When the International Olympic Committee announced that the marathon and race walk competitions for next year’s Olympics would be moved to Hokkaido due to fears that the summer heat in Tokyo might be too intense, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike had no choice but to accept the directive, although she made a point of expressing her disappointment.
Tokyo had already spent around ¥30 billion on preparations for the marathon and race walk events, and now it wouldn’t even be taking place in the host city. The marathon is also usually the penultimate event of the games, with the finish line traditionally located in the main venue where the closing ceremony brings the sporting extravaganza to an end.
The media wrung its collective hands over the decision without explaining something central to the matter. In 2014, the IOC drew up a set of recommendations called Olympic Agenda 2020, which aims to make the games more economical and sustainable by 2020.
One of the agenda’s suggestions is allowing events to be held in locations outside of the host city. The ostensible purpose of this dispensation is to encourage more cities to bid for the games. In fact, the concept of “outside the host city” could also be interpreted to mean “outside the host city’s country.” At one point prior to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the IOC floated the idea of sharing some events with Nagano, the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics.
The prime exception to the mournful coverage of the marathon and race walk switch was the tabloid Nikkan Gendai, which has consistently derided the 2020 Games ever since Tokyo won the right to host them. The criticism hasn’t been due to any specific anti-establishment agenda but rather in service to typical tabloid mischief-making.
Unlike many of the major daily newspapers, Nikkan Gendai is not a sponsor and thus has no stake in the Olympics. That’s why it ran an online interview on Nov. 25 with veteran sports journalist Gentaro Taniguchi, who pointed out that the IOC can unilaterally change the location of any event if it thinks it is in the best interest of the Olympics. Koike simply had no choice in the matter. The media branded the IOC move as being willful and inconsiderate, since they didn’t consult the governor, although Koike probably knew it was inevitable. There’s now talk that some open-water events might be moved as well.
Taniguchi thinks Tokyo has nothing to complain about. It won the opportunity to host the 2020 Games by boasting that summer in the Japanese capital was perfect for sports while knowing that mid-summer temperatures can be brutal.
It knew this more than 50 years ago, when the organizers of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics successfully held the games in October. The Olympics were simpler in those days, less dependent on sponsors and broadcast rights. These days, the Tokyo bid committee knew that Western broadcasters, which control worldwide coverage of the Olympics, insist the games be carried out in July and August so as not to interfere with the professional basketball and football seasons. The bid committee could do nothing about this reality, so it fudged the weather.
The IOC probably knew this but, as a functioning metropolis, Tokyo is as close as any potential host city gets to the current Olympic ideal, which has less to do with climate and topography than with financial and political stability.
As Taniguchi also points out, the IOC’s self-determined mission is to keep the Olympics viable in the future no matter what the cost and, apparently, it was rattled by the world track and field championships held in Doha, Qatar, from Sept. 27 to Oct. 6, where almost half the participants in the women’s marathon had to drop out due to the heat. They couldn’t risk anything similar happening in Tokyo, but Taniguchi thinks this concern has little to do with the athletes’ well-being — it’s about maintaining the Olympic image.
Taniguchi says the Olympics in its original conception as an international peace festival no longer exists. The story he tells in his new book, “The Beginning of the End of the Olympics,” is hardly new. Since the 1984 Los Angeles Games, commercial interests take precedence over all other considerations, including athletic ones.
If the IOC is OK with this development, it’s because it saw the abyss in 1980 with the boycott of the Moscow Olympics due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Prioritizing money may have been a devil’s bargain, but in return it got a guarantee that the games would go on.
Taniguchi points to new events such as skateboarding and sport climbing, introduced to keep the games relevant and attractive to young people, but these events are saddled with rules that contradict the freewheeling spirit of those sports, effectively forfeiting the creativity that gives them their appeal.
Nikkan Gendai ramped up its criticism a few days later when it covered the organizing committee’s announcement that it would be hiring more than 2,000 contract workers through the temp agency Pasona Inc. Last year, the committee solicited volunteers, mostly college students, to work for free during the games, pitching it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It received more than 200,000 applications, of which 80,000 were approved.
Nikkan Gendai says there is no real difference between the work done by volunteers and that done by temp staff. A public relations representative told the tabloid that the paid workers are expected to have “special skills,” but the only condition for employment is having once had a full-time job, or even a part-time job with “leadership” responsibilities.
Taniguchi, again, is quoted by Nikkan Gendai as saying that the committee could have taken on some of the rejected volunteer applicants or, more properly, directly hired these workers themselves. They don’t need Pasona, which will make money off the deal, but, then again, Pasona is an official “supporter” of the 2020 Games.
Other media also covered this story, but without the suspicious tone. The exceptions included the consistently skeptical website Litera and the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, which is surprising since Nikkei is an official Olympic partner. Sometimes, the opportunism is too ripe to ignore.