Never Ending Games

Wednesday, 27 July 2016


Professor John Gold is a Professor in the Department of Social Sciences and a leading authority on the Olympics. Here, he comments on Tokyo’s preparations for the 2020 Games.

I am not the best person to ask if you are thinking of placing a bet on the likely host city for the next Olympics.  I have for many years studied the historical relationship between the Olympic movement and its host cities and can readily testify to the complexities and uncertainties of nomination.

For example, I believed that Paris was certain to gain the 2012 Summer Games.  I regarded Chicago as a shoe-in for 2016.  My record, though, improved slightly with respect to 2020.  

The Olympic movement chooses new host cities for either Summer or Winter Games every two years. This never-ending cycle constantly creates new precedents, agendas and challenges. It is an essential part of what makes research on Olympic cities so endlessly fascinating.

Professor John Gold, Department of Social Sciences

Initially I thought that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) might be swayed by Istanbul’s symbolism as the point where East meets West and its pragmatic appeal as being somewhere that could satisfy demands to offer the Games to a city in the Islamic world.  However, political difficulties meant that the final stages of the campaign went badly for Istanbul, making Tokyo seem like a safer option.

For their part, the Japanese helped their cause by crafting a bid that fully incorporated the IOC’s known preferences, particularly for compactness and for legacy.

Briefly summarised, the bid proposed situating 28 of the 33 competition venues within the city’s boundaries in two loosely-defined zones.  One, the Tokyo Bay Zone, offered the possibility of building substantial numbers of new venues, including the Athletes’ Village, on waterfront land that could be requisitioned or reclaimed.  

The other, the Heritage Zone, sought to capitalise on physical legacy of the earlier Games.  Notably the Kasumigaoka National Stadium, the Olympic stadium from 1964, would be rebuilt as the equivalent for 2020.  The bid stressed integration of the Olympic projects into overall city planning and promised a rich legacy in terms of improvements to infrastructure and the urban fabric.  

Tokyo’s comfortable success at the IOC’s selection meeting in September 2013 set in train the long-term trajectory by which the Games are prepared, staged and their aftermath managed.  It is also a process that thus far I have been fortunate enough to be able to witness at first-hand. 

My initial contacts with members of the Tokyo team came in June 2012 when I was invited to act as discussant at a symposium on the 2020 bid organised in London by the Japan Foundation.  At this time, their scheme was clearly still evolving.  

Although the two Zones had emerged with the strong emphasis on compact clusters of venues, there was still discussion concerning issues such as the location of the main stadium and its relationship to a putative Olympic Park.  

My commentary emphasised Tokyo’s enduring reputation as a city that pioneered approaches to deploying the Games in support of wider urban development goals and the hope that this new venture would be matched by distinctively Japanese innovations in stadium design and site plan. 

Further contacts over the next two years led to the development of shared projects, an invitation to visit Tokyo in January 2015, and subsequently to maintain annual contact through an invited visiting position at Meiji University (through which I hope to see matters through to 2020).  The essence of these contacts is comparative analysis.  

London 2012 is regarded as far more of a role model for Tokyo than the emerging Games in Rio de Janeiro and identification of similarities are inescapable.   I first toured the future Games sites for London 2012 in early 2007, around five-and-a-half years in advance of the event.  Perhaps not surprisingly, given the comparable timing until the start of Tokyo’s Games in July 2020, the situation on the ground was at precisely the same stage.  

Property purchase is being negotiated.  Design competitions are being planned for venues.  The Kasumigaoka stadium has been gutted but still awaits demolition.   The Tokyo equivalent of London’s ‘blue wall’, the barrier placed around the main Olympic Park, is surely on its way.  

By contrast, some things are very different.  London’s decision to place the Olympic Village in close proximity to the main stadium removed the logistical problems of getting competitors to events since they could walk there.  

That will not be the case in Tokyo where, for example, the eight kilometre journey to the main stadium will need to take into account ways to avoid the city’s legendary traffic congestion.  Discussion about security is less intense than for London, overshadowed from the outset by the 7/7 bombings.  Concern about the summer heat, especially during the staging of the Paralympics in August, is far more acute.

Differences, though, are inevitable.  The Olympic movement chooses new host cities for either Summer or Winter Games every two years.  This never-ending cycle constantly creates new precedents, agendas and challenges.  It is an essential part of what makes research on Olympic cities so endlessly fascinating.