TOKYO (Reuters) - Exactly five years before the 2020 Summer Olympics open, hundreds gathered in a downtown Tokyo plaza on Friday to wave flags and cheer as organisers pledged to overcome a long string of troubles and make the Games a resounding success.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s surprise decision last week to take plans for the centerpiece New National Stadium “back to zero” in the face of growing outrage over ballooning costs was the latest in a string of broken promises related to the Games, which Tokyo won two years ago based largely on its organizational prowess and reputation for efficiency.
The stadium decision, which also left the 2019 rugby World cup without venues for some of its most important matches, risks damaging Japan in the eyes of the sporting world and could cost it future sporting events.
But organisers put this behind them on Friday, telling hundreds packed into a square before the futuristic Tokyo government building, lit with the Olympic colors, that everything could be overcome.
“There have been many problems up to now, including the stadium, and there will no doubt be more,” said Tokyo governor Yoichi Masuzoe as people waved Olympic flags and fanned themselves in evening air turned muggy by an afternoon storm, waiting for the new Olympic emblem to be unveiled.
“But I firmly believe that if we work together we will be able to overcome everything”.
The stadium is set to host track and field events as well as the opening ceremony on July 24, 2020. Officials have said that the original design for the stadium, by U.K.-based Zaha Hadid, helped them win the games in 2013.
However, with the estimated cost climbing to $2.1 billion, almost twice than expected, and a futuristic design derided as a bicycle helmet or a drooping raw oyster, there has been a backlash in a country still rebuilding from the massive March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that left nearly 20,000 dead.
Olympics Minister Toshiaki Endo, who also heads a committee tasked with developing a new plan for the stadium, told a news conference earlier on Friday that plans are indeed back at zero.
“Nothing is decided yet,” Endo told reporters. “We are asking for lots of opinions.”
While previous Olympic hosts have downsized stadium plans, few have ever gone back to the drawing board at this late stage.
Japan is already out of pocket to the tune of around 5.9 billion yen ($47.62 million) in initial costs to Hadid, other architects and construction firms, media reports say, with little of this likely to return.
There is also the chance Hadid could sue.
A competition to choose a new design is set for this autumn, with a decision made and plans due by the end of the year. Construction is set to start early next year and finish in the spring of 2020.
The stadium needs to be large enough to seat 80,000 but other specifications are still being discussed, Endo said.
“As for construction costs, we aren’t thinking of anything at this point, we are really starting from zero,” he added.
Tokyo has also backed away from another pledge that helped it win the hosting rights — its promise to hold most of the events within eight kilometers of the Olympic Village — in order to save money by using pre-existing venues.
A few venues are likely to be so far away that athletes will not even stay at the Village.
Other setbacks included the resignation of Tokyo’s previous mayor due to bribery allegations, and delays in destroying the former National Stadium. The structure built for the 1964 Summer Games has now been reduced to a huge patch of raw earth in the center of the city.
But Endo, who described how on the night of July 24, 2020, opening ceremonies will commence at the stadium, “which should be completed by then,” said Japan’s reputation for getting things done should remain undamaged.
Tokyo resident and mother of two, Yanna Fukazawa, said she came to cheer the Games on anyway.
“There have been a lot of problems, but those are a matter for adults,” she said, her one-year-old son dozing in a carrier on her chest.
“We want the games to succeed for our children, to give them dreams.”
($1 = 123.9 yen)
Editing by Peter Rutherford/Sudipto Ganguly