Tokyo’s compact Games go beyond the bounds

The budget for Tokyo’s new grand Olympic stadium has seen a 40 per cent decrease from the original budget in order to increase sustainability. Photo:

Hosting the most compact Games ever has been one of Tokyo’s selling points since the city won the 2020 Olympics’ hosting rights. But as the Tokyo bid has had to realise, making a geographically compact event is not always economically compact.

The Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020 must be ’compact’. The most compact Games in living memory.

’Compact’ was among the magic words, when in 2013, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided on Tokyo as the 2020 host city. It is a solemn promise that Tokyo has made the world of sport.

Calling the Olympic Games ’compact’ describes a concentrated event taking place in a limited geographical location, which is clearly defined for the contestants and spectators present.  

You are right in the middle of it. You are a part of it at all times. You do not venture in from the outside in order to participate or watch the event for a few hours and then go back to the outside world.

The underlying idea is that several of the recent Olympic Games have been too loud and scattered. This time, we will be taken back to the romantic idea of a united Olympic village, where athletes from all over the world are socialising, getting to know one another across nationalities.  

It must be easy to get from one place to the next and it has to be central and the spectators must experience the Olympic atmosphere as soon as they have shown their expensively purchased tickets and have entered the compact community.

At the same time, the ambition of the ’compact’ Games also calls for the event to be economical. It is no goal in itself for the event to be huge. Extravagant expenditures should be avoided and the Games should be in balance with the surrounding environment.  

The project, which Tokyo presented to the IOC before the selection in Rio in 2013, was highly compact in all these respects.

85 per cent of the competitions were to take place within eight kilometres. Either in the reclaimed Odaiba-area by the Tokyo bay or in the Yoyogi-area surrounding the old national stadium and the Olympic swimming stadium from 1964.

The Olympic village, where all athletes will be living, will be in Harumi, the earliest reclaimed area by the Tokyo Bay, which was created out of the city’s trash in the 1800’s.

Harumi was originally an industrial area and home to Tokyo’s great fair and exhibition area, but in later years, the area has developed into a relatively fashionable housing estate, where real estate speculators invest in one skyscraper after another. A development, which will only accelerate when the Olympic athletes’ apartments in the Olympic village as a part of the plans are offered up as private homes after the Games. 

From Harumi there are good connections to the facilities in the newer reclaimed areas where you already find a number of relatively new sports venues which are to be used for the 2020-Games, and where new venues will be constructed before the Games.

A new highway extension through central Tokyo will connect the nearby Haneda airport, the oldest and most central of Tokyo’s airports, with the Harumi area and the old sports centre surrounding the national stadium. An improvement of the transportation network, which Tokyo, regardless of the Games, really needs.

To a great extent, the general principle is to use existing facilities for the competition rather than building new facilities. The famous architect Kenzo Tange’s fabulous swimming stadium built for the Olympic Games in 1964 – with the curved roof that since then has been a Tokyo landmark – will this time be used for handball. The boxing tournament will take place in Tokyo’s sumo stadium, Kokugikan, which is steeped in tradition.

Ecological and sustainable ambitions were also evident in the proposed plans. Especially in the plans for making the Olympic village a ‘Hydrogen Town’. The idea is that the apartments of the 17.000 temporary inhabitants from all over the world will be provided with electricity and heating from green fuel-cell systems in the buildings.

Budgets getting out of hands
But arranging a modern day Olympic Games which are truly compact is easier said than done. This, the organisers in Tokyo have had to concede, and Tokyo City has therefore had to approach the IOC on a number of points to get their approval for compromising with the original ambitions.

Several of the proposed investments in the original plans have turned out to be much too expensive. Tokyo’s mayor, Yoichi Masuzoe, who was elected for the post after Tokyo was selected as Olympic host, has made the shocking realisation that his predecessor’s original budgets did not hold at all.

Actually, the budgeted expenses for construction of new and renovation of old venues were only about half of the three billion dollars that is now suddenly expected to be the cost of the original project.

Part of this is due to the fact that they forgot to count in planned increases in VAT, but in the meantime there was also a significant increase in the general cost of entrepreneurs and work salaries at large construction projects in Japan – primarily as a result of the many construction projects along the tsunami-stricken coast after the catastrophes in the spring of 2011 and the scarcity of labour that followed.

The government is seriously discussing a proposal that will open up for extraordinary immigration of construction workers from the neighbouring Asian countries. Completely new signals in Japan.

Mayor Masuzoe has therefore time after time had to repeat, both towards the IOC and the Japanese public, that the Games were not only meant to be compact in the geographical sense but also in the economic sense.

No one is interested in runaway expenses, he argues. The travel time between the Olympic village and the venues is much more important than the geographical distance, he also says. Even after the plans are changed, 70 per cent of the competitions will take place within the original compact zone of eight kilometres, he reassures.

It is not a rare thing to see major changes in the original plans happen during the preparations for the Olympic Games, and the IOC has already approved that the Tokyo organisers drop the plans of building a new basketball stadium and instead use an existing sports venue in Chofu, 25 kilometres west of the planned Olympic village. The same is expected to happen with the badminton tournament, which will take place in the Saitama prefecture an hour north by train. 

