Are the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in Trouble?

With an out-of-control budget, bumbling leadership, and embarrassing scandals, the city of the future is looking to the past for guidance.

There’s a sinking feeling in Japan about the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The city ditched its overly expensive centerpiece — a $2 billion stadium — and the official logo, under allegations of plagiarism. The preparations have been plagued by embarrassing cost overruns, ineffective leadership, finger pointing at all levels, and widespread doubts that a seemingly inept Japanese government will have everything ready in time.

This might be par for the course as far as recent games go, certainly in relation to budget overruns: Every single Olympic Games between 1960 and 2012 for which there are reliable data (roughly 60 percent) exceeded its budget — by an average of 179 percent. And though the 1976 Montreal Olympic Committee began confidently — Montreal’s mayor, Jean Drapeau, even proclaimed, “The Olympics can no more lose money than a man can have a baby” — they finished nearly eight times over budget. The price tag for the most recent Olympics, in Sochi, Russia, may have been an obscene $66.7 billion — more than five times over budget and surpassing Beijing’s 2008 Olympics as the most expensive games ever. No wonder no developed democratic country wants to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.

But Japanese may take some comfort in knowing that Tokyo has already waded through these same problems before, in the run-up to the 1964 Olympics — which went on to be regarded as perhaps the most successful of all time. Indeed, it was these earlier games that galvanized Tokyo to accomplish one of the greatest urban transformations of modern times and opened the door for Japan to re-enter the world stage. However, although the 1964 games exceeded expectations, it left troubling legacies that seem to have been forgotten — and are on the verge of being repeated.

There can scarcely be a starker contrast with modern-day Tokyo, one of the most technologically sophisticated and efficient cities in the world, than Tokyo pre-1964, a war-scarred, dilapidated, diseased, and polluted third-world megalopolis. The harbor and the capital’s main rivers were thick with sludge from human and industrial waste. Only roughly 25 percent of the city’s residents enjoyed the luxury of a flush toilet; the rest were serviced by ubiquitous vacuum trucks that collected feces from under the toilets in Japanese homes and transported them to rice paddies for use as fertilizer. (During the U.S. occupation of Japan following World War II, American troops sarcastically nicknamed them “honey trucks” because of the powerful odor they emitted.) Hot water was infrequent, roads poor, modern hotel rooms scarce, and English speakers so rare that the children of foreign residents were recruited to teach conversation classes.

People wondered why the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had even voted, in 1959, for Tokyo over the far more modern cities of Detroit, Brussels, and Vienna. The answer was an intense lobbying effort, complete with high-class call girls (according to Olympics historian Andrew Jennings) and a pledge to remake the chaotic city in the image of a modern organized metropolis.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Tokyo Olympic delegation members celebrate after the IOC awards Tokyo the 2020 Summer Olympic Games on Sept. 7, 2013. (Yan Walton/AFP/Getty Images)

Tokyo’s 2020 bid relied less on wooing the IOC with prostitutes and promised transformation, and more on garnering Japanese interest. While Tokyo’s bid for the 2016 Olympics failed in part because it did not have widespread public support — one 2009 poll showed only 56 percent, the lowest among the four candidate cities — the Japanese public rallied in the wake of the March 2011 triple disaster of a tsunami, earthquake, and nuclear accident. By March 2013, an estimated 70 percent of Japanese favored hosting the games in 2020.

Unlike the 1964 Games, the IOC saw Tokyo as a safe bet for 2020 compared to the other two final candidates: during the final round of voting in 2013, Istanbul was in the throes of large anti-government protests, and Madrid — indeed, most of Spain — was in the middle of its great recession. (Money may have played a role: In mid-January, allegations of Tokyo bribing an IOC member emerged.) Tokyo’s proposed budget of around $8 billion — modest compared to Sochi’s — was mostly earmarked for simply updating aging infrastructure.

The scenario could not have been further from Tokyo’s proposal for the 1964 Games, which involved nothing less than rebuilding an entire city. Plans in early 1959 to redo Tokyo’s urban infrastructure included calls to construct 10,000 new office and residential buildings, 22 highways and overhead expressways, a $55 million monorail from the airport into downtown Tokyo, 25 miles of new subway lines — more than doubling the existing total length at the time — and a $1 billion bullet train that would halve the existing travel time between Tokyo and Osaka (part of the Olympic budget, even though there were no planned events in Osaka).

