BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - The decision to award Tokyo the 2020 Olympic Games was a triumph of business sense as much as common sense, and a unequivocal endorsement of Asia’s dynamic economies and its place in the future of the sporting world.
The custodians of the world’s greatest multi-sports extravaganza could have selected a well-prepared Madrid option, or go to Istanbul which had pitched itself as a new region for the Games, and a vehicle for fostering peace in the Middle East.
Instead the International Olympic Committee plumped for the Japanese capital.
Tokyo was not only what IOC president Jacques Rogge described as a “safe pair of hands”, but also a chance to unlock billions of dollars in the world’s most populous region.
Olympic presidential candidate Thomas Bach said it had been a choice between a traditional stronghold and new shores.
“This time the IOC members — in a fragile world — have decided in favour of tradition and stability,” he said.
But the appeal of Tokyo, which had to overcome concerns over the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant leaks just 230 km (140 miles) away, went far beyond safety and tradition.
The country’s financial might and its position in the world’s most dynamic continent also proved irresistible.
“We know they can deliver and have the financial strength to deliver. They can be trusted,” Australian IOC member Kevan Gosper said.
Ultimately Tokyo were rewarded for a strategy which saw them highlight their solid finances and a strong track record of delivering on promises.
The Japanese capital flashed a $4.5 billion war-chest in front of the IOC a year before the vote, assuring them money for the Games was already in the bank.
This was music to the ears of an IOC membership acutely sensitive to the impact the global economic downturn of recent years has had on sports, especially at a grass-roots level.
The IOC is also acutely aware of the preparation obstacles facing next Games host Rio, and wanted to take no risk at all with their 2020 choice.
“With their modern infrastructure and their ability to host and organise world-class sporting events, we are convinced the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games will be a great success,” said Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah, head of the Olympic Council of Asia.
“This commitment (to delivering on their promises) was important. The problems with Rio played a role in this decision,” he told Reuters.
In addition, the Tokyo bid team enticed the IOC in the days leading up to the vote with Asia’s massive marketing potential.
“Asia is the only continent in the world with more people living within its territory than outside,” said Fujio Cho, President of the Japan Sports Association and honorary chairman of Toyota Motor Corp.
“Consequently it is the largest market in the world, with billions of passionate sports fans,” he added.
The message was not misread.
“All three bids were strong bids,” IOC Executive Board member John Coates told Reuters, saying that Tokyo’s had been a good one for athletes.
“It was also good for the Olympic movement because much of our commercial support is in Asia,” he said.
Asked whether delays in preparations for the Rio Games may have alarmed members and could have swung votes in favour of Tokyo’s solid bid, Coates said: “I may have heard that.”
Tokyo’s bid has estimated a non-Games budget of around $4.4 billion compared to $3.4 billion for the actual event.
Returning to Asia for the 2020 Games also reaffirms the shifting power-base of global sport.
After decades where sport’s biggest events were mostly split between Europe and North America, international organisations are increasingly recognising the benefits of turning to Asia.
The continent will now host the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, the 2019 World Swimming Championships in South Korea and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Singapore, one of a handful of Asian countries on the Formula One motor racing calendar, has also been selected as the host for the end-of-season Women’s Tennis Association championships for the next five years.
“Asia can now look forward to an exciting few years in the Olympic spotlight,” Sheikh Ahmad said.
“Once again this highlights the influence of the continent as a partner in the Olympic Movement.”
Additional reporting by Karolos Grohmann and Julian Linden, editing by Pritha Sarkar