Keith Studler: Tokyo's Olympic Selection

Sep 11, 2013

Everything is relative, I suppose. So if a city has suffered five recessions in the past 15 years, a devastating earthquake and a nuclear emergency, it can still somehow be considered the safe choice. That’s Tokyo, and it was oddly the benign selection to host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, chosen over the comparatively risky Madrid and Istanbul, or Constantinople, for all you They Might Be Giants Fans. Madrid has an unemployment rate approaching 25% and a long legacy of doping by top athletes. And Istanbul offers civil unrest and an unfortunate neighbor in Syria. So for that, Tokyo becomes the unquestionable safe and really only choice for the 2020 Games, even if it lacks the sex appeal, literally and figuratively, of the upcoming 2016 summer festival in Rio.

Tokyo promised the IOC more than simply literal security, which Turkey simply can’t. It, at least on paper, suggested fiscal assurance, its bid coming in at around $6-8 billion, depending on what you believe. And allegedly the vast majority of that sum is already saved in something of a national lockbox, part of Japan’s new “Abenomics” economic program. Istanbul’s bid came in at nearly twice the cost, while Madrid’s budget bid came with less certainty than an extended weather forecast. With Madrid, it felt like buying a condo in Miami in 2006 – just no guarantee for the future.

Tokyo’s fiscal contract looked even better juxtaposed to Rio, which needs Watson to calculate the final bill that looks absolutely nothing like the original price tag, and Sochi 2018, where costs have exceeded the $50 billion mark, 25 times more than the Vancouver Winter Games. China never fully explained their $40 billion final tally, much spend on already aging facilities that serve absolutely no function to the public that endured the exorbitant costs. So if Tokyo can keep anywhere near the eight billion it proposes, it’ll be like a running of the brides sale at Filene’s.

So all that said, the real question isn’t why they chose Tokyo, but rather, what does that choice mean. And there’s about 200 answers to that, hardly any of them more than educated conjecture. For Japan, it means a chance to spend a lot of money and get a whole lot of attention. That can be good, and as Athens should now attest, that can be awful. For the Olympic movement itself, the answer is likely more complicated. Common analysis suggests this choice was a return to more familiar waters for the IOC, not that London wasn’t a fairly conservative choice. I think that finding might be pre-mature, at best. Just because Japan won this year doesn’t mean South Africa might not take the next prize, making 2020 simply the calm before the relative storm. Don’t assume that because Japan promised discount pricing and existing facilities that the Olympics won’t return to its identity as a nation builder, offering emerging countries the opportunity to spend themselves into modernity through five rings. No, I don’t think we can assume much from Tokyo’s victory, other than the fact that Madrid is broke, and Turkey is just way to risky.

What’s probably more interesting in the Olympic narrative these past several days is the addition of United States Olympic Committee head Larry Probst to the IOC, the 4th American on the committee. This nomination marks a thawing of the icy relationship between the Olympics and its wildest spending nation. It might also signal the return of the Games to the US, something that hasn’t happened since Salt Lake in 98 and Atlanta in 92 for the Summer Games, despite multiple bids. Where America used to be something of a regular host, it’s lately been more of an estranged relative. Probst’s hire could be the perfect aperitif to a US Games in 2024, which would mark a turn of the IOC’s ship, away from Russia, China, Brazil, and any other BRIC style nation, and back to the capitalist powers of old. So Tokyo isn’t really the story. It may just be the prelude.

We won’t know much about that for another four years, although we’ll get some indications in advance, starting with the intensity of the US bid for the next games. I imagine the US will go all out for this, even more than 2016 in Chicago or the sad 2012 New York City bid that had less legs than a garden snake. Given the state of the world, perhaps the US isn’t a real safe choice anymore.  Then again, just like Tokyo in 2020, everything is relative.

Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.

The views expressed by WAMC's commentators are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the WAMC and its management.