Second of six parts

The eyes of the world will be on Tokyo for more than just the 16 days that it hosts the 2020 Olympics, as the concept of legacy gains more importance for global sporting mega-events.

“I think what Tokyo can learn from Rio is that without a compelling case for legacy, a city should not host the games,” 2016 Rio Olympics spokesman Mario Andrada told The Japan Times during a recent interview in Tokyo. “Because it is a really expensive venture, and only a well-structured, tangible, clear legacy can justify the public spending on an adventure like this.”

The legacy of an Olympics refers to the benefits that a host city and country gains once the event is over. That can take the form of new stadiums, redeveloped urban areas and updated transport networks — the so-called hard legacy — or a boost to the nation’s image and an inspiration for its people — the soft legacy.

The history of Olympic legacies is a mixed one, filled with cautionary tales of overspending and waste. Montreal took 30 years to pay off its debt from the 1976 Games, which almost bankrupted the city, and Athens is littered with crumbling, weed-strewn venues that have gone unused since the 2004 Olympics.

Understandably, Tokyo is anxious to avoid a similar fate. In July, the organizing committee drew up its Action and Legacy Plan 2016, which it will revise and update every year until 2020.

The plan established five specialist commissions to examine what action can be taken toward Tokyo 2020, in the fields of sports and health, urban planning and sustainability, culture and education, economy and technology, and recovery from the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011.

Organizers expect the plan to produce a wide range of practical benefits, taking in everything from equipping Tokyo to deal with an aging society, to using materials recycled from discarded smartphones to make the medals.

“First of all, the new permanent venues will bring new facilities to city-center living,” said Tokyo 2020 spokesperson Hikariko Ono. “Meanwhile, the existing venues we will use, including some inherited from the 1964 Games, will be modernized and refurbished to extend their legacy for the next generation.

Members of France's synchronized swimming team dive into the pool during a training session at the Maria Lenk Aquatics Center in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, last March. | AP
Members of France’s synchronized swimming team dive into the pool during a training session at the Maria Lenk Aquatics Center in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, last March. | AP

“By 2020, the city’s infrastructure will be inspected and upgraded wherever necessary. Moreover, the games will reinforce and maximize the accessibility of the city of Tokyo to make it one of the world’s most barrier-free capitals, allowing all its residents to enjoy it fully,” she continued.

“It will also be a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate to the world how a city can use new technologies for the health and well-being of its residents to ensure universal accessibility.”

The huge cost of staging an Olympics, and the potential economic dangers for a host city, has thrown the issue of legacy into sharp focus in recent years.

That was never more evident than at last summer’s Rio Olympics, where crippling financial and political problems in Brazil led many to question whether the country’s second-biggest city could cope with hosting the games.

“We would do it again 100 times if we had the chance,” said Andrada. “We had a huge crisis. If we didn’t have the games, we would still be in a huge crisis and still be going down and down. The games created a moment where the country could stop, think, gain confidence.

“The world of economics and business today has a lot to do with confidence. One of the most awaited numbers in the global economy is the consumer confidence index — how much they’re going to buy, how much they’re willing to spend. The games broke a downward trend.”

Rio expanded its transport network in preparation for the Olympics, connecting the upmarket districts of Ipanema and Barra de Tijuca by subway and significantly reducing travel time for commuters.

The Spiral bobsled/luge track, built for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, is seen in the city of Nagano in June 2014. | KYODO
The Spiral bobsled/luge track, built for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, is seen in the city of Nagano in June 2014. | KYODO

But Andrada rejects the criticism that Rio’s Olympic investment has only benefited the richest parts of the city and ignored the poor.

“I think when you double the size of your hotel industry, you are creating more jobs,” he said. “We generated a positive impact of 74.6 billion reals ($22.05 billion) in the economy, and that means new jobs and new opportunities.

“The transportation system was all geared to facilitate the movement of workers to downtown. The classic Rio story is that people live in the favelas (slums) close to the richest areas because they can’t afford transportation to go to work. Now they can move further away because they have means to get to work.”

Transport was also the most recognizable legacy of the last time Tokyo hosted the Summer Olympics, with the debut of the shinkansen nine days before the start of the 1964 Games symbolizing Japan’s re-emergence on the world stage.

