Driverless cars and robot helpers | Tokyo looks to Olympics to promote technology and spark event hosting resurgence

Even by the rollercoaster standards of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, Tokyo’s preparations for sport’s biggest showpiece in 2020 have been unusually tumultuous.

Rarely has a Games host had to contend with such a multitude of issues, from accusations of plagiarism that forced a redesign of the official logo back in 2015 through to the administrative upheaval earlier this year when Japan’s Olympics Minister and the head of the Japanese Olympic Committee left their roles under a cloud.

However, of greater interest to the international federations invested in Tokyo 2020 has been a well-documented drive to lower costs, leading to a substantially revised venue plan.

At this year’s SportAccord on the Gold Coast, members of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations queued up to complain about perceived issues relating to transport and athlete accommodation, with many expressing concerns about the depth of Games budget cuts.

Organisers, though, argue it would be ridiculous to claim that Tokyo is doing things on the cheap as it prepares for not only the Olympic and Paralympic Games, but also the numerous test events ahead of next year’s showpiece and the prospect of legacy events post-2020.

The approach, they say, is with an eye on sustainability, whilst shining a spotlight on Tokyo’s many strengths, including its status as the home of state-of-the-art technology and an arguably under-sold connection with nature.

It should also be remembered that prudence tallies not only with the ideals of the International Olympic Committee’s Agenda 2020 efficiency guidelines, but is also entirely understandable in the context of intense levels of public scrutiny of government spending, with the national economy edging towards recovery after having been relatively stagnant for nearly three decades.

The most conspicuous example of long-term planning over short-term extravagance is the new National Stadium, originally slated as a venue for both the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympics.

Following a public outcry over escalating costs, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe announced in 2015 that the original design by Zaha Hadid would be scrapped.

The replacement design by Kengo Kuma is smaller in capacity and footprint, with no retractable roof and more modular seating, making it much easier to convert into a legacy facility after the Games. At ¥154bn (€1.12bn/$1.25bn), it is also about 40 per cent cheaper than the previous design.

Joseph Choong of Great Britain celebrates as he crosses the line to win gold in the men’s laser run on day three of the UIPM World Cup, Modern Pentathlon test event for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics at the Musashino Forest Sport Plaza in Chofu, Tokyo. (Matt Roberts/Getty Images)


The symbolism is an important part of Tokyo’s plans to showcase the true nature of the city during its spell in the global sporting spotlight.

Despite its status as one of the world’s most spectacular and populous locations – with nearly 14 million inhabitants – Tokyo’s track record as a major sports event host is unremarkable.

In the IOC’s ‘Group A’ sports of aquatics, athletics and gymnastics – which receive the largest slice of Games-related income, Tokyo has only ever hosted flagship global events on two occasions – the 1991 IAAF World Championships in 1991 and the 2011 FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships.

The city even missed out on hosting matches during the 2002 Fifa World Cup, which Japan co-hosted with South Korea.

When Tokyo entered the race to host the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, it was in hope rather than expectation. The city finished a distant third, nine votes behind second-placed Madrid in the second round.

But by the time the bidding contest for the 2020 Games had entered the final straight, the landscape had changed. The city flipped that nine-vote deficit to Madrid into a 16-point advantage over the Spanish capital in the first round and then prevailed comfortably in a head-to-head with Istanbul.

Nick Varley worked on four successive winning summer Olympic Games bids spanning the 2012 to 2024 editions. His business, LookUp Communications, is working on a number of Tokyo 2020-related projects.

Reflecting on the reasons for Tokyo’s resurgence, he says: “The biggest single lesson learned [following the 2016 bid] was the need for a ‘why?’ I don’t think anyone doubted that Tokyo had a great venue plan, strong government support and all the other must-haves for a winning bid.

“What it lacked, which was crucial for a bid in that era, was a compelling answer to why it wanted to host, and why anyone would want to go there rather than, to pick the obvious and winning example, Rio.”

