Tight Race for the 2020 Olympics Nears Its End

Society Culture

The International Olympic Committee will vote on September 7 in Buenos Aires to decide whether Istanbul, Madrid, or Tokyo will host 2020 Olympic Games. Tokyo is no stranger to the voting process, having come up short in the battle to host the 2016 games. But this time around Tokyo is entering the final stretch as the odds-on favorite. Tokyo has pitched itself as the safe option, with plenty of money to host the event and few problems on the security front.

As Popular as Cute Puppies?

One question mark was whether Tokyo residents would actually be keen to host the event. This was worrisome because the city’s previous bid was said to have been scuttled, in part, by a lack of public enthusiasm. But support seems to be considerably higher for the current bid, with 77% of Tokyoites backing it according to the IOC’s own survey.

Some media sources have been quoting another survey, conducted in August by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT), that suggests the bid is nearly as beloved by locals as cherry blossoms and warm baths—a jaw-dropping 92% support rate (although there seems to be no trace of the survey on the MEXT website). The English site of Deutsche Welle quotes that figure and takes a look at public support, including the minority opposed to hosting the games.

“Gung ho” is how an article by Justin McCurry on the Guardian website describes the general mood in Japan regarding the Olympic bid. The author points out that the Tokyo organizers are looking to the 2012 Games in London as a successful model. (The article sparked a lively debate in the comment section—mainly because the Guardian editors included a dubious factoid claiming the average price of coffee in Tokyo is a hefty ¥813.)

Helpful? “Not So Much”

Praising the 2012 Olympics landed Tokyo governor Inose Naoki in some hot water back in April, when he said during an interview with the New York Times that London had secured the games thanks to being located, like Tokyo, “in a developed country whose sense of hospitality is excellent” and couldn’t help adding: “But other cities, not so much.” Inose, who was really on a roll in that interview, entangled himself tighter by observing that Islamic countries (like Turkey) were always fighting with each other. Inose soon discovered that the IOC, unlike the World Wrestling Federation, frowns on such trash-talking.

He has been on his best behavior ever since, although this curious interview with the Buenos Aires Herald in August suggests that Inose may not be the best pitchman for Tokyo’s bid—at least among those who have never lost (and then recovered) a wallet in the city.

Misery Loves Company

But Inose’s ill-considered comments were only a temporary setback, as events elsewhere intervened to put some wind back in Tokyo’s sails. The outbreak of antigovernment protests in Turkey (and in Brazil), in particular, revived interest in Tokyo as the safer Olympic option.

The Turkish website Zaman has an article listing the “series of blows which have rained down on the Istanbul campaign in recent months,” including not only the anti-government protests but also a doping scandal among Turkish athletes. But an article in Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News is a bit more sanguine, even quoting the country’s starry-eyed youth and sports minister, who looks to the Istanbul Games as a chance to “spread a wave of peace over the whole region through sports.” By most accounts, though, the former front-runner Istanbul is now running a distant third.

Madrid’s bid, meanwhile, seems to be flying under the radar. The city was once deemed a long shot, given its economic woes, but it has come up with a realistic low-cost plan that has impressed some observers. Another strength Madrid has going for it is the pull of its IOC members, who include Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., son of the former IOC chairman. If Madrid does come up short, as many expect, it will be its third straight bid rejection. It would be a bitter pill to swallow, but an informative El Pais article reminds readers that hosting the Olympics is not always a plus—a point too often lost amidst the bidding ballyhoo.

If the IOC voting had been held a month ago, Tokyo might have cruised to an easy victory. But the news of a radioactive water leak at the Fukushima nuclear plant has made things more difficult for Tokyo, especially since its main selling point has been safety and reliability. Takeda Tsunekazu, the head of Tokyo’s bid, assured his fellow IOC members in a letter that “Tokyo remains completely unaffected” by the leak, which “will not affect Tokyo’s hosting of the games.” An article on China’s Xinhuanet, however, describes the leak as a “dark shadow” over Tokyo’s bid. The timing of the leak with the upcoming IOC vote has, at least, seemed to spur the government to take a play a more hands-on approach to the clean-up effort.

The Tokyo organizers will have a last opportunity to make their case during their allotted 45-minute presentation on September 7. And then the IOC delegates, excluding those from the candidate countries, will cast their ballots in the first round of voting. We will know the results early in the morning of September 8, Japan time. (MS)