In a vote in Buenos Aires this weekend, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has granted Tokyo the right to hold the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. Tokyo won with 60 votes to beat out Istanbul, which received 36 votes. The Turkish city, which was bidding to host the Olympics for the fifth time, had earlier edged out the other contender Madrid in a run-off vote.
A front-runner in recent months, despite gaffes and radiation fears, Tokyo had been presented as the safe choice, as Istanbul dealt with severe civil unrest and Madrid with a dire economy. The Japanese capital has hosted the Games before, in 1964, during the early stages of its remarkable postwar economic rise.
Japan today is in a very different situation, with two decades of economic malaise, a shrinking, aging population, frighteningly high levels of government debt, a major nuclear disaster to its north, and tense relations with its neighbors. Still, Tokyo offers numerous strengths, including world-class transportation and hotel infrastructure, a proven record hosting major events, and the support of what is still the world’s third-largest economy. Moreover, although local backing for the idea of hosting the Olympics was initially weak—its bid for the 2016 Games foundered on a lack of public support—Japanese were coming around. The Asahi reports an eruption of enthusiasm when the news was announced in the early hours of Sunday morning, Tokyo time.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The news caps a year of rising optimism in Japan. When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made his “Japan Is Back” speech in the U.S. early in the year, it was difficult to see it as much more than wishful thinking. Since then, though, the government’s aggressive economic policies—known as Abenomics—and plans for a raft of reforms have encouraged many Japanese to hope that the country may finally be getting serious about addressing its economic problems. Winning the right to host the Games will doubtless play into this comeback narrative, even if the economic benefits are dubious.
If anything could have derailed Tokyo’s bid in recent days, it was likely the persistent reports of radiation leaks from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which was severely damaged in the tsunami that accompanied the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011. Shinzo Abe flew to Buenos Aires from the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg to deliver a presentation to the IOC that sought to allay any fears. “Let me assure you that the situation is under control. It has never done and will never do any damage to Tokyo,” he said.
Tokyo promises a “compact” games, similar to those in London, with the vast majority of event venues close to the heart of the city. Most venues, including the Olympic Village, will be in Tokyo Bay. The National Olympic Stadium will be refurbished with a futuristic design by British architectural firm Zaha Hadid Architects.
The 1964 Olympics Games were widely seen as a major success, heralding Tokyo’s arrival as an international city and Japan’s recovery from the devastation of World War II. Given a country linked most recently to subpar economic performance, spats with China and natural disaster, the Japanese government will be hoping that the 2020 Games delivers the same kind of image makeover.