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It’s a little past 3 p.m. on Tuesday, two days after the closing ceremony of the Olympics. It’s scorching in Tokyo, the temperature hovering near 35 degrees Celsius.

In Ueno, a bustling working-class area in the northeastern part of the city, pedestrians sweating through their shirts are making their way down the district’s crowded alleys lined with numerous izakaya pubs.

Despite Tokyo being under a state of emergency — during which restaurants and bars serving alcohol are asked to close — many joints are open, and customers can be seen downing ice-cold mugs of draft beer and chomping on yakitori skewers.

At one of the less-crowded establishments, the air-conditioner offers a cool respite from the blazing sun. The counter seats are mostly occupied by middle-aged men, some wearing suits with their masks resting uncomfortably on their chin. Many of the customers sitting at tables appear to be couples, perhaps on summer holidays.

There’s a television set on in the corner of the pub, set to NHK and broadcasting the Koshien summer high school baseball championships that kicked off Monday. The Olympics are over, and Japan seems to have moved on to its next favorite pastime until the Paralympics begin.

At the end of the counter is a man who appears to be in his early 40s. He’s fiddling with his iPhone and occasionally taking in the game on TV.

He tells me his name is Takei. He works for a fare-adjustment machine operator, but isn’t on shift today. Our conversation drifts toward the intense heat and the Olympics, and Takei mentions he didn’t pay much attention to the Games.

“I didn’t even watch the closing ceremony,” he says. “My wife and I had tickets for one of the competitions but, as you know, spectators weren’t allowed because of the pandemic. If we can only see it on TV, then it’s really just like any other Olympics.”

Health experts have been calling on people to watch the competitions at home, cautioning against unnecessary outings amid record numbers of new COVID-19 cases in the capital.

Takei, sipping on a whiskey highball, says he needs to return home before his wife comes back from work. “She’d kill me if she found out I was drinking at a pub and putting myself at risk of catching the virus,” he says.

He gives a troubled look when asked whether he thinks Tokyo made the right choice in hosting the Games. “I don’t know,” he says. “But with all the parties involved, it seems like there wasn’t much choice but to go ahead.”

Looking for a legacy

It has been a week since the closing ceremony, and even though the Paralympics have yet to take place, that hasn’t stopped pundits, protesters and politicians from clamoring to get their verdicts on the legacy of the Tokyo Olympics recorded for posterity.

But how long does it take to determine a legacy? Surely, more than a week.

Still, the local press has noted largely positive feelings among the public for having gone ahead with the Games, with a Yomiuri Shimbun poll showing 64% of respondents believing it was a good move, and a survey by the Japan News Network put that support at 61%.

Whether you disagreed with Tokyo holding the Games amid a pandemic or not, these Olympics were certainly unlike any others in history due to COVID-19. Following an unprecedented one-year postponement, events began with spectators banned from most venues and athletes confined to an “Olympic bubble,” while the host city and its neighboring prefectures were dealing with that rise in new infections. If talking about legacy, certainly that will all come into play.

Decathlon athletes pose for a group photo after competing. With more competitors taking to social media to talk about their experience, some talked about previously taboo topics such as mental health. | REUTERS
Decathlon athletes pose for a group photo after competing. With more competitors taking to social media to talk about their experience, some talked about previously taboo topics such as mental health. | REUTERS

The reason for the positivity in these polls presumably stems from the fact that Japan racked up a record number of medals — 58, including gold medal firsts for Tottori and Okinawa prefectures, courtesy of boxer Sena Irie and karateka Ryo Kiyuna — providing the nation with moments of pride, jubilation and inspiration, sentiments that have been few and far between since the pandemic began.

But that word, “legacy,” is bound to become a source of contention in the months and years ahead as the public — both here and overseas — debates whether the Olympics were worth the enormous amount of money invested, not least the health risks.

“The government and organizers will need to assess the positive and negative legacies of the Games,” says Hideo Kumano, executive chief economist at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute. “And unless they strive for transparency and accountability, it will become harder to convince the public of the merits of hosting these ‘national’ events in the future.”

The crisis Games

The logistical nightmare of hosting a major international event during a global health crisis could itself be a legacy, according to Toyo University professor Hironori Tanigama, an expert on the history of sports.

From the ubiquitous hand-sanitizing stations and the wiping down of medals to restrictions on mobility, Olympic organizers employed dozens of measures to mitigate the possible spread of COVID-19. A “playbook,” created with advice from the World Health Organization, specified how and when athletes were to be screened for the virus and outlined what would happen if they tested positive.

Things weren’t perfect, of course. Local volunteers who mixed with participants at the events went back to their homes after the day was done, while the staff at hotels housing foreign journalists and other Games-related guests came into contact with those in the bubble on a frequent basis.

“Obviously there are both major and minor issues that need to be addressed and fixed,” Tanigama says. “But how the Tokyo Olympics were hosted could be an operational model for next year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing or other future sporting events, especially when another pandemic or similar crisis hits.”

Might that crisis be a climate-related one? While the heat didn’t affect all the athletes competing in the Games, when it did, it hit hard. Spanish tennis player Paula Badosa left the court in a wheelchair after suffering heat stroke and Russian archer Svetlana Gomboeva fainted during her event. The number of heat-related illnesses could have been much worse had the stadiums been filled with spectators.

The next two Summer Olympics will take place in Paris and Los Angeles, neither of which are exempt from the kinds of extreme temperatures and weather the world is experiencing as a result of climate change. Organizers in those cities were likely watching Tokyo closely.

An expensive endeavor

Officially, the Tokyo Olympics are estimated to have cost at least ¥1.64 trillion ($15.9 billion). However, a 2019 report by the National Audit Board suggested the event could wind up costing more than ¥3 trillion based on over ¥1 trillion in related funding that hasn’t yet been listed. In addition to its record medal haul, Tokyo takes the gold for being the most expensive Games in history.

