The 2021 Tokyo Olympics is over and, in some respects, it was a successful one.
The nation was entranced by the performance of Japanese athletes, who won a record number of medals (27 golds) with 33 of the overall total of 58 won by women. Their success, and smiling faces, helped people forget, if temporarily, about the Covid pandemic – and the fact that roughly 80% of the population had wanted the Games, which had to be held with no spectators, to be canceled.
Because of the Bubble method that Japan employed, only 853 people contracted the disease. Among the various technologies used, an infection control system was employed to monitor participants.
A contact-confirming application (COCOA) was required to be installed on their cellphones on arrival, with daily temperatures updated through a Covid Liaison office (CLO).
Such measures earn praise abroad, helping to mitigate the damage from holes in the system such as non-Olympic guests staying at hotels designated for Olympic journalists.
Moreover, innovative broadcasting technologies made watching the competition on TV a satisfying and rewarding experience. This included the use of artificial intelligence-based 3D athlete tracking technology developed by Intel and Alibaba, and other new technologies such as multi-camera replay systems, live and on-demand immersive 180° stereoscopic and 360° panoramic coverage and virtual 3D graphics – in the newly introduced event sport climbing, among other competitions.
But there is also a huge Olympic hangover, much like the one experienced after the highly successful 1964 Olympics. Those ’64 Games had transformed the city of Tokyo from a polluted backwater that almost no one wanted to visit into a high-tech megapolis that attracted waves of new tourists as well as the James Bond 007 crew that filmed You Only Live Twice in the capital.
Innovations back then ranged from the bullet train to the first satellite broadcasting system and the introduction of pictograms.
However, overspending on the Shinkansen limited the Monorail terminus to inconvenient Hammatsucho and required the construction of overhead highways over water, which polluted the Kanda River and caused the destruction of the Nihonbashi River culture, ruining the view from the famous bridge.
Moreover, the ’64 Olympic reconstruction plan had left “large swaths of the capital outside the fashionable city center awash in ugly buildings,” as an angry Japan Times editorial put it, “and with few cityscapes that any tourist or resident would care to look at.”
Post-2021 Olympiad Tokyo has its own new legacy that may be worse, coming on top of embarrassing cost overruns, arguments over the design of the new National Stadium, a logo plagiarism scandal, a vote-buying bribery scandal, a $15.4 billion bill (to be paid by Tokyo taxpayers, not the IOC) and revenue loss from the inability to sell tickets due to the coronavirus.
There was also the residual anger and resentment felt by citizens forced to stay home under a Covid state of emergency as daily cases reached record highs of nearly 6,000, while thousands of athletes and their handlers occupied the National Stadium and IOC chairman Thomas Bach strolled on the Ginza.
Then there was the loss of a great opportunity to expose tourists of the world to a new Tokyo, with Odaiba as a new city center connected by the beautiful Rainbow Bridge.
The city is arguably the greatest in the world at present, clearly in its Golden Era with more Fortune 500 Global headquarters than anywhere else, more Michelin starred restaurants than any other city (twice as many as Paris has in the coveted three-star category) with the cleanest, safest, most efficient and most extensive subway and train system, with the highest literacy rate and the most polite and fashion-conscious citizens.
Trip Advisor ranked it the “the most satisfying place” on the globe to visit in 2019, while Global Finance in 2020 ranked it the best city in the world to live in.
Among the post-Olympic headaches are the realization that although operating rights are being sold for all those brand-new Olympic venues, they are not likely to pay for themselves on account of annual maintenance fees and limitations on use.
For example, Kengo Kuma’s all-wood National Stadium, a masterpiece inspired by the 1,300-year-old Gojunto pagoda in Nara (the world’s oldest timber structure), cost $1.6 billion, one of the most expensive such structures ever, and it will cost a hefty $22 million a year to keep it going.
It will be used almost exclusively for rugby and soccer, as there is no space for athletics subtracks necessary for major meets.
Ariake Arena, which can host concerts, is the only venue forecast to operate in the black, according to the metropolitan government’s figures. It cost 37 billion yen and is projected to turn an annual profit of 360 million yen.
Meanwhile, the diversion of reconstruction funds from the massive 3/11 disaster tax hike to the Tokyo Olympics – which caused the Games to be euphemistically renamed the Recovery and Reconstruction Games – had an unintended effect on the Tohoku region northeast of Tokyo, with workers leaving for jobs in Olympic constructions projects in Tokyo and businesses in the city.
Masahiko Fujimoto, a professor at Tohoku University’s Graduate School of Economics and Management, said: “The Olympics are, in part, negatively affecting the local economy.”
He added that the event failed to have a positive impact on the 2011 triple-disaster-hit prefectures of Miyagi and Fukushima, which hosted the softball and baseball games in coastal towns, in new stadiums constructed for those events.
In addition, hundreds of homeless vagrants were removed from urban encampments in Tokyo to make room for Olympic-related events, leaving them with nowhere to go.
One might also note that the tightly controlled Olympic Bubble deprived the Japanese of a truly international experience. At the end of the 1964 Games, for example, nearly everyone in Japan knew who Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska, American sprinter Bob Hayes and Ethiopian marathon runner Abebe Bikila were.
Ginza was peppered with posters of their images. They were filmed walking the streets of the city and appeared at NHK studios for TV interviews.
This time, I can’t think of one foreign athlete who had such attention. For 17 straight days the NHK evening Olympic news was dedicated to Japanese athletes, the medal winners mostly – to the exclusion of everything else. It was understandable, perhaps, but not exactly in the Olympic spirit of international goodwill and friendship.
One question is how long the massive feeling of unfairness about the games that was left with the Japanese public will last. The double standard was glaring. While Tokyo bars and restaurants were forced to close early every evening, leaving Tokyoites with nowhere to go, IOC president Thomas Bach and friends relaxed in the luxurious Hotel Okura, enjoying the finest food and alcohol.
Despite Japanese people being discouraged from even domestic travel, Bach went from Tokyo to Hiroshima for an excursion that had zero to do with the Games, apparently unconcerned that he and his entourage might spread the virus across Honshu.
His return to Tokyo from Switzerland for the opening ceremony of the Paralympics, without having to go into quarantine, even drew a sharp rebuke from government health expert Shigeru Omi.
Sapporo is being pushed by the JOC for the 2030 winter games. One wonders if the residual acrimony over the games and the elitist lifestyle of the Olympic executives will have any effect on the final outcome.
The 1964 Olympics were considered a roaring success, but the negative after-effects of those Games can still be felt in Tokyo. How much worse will the legacy of the 2021 Games be?
Robert Whiting is the author, most recently, of Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys … and Baseball.