An aerial view of the holy Meiji Shrine and the planned site for the national stadium in Tokyo, June 1959. (Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

And then there was the need to build five-star hotels for the expected hordes of tourists; Olympic Village dormitories for the 7,000 expected athletes; architect Kenzo Tange’s distinctively upward-sweeping Yoyogi National Stadium; and the Budokan Hall designed for martial arts competitions, which later become famous as a music venue for the likes of Bob Dylan and Ozzy Osbourne. And last but not least was the construction of new sewers, allowing excrement to be flushed rather than scooped. By 1962, Tokyo had become one gargantuan construction site, operating 24/7.

A vacant lot is prepared for the construction of the new national stadium for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on Nov. 16, 2015. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)

The 1964 Games were buoyed by a massive government plan to double gross national product by the end of the 1960s through the manufacture and export of transistors, radios, television sets, and automobiles. But today, instead of being a key component of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic plan, known as “Abenomics,” the 2020 Olympics preparations have instead begun to undermine the government’s image. Dropping the official logo for the Olympic Games in September 2015 after a plagiarism controversy was not nearly as damaging as ditching the new national stadium’s original design in July. The stadium’s snowballing expense — it morphed from the original estimate of $1.3 billion to $2.1 billion — and joke-fueling shape (likened to a toilet seat, UFO, vacuum-cleaning robot, bicycle helmet, and more) sealed its fate. The original stadium, designed by renowned architect Zaha Hadid, was so large that it threatened to dwarf the quiet surroundings of Meiji Jingu forest, considered a sacred sanctuary by many Tokyoites. But it was the price tag that caused the loudest public outcry in this heavily indebted country, leading to the resignation of Hakubun Shimomura, Abe’s handpicked sports minister and political ally.

After accusations that the Japanese Olympics logo was plagiarized from a Belgian designer, Tokyo dropped the logo, seen in this July 24, 2015 photo. (Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images)

A rendering of architect Zaha Hadid's futuristic design for the Olympic stadium, in an undated image; Tokyo scrapped the design after public controversy over its massive size, high cost, and bizarre shape. (Flickr)

Architect Kengo Kuma explains his design for a much more modest stadium on Dec. 22, 2015. (Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images)

The Japan Sports Agency, one of several organs involved in staging the Olympics — including the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC), the ministry in charge of sports, and the Tokyo governor’s office — had chosen the Hadid stadium design in November 2012 from among 46 submissions, without ever considering costs, thinking that was the purview of other agencies. No less a personage than JOC head and former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori quickly called a press conference after Abe’s decision to seek a new design, to make it clear that the fiasco was not his fault — and that he had been against the project in the first place. “We are just a possible user of the stadium,” he said. “It is the central government that is responsible for the construction of the facility. People believe I am responsible for the plan. I am very annoyed about that.”

In December, Tokyo selected a scaled down, more conservative, and less expensive stadium design — but at $1.26 billion it will still be one of the world’s most expensive, and many worry that it won’t be ready in time. Recent history does not provide much comfort for coming in on budget either; this is worrying for a country struggling with a huge national debt. The 2012 Olympics in London spent five times its bid; the 2004 Olympics in Athens, a whopping 16 times its bid, according to one estimate — an act of financial mismanagement that contributed to bankrupting Greece several years later.

And yet, the outlook for 2020 cannot yet be considered dire if the 1964 Games preparations are anything to go by. In the years leading up to the games, Tokyo continued to stumble over every deadline for road construction. And it was a mere year and a half before the games began that somebody could be persuaded to head the Olympic Organizing Committee. “At the rate preparations are moving, we must be gravely concerned,” the Tokyo newspaper Mainichi Shimbun noted in 1963.

The National Gymnasium complex under construction in Tokyo on June 6, 1964, just a few months before the games were to begin. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

One looming question was where the 30,000 expected tourists would rest their heads, as there were only half the required number of hotel beds. And bigger still was the issue of how to handle the anomalous severe water shortage in Tokyo that year. As the summer of 1964 began, the municipal government instituted water rationing. So severely did Tokyoites feel the water shortage that even soba shops cut down their cooking. Planes seeded clouds, rivers were rerouted, artesian wells dug, and Shinto priests performed rain dances, all in an attempt to quench the city’s thirst.