Pavel Ilyashenko of Kazakhstan competes during the men’s swimming on day three of the UIPM World Cup, Modern Pentathlon test event for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, at the Musashino Forest Sport Plaza in Chofu, Tokyo. (Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

Discover tomorrow

Using the Games to reinvigorate parts of Tokyo and transform the city’s appetite for major events beyond 2020 has been a key focus since the hosting rights were secured. As part of this, avoiding an unwelcome financial burden is vital.

Whilst costs have been trimmed, a survey by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government found that the Games will deliver economic benefits totalling ¥32.3tn across Japan, creating some 1.94 million jobs.

However, planning for the future can bring challenges in the present.

The decision to go back to the drawing board for the National Stadium design, for example, left World Rugby “extremely disappointed”, with the governing body stating at the time that the move would have a “significant impact” on the overall ticketing capacity and tournament budget for the Rugby World Cup.

Yokohama Stadium, host of the 2002 Fifa World Cup final, will step in to stage the tournament final, while Tokyo’s smaller Ajinomoto Stadium will host the opening match, among other fixtures.

Additionally, in December 2017, plans were announced to reduce the total capacity of Tokyo 2020 venues by more than 30,000 as part of efforts to reduce the Games budget by ¥150bn, to ¥1.35tn.

“Every single winning bid goes through venue changes as the plans evolve and improve,” Varley says. “The big difference with Tokyo was that its victory coincided with the rise of the IOC’s Agenda 2020 strategy, and so the city had the imperative and opportunity to rethink in a wholesale way – to try to improve efficiencies and save money.

“It does mean that some sports – for example, cycling – are more distant from the centre of the action than they’re used to. But all sports are going to have to get used to that idea of a more distributed venue plan as the IOC has made it very clear it prefers that to unnecessary new venues.”

It appears to be paying dividends in terms of delivery, with all eight of the new Tokyo 2020 venues on schedule for completion and the IOC Coordination Commission having praised the progress on its most recent visit in July.

Work on the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza finished nearly two years ago, while the archery, rowing and canoe slalom venues opened recently. Construction work at the Aquatics Centre is 75-per-cent complete, while the Gymnastics Centre and Ariake Arena, which will host volleyball and wheelchair basketball, will open next July. About 90 per cent of accommodation facilities for the Games have been finished.

Concerns have been raised in some quarters that the city will not be able to accommodate all of the Games’ visitors after a study by the Mizuho Research Institute claimed that there could be a shortfall of 14,000 hotel rooms, even though capacity in the city will have rocketed from 30,000 in 2017 to 170,000 next year following a construction boom.

However, Tokyo 2020 points out that there are about 300,000 rooms when the neighbouring Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures are taken into account.

Aerial view of the Imperial Palace and outer garden which will host the cycling events during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)


Political support for the Games has been consistent from those in power, although there has been a degree of turbulence in terms of sports governance.

In March, Japanese Olympic Committee president Tsunekazu Takeda resigned amid bribery and corruption allegations linked to the Tokyo 2020 bid. Less than a month later, Japan’s Olympics Minister Yoshitaka Sakurada resigned after making a series of controversial remarks, to be replaced by Shun’ichi Suzuki.

“The allegations will erode trust in the organisations involved in the bid, and in the awarding process, which may impact future bids,” says Iain Edmondson, director at Legacy Delivery and the former head of major events at London & Partners. “However, the product of the sport itself is so powerful that I don’t think it will stop the Games being a success.”

Tokyo 2020 spokesperson Masa Takaya adds: “All host cities face common goals in the lead-up to Olympic and Paralympic Games, such as budgets, timelines and event locations. However, we are enjoying overcoming these challenges and we are on track to deliver the most innovative Games in history.”

Gold mealist Joseph Choong of Great Britain celebrates on the podium during the men’s medal ceremony on day three of the UIPM World Cup, Modern Pentathlon test event for Tokyo 2020. (Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

Breaking records

Central to these plans to confirm Tokyo’s reputation as a world-leading hotbed of innovation is Tokyo 2020’s robot programme, under which four different types of machines will be deployed to help spectators, athletes and officials at venues.

The robots will display human-like movements such as hand-shaking, waving and a variety of facial expressions, while facial-recognition cameras will be mounted on their foreheads so they can recognise when people are nearby.

Driverless taxis are also expected to be in widespread use when the Games begin.

