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Associate Professor Robin Kietlinski

It’s amazing to think – over one third of all 44 venues for the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics are in the Tokyo Bay, landfill property developed over centuries, but particularly over the past 100 years.

According to Associate Professor Robin Kietlinski of LaGuardia Community College of the City University of New York, 16 venues for the Olympics will be held in what had been previously the open waters of Tokyo Bay.

In a talk Dr. Kietlinski gave on Friday, September 27, 2019, at the newly opened Japan campus of Temple University, she explained how the physical landmass of Tokyo along the Western edges of Tokyo Bay began to grow when Edo was established in the early 17th century as the de facto capital of Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate. But in the aftermath of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, and the firebombings of Tokyo during World War II, rubble was poured into the western and northern shores of Tokyo Bay.

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A slide from Associate Professor Robin Kietlinski’s presentation showing the transformation of Tokyo Bay over the centuries.

Around the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, when the engine of the Japanese economic miracle was really beginning to rev, the waste produced by the tremendous growth in population, industry and consumerism was growing faster than they could manage it. Tokyo waterways were polluted and odorous. The landfill in Tokyo Bay became the dumping grounds of Tokyo, and ran rampant with rodents and flies. As I wrote in this blog post on Yumenoshima, site of Olympic archery next year, the Self Defense Forces had to be called into exterminate the fly infestation.

Today, as Dr. Kietlinski explained, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has built waste processing plants that pulverize and incinerate waste. All of the incinerator ash is then used for landfill in Tokyo Bay, continuing plans to increase the terrestrial space in the bay, according to this explanation of waste management from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

Infinity Heritage and Tokyo Bay Area Zones

Here is a list of all of the venues, including the Olympic Village, that sit in the middle of Tokyo Bay. You can see get more information on the Olympic venues here.

  • Aomi Urban Sports Park – 3×3 basketball, sport climbing
  • Ariake Arena – volleyball
  • Ariake Gymnastics Center -gymnastics
  • Ariake Tennis Park – tennis
  • Ariake Urban Sports Park – BMX, skateboarding
  • IBC/MPC (International Broadcast Center/Main Press Center)
  • Kasai Canoe Slalom Center – canoe (slalom)
  • Odaiba Marine Park – marathon swimming, triathlon
  • Oi Hockey Stadium – field hockey
  • Olympic Village
  • Tatsumi Water Polo Center – water polo
  • Tokyo Aquatics Center – swimming, diving, synchronized swimming
  • Sea Forest Cross-Country Course – equestrian
  • Sea Forest Waterway – canoe (sprint) and rowing
  • Shiokaze Park – beach volleyball
  • Yumenoshima Park Archery Field – archery
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It wasn’t an Olympic test match, but Japan got to see how  Tokyo Stadium looks and feels like when the world comes to it.

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On September 20, the 2019 Rugby World Cup commenced at Tokyo Stadium in rousing fashion as  Japan defeated Russia in a stirring start to this increasingly popular rugby union world championship.

Tokyo Stadium, which is about 18 kilometers west of the National Stadium in Yoyogi, will be the site of Olympic rugby, soccer and the pentathlon in 2020. On the second day of the Rugby World Cup, I was at Tokyo Stadium for a match between Argentina and France.

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Fans from all over the world filed into the stadium, many of them making their way by train, and then taking a short 5-minute walk from Tobitakyu Station on the Keio Line to the Stadium. The path to the stadium was lined by volunteers who were there essentially to smile and wave us on. As a tv commentator said, the volunteers make the entry to a stadium feel like you’re at Disneyland.

Inside the stadium, the atmosphere was electric as fans from France and Argentina competed to be heard, and the inevitable “wave” increased intensity as it rolled around and around. As a bonus, the game was a nailbiter.

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France’s second try.

Despite falling behind 20-3 at the half, the light blue and white striped team from Argentina burst into the second half with two quick tries to pull within 3 of France, and eventually took the lead with a penalty kick. But the fans from France had to fret for only a couple of minutes when a drop kick from a recently added substitute pushed France back in the lead 23-21. And when a potentially game-winning penalty kick by Argentina went slightly wide, Les Bleus had won their opening match of the tournament.

