National

Economist pours cold water on Tokyo hopes for Olympic success in 2020

by Shintaro Kano

Kyodo

Tokyo will not benefit long term from hosting the 2020 Olympics — contrary to the hopes and prayers of a nation — sports economist Andrew Zimbalist said Wednesday.

“I’d be really surprised,” Smith College professor Zimbalist said at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, when asked if the Tokyo Games would be a success. “You don’t have any of the ingredients for that.”

“At the end of (the) day, the best way to have a good experience with hosting the Olympics is to not host them. And if you are going to host the Olympics, then what’s really necessary is to do what Barcelona did and not what virtually every other city does.”

“In Barcelona, the plan (to develop the city) came first and the Olympics was fit into the plan, rather than there being no plan and the (International Olympic Committee) coming in and the city fitting itself into the IOC’s demands.”

Zimbalist, author of “Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup,” was a chief critic of Boston’s 2024 Olympic bid and an adviser to the “No Boston Olympics” activist group. The Boston bid was pulled after failing to gather enough public support.

Citing an Oxford University study, Zimbalist said on average, the Summer Games since 1980 has averaged a 252 percent cost overrun — or 3.5 times the initial budget — and Tokyo is not expected to be an exception.

The latest figure of the overall budget published by the 2020 organizing committee is at ¥1,385 billion or more than $12 billion, although the IOC believes additional cuts can be made.

Zimbalist, however, said the number-crunching done by the IOC is not to be trusted at face value, describing Olympic accounting as “fungible” and “manipulatable.” The final budget for last year’s Olympics exceeded $20 billion, more than three times the initial estimates.

The IOC’s exorbitant demands on a host city — particularly in construction — are simply too taxing, he said.

“People can make the budget go way up or down by deciding what to include in the budget,” Zimbalist said.

“According to the statistics the Tokyo 2020 committee is sharing publicly, the initial bid was $5.6 billion and right now they’re reporting $12.6 billion so we already know that they’re more than double right there.”

“I would, if I wanted to understand the cost overrun potential, want to take a very close look at the report that was done by the task force created by the Tokyo governor because again, they were projecting a cost of $27.1 billion. That’s a heck of a lot higher than $12.6 billion.”

Zimbalist said the IOC recognizes it has a problem on its hands, but the attempt at reform has been “superficial” in his eyes.

The 1992 Barcelona Olympics and Los Angeles in 1984 were rare examples of a city profiting from hosting the games, but the bad news for Tokyo is that its second Olympics does not contain any of the elements that will spur the capital to flourish, he said.

“Barcelona was not a known tourist destination in Europe in 1992. Yet it was a potential jewel,” Zimbalist said. “People around the world who have the resources, the income, and have the interest to travel around the world, they already know about Tokyo.”

“Tokyo is not going to be discovered after 2020. Los Angeles won’t be discovered, Paris won’t be discovered, London wasn’t discovered. That whole impact the IOC loves to talk about, that ‘it’s going to put your city on the map,’ is a bunch of baloney.”

“I don’t see anything on either a developmental basis or a reputational basis, any of the ingredients that were around in Los Angeles in ’84 or in Barcelona in ’92 that would rationally enable Tokyo to say this is good for our long-term development.”

Tokyo is expecting to burnish its reputation as a top tourist destination through the Olympics, but Zimbalist said it should not bank on the games to entice more foreigners to visit.

According to Zimbalist, the Olympics actually deters regular tourists, who are put off by the extravagant prices of hotels and restaurants when the games are on.

“Tourism did not increase during the summer months of hosting the games or the winter months in the case of the Winter Olympics. The reason is the Olympic tourists replace the normal tourists. The normal tourists look at the city and say I don’t want to go there when all the Olympic tourists are going to be there.”

“The best way to promote tourism is word of mouth. You go home and you tell your neighbors and friends and relatives about your wonderful experience as a tourist.”

“But if you go to a city to watch the Olympics, you go home and talk about the swimming medley you saw or 100-meter dash you saw. You’re not talking about the city. Your friends, neighbors and relatives can’t go back to that city and watch the Olympics like you did because the Olympics won’t be coming back.”