Originally, the plan was to hold the sailing competitions right in Tokyo Bay so that the sailor athletes could for once stay at the same place as the other Olympic athletes.

But right now, the competitions will probably end up being moved to the existing marina in Chiba, 27 kilometres east. Not only to save costs, but also because the helicopters which will be filming the competitions from the air would be much too close to the approach to the Haneda airport.

Finally, there is an ongoing debate about a planned course for the canoeing and kayaking slalom events, which was to be placed in a precious wetland with 50.000 migratory birds, where the artificial waves would have ruined a pine forest and a preserved bird sanctuary.

Is hospitality the same as destroying nature?, asks Nobuya Lida from Tokyo Wild Bird Society in a statement to the news agency Reuters.

’Hospitality’ is one of the slogans behind the Tokyo Games and the criticism of the canoe and kayak course makes it likely that also this part of the original plan will be changed by 2020.  

Delays and relocation cause debate
So far, all these changes and controversies have created great delays. Tokyo, which was selected ahead of Istanbul and Madrid because of its reputation for efficiency and reliability, is far behind the original schedule.

There will be a venue for both canoe/kayak athletes and badminton players when they arrive at the Olympic village in five years’ time. This will not be a problem. But the delays might cause some concern among the building owners behind Tokyo’s new grand Olympic stadium, which is by far the largest prestige project – and by far the greatest engineering challenge.

During the first two invitations to submit tenders for the job of tearing down the old national stadium, which is located in the same location as the new Olympic stadium is to be built, they did not succeed in finding an entrepreneur that was willing to do the job at the budgeted price. Here, they are seriously behind schedule.

Meanwhile, a furious debate continues among architects and city planners on the chosen project for the new grand stadium. It is the only major prestige project at this Olympics, but it is extremely major.

The chosen project is designed by the Iraqi-British star architect Zaha Hadid and it has been accused of heeling through Tokyo’s city scene as a ‘cross between a gigantic bicycle helmet and a spaceship’ out of sync with its surroundings. Others have called the building a ‘turtle’. The architect herself says that the look of the building is to signal dynamics and an orientation towards the future.

The project has already been seriously cut down compared to Zaha Hadid’s original drawings. There has been a 40 per cent decrease in the original budget of 2.5 billion US dollars, which has cost a fourth of the building’s size and, in her words, made the project more ‘sustainable’.

But the new stadium will still be gigantic. It is raised 70 meters above the ground and will still be very dominating in one of Central Tokyo’s old neighbourhoods – and it is still met with bitter criticism. 

It is a ’monumental mistake’ and a ’disgrace to future generations,’ argues Arata Isozaki, one of Japanese architecture’s ‘grand old men.’

Another great name in Japanese architecture, Toyo Ito, has proposed an alternative project which to a greater extent builds upon the existing national stadium. It will more clearly connect the new building with the Japanese people’s fond memories of the first Olympic Games in Tokyo in 1964, and it will only cost a fraction of Zaha Hadid’s project, he argues.

Another of Japanese architecture’s old celebrities, Tadao Ando, was on the other hand the chairman of the committee that selected Zaha Hadid for the job. He calls her project ‘a symbol of hope.’ So it is clearly not all Japanese architects who are against her ambitious plans for their capital.

Zaha Hadid only notes that big projects always see this kind of disagreement among architects, and that the opposition against her project is to a higher degree due to her being a foreigner than due to the disputed design.

“I do not build small, beautiful buildings,” she says.

Fear of ‘white elephants’
However, it is not only architects that are turning against the stadium plans, even though they are the loudest voices in the debate. Large groups in the local population are also against the plans. The new stadium will indeed change the expression of and the view from several parts of the city. And many inhabitants find that their old apartment houses are expropriated as part of the construction plans.

32.000 signatures have been collected against the project, but there is hardly any doubt that it will take a whole lot more before it will have any effect on the decisions.

If the new stadium is built as planned, Tokyo will most certainly “be burdened by a gigantic white elephant,” says Arata Isozaki.

But a part of the explanation for the great cost of this particular project is that the planners have actually tried to avoid creating a white elephant that will cease being used as soon as the Games are over.

This is why the grandstand can be moved back and forth in a very advanced manner, so that the venue can be used for both athletics, soccer, public meetings and grand concerts.

This feature has contributed to making the project larger and more expensive than it otherwise could have been.

Even after the project cut backs, Tokyo’s new Olympic stadium is twice as expensive in capital expenditure as the final costs of the Olympic stadium in London.

So in one very visible way, the otherwise compact Tokyo Games will not be at all compact.


* required field

What is three plus seven?

Guidelines for posting
Play the Game promotes an open debate on sport and sports politics and we strongly encourage everyone to participate in the discussions on But please follow these simple guidelines when you write a post:

  1. Please be respectful - even if you disagree strongly with certain viewpoints. Slanderous or profane remarks will not be posted.
  2. Please keep to the subject. Spam or solicitations of any kind will not be posted.

Use of cookies

The website uses cookies to provide a user-friendly and relevant website. Cookies provide information about how the website is being used or support special functions such as Twitter feeds. 

By continuing to use this site, you consent to the use of cookies. You can find out more about our use of cookies and personal data in our privacy policy.