A permanent race against the clock

I remember well, when some years ago, I discovered the big Omega watch showing the time to go until the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games at the Tōkyō Metropolitan Government (TMG) building. The digits were somewhere above 800 and seemed to me quite irrelevant. Back then, I counted the years or months, rather than the days, minutes and seconds.

When shortly after, I asked in an interview with a member of the Tōkyō 2020 Organising Committee about the main challenge faced in the preparation of the Games, the answer came fast, was short and sincere: there is no time, for anything. The Olympics is a permanent race against the clock. 

On 7 September 2013, after a bidding period of around two years, Tōkyō was chosen to host the XXXII Olympiad. The TMG established the 2020 Olympic Games Preparation Council, chaired by the Governor of Tōkyō on September 11, 2013 (at that moment and roughly two months before his resignation, Inose Naoki), in order to fully engage in efforts to host the Games. The Japanese capital had then about 5 months to create the Tōkyō Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG), an organisation that is responsible for ensuring the successful delivery of the event. 

On January 1, 2014, the Bureau of Sports was reorganised into the Bureau of Tōkyō 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games Preparation in order to advance outlines for the Games and to promote Tōkyō’s sports policies. 

On January 24, 2014, the TMG and the Japanese Olympic and Paralympic Committee (JOC), entrusted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), established the TOCOG. With former Prime Minister of Japan Mori Yoshirō as its President, this Committee is composed of members from various organisations including the JOC, the TMG and the national government. Over the years, its number of employees has increased from roughly 30 to over 2.500 last summer and may rise to around 4.000 until July. Including temporary jobs that will be executed only over a short period (during the Games), the TOCOG is expected to count around 6.0008.000 people at its peak. Main parts of the office got shifted from Toranomon Hills and are now located in Harumi, next to the Athletes Village. Except the temporary jobs, many TOCOG positions run on one-year contracts that have up to present been renewed every year independently. In autumn 2020, after the Tōkyō Paralympic Games, most of them come to termination and will presumably not be extended.  

Whether it comes to employment, the development of facilities or societal matters, the Olympics and Paralympics stipulate a clear and restricted timeframe and are under no circumstance postponed. In history, only three, respectively five Olympiads have been cancelled: one in 1916 because of World War I, and as the summer and winter event was held the same year from 1924 to 1992, two in 1940 and two in 1944, due to World War II. 

Although its maintenance has repeatedly been doubted, and concerns or rumours have been expressed, the past has proved that it is very unlikely for the Games to be cancelled.

Up to now, Tōkyō showed its readiness with delivering venues on time, despite incidents such as the scrap of the initial design of the National Stadium or contaminated findings in the ground that delayed the construction of the Tōkyō Aquatics Centre. The venues are certainly the core and most symbolic element of host cities’ preparation for the Games. However, it includes various other aspects like providing enough accommodation for visitors, developing diverse infrastructure such as the implementation of a reliable transportation-, communication- and security system, and accessibility for people with impairments. Given that these initiatives require additional work force, labour costs in and around the Japanese capital have remarkably increased notably in the construction industry. Social initiatives such as the recruitment of volunteers, English trainings for adults and educational programmes in schools were meticulously elaborated and illustrate Tōkyō’s awareness and investment. However, reality so often shows that in the organisation of an event, not every situation is predictable, let alone avoidable. 

By living in Tōkyō over the past months, I did not only get to experience the large – and small-scale changes of the city, but also to observe the diverse obstacles that have been interfering with organiser’s intentions. In order to host a successful Games, the Japanese capital seems to repeatedly put all possible efforts (and means) into the adaption of plans. 

Summer heat or the possible occurrence of typhoons and earthquakes during the event were part of the risk when choosing Tōkyō to be a host, though other factors such as the recently appeared (and highly mediatised) COVID-19, so-called Coronavirus, could have hardly been presaged and put a supplementary burden on organisers’ shoulders. 

The closer the Games are, the more Olympic and Paralympic host cities get moved into the spotlight; the more rumours are spread, and the more concerns and critics expressed. Although the 2020 Olympics are less than 6 months ahead, I do believe that whether or not the sanitary situation will be stabilised, Tōkyō will find ways to carry out the Games as planned. Notwithstanding, it may be questioned what the sacrifices will be, and what cost measures will come at.

The paradox between the need to plan years ahead, yet to deal with abrupt, unexpectable (and uncontrollable) happenings is far from being proper to the Japanese context. Nonetheless, Tōkyō 2020 illustrates the diversity of reasons which can come across in the organisation of the Games and the coercion to solve problems within a specific timeframe.

The above-mentioned Omega watch is now displayed in various places of the city, with steadily and rapidly decreasing digits. Though mainly installed in the aim to stimulate the population’s enthusiasm for the Games, they curiously remind me of a moving pendulum or a ticking time bomb; showing the inevitable approach of the event and the permanent race against the clock. 

Slowly, I realise that although the end of the Games certainly will mark a closure, it is rather a beginning; - of a long journey for Tōkyō to start once the flame is blown out.

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