Had it not been for one radioactive question this election might have been as close to an acclamation as the Olympics get. Tokyo had hosted the Summer Games before and the government already had set aside $5 billion for the next one. Japan is stable and solvent and the Games were due to be back in Asia after having been awarded to Europe and South America.
“Tokyo can be trusted to be the safe pair of hands and much more,” bid leader Tsunekazu Takeda assured International Olympic Committee members before Saturday afternoon’s vote for the 2020 host city. “Our case today is simple. Vote for Tokyo and you vote for guaranteed delivery.”
The question wasn’t about Tokyo, though, but about the busted Fukushima nuclear plant 150 miles to the north. What if it kept leaking tainted water into the Pacific, as it has since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami? What if there was another seismic catastrophe down the road?
Nobody could say, which is why the Lords of the Rings ultimately went with the favorite by a landslide ahead of Istanbul and Madrid. “I think it was a choice between going to new shores and staying with a more traditional candidate,” Thomas Bach, favored to be elected the IOC’s next president on Tuesday, said after the Japanese capital had outpolled Istanbul by a 60-36 count on the second secret ballot after Madrid was eliminated. “And this time they decided with the more traditional one.”
All three of the bids came with headaches. Istanbul had a massive list of venues to build and the June protests against the government raised concerns about political unrest. And Spain’s economy is in the dumper, with more than a quarter of adults unemployed. With worries increasing that Rio de Janeiro may not get everything built in time for 2016, there was no appetite to roll five-ringed dice again.
By the metrics that the IOC once used Madrid might well have been the favorite. The Spanish capital had finished third and second in the races for 2012 and 2016 and persistence generally has meant something in this quadrennial chase. The country is politically solid and Madrid already had 80 percent of the venues in place and needed to spend less than $2 billion on the rest. “We aren’t talking about dreams but realities,” said bid chief Alejandro Blanco.
But while it’s likely that the Spanish economy would have recovered by 2020, the present fiscal nightmare was unavoidable. So Madrid went out in the first round after losing a 49-45 runoff to Istanbul, which presented an intriguing option — the historic bridge between Europe and Asia with a young population and a dynamic future. The Games never have been awarded to a predominantly Muslim country and had Turkey received the nod, it would have been viewed as an vote of confidence and optimism for a region that badly could use a dose of Olympism.
But with the Syrian civil war raging next door and the possibility of the area becoming engulfed in turmoil, there finally were too many risks that went along with Istanbul, which now has been passed over five times.
“It’s absolutely legitimate that the members look forward not just to the situation today but to what could be the situation in seven years’ time,” outgoing president Jacques Rogge said last week. The IOC has learned that lesson the hard way. There was no way of knowing in 1974 that the Red Army would invade Afghanistan eight months before the Moscow Games and provoke a US-led boycott that would boomerang on Los Angeles four years later. Who could have predicted in 1995 that the 9/11 attacks would occur five months before the Salt Lake Games?
The IOC members knew that they were taking a flying leap when they made their pick at their Buenos Aires session and in terms of downside for health and safety Tokyo obviously had the most. “Some may have concerns about Fukushima,” prime minister Shinzo Abe acknowledged during his pitch. “Let me assure you that the situation is under control. It has never done and will never do any damage to Tokyo.”
Abe made that declaration “in the most emphatic and unequivocal way” but he was crossing his fingers just as are the rest of his countrymen, who were witnesses when the nuclear age began. There is no crystal ball at IOC headquarters in Switzerland, so the members went the way they originally were predicted to before the Pacific heaved up two years ago. “It’s a great, great honor,” proclaimed Takeda. “I promise we will deliver everything we’ve promised for 2020.”
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.