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Tokyo puts Tohoku on games map, but will it be enough?

Plans for events in region face several hurdles

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

As Tokyo wrapped up its winning bid to host the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, one speech during the final presentation resonated with members of the International Olympic Committee.

Mami Sato, a Paralympic athlete and a native of tsunami-hit Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, appeared to win the hearts of many on the committee.

In her speech, Sato, who competed in the Athens, Beijing and London Paralympics, said that after her hometown was destroyed on March 11, 2011, she and other athletes searched for ways to help the survivors, eventually bringing much-needed food, supplies and messages of hope to Kesennuma while also organizing sporting activities that showed the resilience of the Japanese spirit.

More than 200 Japanese and international athletes have made almost 1,000 visits to the affected areas, offering inspiration for adults and more than 50,000 children.

“What we have seen is the impact of the Olympic values as never before in Japan. And what the country has witnessed is that those precious values . . . excellence, friendship and respect . . . can be so much more than just words,” she said in the Olympic presentation.

Although Tokyo will play host to the world’s biggest sporting event in 2020, many Olympics-related programs are also planned in the Tohoku region leading up to the games. And just as Sato stressed, many people are hopeful that these events will be a much-needed boon for the recovery of the devastated areas.

“The Olympics and Paralympics can also be a way of showing gratitude to countries around the world that have supported Japan after the disaster,” said Michio Sawasaki, director of planning in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s sports bureau.

In December 2011, the metropolitan government set up a special committee to discuss Olympics-related projects that could be held in Tohoku. A year later, the committee released a final report with 32 planned projects.

The 17-member committee is comprised of directors of several sports-related organizations such as the Japanese Olympic Committee and Athletic Associations of Tokyo. The panel also has some members from disaster-hit areas in Tohoku.

“This is very important to us, because it was very encouraging to hear opinions from Tohoku residents who said they are willing to take part in the event and want to show their gratitude to the world for supporting them after the disasters,” Sawasaki said.

Some of the proposed 32 projects include holding a preliminary round soccer match at Miyagi Stadium, having the torch relay go through the Tohoku region on its way to Tokyo, and having Tohoku-based companies supply construction materials and goods needed for the events.

Sawasaki said the next step is for the municipalities and organizations involved in the projects to figure out how each one can be realized.

“No matter what, we want the Olympic torch relay at the opening event to run through the Tohoku area. We also want to say thank you to the world for all the support and encouraging words we received after the disaster at the opening and closing ceremonies,” he said.

A number of education programs have also been proposed, including having child reporters from Tohoku cover the Olympics and holding camps in the region for youths from different countries around the world.

But several hurdles still remain.

In the case of the torch relay plan, which would take runners through Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, Japan must still get the planned route approved by the IOC.

There have also been concerns about holding the soccer matches in Miyagi Stadium.

Sendai resident Mihoko Terada said that if Japan were to hold the matches there, they must think about accessibility.

“I doubt whether the plan could really be carried out,” she said. “Miyagi Stadium is very inconveniently located, without any train station nearby. It would be better if the government first thought about building a JR station near the stadium.”

Meanwhile, 3/11 survivors have mixed feelings about whether the Olympics can really help revitalize their still-ailing hometowns.

“Many people in Tohoku don’t have much interest in the Olympics,” Terada said. “It’s because people are still trying to rebuild their everyday lives after the disasters, and they can’t be in a festive mood.”

Yasuo Yamada, a Tokyo businessman who regularly visits the disaster-hit coastal city of Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, for volunteer work — especially for children — agrees.

Yamada said that although he was excited when Tokyo won the Olympic bid, he felt people in Tohoku were rather indifferent to the news.

With so many survivors still living in cramped temporary housing units, Yamada said, a lot of people aren’t happy to see the government spending so much cash on Olympic-related events.

Many, he said, believe the government is not doing enough to rebuild the area, and with the Olympics now an inevitability, they fear the main priority will shift to hosting the games.