Preparations for 2020 Tokyo Olympics said to be back on track after rocky start


On a nondescript patch of land east of Tokyo, cranes are whirring frantically against a city skyscraper backdrop as 200 workers toil on the 2020 Olympics canoe venue.

With the Pyeongchang Winter Games in South Korea over, Tokyo is stepping up preparations for the next event on the Olympic calendar, with busy building sites dotted around the Japanese capital. Unlike in previous Olympic host countries, where there was a scramble to finish venues on time, Japan appears to be living up to its reputation for efficiency. On a recent media tour of sites, foreman after foreman said “We are on schedule.” The Aquatics Centre in Tokyo Bay is a hive of activity, with workers scurrying around the huge site and pushing to finish a venue that will eventually welcome 24,000 cheering supporters. “Roughly 25 percent of the work is already done,” said Daishuu Tone, director of venues for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. “We are confident we will be on time,” he added, with the first test events scheduled for mid-2019.

In an interview in Tokyo, Gov. Yuriko Koike said the city was making “steady progress” toward hosting the games — the second in its history after 1964. “We hope to make it a wonderful games,” she said during the interview, hosted in an imposing 48-floor office that looms over the Tokyo skyline.

Tokyo 2020 chief executive officer Toshiro Muto is also bullish, telling reporters: “Everything is going very smoothly and I can clearly say that most of the competition venues are on track and they will be completed as scheduled.” During the bid process, Japan sold itself as a “safe pair of hands” — an advanced economy with a history of efficiency and excellence. But organizers are still battling to pull the games back on track following a series of PR disasters after Tokyo beat Madrid and Istanbul to win the bid in 2013. The main issue has been the budget, which rapidly spiralled out of control and forced a red-faced Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to tear up the blueprints for the original Olympic stadium. Koike admitted: “There was a time when Tokyo’s budget seriously ballooned. We reviewed it and then we reviewed it again. So it has been very much squeezed from the previous budget.”

In December, Tokyo 2020 organizers announced a “significant” cut of $1.4 billion (¥150 billion) to the budget, bringing the overall bill down to ¥1.35 trillion ($12.6 billion). “The budget should be reduced to the greatest extent possible,” stressed Koike, adding that she would continue to make efforts toward “creative” budget solutions.

Tokyo 2020 organizers were also embarrassed by a plagiarism scandal that led to the scrapping of the original games logo due to its similarity to that of a Belgian theater and a separate Spanish design. But the unveiling last month of a pair of futuristic “superhero” mascots picked by schoolchildren around Japan sought to draw a line under that scandal and rekindle enthusiasm for the Olympics and Paralympics. While the pace of venue construction is expected to proceed smoothly for Tokyo, plenty of challenges remain — notably dealing with the summer heat in the capital, where temperatures regularly top 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit). Koike noted that Pyeongchang had the opposite problem, with fans urged to wrap up warm in extreme cold and buffeting winds forcing organizers to postpone the showcase men’s downhill.

“In Tokyo, we will … need to implement various creative efforts and ideas to deal with the heat,” she said. The governor said she was more concerned for the supporters than the athletes who “are very capable — more so than ordinary people — of bringing their physical fitness to deal with any climate.”

Organizers are looking at coating pavements with a substance to reduce the surface temperature, and making sure there are plenty of trees to provide shade for competitors and spectators alike, Koike said.

There are also worries over contamination in Odaiba Bay, where the triathlon and open-water swimming events will be held. Samples taken between July and September last year showed levels of E. coli bacteria more than 20 times higher than permitted — apparently brought about by unseasonably heavy rain. Muto said organizers would solve this problem using special “underwater filters” that have proven effective at cleaning water in tests. He acknowledged that problems at the outset had impacted public confidence, but insisted the games has turned the corner.

“I understand that ordinary people still have the idea that things did not proceed smoothly in the beginning,” he said.

“But I think the situation has rapidly improved, and now we have reached a stage where preparations are very smooth.”

Tears, budget battles and mascots: The rocky path to Tokyo 2020

From tears of joy when Tokyo was selected to a plagiarism scandal and budget battles — the path toward the 2020 Olympics has not always been smooth.

With the Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea over and the torch passing to Tokyo, organizers stress that the games are now back on track and construction is on schedule. Here are five key moments in Tokyo’s winding Olympic road:

Tears of joy

TV news presenters broke down in tears and thousands of people erupted in screams of delight when the IOC awarded the games to Tokyo in September 2013.

With emotions running high, the thoughts of many Japanese turned to the thousands of victims of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, with the Olympics eyed as a golden opportunity to rebuild.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed Tokyo would be a “safe pair of hands,” with a reputation for efficiency and competence.

Stadium shock

Unfortunately, that reputation for efficiency quickly went out the window as Abe was forced to tear up blueprints for the proposed national stadium, as costs ballooned out of control.

“I have decided we must go back to the drawing board,” a red-faced Abe said in July 2015, amid public anger over its $2 billion (¥214 billion) price tag — which would have made it the world’s most expensive stadium.

The decision also affected the 2019 Rugby World Cup, which was due to host the final at the new Olympic stadium. The match will now be played in Yokohama.

The stadium was designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, who died in 2016.

Logo larceny

More embarrassment followed in September 2015 as organizers had to ditch the logo for the games amid accusations of plagiarism and questions about the designer’s credibility.

Belgian designer Olivier Debie said the original design was swiped from his logo for a theater in Liege, western Belgium, and vowed to take the issue to court.

As the scandal mounted, officials were forced to withdraw the logo, saying it “no longer has public support.”

In April 2016, Tokyo 2020 unveiled a new “snake-eye” logo with roots in feudal Japan.

However, even this event did not run smoothly as the winning design was apparently leaked to the local media well ahead of the official announcement.

Venue relief

In November 2017, after the setbacks, came a welcome piece of positive news as Tokyo unveiled its first new permanent venue.

The Musashino Forest Sport Plaza, which will host badminton and modern pentathlon fencing, was the first of eight new permanent venues to be completed.

The 10,000-seat venue cost an estimated $300 million and will also host wheelchair basketball at the 2020 Paralympics.

It also contains a swimming pool, gym and fitness studios available for use by the general public, and is part-powered by solar energy.

Mascot madness

In the wake of the logo disaster, there was a palpable sense of relief after the smooth rollout of two futuristic mascots for the Olympics and Paralympics — chosen this time by schoolchildren across the country.

The Olympic mascot, which has yet to be named, is a blue-checked, doe-eyed character with pointy ears and useful “special powers” that enable it “to move anywhere instantaneously.”

Its Paralympics counterpart sports pink checks derived from Japan’s famous cherry blossoms and is “usually calm, however, it gets very powerful when needed.”

Their unveiling was massive news in mascot-mad Japan, and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said the selection would build “momentum” and “excitement” toward the opening ceremony.