The Olympic Stadium and the Anatomy of Incompetence

Katō Hideki [Profile]

[2015.08.19] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL |

Prime Minister Abe Shinzō has finally pulled the plug on a controversial Olympic stadium plan that seemed to epitomize irresponsible government spending, but the uproar is far from over. Katō Hideki, a former Ministry of Finance official and a longtime critic of Japan’s bureaucratic and political culture, analyzes the roots and implications of the stadium fiasco.

On July 17, the festering controversy over plans for a new Olympic stadium, the central venue for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games, finally came to a head as Prime Minister Abe Shinzō announced the government’s decision to abandon Zaha Hadid’s embattled design and start over from scratch.

For weeks the prime minister had ruled out the possibility of scrapping the plan, despite the growing public outcry over its skyrocketing costs and general unsuitability. Finally, faced with a plummeting cabinet approval rating and rising criticism from his own party, Abe was forced to do an embarrassing about-face.

Controversial from the start, the project began to run into serious trouble in May this year, when Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology Shimomura Hakubun suggested that construction costs could soar to ¥260 billion—up a full ¥100 billion from the estimate released a year earlier—despite a decision to omit the retractable roof and movable seating.

The scale, aesthetics, and likely cost of the plan had drawn fire from architects and opposition politicians almost from the moment of its unveiling in November 2012. But for more than two years officials at the ministry (MEXT) turned a deaf ear to the criticism. Several respected architects suggested renovating the National Stadium built for the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, but rather than deliberate the merits of such proposals, MEXT shut down the debate by forging ahead with the old facility’s demolition. (During most of this time, the mass media and the sports world were conspicuously silent.)

The debacle has implications that extend far beyond the 2020 Olympics. It embodies structural problems endemic to Japanese government as a whole. To analyze these issues, let us examine the project’s problems more closely.

The old National Stadium (center right), flanked by the other facilities of the Meiji Jingū Gaien sports complex and (at upper right) the wooded precincts of Meiji Shrine. The photo was taken in May 2014, before the stadium’s demolition earlier this year.( ©Jiji)

A Bloated Concept

Let us begin with costs. The initial estimate for the entry that London-based architect Zaha Hadid submitted to Japan’s international design competition in July 2012 was ¥130 billion. This was already an unprecedented sum, dwarfing the ¥76 billion that Britain paid for its London Olympic facility, which opened the same year (not to mention the ¥64 billion price tag for Sydney’s Olympic stadium, completed in 1999). In May 2014, amid harsh criticism over the stadium’s grandiose scale—including its potential impact on the park area surrounding Meiji Shrine—the Japan Sport Council released a revised plan that reduced the total floor area by about 20% while substantially altering the sleek exterior of the original. The JSC’s cost estimate for the scaled-down plan was ¥162.5 billion. Barely a year later, Shimomura revealed that the cost of construction was likely to reach some ¥260 billion, even minus the retractable roof. Total costs, by some estimates, could have risen as high as ¥400 billion, including the cost of preparing the foundation for the two 400-meter  “keel arches” running the length of the stadium.

The JSC blamed the escalating costs primarily on these gigantic arches and other features of the design submitted by Hadid. Building a structure of this sort in the very heart of Tokyo, almost filling a closely hemmed-in plot of land, would have posed huge engineering challenges from the foundation up, something the initial estimate failed to take fully into account. Rapidly rising construction costs have also been cited, but these can account for only a fraction of the increase.

More pertinent to the problem of high costs in my estimation was the plan’s size. Of the unprecedented floor area, almost half was devoted to functions peripheral to the basic purpose of the facility. Spectator space accounted for 85,000 m2 and competition space for 24,000 m2, for a total of about 115,000 m2 to perform the core functions of a sports stadium. Meanwhile, 40,000 m2 were set aside for offices, meeting rooms, and maintenance facilities; 25,000 m2 for parking; 20,000 m2 for VIP lounges, spectator boxes, restaurants, and other hospitality facilities; and 14,000 m2 for sports promotion functions, including an exhibition hall, library, and shops. Particularly questionable was the huge amount of space—almost one-fourth of the total seating area—devoted to VIP lounges, spectator boxes, and other facilities targeting the privileged few.

At the same time, the now abandoned plan omitted a permanent auxiliary track for practice purposes—an essential feature for major track and field events—on the grounds that there was no room for it at the site. Instead the organizers planned to erect a temporary sub-track in the surrounding area during the Olympics. This would limit the stadium’s usefulness for national- and international-level competitions after the Olympics.

  • [2015.08.19]

President of the think tank Japan Initiative. Graduated from the Kyoto University Faculty of Economics and served in the Ministry of Finance until 1997, when he founded the Japan Initiative. Has served as a professor of policy management at Keiō University and secretary general of the Government Revitalization Unit under the Cabinet Office. Author of Ajia kakkoku no keizai/shakai shisutemu (Economic and Social Systems of East Asia), Kin’yū shijō to chikyū kankyō (Financial Markets and the Global Environment), and other works.

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