2020 Tokyo Olympics: Lessons from Los Angeles
Image Credit: Wikicommons

2020 Tokyo Olympics: Lessons from Los Angeles


When the International Olympic Committee awarded Tokyo the 2020 Summer Games on Saturday, the Japanese capital became the eighth city to repeat as host of the Olympics. It’s also the fourth time Japan has been chosen for the site of the games, following the Winter Games in Sapporo (1972) and Nagano (1998), and of course, the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 1964.

Tokyo’s election is really not a surprise, as it’s considered a safe choice with the other two finalist cities mired in some degree of turmoil. Besides political and economic stability, Tokyo also should be able to put together the games for a relatively low price tag, as it does not need a massive amount of infrastructure buildup or improvements.

While Russia is expected to spend more than $50 billion to host the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, it will cost Japan considerably less. The Tokyo organizers plan to spend about $1 billion to renovate the National Olympic Stadium, built for the 1964 Games, and another $4 to $5 billion to construct the Olympic Village and 10 other venues.

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The one past Olympics the Tokyo organizers should strive to emulate is the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games, as the circumstances for both cities are remarkably similar. L.A. had also hosted a previous Olympic Games in 1932 – 52 years apart, with 56 years between Tokyo’s games. A global city, L.A. also had nearly all the infrastructure in place, such as venues, lodging, transportation and other entertainment options for visiting spectators.

Under the masterful orchestration of Peter Ueberroth, the L.A. games built just two venues for the Games – the swimming stadium and a velodrome (for track cycling). Both were funded by sponsorship money (McDonald’s and 7-Eleven, respectively) and bequeathed to the universities where they stood (USC and Cal State Dominguez Hills) after the Games. All other venues were preexisting facilities that didn’t even need much of a facelift. As for the Olympic Village, athletes were housed in USC dormitories near the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, the main venue for both the 1932 and 1984 Games.

Low construction costs, an abundance of private sponsorship money, and an infusion of television rights fees allowed the L.A. games to turn a $200 million profit – still a record – and despite the damage of the Soviet bloc boycott essentially resuscitated the future of the Olympics after the money-losing fiasco that was the 1976 Montreal Summer Games, which ran 800 percent over budget (that’s not a typo).

Tokyo can follow much of L.A.’s blueprint.

“The heavy lifting was done for the 1964 Games, and sprucing that up would be the facelift the city needs,” John Gibson, an American journalist who’s lived in Japan since 1990 and is now with Japan News, tells The Diplomat. “In terms of facilities and transportation, not much more can be added to what this massive metropolis already has. Constructing a main stadium is a way to give the 2020 Games a special touch and a unique identity. (But overall) the plan is to make the events easy to get to for fans with existing infrastructure.”

Tokyo can also learn from several recent Games about what NOT to do.

I was at the L.A. Olympics – the first of many – and still call Southern California home today. Most of the facilities for the 1984 games not only remain standing, but more importantly, are in use. This is in stark contrast to many sites I’ve made a return visit to after their respective cities hosted the games – Montreal, Barcelona, Sydney, Beijing and even London: Giant structures left vacant in oversized complexes after years of being used sparingly, or not at all.

The smartest thing Ueberroth and his charge did was weaving the games into the massive Southern California metropolis. Sure, it forced the spectators and athletes into cars and buses (miraculously, the predicted nightmare congestion never materialized). But L.A. wasn’t foolish enough to build a mass transit system that was only going to be used for 16 or so days. Furthermore, it allowed the entire region to become part of the games, not just a small district near the main venues.

As a result, the Olympics were a spectacular success and enthusiastically embraced by the local residents, who to this day are still reaping the benefits.

In this respect, the Tokyo games are off to a good start.

“The announcement came at just before 5:30 a.m. local time, and people had gathered at a number of locations in anticipation of a successful bid,” Gibson adds. “That means many people didn’t go to sleep and stayed out all night in hopes of celebrating a successful bid. In addition, members of the general public – normally reserved – were wildly excited about the news. Arms raised, fists pumped, it was a very un-Japanese reaction.”

So all that’s left is for the Tokyo organizers to be innovative, community-oriented, erect no unnecessary infrastructure and run the event on budget. Tokyo certainly can learn a lot from L.A., but what made 1984 such a success is much easier said than done.

Cities that have hosted multiple summer Olympics are as follows: London (1908, 1948, 2012), Paris (1900, 1924), Los Angeles (1932, 1984), Athens (1896, 2004), Tokyo (1964, 2020). Multiple winter games hosts include St. Moritz (1928, 1948), Innsbruck (1964, 1976), and Lake Placid (1932, 1980).

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