With just over a year and a half to go until the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, some significant challenges remain for organizers, but 2018 proved to be a year in which progress was made and notable milestones were achieved.
The end of the year saw a flurry of meetings and announcements, both marking gains on some major issues and laying bare the hurdles the organizing committee and International Olympic Committee still have to clear.
Challenges aside, IOC President Thomas Bach struck an upbeat tone about the status of preparations on his first visit to Japan since 2016.
“I cannot remember any Olympic city being so well, and so much, advanced two years before the games as Tokyo 2020 is,” Bach said in late November while in the Japanese capital for the IOC’s executive board meeting.
“We see already now, two years before these Olympic Games, all the ingredients for successful Olympics Games are in place.”
But some challenges remain, none bigger than the one that threatens boxing’s place in the games.
At that executive board meeting, the decision was made to launch an inquiry into the sport’s governing body, the International Boxing Federation, with the issue guaranteed to dog both the IOC and local organizers for some time yet.
AIBA, as the federation is known, elected a president with alleged criminal ties to take over an organization with a recent history of financial mismanagement, pushing the IOC to start an investigation that could lead to the sport being left off the games program for only the second time in Olympic history.
While the AIBA inquiry goes on, the organizing committee will be barred from having any contact with the federation, from organizing test events, selling tickets or even finalizing the competition schedule, creating a cloud of uncertainty that will not clear until the sport is definitively in or out — a decision that will come no later than June 2019.
“We do not want athletes to suffer for the misbehavior of officials or people which they are not related (to), with misbehavior whom they have nothing to do (with),” said Bach after the inquiry’s announcement.
With the boxing debacle looking like it will go the distance, organizers were at least able to end the year having made headway on the long-running debate around the issue of the effect of Tokyo’s extreme heat.
The concern was brought into stark relief this summer when Tokyo suffered through a historic heat wave, with one area near the Japanese capital seeing a record temperature of 41.1 C. Over the summer season, 96 deaths were attributed to the heat in the city.
Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee head Yoshiro Mori announced in December that, if the relevant federations agree, the marathons and race walks will start at 6 a.m. — an hour earlier than previously scheduled — and the rugby schedule will be altered to avoid the worst of the heat, with mountain bike races also shifted.
With the countdown clock ticking ever onwards, Tokyo 2020 was able to check off some significant items from its to-do list this year.
The organizing committee announced it has filled its volunteer quota twice over. As of Dec. 26, Tokyo 2020 received 186,101 applications, more than doubling the 80,000 volunteers it requires. Among the applicants, 63 percent were female and 37 percent were non-Japanese, indicative of the wide appeal of the games.
Despite some concerns about communication difficulties with non-Japanese speaking foreigners and the always-challenging issue of volunteers finding and paying for accommodation in an Olympic city, organizers and the IOC are upbeat about the program’s progress.
The year saw another Olympic rite of passage completed when the names and designs of the mascots were revealed, both to a warm public reception.
The unveiling of Miraitowa and Someity, the Olympic and Paralympic mascots, respectively, saw long lines form at various merchandise store locations, with the now-ubiquitous blue and pink characters designed by Fukuoka Prefecture native Ryo Taniguchi and voted on by elementary school children across Japan proving a hit.
In a more concrete indication of the progress being made, the imposing New National Stadium has taken shape in its central location between the iconic Shibuya and Shinjuku areas, with the Japan Sport Council saying the main Olympic and Paralympic stadium is on track to be completed in November 2019. But it is far from the only tangible advance.
In November, media were invited to see the new wooden roof of the Ariake Gymnastics Center, with organizers saying the venue is now 50 percent complete and that the Ariake Arena, which will host volleyball and wheelchair basketball, has progressed to more than 40 percent complete as of December 5. In July, organizers reported that all venues are on track to be completed on time.
Tokyo 2020 provided a games budget update on Dec. 21, but further savings proved difficult to find. The organizing committee said any savings were offset by new spending and announced an unchanged but balanced budget figure of ¥1.35 trillion ($12 billion) that is fully privately financed.
“Tokyo 2020 has seen increases in some new areas but has successfully reduced expenditures in other areas, resulting in the updated budget remaining the same as the previous version,” said Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto.
“There is still a lot of work to be done to control expenditures, but with the cooperation of the IOC, Tokyo 2020 will continue to make best efforts to maximize revenues, contain costs and keep its budget within ¥600 billion.”
The upcoming year will bring the games into much sharper focus for both organizers and those living in the host city.
Test events began in late 2018 with a sailing World Cup event in Enoshima, Kanagawa prefecture, but really get into full swing from late June 2019, with some relatively major events, like the World Judo Championships and table tennis Team World Cup, being incorporated into a full schedule of 36 separate events which run until May 2020.
The success of an Olympic and Paralympic Games is more often than not determined by how full the stadiums are. For a metropolitan area like Tokyo, with a population of more than 38 million people and where most sporting events are extremely well attended, spectator numbers are unlikely to be an issue.
Ticket applications will open from spring of 2019, and organizers have already opened an online portal to allow prospective attendees to register their interest.
When announcing ticket prices, Tokyo 2020 touted the fact that half of all tickets will be priced at ¥8,000 ($72.55) or less, with high-profile events such as athletics reaching ¥130,000. Tickets to the highly-anticipated Olympic Opening Ceremony will go for as much as ¥300,000 ($2,720).
With venues on track, tickets soon to be available and volunteers seemingly aplenty, the ever-growing 2,000-person-strong organizing committee will be looking to make their final 572 days count as they work to deliver sport’s greatest show.