Olympics a shot in the arm for Japan's struggling economy

By Elaine Kurtenbach

Japanese citizens say it all at the Tokyo Municipal Government office square after the decision was announced. Photo / AP
Japanese citizens say it all at the Tokyo Municipal Government office square after the decision was announced. Photo / AP

A half-century after the 1964 Tokyo Games heralded Japan's re-emergence from destruction and defeat in World War II, the city's triumphant bid to host the 2020 Games is giving this ageing nation a chance to revive its sagging spirits and stagnating economy.

"In most competitions, if you don't win a gold medal, you can also win maybe a bronze one," Tokyo Governor Naoki Inose told reporters in Buenos Aires after the International Olympic Committee chose his city to host the 2020 summer Games. "In this battle, there was only the gold."

Already, Olympic hopes have lifted share prices in construction, real estate and tourism-related companies.

Hundreds of Japanese athletes and officials gathered downtown for the early morning announcement shouted, "Banzai!" jumping up and down and hugging in reaction to the announcement that the International Olympic Committee had accepted Tokyo's guarantees of safety and stability, despite the festering nuclear crisis.

Japan's capital defeated Istanbul in the final round of voting at the International Olympic Committee meeting in Buenos Aires, after Madrid was eliminated in the first round.

The decision suggests IOC members were convinced by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's reassurances that radiation leaks from the nuclear plant wrecked in the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami pose no threat.

The 1964 Games were relatively bare-bones by today's standards.

"There were no facilities, no food to eat; no barbells; no place to practise. That was what it was like," said Yoshinobu Miyake, a featherweight weightlifting gold medallist at the 1964 Games. "But still, we had to win so it was a country that managed to go on with just a hungry spirit, a Japanese spirit," he said.

To prepare for the 1964 Games, Japan rushed to build expressways and introduced its first high-speed bullet trains. The Games won it worldwide recognition for its growing affluence and economic power, and were a turning point for the country's athletics, as it captured 16 golds, 29 medals in total, trailing only the United States and Soviet Union.

This time, many here consider the Olympics a symbol of recovery both from economic stagnation and from the 2011 disaster that left more than 19,000 people dead or missing on Japan's northeast coast.

Members of the Tokyo delegation celebrate beating Istanbul and Madrid for the honour. Photo / AP
Members of the Tokyo delegation celebrate beating Istanbul and Madrid for the honour. Photo / AP

"From here on, things will get better. This will help invigorate us," said Yoko Kurahashi, 65, as she stood outside Tokyo city hall with her mother-in-law, 94, watching hundreds of other Tokyo residents celebrating with gold streamers and balloons.

Two decades after its economic ascent was cut short, its population shrinking and rapidly ageing, hosting the 2020 Games could yield positive economic effects for Japan of over 4 trillion ($50.6 billion) and create more than 150,000 jobs, according to some estimates, more than half of it new demand for construction, sales of Olympic-related goods and purchases of televisions and other appliances.

Hosting the Olympics offers a strong excuse for pork-barrel-style construction projects.

In reality, greater Tokyo, home to 35 million people, is facing a major overhaul of its ageing infrastructure anyway, nowhere more so than in crumbling sports venues due to be refurbished for the 2020 Games.

The Government hopes to boost visits by foreign tourists to 30 million a year by then, from the 8.36 million who came to Japan last year.

Whether the Olympics, seven years away, will bring the sort of boost needed right now remains to be seen.

The 2008 Games were a strong plus for Beijing, yielding an impressive new airport, subway lines and more. London's 2012 Games likewise were a boost for the British economy.

But the Bird's Nest stadium, the centrepiece of the 2008 Games, stands neglected as a US$500 million souvenir. In Athens, many of the venues from the 2004 Olympics are desolate and weed-infested.

Although Japan has debt amounting to twice the size of its economy, Tokyo itself has a US$4.5 billion "reserve fund" for infrastructure projects for the Games. Japan's status as the world's third-biggest economy and its strong links to Olympic sponsors were additional strengths. The huge Asian market was another draw for the IOC.

"We have made promises," Abe said after the decision. "Now we have a responsibility to meet those expectations."

- AP

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