Flawed strategy, mistakes jeopardizing Tokyo’s bid to host 2020 Olympics


Have you ever given your best effort while striving to achieve something but felt like what you were doing was futile?

That’s the feeling I’m getting about Tokyo’s bid to host the 2020 Olympics.

With just over three months to go until the IOC votes in Buenos Aires, the bid seems adrift and still lacking a cogent message about why Tokyo should host the biggest global sporting event.

Tokyo Gov. Naoki Inose’s recent unfortunate comments about Turkey and Islam were just the latest misstep by the bid organizers. To go to a place like New York and make ill-informed statements to the media about another country and religion was both ignorant and insensitive.

Many will try to write it off as another example of a politician putting his foot in his mouth, but with Inose being the chairman of the Tokyo 2020 bid, that is not so easy.

It speaks to a deeper issue that is often seen in Japan: a lack of understanding about the feelings of others and a stubbornness that can be very counterproductive.

In predictable fashion, Inose first tried to deny saying anything controversial, before finally apologizing. But the damage was done. You can’t unring a bell, as the saying goes.

The problems with Tokyo’s bid are many, but the most significant are the continuing attempt to tie it into the financial muscle of the nation, playing the safety card, and linking it to the March 11 disaster in Tohoku.

While the IOC is always about making money, the 99 individual IOC members who will vote in Argentina for Tokyo, Istanbul or Madrid are more altruistic. This is why Tokyo 2020’s ongoing discussion about its reserve fund is probably doing more harm than good.

Every time the bid leaders try to talk about how safe Tokyo is — clearly an attempt to imply that Istanbul is not — I wince. It’s as if the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system never happened.

Nearly 20,000 people perished in the March 11 disaster, and to think a massive quake could not strike during the 2020 Games is foolhardy. So talking about safety as a key selling point of the bid is a mistake.

Also, trying to connect to the catastrophe in Tohoku and claim if Tokyo hosts the Olympics it will inspire the nation to rebuild is a huge stretch. This was part of the philosophy for awarding Tokyo the 1964 Games, which were held less than 20 years after World War II ended.

In 1964, there was great symbolism to Japan hosting the Olympics and re-emerging after the destruction the war had wreaked on the country and its economy. But the March 11 disaster — as tragic as it was — was not World War II and trying to equate that it was goes way off the mark.

The reality is that for many years, big-time sporting events have been coming to Japan less and less. It is a very obvious sign that the market for them has been contracting like many other things in this country.

When was the last time the NBA came here?

Not since 2003.

How about the NFL?

That was in 2005.

The NHL?

All the way back in 2000.

A heavyweight title fight?

1996 (when George Foreman defended the lightly-regarded World Boxing Union belt).

Japan is even set to lose its top-tier WTA tennis tournament after this year.

Notice a pattern here?

Why have all of the aforementioned occurred?

Because of the irrefutable fact that Japan is no longer seen as a great place to stage major events. That is the bottom line.

Japan is slated to host the Rugby World Cup in 2019, but based on its record in the event, one has to question the legitimacy of this decision.

Soccer can still pull in the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal on preseason tours, and has staged the Club World Cup here several times, but those and occasional visits from Major League Baseball teams are about it.

Pro and college teams and leagues used to see Japan as a place to make easy money, but those days are long gone, likely to never return.

Though I have great respect for both Japan Olympic Committee president Tsunekazu Takeda and Tokyo 2020 CEO Masato Mizuno, I feel like they have received poor advice from their coterie of internal and external advisors.

I also question why the core bid team is exclusively Japanese.

If the goal is all about getting Tokyo the Olympics, and money is no object, shouldn’t they be bringing in the best people they can get?

And I’m not talking about consultants living in other countries.

Here is where the stubbornness could be the undoing of the bid. We have seen it time and again over the years.

“We are going to do it our way — the Japanese way — even if we fail.”

This kind of thinking just doesn’t cut it in the wired world of 2013. It would seem to me that it should be the opposite, the bid should be comprised of a multicultural unit that could cover all of the angles.

Instead, we are seeing the same old thing — a Japanese team that is having trouble delivering its message.

