Tokyo 2020 Could Have a Silver Lining
Don't mind the radiation, please.
This is, in the annals of Olympic bids, a highly unique way for a prime minister to close his country's pitch for the Games. As he arrives in Argentina for the high-stakes Sept. 7 International Olympic Committee vote, Japan's Shinzo Abe is assuring the world that the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl will be over by 2020, the year Tokyo hopes to play host. The spin is getting lost in translation. Tokyo's opening press conference in Buenos Aires was dominated by questions about leaking reactors and why Japanese officials are being so evasive about safety risks. This BBC headline said it all: "Will Fukushima Leak Decide Olympic Bid?"
Yet let's accentuate the positive for a moment and consider two silver linings should Tokyo win the Summer Games over Istanbul and Madrid.
One, a successful bid would force Japan's government to end its nuclear nightmare once and for all. No more of this dithering for two-and-a-half years, hoping no one would notice all that radioactive water flowing into the Pacific Ocean. Hosting 2020 would force both Abe's government and the hapless Tokyo Electric Power Co. to act once and for all.
Two, it's an opportunity to divert construction plans to the Tohoku region, where entire towns were washed away by the same giant tsunami that overwhelmed the Fukushima site. If anyone needs some love from the public-works budget it’s the more than 100,000 people in northeastern Japan still in temporary shelters since March 11, 2011. The Tokyo planning committee could stage several events in a region that Abe and predecessor Yoshihiko Noda largely ignored.
There are myriad reasons besides Fukushima why Tokyo might not get the Games. For one thing, South Korea is hosting the 2018 Winter Games, and it's exceeding rare for the IOC to crowd two Olympics into the same region just a couple of years apart. For another, Istanbul is a milestone ripe for the making: the first Olympics held in the Muslim world. Here, ignorant comments by Tokyo Governor Naoki Inose may come back to haunt his city. In April, Inose told the New York Times that "Islamic countries, the only thing they share in common is Allah and they are fighting with each other, and they have classes." He later apologized for his low-blow attempt to exploit the Middle East's anti-government protests. Tokyo also needs to overcome a lack of public enthusiasm that doomed its bid for the 2016 games.
For better or worse, though, GamesBids.com, a website that tracks the Olympics selection process, gives Tokyo a slight edge over Istanbul. Should the IOC put the Summer Games in Tokyo for the first time since 1964, it could be the stern wakeup call the nation needs to end the Fukushima drama.
Recent days have seen a steady ratcheting up of government pledges to act, including spending $472 million on fixing the leaks. To those of you who thought "Game of Thrones" was fiction, Tokyo wants to freeze soil around the crippled reactors and contain the entire site with giant ice walls. More importantly, though, winning the IOC's trust would force Japan to do something it has resisted since March 2011: coming clean on the true severity of the problem and looking abroad for solutions.
Russia, for example, recently repeated an offer first made two years ago to help clean up Fukushima. So have a number of American companies, like Englewood, Colorado-based CH2M Hill Cos. Rather than accept outside help, Tepco officials have been pumping thousands of metric tons of water through the wrecked Fukushima station to cool its melted cores. The tainted run-off has been leaking into groundwater and the ocean. By importing technologies and knowhow from the outside, Japan could have avoided the ecological damage it's still exacting in the region.
Japan, meanwhile, is planning to drop $958 million on an Olympic Village complex and another $1.5 billion on construction and renovations at 11 existing sites. Why not divert chunks of that cash -- and the additional billions that will be spent -- to Tohoku? Careful planning is needed to see that sports facilities will be used after the Olympics, and Tokyo hardly needs them. Why not ask architectural rock star Frank Gehry to bring the ``Bilbao Effect'' to rural Japan?
All nuclear accidents are international in nature. The longer Japan's wears on the worse it gets not only for its 126 million people, not only for any nation within a 1,000-mile radius but any population that relies on the Pacific Ocean. If the price of the Olympic spirit coming to Japan is increased global scrutiny, then the end justifies the means.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)