“The technology utilised at the Games will be deployed after they are over in various ways for the benefit of society and will represent one of the Games’ legacies,” Takaya says.

With Tokyo as the primary driver, Japan’s role in supporting the Olympic movement has also been underlined. Of the 13 official worldwide Olympic partners, three are from Japan, including Bridgestone, which has its headquarters in Tokyo, while 13 of the 15 gold partners for the Games also have their head office in the Japanese capital.

The IOC confirmed in June that the Games had already generated record domestic sponsorship revenue of more than $3bn – almost three times more than any previous edition.

In another example of Tokyo 2020’s efforts to innovate, a Waterfront City concept will transform an area around Tokyo Bay into a “sophisticated urban environment”. Pollution levels will be reduced by enforcement measures that ensure only fuel-efficient passenger cars will be allowed in the city.

To boost the visitor experience further, an army of 110,000 volunteers will be on duty during the Games, with Edmondson noting that the authorities have invested in the success stories of London 2012’s volunteer programme, which continues to deliver community benefits seven years on.

Various Games projects have also been launched to support areas that were devastated by the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake. The Olympic Flame will be displayed in areas that were affected, while the Miyagi and Ibaraki prefectures will host football matches and the Fukushima prefecture will stage baseball and softball.

Ya-Ting Tan of Chinese Taipei competes during the bronze medal final against Yichai Zheng of China during the Ready Steady Tokyo – Archery, Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games test event at the Yumenoshima Park Archery Field. (Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

Diverse offering

Baseball, which like softball is returning to the Olympic programme after a 12-year absence, is hugely popular in Tokyo.

The city’s two professional baseball franchises – Yakult Swallows and Yomiuri Giants – compete at the 38,000-seat Meiji Jingu Stadium and 45,000-capacity Tokyo Dome respectively. For the second consecutive edition, Tokyo will stage games this year during the Premier12, the World Baseball Softball Confederation’s flagship quadrennial international competition.

The city’s diverse offering includes Tokyo’s top-tier J1 League football club, FC Tokyo, which plays at the Ajinomoto Stadium – the site for the Rugby World Cup opener.

Meanwhile the Japan Open Tennis Championships 500 Series event is the longest-running ATP Tour tournament in Asia, dating back to 1970, although the city lost out to Turin in a bid to host the season-ending ATP Finals from 2021 to 2025 earlier this year.

Tokyo will also host a new PGA Tour golf tournament later this year, with Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy having already committed to competing at the Zozo Championship.

Other events this year have included a Fina Swimming World Cup meet and the UIPM Modern Pentathlon World Cup Final, which served as an official test event for Tokyo 2020.

Non-Olympic sports are also prevalent, with Tokyo, a regular host of One Championship martial arts events, recently announced as one of the first destinations for the promotion’s new esports series, alongside Singapore and Jakarta.

Looking forward, Edmonson stresses the need for the city to establish “sustainable projects”.

“I know Japan is experiencing huge growth in tourism and it is expected to continue further as a result of the Games,” he says. “There is a particular focus on overcoming the language barrier for visitors and I know many cities have established new sports commissions to capitalise on the opportunity presented by the Games, both for tourism and community engagement.”

Varley expects the city to follow in the footsteps of former Olympics hosts Beijing and London by targeting the IAAF World Athletics Championships.

“I’m sure it will follow the model of other Olympic host cities and try to usher in a decade or more of hosting,” he says. “I’m sure the World Athletics Championships 2025 will be high on the wish list in the new Olympic Stadium.

“Given Japan’s previous success as champions [in 2011], I also imagine the Fifa Women’s World Cup in 2023 will be a priority. Then there will be multiple examples of other sports that will want to build on the Tokyo 2020 experience and success to deliver their world championships in Tokyo or a number of other Japanese cities.

“Tokyo is like no other city I’ve ever visited, and that’s where the opportunities and benefits lie. I’m not sure there’s any major world city in Asia that can offer the same level of effectiveness and efficiency in terms of staging and strong local support across any event – albeit somewhat mired in bureaucracy.

“I think the Rugby World Cup this year and the Olympics next are both going to make any organiser sit up and say, ‘I want to be going there’.”

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