Tokyo 1-Year Out: Scandal, high costs but unrivalled demand

TOKYO (AP) — Despite scandals, rising costs and doubts about the economic payoff, the Tokyo Olympics will be a must-see event — if you can find a ticket or a hotel room — when they open in a year.

Tokyo was supposed to be a “safe pair of hands” after Rio de Janeiro’s corruption and near-meltdown three years ago.

Mostly, it has been.

Local sponsorship revenue has passed USD3 billion, about three times more than any previous games, driven by Japan’s giant advertising and marketing company Dentsu Inc, the exclusive marketing agency for the Tokyo Games caught in a French probe into alleged vote-buying connected with Tokyo winning the 2020 Olympics.

Ticket demand is unprecedented and few Japanese can even get them. Estimates suggest up to 90 per cent of Japan residents who applied were unsuccessful in the first phase of a ticket lottery in June. Tickets prices are sure to soar with scalping a certainty, though Japan just passed a law banning the practice.

“This is probably going to be the most popular Olympics, and possibly one of the most popular events of all time,” Ken Hanscom told The Associated Press. He follows ticketing around the globe as the Chief Operating Officer of Los Angeles-based TicketManager.

Roy Tomizawa, a Japanese American who lives in Japan and published the most definitive book on Tokyo’s 1964 Olympics, said he applied for 16 tickets and got zero in the June lottery.

Organisers have quickly thrown together a so-called second-chance lottery last August, and have another lottery set for later in the year. But this will not change the reality: Demand exceeds supply in Japan by at least 10 times. And it’s a similar story for buyers outside Japan.

People shop at a store selling Olympics souvenirs in Tokyo on June 19. Scandals and rising costs have not deterred interest in Japan in the Tokyo Olympics. They open in a year with unprecedented ticket demand
Members of the media gather outside the Tokyo Aquatics Centre, a venue for swimming and diving at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics on July 3. The Olympics will be simply a sideshow for some Tokyo visitors, astounded by the cleanliness, courtesy and order. Japan’s sprawling capital is a dense mix of the traditional and eccentric where bowing meets bustle. – PHOTOS: AP

“I thought that putting myself down for the most expensive tickets would ensure me of winning seats, but that wasn’t the case,” Tomizawa told the AP. “I struck out resoundingly. The high demand appeared to surprise everyone, Japanese and non-Japanese alike.”

Tomizawa, whose father was a producer for NBC News at the ’64 Olympics, said the “measured demeanour” of the Japanese hides their Olympic enthusiasm. There are great expectations. Japan is shooting for a record 30 gold medals, almost twice the previous best of 16 in Tokyo.

This is also the second of three straight Olympics in Asia, another factor driving interest.

And don’t forget: Greater Tokyo has a population of more than 35 million — the world’s largest metropolitan area.

The Olympics will be simply a sideshow for some Tokyo visitors, astounded by the cleanliness, courtesy and order. Japan’s sprawling capital is a dense mix of the traditional and eccentric where bowing meets bustle. Small shrines or temples nestle alongside gleaming towers, passengers wedge silently into commuter trains and pedestrians meander through a labyrinth of alleyways, always lined with places to eat and drink.

“I’ve never, never seen interest in attending the Olympics like I have for Tokyo,” said Greg Harney, who works at Cartan Global, an Authorised Ticket Reseller for much of Latin American and the Caribbean, and is preparing to attend his 19th Olympics.

Tokyo’s 1964 Olympics marked a turning point for Japan, highlighting the country’s recovery just 19 years after World War II. It was the first games in Asia and left behind breathtaking architecture — such as Kenzo Tange’s Yoyogi National Gymnasium and its suspension roof — and showcased dozens of consumer brands that became household names around the world.

Ambitions are more modest this time. Organisers are emphasising the rebuilding of the Fukushima area northeast of Tokyo, which was devastated by a 2011 earthquake, tsunami and the meltdown of three nuclear reactors. Some baseball and softball is being played there, a gesture to convince the world the area is safe.

Tokyo appears to be a watershed for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which is recasting the Olympics and its bidding process as “cost-sensitive” after years of coaxing cites to splurge on white elephant sports venues. Rio de Janeiro is the last example, still littered three years later with money-sapping arenas, bribery trials and an organising committee facing bankruptcy.

The IOC already has awarded the next two Summer Olympics to Paris and Los Angeles, cities that promise to control costs and use existing venues.

“The Olympics have become more sponsor- and television-driven,” President of the International Society of Olympic Historians David Wallechinsky told the AP. “In Rio it was a mess, yet on television it looked fine. Let’s face it, 99 per cent of the people who follow the Olympics do so on TV. So whatever you present them on TV is reality, though those of us on the ground see a different reality.”

The games will open on July 24, 2020, at the height of Tokyo’s hot, humid summer. Events like the marathon will start just after dawn. Beating the heat is a worry, which it wasn’t in ’64 when the Olympics were held in October. That was before the demands of television.

Tokyo is building eight new venues. The other 35 venues are defined as “temporary” or older buildings being reused, which Tokyo organisers say has saved billions. The centrepiece is the USD1.25 billion National Stadium, and the Olympic Village for more than 10,000 athletes on the edge of Tokyo Bay.

The Summer Olympics don’t come cheaply, and even existing venues need renovation when the games come to town. Exact costs — what are, and are not Olympic expenses — are difficult to sort out. But Tokyo is spending at least USD20 billion to get ready, 70 per cent of which is taxpayers’ money.

Critics point out that the biggest Olympic sponsor is the Japanese government, which is picking up many of the bills.

IOC President Thomas Bach will be in Tokyo tomorrow for the one-year countdown ceremony as the gold, silver, and bronze medals are unveiled. A small group called Hangorin no kai — roughly translated ‘No Olympics’ — is also scheduling seminars and protests around the date.

Scandal has also lingered.

Head of the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) Tsunekazu Takeda was forced to resign earlier this year when he was implicated in a vote-buying scheme to land the games. He has denied wrongdoing but acknowledged he signed off on about USD2 million that French investigators allege went to buy votes of some IOC members.

Yasuhiro Yamashita, who won a judo gold medal in the 1984 Olympics, took over recently for Takeda and acknowledged: “We have seen some scandals in sports, including the JOC. And therefore the trust and confidence is now in question. We have to grapple with these issues very seriously.”

Organisers were also forced to redesign their logo when the original draft faced charges of plagiarism, and an international labour union has alleged work-safety violations at Olympic venues, largely regarding migrant labour.

A futuristic design for the new stadium by the late British architect Zaha Hadid was scrapped when costs soared to USD2 billion. Japanese architect Kengo Kuma was chosen instead with a design focussed on wood lattice and greenery that will be finished by the end of the year.

Sports economist Rob Baade has written extensively on the Olympics. He says the games have reached an “inflection point” as cities realise they are expensive, the short-term benefits are scant and the long-term payoffs are unclear.

“There are fewer cities and nations willing to compete in this international auction of the games,” Baade, who teaches at Lake Forest College outside Chicago, told the AP. “And in absence of this, the IOC is not going to be able to wring the kind of concessions from potential host cities that they did before.”