Again, the pandemic didn’t help. Postponing the Games by a year cost an additional ¥300 billion, while most of the projected ¥90 billion that was to come from ticket sales didn’t materialize. Meanwhile, corporate sponsors such as Panasonic and Toyota Motor Corp. canceled plans for officials to attend the opening ceremony in deference to the unpopularity of the event among Japanese consumers.

“Tokyo will also need to revise the event’s projected economic impact downward,” says Kumano, the economist.

In 2017, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government estimated the nationwide economic impact of the Games would come to ¥32.3 trillion over an 18-year period from 2013 to 2030. In addition, it predicted the Olympics would generate 1.94 million jobs during those years.

A dog gets cool in front of a compact fan in front of an Olympic rings monument in Tokyo amid a scorching heat wave. | KYODO
A dog gets cool in front of a compact fan in front of an Olympic rings monument in Tokyo amid a scorching heat wave. | KYODO

This estimate includes, among other things, the direct investments of ¥5.2 trillion in Games-related operations and the construction of venues, of which ¥3.4 trillion was to be spent in Tokyo. Following the Olympics, the government expected an extra ¥27 trillion to come in from the event’s legacy, ¥17 trillion of which would go to the capital. This would materialize in the form of updated transportation networks and new infrastructure maintenance, tourism, barrier-free measures and revenues from the use of Olympic venues.

“Inbound tourism evaporated due to the pandemic, and it will take some time for overseas visitors to return,” Kumano says. “The site of the athletes village will be redeveloped after the Games and could cover some of the losses, but that’s a small sum compared to the overall price tag.”

Then there’s the question of how to use the sporting venues in the future. According to the metropolitan government, five out of the six new facilities owned by the capital are expected to run annual deficits after the Games. Meanwhile, the Japanese Olympic Committee intends to sell the rights to operate the new National Stadium, but with annual maintenance fees costing around ¥2.4 billion, finding a buyer will prove challenging.

Cost overruns and ballooning expenses have been an issue burdening host cities for decades. It took Montreal, host of the 1976 Summer Games, 30 years to pay off its debt — and that became its legacy.

“The first step is to calculate the deficits and decide on how to share the burden among involved parties,” Kumano says. “Any talk about the Olympics legacy can only come after that.”

Concerns about the financial cost of holding such a large-scale extravaganza were already causing some cities around the world to question whether or not they’d want to play host, particularly in nations whose governments are held more directly accountable by voters. Brisbane, which was recently awarded the 2032 Summer Olympics, was the only city to put its name forward.

Gaffes and grand gestures

Whether the legacy of the Tokyo Olympics in the long-term is a lesson in operating during a pandemic or snowballing costs, in the short term it will likely be remembered for the multiple gaffes and perceived failures in leadership that led to more than 80% of the public wanting to cancel or further postpone the whole affair two months prior to their start.

Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso made headlines in May of last year by calling the Games “cursed”: There were accusations of plagiarism and bribery, gross displays of sexism, and high-profile scandals and gaffes that did nothing to convince the public that the Olympics were anything more than an opportunity for corporations to profit at the expense of athletes, no matter the cost to taxpayers.

“The Olympics have been elevated to myth-like status over the past century — akin to a religion — such that people didn’t really question who was behind them and why they took place every four years,” says Atsuhisa Yamamoto, a professor at Seijo University and an expert on the sociology of sport. “But that veil has been lifted with the Tokyo Olympics, and I believe many Japanese now realize that this is a business orchestrated by the International Olympic Committee.”

Cracks are beginning to show in that business model. Reports say NBC has been busy negotiating with anxious advertisers, offering ways to make up for the Games’ plunge in viewers. Sponsors such as Asahi Breweries faced a public backlash when organizers initially considered allowing alcohol sales at venues before backtracking on those plans.

“Corporations may start questioning the merits of sponsoring the Games,” Yamamoto says. “It could be detrimental to their brand image.”

If there’s a silver lining to any of this, he adds, it might be that athletes are increasingly seizing the opportunity to be political. Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter states “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” Last month, the IOC relaxed the rules by saying athletes can express themselves on the field of play before the start of a competition or introduction of athletes or teams as long as the gesture isn’t disruptive or targeting others’ dignity.

The Tokyo Games saw Belarus sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya use Instagram to criticize her coaches and eventually seek refuge in Poland, U.S. shot putter Raven Saunders raising her arms in a cross on the medal podium in a gesture of solidarity with oppressed people, the U.S. men’s fencing team wearing pink masks in protest of a team member accused of sexual assault, and several women’s teams taking a knee at the start of their matches to protest racism.

While Japanese athletes have not been as vocal as their overseas peers, some have begun speaking up. On Twitter, two-time Olympic swimmer Yayoi Matsumoto questioned a decision by organizers to persist with the Games even as so many other sporting events had been called off, and track athlete Asuka Terada criticized the sexist remarks made by former Olympics chief Yoshiro Mori earlier in the year.

“Athletes are not afraid of speaking up, and I feel this is a sign of hope that could be a legacy of the Tokyo Olympics,” Yamamoto says.

While the Olympics have long been a forum for activism and political protest, what’s new about this summer’s competitions is how open athletes have been about their mental health. Superstar athletes such as Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka have brought the topic into a mainstream conversation that is all the more appropriate because of the pandemic’s impact on all of our psychological well-being.

If the 2020 Summer Games could be remembered for bringing attention to the humanity of our “superhero” athletes, and start a broader conversation on the issue of mental health in sports, then that would be a legacy Tokyo could be proud of.

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