As the games approached, construction rose to a frenzied pitch. Tokyo residents put up black curtains to shut out the blinding all-night work lights and climbed into their futons wearing ear plugs to block out the incessant noise of the pile drivers and bulldozers. Just a few weeks before the games began, the clanging and the tumult gradually faded away, and New Tokyo, with its long, smooth stretches of highways, began to appear.

The placement of the Olympic Village in Yoyogi Park was symbolic for the Japanese.  That land had previously been the site of a barracks and parade ground for the Japanese Imperial Army, and was then occupied by U.S. military families once the war ended. As of 1964, there were tens of thousands of American soldiers still stationed on Japanese soil under the U.S.-Japan mutual security treaty — a state of affairs that many Japanese found unsettling. Left- and right-wing groups viewed the 1964 return of the Yoyogi Park land to Tokyo as the central site for the Olympics as an especially welcome gift by both, who longed for the day when all the Americans would pack up and go home.

Less than 10 days before the Olympics began, the crowning glory of the Olympic effort (that had nothing to do with the games) — the Japanese bullet train — finally started operations between Tokyo and Osaka. The Shinkansen reached peak speeds of 130 miles per hour, making them the fastest trains in the world, and were so punctual that people could set their watches by them.

Haneda Airport, where the Olympic visitors would land, was refurbished into a gleaming showpiece and a futuristic monorail would whisk them into town.

But not quite everything was finished. Only two of the eight main expressways were fully completed, with two more only partially constructed. Bedrooms and public restrooms, still too few in number, were made up for in part with floating hotels parked in Tokyo Bay and a fleet of mobile public toilets. Etiquette training was also ongoing. Subway signs around the time of the Olympics read, “Let’s refrain from urinating in public” and “Do not go to new Haneda Airport in pajamas and haramaki,” and still another, addressed to young females, went, “Do not mistake foreign men’s kindnesses as an expression of love.”

Torchbearer Yoshinori Sakai, who was born in Hiroshima the day the atomic bomb was dropped, climbs the steps to light the cauldron at the opening ceremony on Oct. 10, 1964. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The games opened on Oct. 10, 1964, under a sky so blue it looked like it would crack. Pilots created five majestic Olympic rings in the sky. Yoshinori Sakai, born in Hiroshima on the day the atomic bomb was dropped, carried the torch up the stairs to light the Olympic flame; Emperor Hirohito stood erect as teams from 93 nations marched in. “I don’t think I ever saw the emperor being the only person standing before that,” said then Chicago Tribune correspondent Sam Jameson. “I imagined in my mind that he was thanking the world for readmitting Japan into international society.”

The games were responsible for the highest-rated sports program in the history of Japanese television. An estimated more than nine out of every 10 people in Japan witnessed the stunning upset as the petite Japanese “Eastern Sorceresses” beat the towering Russian women’s volleyball team for the gold medal. When it was over, Life Magazine raved that the Games were the “greatest Olympics ever held,” not only for the excitement and the sporting achievements, but also the host’s level of preparation — an evaluation that is perhaps still true.

Olympic athletes circle the track during the opening ceremony at the Meiji Olympic Park, 1964. (Jochen Blume/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Less than two decades after being crushed militarily and stripped of its imperialist aspirations, the Olympics gave the Japanese the sense that they could once again stand proud. The world had just been introduced to a new Japan, a peaceful democracy that would soon become an economic power.

For Tokyoites, the Olympic success was doubly important because their city had been transformed from a struggling backwater into a shiny international metropolis pulsing with new glamour. Indeed, as if to confirm its new status to the world, Tokyo was selected shortly afterwards to be the chic location for what would become among the most famous James Bond movies, You Only Live Twice.

Neon signs near the Shimbashi train station in the fashionable Ginza district of Tokyo, 1964. (Jacoby/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Of course, there were downsides to the games, though they attracted little attention at the time. First, there was the cost, which amounted to an estimated $2.8 billion in 1964 dollars. Readying the Tokyo-Osaka high-speed train in time for the games was purely for show, since no Olympic events were held in Japan’s second-largest city: With the world’s eyes turned towards the Tokyo Olympics, Japan wanted to show off the technological heights it had attained. The rush to get the train ready in time for the Olympics caused construction costs and land acquisition fees to balloon, nearly doubling expenses to $1 billion.