Japan has hosted the Winter Olympics twice since then, in Sapporo in 1972 and Nagano in 1998. Five new venues were built to host the Nagano Games, including the M-Wave speedskating arena, the Big Hat ice hockey arena and the Spiral bobsled and luge track.

Both the M-Wave and the Big Hat are still used regularly for domestic and international events. But the Spiral, which cost Nagano ¥10 billion to build and a further ¥120 million a year to maintain, brings in only ¥7 million annually and city officials may decide to close it next year.

“The luge track started with a ¥2.5 billion price tag and ended up costing four times as much,” said Masao Ezawa, a Nagano craftsman who led a local grass-roots movement opposing the 1998 Games. “The general public can’t use it, and there are only a few bobsled athletes in Japan. It’s just not being used.

“The Olympics were held in 1998, and in December that year they started holding the Asian Luge Cup here. But only around 100 spectators turned up. The track is now almost 20 years old and it’s in a state of disrepair,” Ezawa said.

The 1998 Olympics prompted Japan to extend its shinkansen service from Tokyo to Nagano, cutting the three-hour journey in half. But the tourism boost that organizers hoped would follow failed to materialize, and the purpose-built hotels struggled to attract guests.

“The shinkansen arrived and they built new roads, and it made Nagano closer to Tokyo,” said Ezawa, who authored two books criticizing the cost of the Nagano Olympics. “But with less traveling time, it also meant the amount of people staying in hotels here dropped. There was also a lot of damage to the natural environment in Nagano.

“In Tokyo, there weren’t many people calling to host the Olympics. Nagano was the same. But the local government got the media to whip people up and create an Olympic mood. When the Olympics here were finished, no one really talked about them. That’s very strange. The Olympics left a negative legacy for Nagano, but with all the money spent it will be worse for Tokyo.”

Japanese Olympic Committee President Tsunekazu Takeda, who served as sports director for the Nagano Olympics organizing committee, takes a different view.

Photographers shoot the site of the planned new national stadium in Tokyo after a groundbreaking ceremony was held in December. | AP
Photographers shoot the site of the planned new national stadium in Tokyo after a groundbreaking ceremony was held in December. | AP

“I think the Nagano Olympics were a big success, including the legacy,” he said. “If you’re talking about a hard legacy, the M-Wave speedskating rink holds competitions every year and it’s a very important training center for Japanese sport. The M-Wave hosts a lot of different sporting events and it has seen a lot of use since the Olympics ended.

“As an example of a soft legacy, there was a program where students at one school would study the culture of one country and then support that country’s athletes at the Olympics. The athletes would visit the students at their school and it was a great way to promote communication.”

Rio 2016 spokesman Andrada agrees that the soft legacy of an Olympics, with the host country riding a nationwide wave of pride, unity and purpose, can be a powerful force.

“There is an amazing injection of self-confidence and creativity in the landscape of the games,” he said. “Tokyo is a very iconic city, but at the same time not far from here you have China. The industrial part of Japan always needs to be innovative and creative and always more competitive. The Tokyo brand and the Japan brand will have unprecedented exposure.

“You always need to renew your brand. All the biggest brands renew themselves as they move forward. Tokyo and Japan will renew their brand for the next generation.”

But if the importance of leaving a positive Olympic legacy is well understood by today’s host cities, actually delivering one is far more difficult.

The 2012 London Games helped regenerate an area of the city that had long been neglected, but the number of people in England taking part in sports has declined over the past four years and childhood obesity rates continue to rise. Rio, meanwhile, remains beset by financial and political problems.

Despite the challenges facing Tokyo, however, Takeda believes the 2020 Olympics can make the city and Japan as a whole a better place.

“I think holding the Nagano Olympics made a big contribution, but the Tokyo Olympics will be much bigger and it’s very important that it leaves a legacy for the whole of Japan, not just Tokyo,” he said. “First, in terms of hard legacy, it will leave behind facilities and the athletes’ village. Venues like the main stadium and the aquatic center will have a big role to play in Japanese sports.

“The Tokyo Olympics can also leave a legacy in the hearts of the people. The organizing committee will be disbanded after the Olympics, so it’s up to bodies like the Tokyo Metropolitan government, the JOC and the Japanese Paralympic Committee to take it over and make it work for the people. It’s important to show the good side of the Olympic Movement to the young people who will lead us in the 21st century.”

This New Year’s series — Gearing up for the Games — examines how Japan is preparing for the Olympics and Paralympics.

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