Reviewing how Tokyo Games performed

The Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 were postponed for one year due to the spread of novel coronavirus infections. In the summer of 2021, when the pandemic was not yet over, the Games took place amid arguments for and against holding them.

How should the Games, which proceeded amid the COVID-19 pandemic, be summed up? I would like to present my views as chief executive officer of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The Tokyo Games were characterized first and foremost by being held mainly without spectators in principle and in a simplified form. Of course, we would have been happier if we could have delivered the Games with spectators in the stands. Yet, the spectator-less Games in turn resulted in provoking me to think anew and deeply about many things.

First, what is the meaning of holding the Olympic and Paralympic Games? Diverse people of different racial, religious, cultural and other backgrounds participate in the Games. They recognize and respect one another and share emotions through competitions. Games participation induces the creation of universal values such as peace and human rights as aspired to by humankind.

It should be remembered that when Tokyo succeeded in its 2013 bid to host the 2020 Games, Japan pledged to promote the quadrennial events as an opportunity to both promote peaceful coexistence to the world and inspire changes to the future of Japanese society itself.

Exhaustive COVID-19 measures

Especially because the coronavirus pandemic had already increased division in the world, we thought Japan should definitely go ahead with holding the Tokyo 2020 Games, while taking exhaustive measures against COVID-19, to transmit to the world the values of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, Japanese culture and the image of Japan as a country recovering from major disasters. We also thought the Tokyo 2020 Games should leave such Games legacies as tolerance for diversity, gender equality and sustainability, for the sake of the future of Japan. Considering those objectives, there would be no difference to the meaning of holding the Games, be they held with or without spectators.

How those legacies can be passed down and used to transform Japanese society depends on Japanese people’s efforts in the future.

As for the novel coronavirus, people have good reasons to worry about being infected. Therefore, the crucial point is to review whether the measures we took to prevent the spread of the virus in conjunction with the holding of the Games worked fully.

Following the decision to put off holding the Games, the Japanese government, the Tokyo metropolitan government and the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games set up a joint council, involving infectious disease experts as well, to work out what should be done to stage the Games while containing COVID-19. We subsequently published Tokyo 2020 Playbooks of guidelines and rules all Games participants needed to follow to stem contagion.

They essentially required thorough airport quarantine inspections of Games athletes and other personnel; daily screening, in principle, of those without COVID-19 symptoms; immediate quarantine of people testing positive along with identification and quarantine management of close contacts; and the creation of a Games bubble ensuring virtually no contact between residents such as athletes and people outside.

As a result, the Tokyo 2020 Games saw 0.1% of Games participants testing positive at airport quarantine facilities and 0.03% through the screening process. Only six participants were hospitalized during the Games, with none of them becoming seriously ill.

Prior to holding the Games, some experts and media outlets expressed strong concerns about the possibility of the Games triggering a spike in infections. Nonetheless, thanks to the progress in vaccination programs, among other factors, the pandemic was rather on the wane during the Games. Experts gave us high praise for delivering the Games safely.

Cost-effective events

The other matter of public interest is the overall cost of holding the Tokyo 2020 Games.

Following the decision on the one-year postponement, the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee in December 2020 released an updated budget of ¥1.64 trillion, including new appropriations to cover the costs arising from the postponement and COVID-19 measures. We then reexamined the overall spending plan and in late December 2021 announced a newly estimated overall cost of ¥1.45 trillion, saving ¥191 billion from the budget released a year earlier.

The organizing committee’s revenue was projected to decrease due in large part to ticket sales losses because the Games were held without spectators. In this connection, the Tokyo metropolitan government agreed to cover the contribution for the Collaborative Project (safety measures) specified as part of the Games budget. This effectively provided equilibrium to the organizing committee’s overall financial balance.

In its 2013 bid, Tokyo projected spending ¥800 billion to host the Tokyo 2020 Games. However, this amount was not meant to be the overall cost necessary to hold the Games. The estimated amount was presented in compliance with the International Olympic Committee’s request for submitting cost projections for comparison purposes, thus only covering estimated spending for fundamental Games facilities and operations that would be commonly essential for candidate host cities. When Tokyo bid for the Games, no details were known yet about its host city plans, so it was difficult to show an exact overall spending for delivering them.

The overall estimated cost for the Games was announced for the first time at the end of 2016 with projected expenditures totaling ¥1.5 trillion. The latest estimates of the Games budget shows a savings of about ¥50 billion from the 2016 estimate.

The new National Stadium and the Games-related permanent facilities built by the Tokyo metropolitan government will be available for public use for many decades to come. The money allocated for their construction was meant to be an investment for the creation of lasting legacies for Japanese society, rather than mere expenditures necessary for the delivery of the Games. Japanese society should ponder how to make better use of such future-oriented investment.

Having said that, I know there still is criticism that the Games were too costly. We made efforts on our part to trim Games-related spending, including a reduction of about ¥450 billion in the overall cost of running the Games, mainly through a review of the venues of the Games and post-postponement simplification of the ways they would be delivered.

To make future Games drastically less costly, it will be inevitable to review the scale of Games and the methods to run them, ranging from the overall number of competitions to that of participating athletes. To that end, I think far-reaching discussions, including on the bidding system, will be essential, involving the IOC and other stakeholders in the Olympic Movement.

Public’s positive appraisal

Next, I would like to see how people’s opinions of the Games changed before and after they took place. A Yomiuri Shimbun survey conducted in May 2021 showed 59% of the respondents wanted the Games canceled as opposed to 39% who said they should be staged with either a limited number of spectators or none. In contrast, in a post-Games Yomiuri survey held in August, 63% of the respondents said it was good that the Tokyo Olympic Games were staged, while 28% did not think so. An IOC report said the Tokyo Games were watched by more than 3 billion people worldwide and 65% of the respondents in a survey deemed the Games a success.

Likewise, of the 70,000-strong Games volunteers, 74% of those who worked in the Olympic Games and 79% in the Paralympic Games said they were satisfied with their Games roles or had good experiences, according to one survey.

Not only the IOC and the International Paralympic Committee but also overseas media outlets praised the Tokyo Games as a global event that could not have taken place anywhere but Japan when the coronavirus pandemic was still raging. They also applauded Tokyo for its courage to confront adversity.

I think Japan was able to gain credibility with the rest of the world by delivering on its promise to stage the Tokyo Games after making a difficult decision to do so without spectators.

Japanese athletes’ performances deserve special mention. Their performances were spectacular indeed, not only in those competitions at which they are traditionally good, but also in newly introduced ones in which younger delegates were particularly excellent. The Japanese team won more medals than expected. TV viewership rates for the opening ceremonies of and competitions in the Games were high. This indicates that many people cheered on Games athletes. It is particularly noteworthy that the Paralympic Games gave people encouragement and evoked emotions.

Nonetheless, as I look back at the Games as a whole, it is true that there were various problems and insufficiencies on which we need to reflect. For instance, the organizing committee had to retract the original Games emblems it had chosen earlier and there was trouble concerning Games ceremony event planning. We must also sincerely take criticism of inadequate disposal of Games-related goods.

Although I had to deal with difficulty after difficulty in running the Games amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tokyo Games were delivered after a yearlong delay, receiving praise from at home and abroad. I am sure that such praise became possible thanks to the cooperation and support extended by many Games stakeholders, including sponsors. At the end, we must all await history’s judgment.