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Flawed strategy, mistakes jeopardizing Tokyo’s bid to host 2020 Olympics

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Have you ever given your best effort while striving to achieve something but felt like what you were doing was futile?

That’s the feeling I’m getting about Tokyo’s bid to host the 2020 Olympics.

With just over three months to go until the IOC votes in Buenos Aires, the bid seems adrift and still lacking a cogent message about why Tokyo should host the biggest global sporting event.

Tokyo Gov. Naoki Inose’s recent unfortunate comments about Turkey and Islam were just the latest misstep by the bid organizers. To go to a place like New York and make ill-informed statements to the media about another country and religion was both ignorant and insensitive.

Many will try to write it off as another example of a politician putting his foot in his mouth, but with Inose being the chairman of the Tokyo 2020 bid, that is not so easy.

It speaks to a deeper issue that is often seen in Japan: a lack of understanding about the feelings of others and a stubbornness that can be very counterproductive.

In predictable fashion, Inose first tried to deny saying anything controversial, before finally apologizing. But the damage was done. You can’t unring a bell, as the saying goes.

The problems with Tokyo’s bid are many, but the most significant are the continuing attempt to tie it into the financial muscle of the nation, playing the safety card, and linking it to the March 11 disaster in Tohoku.

While the IOC is always about making money, the 99 individual IOC members who will vote in Argentina for Tokyo, Istanbul or Madrid are more altruistic. This is why Tokyo 2020’s ongoing discussion about its reserve fund is probably doing more harm than good.

Every time the bid leaders try to talk about how safe Tokyo is — clearly an attempt to imply that Istanbul is not — I wince. It’s as if the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system never happened.

Nearly 20,000 people perished in the March 11 disaster, and to think a massive quake could not strike during the 2020 Games is foolhardy. So talking about safety as a key selling point of the bid is a mistake.

Also, trying to connect to the catastrophe in Tohoku and claim if Tokyo hosts the Olympics it will inspire the nation to rebuild is a huge stretch. This was part of the philosophy for awarding Tokyo the 1964 Games, which were held less than 20 years after World War II ended.

In 1964, there was great symbolism to Japan hosting the Olympics and re-emerging after the destruction the war had wreaked on the country and its economy. But the March 11 disaster — as tragic as it was — was not World War II and trying to equate that it was goes way off the mark.

The reality is that for many years, big-time sporting events have been coming to Japan less and less. It is a very obvious sign that the market for them has been contracting like many other things in this country.

When was the last time the NBA came here?

Not since 2003.

How about the NFL?

That was in 2005.

The NHL?

All the way back in 2000.

A heavyweight title fight?

1996 (when George Foreman defended the lightly-regarded World Boxing Union belt).

Japan is even set to lose its top-tier WTA tennis tournament after this year.

Notice a pattern here?

Why have all of the aforementioned occurred?

Because of the irrefutable fact that Japan is no longer seen as a great place to stage major events. That is the bottom line.

Japan is slated to host the Rugby World Cup in 2019, but based on its record in the event, one has to question the legitimacy of this decision.

Soccer can still pull in the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal on preseason tours, and has staged the Club World Cup here several times, but those and occasional visits from Major League Baseball teams are about it.

Pro and college teams and leagues used to see Japan as a place to make easy money, but those days are long gone, likely to never return.

Though I have great respect for both Japan Olympic Committee president Tsunekazu Takeda and Tokyo 2020 CEO Masato Mizuno, I feel like they have received poor advice from their coterie of internal and external advisors.

I also question why the core bid team is exclusively Japanese.

If the goal is all about getting Tokyo the Olympics, and money is no object, shouldn’t they be bringing in the best people they can get?

And I’m not talking about consultants living in other countries.

Here is where the stubbornness could be the undoing of the bid. We have seen it time and again over the years.

“We are going to do it our way — the Japanese way — even if we fail.”

This kind of thinking just doesn’t cut it in the wired world of 2013. It would seem to me that it should be the opposite, the bid should be comprised of a multicultural unit that could cover all of the angles.

Instead, we are seeing the same old thing — a Japanese team that is having trouble delivering its message.

With just over 100 days to go until decision day, Tokyo 2020 has no prominent athlete out front, like Pyeongchang’s winning 2018 bid did with Kim Yu Na.

Why?

Just two weeks ago, Takeda spoke at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan to try to highlight the bid’s underlying thesis. Having to do something like that, this late in the game, smacked of desperation.

The bottom line is that there is no groundswell of public support for Tokyo to host the 2020 Games. I don’t care how many polls claim that interest is increasing. The truth is that many people are indifferent.

The vibe I and many others are getting is that the Tokyo bid is more about trying to make money for large companies and their subsidiaries. Not exactly a tune that plays well with regular folks in the current economic climate, if you get my drift.

I communicate with a lot of people in the sports media business and don’t know of many who think Tokyo is going to prevail.

In fact, I would not be at all surprised if Istanbul clinches victory on the first ballot.

I hope I’m wrong, but as the sand goes through the hourglass, Tokyo’s chances seem to be slipping away.

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