The year was 1964, downtown Tokyo was awash with foreigners and Japanese sports fans alike, exuding a palpable excitement to see the Asian continent’s first-time hosting of the Summer Olympics. Despite having a war-torn economy after being ravaged by World War II just 14 years prior, Japan undertook an expansive construction project to modernise its capital city’s infrastructure so that it would be worthy to host the Games. This transformed Tokyo from a haphazard jumble of derelict wooden houses and Soviet-style apartment blocks to the contemporary metropolis it is today.
The bestowal of hosting honours for these Olympics came at a historically critical moment for Japan, the all of Japan knew it; having suffered a humiliating defeat at the end of the Second World War, it came as a chance for the state to prove to an international audience its recovery and perseverance as a power in global affairs. The state began spending what would end up to be a then-staggering sum of 1 billion USD (£770 million GBP) on renovation works, and saw the Opening Ceremony feature a man born in Hiroshima the day of the fatal 1945 bombing as the representative tasked with lighting the ceremonial cauldron. Efforts to be afforded host-status for the Games was no easy process for Japan and thus was not to be taken for granted. Like all other bidding cities, Tokyo was evaluated based on several factors such as logistics, security measures, and plans for the Olympic village, but was rejected several times before their 1964 triumph.
In spite of all the pains prospective cities go through in order to put in a successful bid to host the Games, the Olympics are often economically detrimental to host nations, even when factoring in increased business in the tourism sector that comes as a result of the Games. As seen in the aftermath of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, ice rinks and other sports centres used to hold competitions were quickly abandoned after the closing ceremony, and now lie a ruin of their former selves. Such scenes are not unusual for former host cities. In Sarajevo, the deserted bobsleigh and luge tracks from the 1984 Winter Games are now covered in graffiti and a hotspot for muggings; in Athens, the comically oversized beach volleyball stadium from the 2004 Summer Games is now overgrown with weeds and considered by locals to be a national embarrassment.
If so many financial resources are poured into hosting such a colossal event, are there any tangible benefits granted to the nation bearing the costs? It is argued by some that revenues generated as an effect of hosting the Olympics can serve to boost an economy, particularly in the tourism sector, can justify the enormous costs poured into building stadiums and hiring a workforce to coordinate such a large-scale event. Yet, as assessed in a recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations, both the long-term and short-term benefits of hosting the Games are “at best exaggerated and at worst non-existent”, leaving states with huge maintenance bills for venues with little practical value.
Perhaps as a result of seeing the recent financial losses incurred in many former host cities in the aftermath of their Olympic glow, Japan announced in 2017 that its provisional budget for hosting the Games was to be a relatively conservative $11.8 billion USD (£9.09 billion GBP). This estimate has since exploded with some news platforms forecasting a final expenditure of over 7 times this budget; a trend common amongst other host cities, a seen as Brazil and Russia in recent years. Such vast sums of state expenditure places a sizable burden on Japan’s economy, and risks potentially plunging its booming economy into national debt.
The future of the 2020 Games are also in turmoil amongst corruption allegations laid against Tsunekazu Takeda connected to the success of Tokyo’s bid, forcing the Japanese Olympic Committee President to step down from his position at the end of his term this June. Demonstrating the darker side of Asia’s push for soft power through international institutions like the Olympics, it will be interesting to see how the global media frame their coverage on the Games, particularly considering international backlash to Qatar’s illegal bribes used to secure their bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Certainly, it is doubtful that Japan’s Olympic-sized investment will come anywhere close to paying itself off.
To conclude, trends in past Olympic Games seem to indicate this global event’s unique soft power value for many rising states in world politics. In aspiring to be a host city, it seems many states will be wilfully ignorant to the enormous expenditure such a large-scale competition demands, particularly in the areas of constructing single-use venues and building suitable infrastructure to handle the influx of tourists during the month of the Games. Despite Japanese preparations formulated with the intention of using as many pre-existing venues as possible, it’s expected by analysts worldwide that this budget increasingly balloon; regardless, the global spotlight put on Olympic host cities will see states like Japan continue to vie for the honour.
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