Which stadium is best for Tokyo 2020?

Debate centers on whether to go big or save cash in upgrade

by Elaine Kurtenbach


As Tokyo prepares to demolish the half-century old stadium that hosted the first Olympics in Asia, debate is raging over whether the colossal, futuristic replacement planned for the 2020 Games will help revitalize the capital or indelibly mar it.

Tokyo, the frenetic center of a mega-metropolitan area of 36 million people, is planning an ambitious reboot on a par with its last big reincarnation, for the 1964 Olympics. Those games sparked a far-reaching makeover of Tokyo and marked Japan’s reemergence as an Asian power following its defeat in World War II.

But circumstances have changed. The population is aging rapidly and shrinking. The economy, overtaken in size by China, has stagnated for two decades. National debt has reached epic proportions.

The Olympics building spree could be a welcome boon for the economy. But there are doubts over the costs and scale of some of the proposed projects, especially an 80,000-seat stadium designed by British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid that was the centerpiece of Tokyo’s 2020 bid. Detractors of the new stadium, a whopping 70 meters (230 feet) tall, say it clashes with Tokyo’s urban planning and represents a “bigger is better” mentality that doesn’t fit Japan’s 21st century limitations.

Even Tokyo’s governor, Yoichi Masuzoe, among the biggest boosters of the Olympics, has seemed noncommittal. The plan requires cooperation between the Japan Sports Council, an arm of the central government that owns the existing stadium, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which owns the land the bigger stadium will occupy, and Tokyo Olympics organizers.

Prominent architects and other opponents are petitioning the government to upgrade the existing stadium. Built in 1958, it hosted the first Olympics to be televised internationally by satellite, but now is showing its age.

An online poll by the Nikkei business daily found more than 60 percent of the public opposes building the new stadium. The self-selecting survey, however, might overstate opposition.

Apart from cost, critics are unhappy with Hadid’s signature sweeping curves design, which many say resembles a bicycle helmet, and the stadium’s size. It will have about four times the floor space of the current stadium and dominate the surrounding area of parks and other sports facilities.

“This is not just about the stadium but about Japan’s entire culture,” said Shinichi Nakazawa, an anthropologist and popular social commentator. “We have a responsibility for the legacy we leave behind.”

The sports council has already scaled back the original proposal for a ¥300 billion ($3 billion), 75-meter-tall stadium to a still hefty ¥169 billion ($1.7 billion) structure. Cabinet minister Hakubun Shimomura deemed the first plan “too massive.”

That step back, however, is not giving hope to the retrofitting campaign, which admits its efforts might already be quixotic.

The sports council has scheduled demolition to begin in July. Even before the final “sayonara” concerts last week, workers were leveling parking spaces for construction equipment and had removed boulders and other landscaping from the fringes of the park next to the stadium. Ichiro Kono, a top official at the council, has insisted the basic design plan “will not change.”

“We don’t have much time,” said Nakazawa. “This is a very bad situation. We are right at the limit.”

Nakazawa, scores of other architects and critics of Hadid’s design say upgrading the stadium to increase its capacity from 54,000 people to the required 80,000 can be done at half the cost of a new structure.

Big new projects can generate jobs and revenues, but they also eat up taxpayer money, no small concern, given that Japan’s public debt is more than twice the size of the national economy. And then there’s the abundance of costly, underused venues from former Olympics, such as Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium.

Local media reports say it will cost about ¥4.6 billion ($45 million) to run and maintain the new stadium, compared with the current cost of ¥500 million to ¥700 million ($5 million to $7 million). The sports council says it expects some $5 million in annual revenues from events to cover the higher cost.

Architectural economist Takashi Moriyama said the 2020 Games are an ideal opportunity to promote environmentally sound methods of renovating older buildings. Japan’s 15,000 public buildings that need updating are a market potentially worth some ¥50 trillion ($500 billion), he said.

“Japan is heading in exactly the opposite direction,’ said Pritzker Prize-winning architect Toyo Ito, whose own design entry was not chosen. “This plan, how did they decide this was the way to go?”

But Tokyo is one of the world’s biggest and wealthiest cities and many here believe it should have a stadium to match that stature.

Those in favor of a new stadium also contend that the project would allow Japan to showcase its architectural prowess.

“This will enable us to demonstrate our leading technologies. We certainly should realize this goal,” said Junji Ogura, honorary chairman of the Japan Football Association.

Gov. Masuzoe said he plans to consult the management of Meiji Shrine before making any decisions, including the infrastructure the city must provide to support the stadium. The shrine, built to venerate the Emperor Meiji, who oversaw Japan’s leap into the modern age, is part of an expansive green belt that includes the stadium, baseball fields and tennis courts, gardens and galleries. Its management has not voiced any opposition to Hadid’s design.

The stadium must be able to accommodate 80,000 spectators, said Masuzoe. “If not, you cannot meet the condition enforced by the IOC.”

Still, Masuzoe said he won’t be rushing his decision.

“We have not yet started the open deliberation and consultations,” he said. “I will decide in one year’s time.”