Tokyo's Chances Fade for 2016 Olympics

Tokyo once was considered a front-runner to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Japan hasn't hosted a Summer Games since 1964, so Tokyo boosters could argue it was time for the Olympics to return. Moreover, with the country's deep pockets, financing the new venues and building the infrastructure needed for the Games wouldn't be a problem for the Japanese. Indeed, in the first round of the selection process in June 2008, Tokyo received the highest overall evaluation, besting fellow finalists Chicago, Madrid, and Rio de Janeiro.

As members of the International Olympic Committee prepare to vote in Copenhagen on Oct. 2 for the 2016 host city, though, Tokyo's chances have dimmed considerably. A recent IOC report praised Tokyo's proposal to stage a compact Games, in which 97% of the venues would be located within 8 kilometers of the Olympic stadium. The IOC also lauded Tokyo's public transport and financial guarantees. However, the IOC pointed to a lack of enthusiasm about the Games among Japan's citizens. For example, 55% of Japanese support the idea of bringing the Olympics back to Tokyo. That's the lowest among the four finalists. Madrid leads in that category with 86% support nationally.

The Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC), not surprisingly, says there's no reason to worry. The IOC's poll was conducted in February, before the visit of the IOC Evaluation Commission, say JOC officials, and since then the public awareness has risen. "Polls have shown higher rates of support around 80%," says Ichiro Kono, chair and CEO of the Tokyo 2016 Bid Committee. The IOC report also expressed concern about the small size of the site of the Olympic Village and pointed out that only half of the competition venues exist, as opposed to two-thirds stated previously. "We will explain in detail and have no concerns [about persuading the IOC]," Kono says.

"Different Degrees of Enthusiasm" Still, many others in Japan aren't so sure the tide has turned. In public opinion surveys conducted in early July by two major national papers, the Yomiuri Shimbun and the Asahi Shimbun, 55% of respondents support Tokyo hosting the Games in 2016. In a poll conducted last week by the Sankei Shimbun newspaper and FNN television network, support improved to 63.6% from 58.3% in February.

Susumu Takata, 54, who runs a small printing company in Tokyo, expresses a view held by many in the capital. He disagrees with Tokyo hosting the Games because "it will widen the gap between Tokyo and local cities," he says. Tokyo is rich because most big companies have their headquarters here, so "if Tokyo wins the bid, construction and other Olympic-related business will be ordered in Tokyo," says Takata who originally hails from Hiroshima Prefecture.

Tokyo's bid hasn't been helped by mixed signals from Japan's new government. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which won a landslide victory in national elections last month, also controls a majority in Tokyo's metropolitan assembly, and many DPJ members feel there's little point in pushing hard for a bid that's unlikely to win. In February, a top DPJ leader in Tokyo spoke skeptically about the city's bid. Shigeru Ishige, a DPJ member of the Tokyo assembly, acknowledges criticism from citizens that staging the Games would be too expensive. "Even among 54 DPJ members [of the Tokyo assembly] there are different degrees of enthusiasm toward the Olympics," he says.

Some party officials have expressed their support. Shinichiro Nishioka, a DPJ member of the Tokyo assembly, says the Games could help make the city more environmentally friendly. "Hosting will be a good trigger to promote green technology projects, such as purification of the Tokyo Bay water," he says. "More than that, it will unite the people and can leave a legacy for children that their country hosted the world's greatest event."

Will Hatoyama Make the Trip? Now, Tokyo's last and best hope is new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. On Oct. 2, each candidate city will have a delegation of 60 people in Copenhagen to attend the IOC general meeting and 10 of them can deliver a final presentation or answer questions from the stage. In recent years, top politicians' performances have become highly visible. In 2005, Paris seemed a sure bet until Britain's then-Prime Minister Tony Blair appeared at the IOC meeting in Singapore and helped convince voters to give London the 2012 Summer Olympics. In 2007, the leading candidate for the 2014 Winter Games was Pyeongchang, South Korea, but Vladimir Putin of Russia successfully lobbied at the IOC meeting for Sochi.

Other finalists have big names heading to Copenhagen. U.S. first lady Michelle Obama and TV star Oprah Winfrey will be there for Chicago. King Juan Carlos of Spain will be lobbying for Madrid and Brazilian soccer legend Pelé will be in town for Rio. Yoshiro Mori, the former Prime Minister who is chairman of the Japan Amateur Sports Assn., has expressed hope that the new Prime Minister would go to Copenhagen. The governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, a former award-winning novelist and a controversial right-wing politician who has vigorously promoted Tokyo's bid, also hopes Hatoyama will attend. "I really, really, really want him to come to Copenhagen [with us]," he told reporters last week.

Will Hatoyama fly to Denmark? The JOC says it has made an official request to Hatoyama's office. "We're patiently waiting" for a reply, says bid committee chair Kono. Hatoyama's busy schedule—the new government was only inaugurated on Sept. 16—may make it hard for him to attend, especially as he would have just concluded a trip to the U.S. to attend the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. "He has a mountain of issues to deal with as the Prime Minister so it doesn't seem to be realistic for him to go to Copenhagen," says Ishige, the DPJ Tokyo assembly member.

Tokyo is also exploring the possibility of having Crown Prince Naruhito and Princess Masako go to Copenhagen. Even that seems a long shot, though, since the Crown Prince is scheduled to attend the national tree-planting ceremony in Kyushu on Oct. 3.

Market Ambivalence Still, all is not necessarily lost. With the global economy still wobbling, financial guarantees are a big advantage for Tokyo. The city estimates the total cost will be $4 billion, to cover building costs for the venues, infrastructure, and sports facilities, and it is already in the bank. The government has agreed that any deficits will be covered by the state and the metropolitan government.

The Japanese stock market does not appear to be influenced much by whether Tokyo will host the 2016 Games. "On the whole, you can't feel expectation in the market towards the Games," says Masayoshi Okamoto, a fund manager at Jujiya Securities. He adds that the market is unenthusiastic in part because of fears of the DPJ's policy to cut public works. Okamoto is betting on Rio de Janeiro. And a win by the Brazilian city wouldn't be a total loss for Japan. "As Brazil claims it will build a railroad for bullet trains if they win, there will be a big chance for Japan to sell its shinkansen," he says.

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