With just over 100 days to go until decision day, Tokyo 2020 has no prominent athlete out front, like Pyeongchang’s winning 2018 bid did with Kim Yu Na.


Just two weeks ago, Takeda spoke at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan to try to highlight the bid’s underlying thesis. Having to do something like that, this late in the game, smacked of desperation.

The bottom line is that there is no groundswell of public support for Tokyo to host the 2020 Games. I don’t care how many polls claim that interest is increasing. The truth is that many people are indifferent.

The vibe I and many others are getting is that the Tokyo bid is more about trying to make money for large companies and their subsidiaries. Not exactly a tune that plays well with regular folks in the current economic climate, if you get my drift.

I communicate with a lot of people in the sports media business and don’t know of many who think Tokyo is going to prevail.

In fact, I would not be at all surprised if Istanbul clinches victory on the first ballot.

I hope I’m wrong, but as the sand goes through the hourglass, Tokyo’s chances seem to be slipping away.

  • Joe Dilenschneider

    Thank you Jack.

    With his ridiculous and insenstive comments, Tokyo Governor Naoki Inose has essentially handed the 2020 Summer Olympics over to Istanbul. Since Gov. Inose stated that “Islamic countries, the only thing they share in common is Allah and they are fighting with each other, and they have classes.”, it’s a no brainer (especially considering that Japan and Spain have already hosted the Summer Olympic Games) that the IOC selects Istanbul, i.e. to promote harmony and peace in the region. Thank you Governor Inose, and yes Jack, it is now a losing battle.

    Joe Dilenschneider

  • Tatami53

    Jack, why do you hope you’re wrong?You are right on every point you made. Finally, someone speaks the truth! Japan continues to live in a deep, deep fantasy world. Living in Tokyo as I do, it is almost repulsive to have been bombarded with constant reminders on subways and trains, either through videos or print ads, of former Japanese Olympic champions, waving their gold/bronze medals around, hugging each other, showing “the world” (and inculcating the public) that the Japanese are the best–and, therefore (?) the Olympics should come here? There isn’t ONE foreign athlete in any of those ads. Where is the sense of sportsmanship? Oh, there isn’t any.

    The “message” that Tokyo is the place for the 2020 Olympics ignores so many, many things. You discuss some of them, especially “safety.” I work and have worked at major hotels in Tokyo for many years, as well as at high-end clubs and restaurants. I can promise you, if they are located in a building with multiple floors (which they all are), that ALL of their stairwells and fire safety equipment is BLOCKED with boxes, coat racks, tables, chairs — anything they don’t want the public to see. I have complained numerous times and on OCCASION they would move things to shut me up. But they’d be right where they were the next day. In what way is this “safe”? And to think there wouldn’t be an earthquake here… gimme a break!

    The other point about Inose’s foot-in-mouth syndrome touches upon the tip of an iceberg. It confirms that many Japanese politicians remain clueless about the rest of the world and are particularly insensitive to non-Japanese. It is my strong feeling that all foreigners, including those who live in Japan, are only considered wallets and purses; Japan would be thrilled if we would come, spend and leave.

    The third and most tragic point that you also mention is somehow linking the 2020 bid with the Tohoku disaster. This is pathetic. The organizers/politicians/dreamers imagine that if the 2020 Olympics come to Japan it will “inspire the nation to rebuild”? This is laughable. If the government of Japan ended its pipe dream and funneled all the money that has been wasted on advertisements attempting to brainwash the Japanese public that the Olympics are a “good” thing and instead put into community re-building in Tohoku, and taking care of the people who are still reliant on donations and still do not have permanent housing–if that was done, I would have some respect for this country’s leaders. But because they somehow are still living in a fantasy where they imagine that Japan will rise like a phoenix (with the billions of yen that would come in as a result of the Olympics)–knowing full well the scandals, the embezzlements, the lies, the shoddy workmanship, and, let’s not forget the AKB48 blitz of “Gambatte” songs, ad nauseam that would follow as a result of “rewarding” Tokyo with the Olympics–I strongly, strongly hope that the IOC does the right thing and awards either Madrid or Istanbul. The leaders of Tokyo have not yet proven they are mature enough to handle what comes with hosting the Olympics, and I highly doubt they ever will be.

