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Japan’s Olympic Dreams and Economic Reality

Illustration by Tim Lahan Close

Illustration by Tim Lahan

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Illustration by Tim Lahan

Tokyo’s mercurial governor, Shintaro Ishihara, gives new meaning to playing the sympathy card.

In his dogged pursuit of staging the Olympics, and in his despair at being passed over for the 2016 games, Ishihara got desperate: He tapped into the outpouring of grief after last year’s record earthquake. His pitch for 2020, dubbed the “Olympics for Japan’s Revival,” became an appeal for pity.

That gambit may be in vain given Ishihara’s role in bringing Japan and China to the brink of war. The Olympic spirit was nowhere to be found as the 79-year-old nationalist proposed buying the Senkaku Islands, which China also claims, from a private owner. The payback should be obvious: Expect China to use its influence in Africa and developing Asia to torpedo Tokyo’s Olympic bid.

Some good might come of all this. Why not switch the locale of Tokyo’s 2020 bid to the northeast Tohoku region of Japan laid to waste by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami?

Talk about a win-win. The International Olympic Committee has a gaping credibility problem. Sure, the London games were transcendent, though that was the U.K.’s doing. The IOC still seems as self-important, commercialized and corrupt as ever. Its complicity with China in censoring media coverage at the 2008 Beijing games remains a stain, as do the bribery scandals over the years.

Tohoku Games

A Tohoku Olympics would yield the infrastructure boom most of the region desperately needs. Japan’s bureaucratic and indecisive central government has proven ill-equipped for the task of rebuilding the towns and villages wiped out on March 11, 2011. The disaster left almost 19,000 dead or missing and forced cartographers to redraw maps of Japan’s northeast coastline.

It is time for a change in tack, and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda could be the main beneficiary. His Democratic Party of Japan may soon lose power after just three years. To cement a place in history, Noda should push to let Tohoku take Tokyo’s place.

“It would be good for the image of the IOC, good for Noda and the DPJ,” says Robert Whiting, the author of several books about sports and organized crime in Japan. “If Noda could conflate the cost of holding the Tohoku games, which would be in the range of several billion dollars, with an increase in the commodity tax, I think you’d have a spike in public approval.”

OK, so this is a long shot. Switching the site of Tokyo’s bid would happen over Ishihara’s dead body. Nothing is more important to him than getting the Olympics back to Tokyo for the first time since 1964. And it would run afoul of the IOC’s rulebook that bars Japan from tweaking its bid.

Finally, even the most Herculean of efforts might not be enough to build all of the facilities Tohoku would need in time. The answer is to base the Olympic stadium in Tohoku and enough structures to host a large number of events and then put some venues in neighboring areas, including Tokyo.

The goal should be clear: This is a part of the developed world that needs a major-league stimulus. Now I’m not denigrating the other two contenders -- Istanbul and Madrid. Holding the games in Turkey would be a first for the Muslim world; Spain, the euro zone’s fourth-biggest economy, needs a serious pick-me-up. Tokyo, meanwhile, has two distinct problems: residents don’t want the games and the 2018 Winter Olympics will be in neighboring South Korea.

Compelling Pitch

Staging the Olympics in East Asia so soon after South Korea requires an especially compelling pitch. Hence the appeal of Tohoku prefectures such as Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi, all of which are in dire need of money and inhabitants. Japanese Olympic Committee President Tsunekazu Takeda says games held in Tokyo would generate about $37 billion of commerce and create 150,000 jobs.

Tohoku could use that boost. Careful planning is needed to see that sports facilities will be used after the Olympics, and to ensure transparent efforts clear away the last traces of radiation near the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactors. Why not ask architectural rock star Frank Gehry to bring the “Bilbao Effect” to rural Japan?

“Japan doesn’t get much attention any longer,” says Martin Roll, chief executive officer of Singapore-based consulting firm VentureRepublic. “Bringing the games to Japan would be an unparalleled opportunity for the Japan brand, and despite the hefty price tag around it, it may help to boost awareness and interest in Japan.”

It would bring a sense of urgency, too. The process of doling out reconstruction funds has been slow, unfocused and ineffectual. Hosting the games would change everything.

The IOC’s rules shouldn’t be a distraction. In about six months, Olympic officials will study proposed 2020 sites and IOC members will cast their votes a year from now. Let’s appeal to the IOC to make an exception for the good of Japan, even humanity. If the IOC won’t budge, Japan can withdraw its bid and try again with Tohoku 2024.

Tokyo doesn’t need the games. Tohoku, a place stripped of the veneer of civilization, could use a dose of Olympic spirit.

(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: William Pesek in Tokyo at wpesek@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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