were chosen for the next two Summer Games,
but the shift came a bit late for Tokyo, which was facing criticism back home. Agenda
2020 “certainly accelerated” a decision by organizers and the national
government to review their master plan, Takaya said.
The national stadium drew most of the attention as officials dumped British architect Zaha Hadid’s lavish design some complained that it looked like a giant turtle — in favor of a more modest proposal from Japanese architect Kengo Kuma that was estimated to cost $1.2 billion. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe described the change as a legacy that the next generation can be proud of.
Organizers cut costs in other ways, shifting events such as
basketball and equestrian to existing venues, including some that dated back to
the 1964 Summer Games. All of this moved Tokyo closer in line with new IOC policies;
among the 43 venues required, eight would be new, 10 would be temporary and 25
would be existing.
Two expensive projects were preserved. In addition to the
stadium, organizers continued to build a sprawling athletes village at the edge
of Tokyo Bay, where crews now scramble around the skeletons of high-rise
buildings in the stultifying heat.
At the nearby Tokyo Olympic headquarters, two life-sized plush figures official mascots Miraitowa and Some sit on chairs in the lobby. With reports estimating overall spending by organizers and various government entities at $25 billion or more, Takaya expresses satisfaction with what his committee has done for its portion.
“We feel that with Agenda Olympic 2020, our venue master plan has certainly become more refined,” he said. “It is able to meet the public needs, the needs of this generation.”
Paris has estimated it can stage the 2024 Summer Games for
about $8 billion in private and public money, though that number is expected to
rise. L.A. 2028’s latest budget projection is about $7 billion, with organizers
predicting they can generate enough revenue to cover all costs. Given these
numbers, Matheson isn’t overly enthusiastic about Tokyo.
“It’s hard for me to lavish much praise on $25 billion,” the economist said. “It’s like an arsonist who says, yes, I set fire to the house, but then I called the fire department and saved one bedroom.”
Back in 2013, during the bid phase, the Japanese forecast
expenses at $7 billion. Since then, cost overruns have been accompanied by
significant missteps. Around the time officials were switching stadium designs,
they had to nix the official logo because it too closely resembled one used by
a Belgian theater. Then the head of the Japanese Olympic Committee, Tsunekazu
Takeda, agreed to step down amid allegations that bribes were paid to
secure the bid.
Even more troubling, a human rights organization reported that workers many of them foreigners brought into the country under a program that affords them less protection than it does Japanese citizens were being subjected to long hours and dangerous conditions at venue construction sites.
“The truth is, these are all ingrained Olympic problems,” said Jules Boykoff, a Pacific (Ore.) University political science professor who studied similar issues surrounding the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. “We’re seeing them play out in Japan.”
Despite the high-profile controversies, Takaya says the Games remain on track. He also dismisses budget criticisms by invoking the curious math of the Olympic movement, which divides costs and shifts them around.
Organizing committees usually focus on the operating budget the price of running events day-to-day and wash their hands of the billions that governments spend on infrastructures such as stadiums, roadways, and hotels, which end up on a different ledger.
Tokyo Olympic takes responsibility for $5.6 billion in
operational expenses, but not for the $20 billion or so that will be spent by
the national and local governments. Officials also insist that Japan needed
much of the infrastructure spurred by the Games.
The athlete’s village will be converted to apartments and
condominiums in a city of 9.2 million. The stadium replaces an aging facility
that had grown obsolete; for example, it no longer met the standards to host a
track world championship. None of these arguments mollify critics, who note
that no matter how the accounting plays out, taxpayers will foot much of the
“I feel like I know the history of the Games too well,” Boykoff said. “We should always be highly skeptical.”
Cicadas sing from the trees surrounding Yumenoshima Park the
site of Tokyo’s new archery venue — their thrum making a humid morning feel a
little heavier. Half of the new Tokyo Olympic venues are complete, so
organizers have begun to hold test events; an international field of archers
competed here last week.
“This venue is incredible,” said Brady Ellison, a world champion from the U.S. “When we went out the other night in our team gear, walking through the train station, people were saying, ‘Go USA,’ and taking pictures with us.”
Budget issues notwithstanding, the buzz here is palpable. Tokyo
Olympic new logo a blue, checkered circle is plastered across the city on taxi
cabs and in storefront windows. Merchandise shops are reportedly doing good
business and, even in a rural prefecture 180 miles north, colorful banners fly
beside the highway.
“Whenever we see the Olympics, every two years, we always see big, big excitement from the general public,” Takaya said. “The TV audience rating is extremely high compared to other parts of the world.”
This passion has translated into more than $3 billion in
domestic sponsorships, three times the previous record of $1.1 billion set by
London for the 2012 Summer Games. IOC executive John Coates called it “an
amazing amount of money.
When organizers held a lottery last month, 7.5 million
people registered for the chance to buy 3.2 million tickets. With so many fans
turned away, a second and perhaps third public sale is in the works. So it
remains to be seen how these Olympic will be viewed, not just during next
summer’s competition but in the long run, after the cheering has subsided and
Japan is left holding the tab. Critics are dubious. Japanese officials are
“People are absolutely passionate about having the Games next year,” Takaya said. “This is a very exciting time.”
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