The Olympic Stadium and the Anatomy of Incompetence

Politics Economy Society Culture

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.

Planning for the Long Term

Whenever a new stadium is built to host the Olympics, officials must grapple with the question of how to make use of the facility after the games are over. The Olympics and Paralympics together occupy only one month. How can one make effective use of such a structure over the next 50 or 100 years?

In recent years, the dominant trend has been to build a stadium that can later be adapted to a different purpose, as by removing temporary seating. The stadium built for the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, was designed to facilitate its conversion to a baseball stadium, and it has since become the home of the Atlanta Braves. Sydney’s stadium was scaled down and is now used for soccer, rugby, and Australian rules football. By contrast, the huge stadium known to the world as the Bird’s Nest, home of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was built without such a clear plan for the future and as a result has rarely been put to use in the seven years since the games. (There has been talk of demolishing the facility, given the high cost of maintenance.)

The designers of the abandoned plan for the new Tokyo Olympic stadium were looking to the future, but instead of allowing the facility to be adapted to another purpose, they tried to accommodate a wide range of functions from the outset. The main reason the planned stadium was so large and so costly to build is that it was designed from the start as a multi-purpose facility that could be used for soccer, rugby, and a wide array of cultural events, as well as future track and field meets. For the same reason, the annual cost of maintenance was estimated at a whopping ¥4 billion—about eight times the upkeep of the old National Stadium and more than enough to keep the new one operating in the red indefinitely.

With hundreds of billions of yen in public funds at stake, one might expect the officials and other involved in the process to feel the weight of responsibility for their decisions. But a sense of responsibility has been conspicuously lacking at each stage of the process.

Who's in Charge Here?

The climax and denouement of this debacle resembled a round robin of finger pointing. JSC President Kōno Ichirō insisted that any decision to pull the plug lay with MEXT, not the JSC. Education and Sports Minister Shimomura called on architect Andō Tadao, who chaired the judging committee for the design competition, to explain why such a costly design was selected in the first place. Andō countered that the jury had completed its job when it chose the design, and called on the government to explain how costs subsequently spiraled out of control. So, who bears responsibility?

Organizationally speaking, the administrative body overseeing the Olympic stadium’s design and construction is the Japan Sport Council, an incorporated administrative agency that operates under the supervision of MEXT. In 2012, the JSC set up a so-called Expert Panel in charge of the new National Stadium. The Expert Panel established a judging committee, chaired by Andō Tadao, to hold an international competition and choose a design concept from among the submissions. The committee drew up the contest rules and guidelines and ultimately selected Zaha Hadid’s design. But both the rules and the selection had to be approved at a meeting of the Expert Panel attended by two top MEXT officials—a vice-minister and the director-general of the Sport and Youth Bureau. Presiding over the entire process, presumably, was the Minister of Education and Sports.

By rights, all of these individuals from the minister on down share in the responsibility for the fiasco. But almost without exception, their response has been to pass the buck. The Expert Panel claims that JSC officials had the final say, while the JSC officials alternately point to the Expert Panel and MEXT.

A key factor behind this sorry state of affairs is the wide discretion given the JSC, a body with no expertise in the field of architecture or stadium design. Like dozens of other incorporated administrative agencies created since 1999, the JSC allows its own officials and those of its parent agency to spend vast sums of taxpayer money largely free from accountability or legislative oversight.

This lack of accountability was built into the contract concluded between the JSC and Zaha Hadid. The architect was paid ¥1.3 billion for her blueprint and associated services on the understanding that the JSC and MEXT would take over from there, handling all decisions concerning the actual construction. These decisions were essentially rubber-stamped by the Expert Panel, a group conspicuously lacking in architectural expertise. Here, in a nutshell, is a prescription for allocating huge sums of money without taking responsibility for those decisions.

Opacity and Incongruity

The other fundamental problem with the process was the level of opacity, beginning with the design competition. While the sponsors spoke of drawing from a vast international pool of talent, in fact they drew only from among the winners of the five major international architecture awards, including the Pritzker Prize and the UIA (International Union of Architects) Gold Medal, thus excluding budding young talents from the competition. And while stressing public participation, they provided almost no explanation of the judging process, which was anything but transparent.

But when it came to building guidelines, the government was worse than opaque; it was arbitrary and inconsistent. When the guidelines were released in July 2012, land-use regulations already on the books set a maximum building height of 20 meters for the district in question, and a maximum of just 15 meters for the site of the stadium, which is part of the protected “scenic area” around Meiji Shrine. Yet the contest organizers made the maximum height of the stadium a full 70 meters, assuming the relevant statutes could easily be trashed to accommodate the structure. Tokyo’s urban plan was accordingly modified in June 2013, almost a year after the selection of the winning design.

The Gaien, or outer precinct, of Meiji Shrine, was planned as an integral element of the shrine complex dedicated to Emperor Meiji, and it was the first spot in Tokyo to be designated a “scenic area” subject to strict land-use regulations. Thanks to this designation, the nation has been able to preserve the unique history and scenic beauty of this site, with its ginkgo-lined avenue and its forest full of 100-year-old trees, making it one of the best known urban green spaces in Japan. This is the context in which the 15-meter limit was established.

Disregarding these regulations and their rationale, the JSC approved a towering, sprawling structure that would have covered almost the entire building plot, necessitating the clearing of many trees. In addition to its impact on the landscape, a facility designed to house tens of thousands of spectators would have posed serious safety problems given the difficulty of evacuating them from the site in the event of a disaster.

Symptoms of a Bigger Problem

The series of events leading up to Abe’s July 17 announcement have cost the nation dearly, but the structural problems they embody are far more serious.

The first of these is the practice of adopting and planning major national projects through various opaque, extralegal channels. Three years after the launch of the stadium project, the quantity and quality of information provided to the public is still woefully inadequate. This mode of operation makes a mockery of democracy.

The second issue is the persistence of an outdated proclivity for grandiose projects that ultimately serve no one’s practical interests, let alone the nation’s. Forgetting their original purpose, agencies like MEXT and the JSC function first and foremost to expand their own budgets, programs, and facilities, with politicians of the ruling party as their accomplices.

The third structural problem is an inability to change course, even when the gravity of their mistake becomes glaringly apparent. Japanese officials are so worried about angering their own superiors and colleagues that they never stop to think what damage—catastrophic in some cases—their inertia might cause the nation as a whole.

Sad to say, these are the very tendencies that historians have cited as key factors leading up to Japan’s entry into World War II.

In July Prime Minister Abe finally moved to pull the plug on this white elephant of a project. But trimming the costs involved in building the Olympic stadium will not solve the more fundamental problem. Policy makers who act in deference to the climate of opinion within their own closed circle are leading Japanese society to the brink of disaster. We need to treat the stadium fiasco as a wake-up call and stop this runaway train before it is too late.

(Originally written in Japanese and published on June 30, 2015. Banner photo: Model of the new national Olympic stadium approved by the Japan Sport Council. ©Jiji.)

sports MEXT National stadium Shimomura Hakubun Japan Sport Council Zaha Hadid