To complete construction of the Shinkansen, funds were sucked away from other projects — like the monorail that was meant to connect Haneda Airport and the city center. Instead of terminating at a more convenient location, like Tokyo Station or Shimbashi, it ended several stops short, in Hamamatsucho. The project lacked the funds to buy the necessary land; instead, they built it over publicly owned waterways to cut costs, destroying local fishing industries in the process.

Highway construction was similarly affected. Expressways were built above canals and rivers to avoid buying land — the prices of which, not surprisingly, had risen dramatically because owners knew the government wanted it for the impending games. An eyesore emblematic of this situation is the expressway directly above the historic bridge at Nihonbashi, an economic center at the end of the old Tokaido Road footpath. The arrangement helped destroy a vibrant river culture that carried goods and supported numerous shops and restaurants.

An elevated expressway runs through Tokyo after the city overhauled its urban infrastructure in preparation for the Olympics, 1964. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Corruption, in the form of bid rigging and price collusion, a well-known fact of life in postwar construction in Japan, also reared its ugly head during the pre-Olympic years, as did ample opportunities to reward the Tokyo underworld. The yakuza availed themselves of diverse opportunities, ranging from a share of construction contracts to traffic control, and from lodging to on-site security. They also enjoyed a monopoly of brothels, gambling dens, and other such off-site entertainments. With taxpayer money siphoned off to line the pockets of corrupt politicians and underworld bosses, the subsequent cost-cutting often resulted in shoddy work.

Pedestrians cross the famous Shibuya crossing, in a fashionable part of downtown Tokyo, on May 25, 2010. (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

In exchange for the limelight in 2020, Tokyo is once again paying dearly. There is the cost, estimated to exceed $15 billion — far higher than the original budget, and a figure that will surely rise if the 2020 Games, as expected, follow the pattern of Olympics before them. Citizens, already having to cope with an increase in the shohizei, or consumption tax, from 5 percent to 8 percent in 2014 (and possibly to 10 percent between now and 2017), will have to face even higher taxes to pay for the games. With Japan facing a crippling national debt of nearly $11 trillion, approximately 245 percent of GDP, the 2020 Olympics could be a hard burden to bear if costs start to spiral out of control.

The decision to hold the games in late July and early August, when the temperature can reach the high 90s and the humidity above 80 percent, is also problematic. The brutal summer weather in the capital is the reason why the JOC moved the 1964 Olympic start date to October and prompted Mexico City to follow suit in 1968. Playing competitive sports at those temperatures is extremely risky for athletes, especially marathoners. Of course, Tokyo had to bow to the demands of global TV, the rights being held by NBC, which does not want to compete with Major League Baseball playoffs and the National Football League season — both of which will be in full swing in October. But was it really necessary for the JOC bid document submitted in 2013 to maintain ingeniously that mid-summer weather in Tokyo is “mild and sunny” and “an ideal climate for athletes to perform at their best”?

Yes, in many ways, Tokyo is an ideal place to hold the 2020 Olympics. Transportation runs like clockwork. It has a newly minted, awe-inspiring metropolitan skyline — the view from the Rainbow Bridge in Tokyo Bay looking over the city is one of the most stunning in the world. Moreover, the streets are extremely clean and safe for a metropolis of its size. Tokyoites in general are kind — certainly in comparison with New Yorkers and Parisians. Lose your way and someone will step forward to help. Forget your wallet and cell phone in a taxi or on the train? It will somehow make its way back to your hotel room. And unlike some other host cities, cleaning up crime and corruption before the games won’t pose a big problem for Tokyo.

But there are also myriad ways that Tokyo lags behind other developed cities — like the low number of licensed tour guides, competent interpreters, and English speakers. Or the paucity of bank ATMs that are programmed to take foreign credit cards. The inability to deal with the ubiquitous Nigerian touts. The lack of free Wi-Fi hotspots, a cell phone network that is mostly incompatible with the rest of the world, or barrier-free zones for disabled visitors.

The Tokyo municipal government used painfully tangled bureaucratic-speak to deal with the latter issue, saying it “plans to make a policy to establish a conference group” in conjunction with city railways to “study what needs to be done” to make navigating the city easier for wheelchair users. If that’s an example of speedy municipal problem-solving, the next few years could be a trying experience.

A Japanese-language version of this article was published in Newsweek Japan on Jan. 26, 2016.

(Top image: Xun Zhang | Getty Images)