  • I used to work at the agency handling communications for the Tokyo 2020 bid – back then, we were doing Tokyo 2016. The agency has had some success with Olympic bids, and brings a significant amount of knowledge to the table. My impression was that Tokyo was never interested in making the best use of that knowledge – they had their plan, their “way of doing things” and we were simply there to sharpen pencils and empty wastebaskets. Yes, the contract was lucrative, but what’s the point of paying for expertise if you’re not going to use it to your advantage?

  • Stephen Kent

    Very well said.

    There really doesn’t seem to be any awareness of or support for bid, does there. In fact the only posters I have seen trying to promote the Olympics was in a metro station, and the creators seemed to have given up on the idea of using actual sports to sell it because it was a picture of the pop group Exile with “Tokyo 2020” above them. Absolutely pointless.

  • taylor

    I have contacted several people who work for JOC/Tokyo gov. bidding team. BUT none of they gave me clear answer but just fog and fade out.
    I insist to them, it is not about what Olympic games bring to Tokyo (dream or economic stimulus), but what legacies(benefits) Tokyo can give to OG. After all, they are not understanding that, neither no will to work on that. – a good example of that they do not have willing to understand the feeling of others and stubbornness.
    Although I believe Tokyo is one of the strongest metropolis in terms of both economy and hospitality, but the people(human resources) are the weakness of the city. Either Japanese change their way of thinking, or open the city to foreigners, otherwise, Tokyo is still “potentially great”.

  • $31640161

    Well, Tokyo’s story line is: it’ll be good to hold 2020 here because we are the best of the 3; and it’ll be rotten to hold it in the other two places because they are NOT as good as us! Plain and simple.

  • surge79uwf

    Well, if Tokyo is to lose, let the Turks waste their money on infrastructure. It will cost them dearly once the games are done. Let’s see if they struggle and end up having a war to recoup. By the way, wishing for the NBA (an overrated league), the NFL (an overrated league of a sport that no one but wannabe Americans care about) and the NHL (a DYING league) to come to Japan just underscores the wish of this American commentator for his games to be taken seriously.

    • jhalibut

      the previous writer must have some bizarre complex about North American sports. if the NHL is a dying league why was there no dropoff in attendance after a lockout? why do the best players from Europe end up playing in the NHL? why do they get upwards of 100,000 fans for the Winter Classic? why are TV ratings for the Stanley Cup playoffs up in the States? doesn’t sound like a ‘dying’ league to me.

  • drew_in_wonderland

    Regardless of whether the bid succeeds, you’re being much too harsh. Japan has successfully hosted major international sporting events in the not-so-distant past.

    The 1991 IAAF World Championships were spectacular. Carl Lewis set a new world record in the 100 meters, and Mike Powell broke Bob Beamon’s 24-year-old world record. They were able to do that, at least in part, because the facilities were superb.

    The 1998 winter Olympics in Nagano and the 2002 FIFA World Cup were also wonderfully successful. (Although in the latter case there was a stir over a gaffe by a certain Australian Japan Times columnist, so don’t think that Japanese officials have a monopoly on foot-in-mouth disease.)

    And, yes, safety is hugely important. In Tokyo you won’t have to worry about crazed right-wing bombers killing and maiming people at an Olympic venue, as happened in Atlanta. And you certainly won’t encounter the last-minute security worries that London faced last year.

    Japan can easily host a spectacularly successful international event again. It just needs a break. Why don’t you give it one.

  • gnirol

    And now daily protests and violent govt reaction in Turkey. We might end up with Madrid, though one wonders where that city is going to get the money. By the way, how sad that the major selling point of Olympic bidders is how safe their city is in comparison to other places. Do you suppose Helsinki won in 1952 because it was considered safer than Amsterdam and the five American cities that bid that year?

  • TruthhurtsII

    Jack always hits the nail on the head. His articles and columns are always interesting and educational for those of us who don’t live in Japan but love the Japanese figure skaters.