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Argentina’s second try.

Right after the match ended, the fans filed out very quickly, made their way to the crowded station, and yet filled trains back into town. While security might be a tad greater for the Olympics, this match was an indication that getting in and out of Tokyo Stadium by train is a piece of cake. Granted, traffic will be greater as the neighboring facility, Musashino Forest Sports Plaza, will host Olympic badminton and pentathlon fencing.

Note: All photos taken by author.

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N Star’s July 15 broadcast on hotel rooms.

Finding a hotel room in central Tokyo has always been a challenge, especially with the incredible growth in inbound tourism in recent years.

Finding a hotel room in central Tokyo during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics – could be harder than getting a ticket to an Olympic event, according to this Asahi News article.

N-Star, an evening news program on TBS, gave a breakdown of room availability in Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures on their Monday, July 15 broadcast. They reported that 46,000 hotel rooms in Tokyo have already been reserved by the IOC, sports federations and national Olympic committee members.

That’s 46,000 out of approximately 300,000 hotel rooms available in the Tokyo area, and that doesn’t include the rooms that are likely being set aside for Olympic sponsors, media and various other Olympic-related organizations.

For example, all 830 rooms in the Tokyo Bay Ariake Washington Hotel in Odaiba, where the media center will be located, are all reserved during the weeks of the Tokyo Olympics, and thus currently unavailable to the public.

There is an intent to release rooms to the public in the Fall, as the IOC and the various other organizations firm up the number of rooms they will actually need. But right now, it’s hard to find rooms to reserve now. N Star did a survey, looking at the prefectures surrounding Tokyo: Kanagawa, Chiba, and Saitama:

  • Kanagawa: There is, apparently, a luxury hotel in front of Kawasaki Station in Kanagawa prefecture, which is about 20 minutes from Tokyo Station by train, where you can  reserve rooms during the Tokyo2020 Games. The most expensive hotel listed on Google Maps is the Kawasaki Nikko Hotel.
  • Chiba: A business hotel near Makuhari Hongo Station in Chiba prefecture, which is about 40 minutes from Tokyo Station, is reported to start taking reservations from August. No, I couldn’t figure out the name of the place.
  • Saitama: N Star looked at larger cities in Saitama like Kawaguchi, Urawa and Oomiya, only to come up in empty. Apparently, you  have to go out as far as 50 minutes away as Kasukabe. They found a Japanese-style business hotel where you can reserve now.

N Star did provide recommendations for the flexible traveler:

  • Guest Houses: these are commonly frequented by non-Japanese, which they said would be good for Japanese who like these kind of inter-cultural interactions. Here is a link to Booking.com’s “10 Best Guest Houses in Tokyo.”
  • Capsule Hotels: TKP is a chain of capsule hotel they identified, which has a First Cabin brand. I stayed at one in Haneda Airport, which is reasonably priced and spotlessly clean. The picture they showed was much bigger than the traditional capsule hotel room, which is literally a space for a person to lay down, not to stand. Here is a link to Booking.com’s “10 Best Capsule Hotels in Tokyo.”
  • Leisure Hotel (Love Hotel): Love hotels, which you see scattered throughout Tokyo for their short-stay offerings, are traditionally for couples who are looking for a discreet place to commune. But with the demand for rooms so high in Tokyo, Love Hotels are a very real option for visitors and tourists seeking a clean, inexpensive place to stay. These accomodations are plentiful, often near train stations, and as the broadcast emphasized, are being marketed as clean, safe rooms for single women. Here is a link to Booking.com’s “10 Best Love Hotel’s in Tokyo.”

One option not provided in the N Star broadcast was Airbnb, which is just beginning to recover in Japan after a change in laws that put controls on people who wanted to lease rooms on the Airbnb platform. In a search for the week of July 22-29, 2020 in Tokyo, you can find a range of offerings from about JPY6,000 to JPY437,000 a night.

If you are lucky enough to snag tickets at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, you still need to have a place to stay. Happy hunting!

