Editorials

National Stadium boondoggle

The decision last week by the Japan Sports Council to go ahead with construction of the new National Stadium, the main venue for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, in accordance with the original design defies widespread criticism that blames the controversial design for much of the planned structure’s enormous cost overrun. It is questionable if the parties involved in the decision process gave serious thought to alternative proposals put forward by experts that would result in a simpler stadium at a much more affordable cost, or if they even cared that taxpayers will have to bear the burden of the ballooning expenses.

When the JSC, an external body of the education and sports ministry responsible for the new stadium project, adopted the design by London-based architect Zaha Hadid in an international competition in November 2012, the construction cost was estimated at ¥130 billion — much higher than the main stadium of the 2012 London Games, which cost ¥83.7 billion, and the main venue of the 2008 Beijing Games, which was built for ¥54 billion. But less than a year later — shortly after Tokyo was chosen as host of the 2020 games — education minister Hakubun Shimomura stated that the price of the new stadium could hit ¥300 billion.

A JSC panel in charge of the new stadium project then came up with a plan to pare down the construction cost to ¥185 billion by reducing the total floor space by roughly 25 percent. In May 2014, the panel approved a basic plan that, with more slight changes to the design, was supposed to reduce the cost to ¥162.5 billion. In late June, however, the education minister disclosed that the cost of the new stadium would reach ¥252 billion, even after cost-cutting measures such as postponing the construction of its retractable roof until after the 2020 games and making 15,000 of its total 80,000 seats removable.

With the endorsement of the latest plan by members of its panel on July 7, the JSC reportedly plans to shortly sign a contract with the builders of the new stadium so that its construction can start as early as in October with the aim of completing it by May 2019. However, the repeated revisions to the cost estimate over a short period of time raise doubts over the plan’s credibility.

JSC officials said the estimated cost overrun from its basic plan just 14 months ago amounts to ¥115.5 billion, not including the expenses for the cost of building the retractable roof and other facilities after the games. They explained that ¥76.5 billion of the additional cost derives from the engineering challenge of building the stadium’s unique structure — which features two gigantic keel arches forming the backbone of its roof — that requires special skills to construct, while blaming another ¥35 billion on a surge in the costs of manpower and construction materials.

While the JSC officials insist that overshooting of the construction cost due to its complicated design was “unforeseeable,” it is something that has repeatedly been pointed out by experts, including Pritzker laureate Fumihiko Maki and other architects, who called for replacing Hadid’s design with a much simpler one that would allow the new stadium to be built faster and at a far lower cost. Education minister Shimomura has argued that fundamentally changing the design at this stage would make it impossible to complete the new stadium in time for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, which Japan hosts. But it’s not clear if the relevant parties, including Shimomura, seriously weighed the calls for alternative plans despite the mushrooming cost of the original design.

JSC officials have rebutted the calls for fundamentally altering the stadium’s design on the grounds that Japan would be breaking the international commitment it made in its campaign for hosting the 2020 games, and that it was their responsibility to keep the core of the original design intact. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that easily changing the basic design could damage international trust in Japan. But they never clearly explained what specific problems would emerge if the stadium’s complex design was scrapped in favor of a simpler and less costly one.

In the face of ballooning construction and manpower costs, the Japanese organizing committee has significantly altered its plans for other venues of the 2020 games, canceling the construction of new facilities in favor of using existing ones — a move that will save a total of ¥214 billion. These changes have already been endorsed by the International Olympic Committee. It’s hard to understand why a similar effort cannot be made to slash the cost of building the new National Stadium.

Other details of the JSC’s plan highlight the shaky nature of its cost estimates. The cost of major overhauls of the new stadium needed in the 50 years following its completion, which was estimated at some ¥65.5 billion in August, has now been revised sharply upward to ¥104.6 billion. While the JSC earlier said that it expected the operation of the stadium after the 2020 games would bring some ¥330 million in profit annually, now the yearly profit estimate has been significantly downsized to ¥38 million.

The JSC is also attempting to embark on the project even as sources of funding to cover much of the new stadium’s huge cost have yet to be secured. The national government has asked the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to put up ¥50 billion to shoulder part of the expenses, but Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe has not given a definitive answer even though he has eased his position on the matter. The education and sports ministry is reportedly counting on more than ¥100 billion from the revenue of the soccer lottery, whose sales can rise and fall. Education minister Shimomura has indicated that the government will consider selling the naming rights of the new stadium and soliciting private-sector donations, but it’s not known how much revenue this would bring in.

The government and the JSC should think again if forging ahead with the new stadium construction according to the current plan, despite all these problems, would be consistent with the IOC’s new policy adopted in December that calls for reducing the financial burdens on future Olympic host cities.

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