A Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games Bid – Really?

As I write, reports are streaming out of Japan that a magnitude 5.5 earthquake has rumbled through central regions of the country, including Tokyo. While relatively minor, the tremble surely invoked memories of the earthquake and resulting tsunami and nuclear disaster that impacted the nation earlier in the year.

Friday’s quake would have been felt by the hundreds of dignitaries, athletes and journalists who were visiting for a ceremony to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC). Timed for the event, the JOC is expected to announce that Tokyo will bid for the 2020 Olympic Games.

There are so many things wrong – and right – about this.

An Olympic bid isn’t new, or unexpected for Tokyo. The 1964 Olympic host city last bid for the 2016 Games and was soundly defeated by Rio de Janeiro and Madrid on a platform that stressed sustainability and a Games for the athletes at the centre of the city. The bid wasn’t ready and the timing, a critical element in these contests, was all wrong – Rio’s destiny was in the way. But after the failed campaign, the JOC has always hinted that there would be another try.

But after the quake, everything has changed. A follow-up bid suddenly isn’t necessary, but at the same time seems more important than ever.

Being almost unavoidable, a bid for 2020 would likely focus on the aftermath of the disasters. But interestingly this same focus will help propel both supporters of the bid as well as their opponents.

JOC president Tsunekazu Takeda believes the Games will help the recovery and reconstruction of his country – but that can only happen if the Games are won. Winning an Olympic bid campaign now will be fraught with many obstacles for Tokyo.

Last week PyeongChang, South Korea was elected to host the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, to be held two years earlier and on the same continent as Japan. International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge told reporters that since those are Winter Games and Tokyo would be competing for Summer Games – there shouldn’t be a problem. It’s an easy thing to say, but try convincing 110 IOC members who have historically awarded Asia only a token share of the Games – and who are now setting their sights further west for the next instalment.

You could argue that IOC members might be sentimental, appeal to the emotional recovery story, and forget petty geopolitics to really help out Olympic friends in dire need. But before you throw weight behind that, consider that in reaction to the 9/11 terror attacks in New York, Rome’s mayor said that other cities should concede the 2012 bid to the battered city. The Big Apple bid, leveraging 9/11 ‘goodwill’ from time-to-time, but ultimately placed fourth after London was awarded the Games. The IOC voters were all business.

Strong bids, each with their own compelling stories, are beginning to line up for the same Games including Madrid representing a fifth straight Spanish bid; five-time bidder Istanbul; Rome and perhaps World Cup Cinderella story Doha, Qatar.

A bid could cost USD $150 million, win or lose. While this number seems insignificant compared with the billions needed to rebuild, impacted residents who have lost their homes or business to the tsunami won’t easily listen to a proposal that includes spending the money on an international campaign to promote sport in Tokyo – while they lack the funds to rebuild their shattered lives.

And as for hope – winning the Games would be a long shot at best – is this an appropriate tease for the thousands who have suffered in the devastated regions? The typical Olympic values of competition really don’t apply here.

If the Games were guaranteed to Japan, it would be a much more compelling proposition. Creating a common national goal and fulfilling a dream would benefit the entire country. The creation of jobs and investment would speed up recovery and plans could be made to share the benefits between the Tokyo area and the recovering regions. I’m convinced that the Games could do all of this and more.

But the JOC can’t move forward just on the premise that these Games will be won. In order for the bid to be palatable, there needs to be a real legacy from the bid itself – and the millions of dollars spent to that end.

Can a bid really create hope for a better future, even without the pretense that it will be successful? Will the tsunami victims somehow benefit from a bid, or even the Games themselves, more than if the funds were sent directly to the agencies that are now helping them the most?

There may be a way, but these are the questions that the JOC needs to answer, and what the team should be thinking about as they build a campaign.

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