Dark Tourist Japan A scene from Dark Tourist – Japan from season one.

Watching the Japan episode of Netflix’s first season of Dark Tourist was harrowing.

New Zealand journalist, David Farrier, went on a tour in Fukushima, likely in early 2018, and filmed scenes not far from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant where radiation levels climbed dangerously high. Those on the tour were visibly worried.

So was I, and I was safe and sound in my living room.

The government evacuated about 160,000 people in the areas around Dai-Ichi right after the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, but restrictions for most of those areas have since been lifted. But I wondered again, is it safe or not?

I get that question a lot from people, particularly foreigners, especially since I write a blog on Japan, sports and the Olympics, and organizers for the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are holding sporting events in areas of Northern Japan impacted significantly by the 3.11 earthquake and tsunami.

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Signage at Fukushima Station for Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympics.

In the case of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, softball and baseball games will be held in Azuma Baseball Stadium in Fukushima, which is about 10 kilometers west of Fukushima Station, and 90 kilometers northwest of Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant.

Certainly, in the areas directly in and around the nuclear power plant, radiation levels can be high. The areas that Farrier filmed in his controversial program were in prohibited areas – thus the high radiation levels measured. But when I ask the experts, my fears are, on the whole, allayed.

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The bGeigie Nano I built myself (with a lot of help from Jon Moross!)

I have been talking recently with leaders of the volunteer citizen science organization, Safecast, which came together very quickly in the aftermath of 3.11 to measure radiation levels in Tohoku in the absence of open and transparent reports from TEPCO and government officials.

In order to measure radiation levels, the team designed a geiger counter that volunteers can build and use, and they then worked to deploy these geiger counters to gather data and better understand where radiation levels are high.

I recently participated in a Safecast workshop to build my own device – the bGeigie Nano – a truly cool and compact measuring tool. On a trip to Fukushima, I decided to go to Azuma Baseball Stadium and measure radiation levels myself.

Getting off a local bus, I had to walk about 15 minutes, crossing the scenic Arakawa River, before entering the spacious grounds of the Azuma sports complex. In addition to the baseball field, there are facilities for track and field, tennis and gymnastics.

With my bGeigie Nano on and clicking away, I walked around the grounds for an hour, circling the track and field stadiums, as well as the perimeter of the baseball stadium.

The conclusion?

Measurements for radiation on the grounds around Azuma Baseball Stadium, including the surrounding roads, were low. My measurements appeared consistent with measurements taken by Safecast in the past.

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Azuma Baseball Stadium

According to Safecast lead researcher, Azby Brown, “all of the measurements you obtained showed the current radiation levels to be within normal background, ranging from 0.08 microsieverts per hour to 0.16 microsieverts per hour.”

Normal radiation exposure is usually described in millisieverts per year (mSv/yr = 1/1000th of a sievert) or in microsieverts per hour (uSv/hr = one millionth of a sievert). While a sievert is a massive dose, someone who spends 12 hours at the Azuma Baseball Stadium next year is likely to get only one or two millionths of that. Brown went on to explain that the measurements I registered around the stadium were fairly typical for what people encounter normally around the world.

For comparison, based on Safecast data, the levels you found around the stadium are similar to those in Tokyo, Brussels, Buenos Aires, or Washington DC, and less than in Rome, Hong Kong, or Seoul. The radiation that overseas visitors will be exposed to on their flights to Japan will almost certainly be higher than what they would get spending time at this stadium for Olympic events.  

We do not yet have measurement data for the nearby woods or riverbank, however, and experience suggests that these areas may show higher radiation levels. We will survey those areas soon, and let everyone know what we find. 

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My measurements around Azuma baseball stadium as well as my route there by bus. Blue means low (normal) levels of radiation.

Certainly, there are concerns still about the long-term impact of the meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant. While the government has lifted living restrictions in many areas around the nuclear power plant, and is now heavily encouraging residents of those areas to return, the majority have chosen to stay away.

Still, if we look at the data, outside of the inaccessible exclusion zone, radiation levels in Tohoku are, on the whole, at normal levels.

That’s what the data shows.

And that’s good enough for me.

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At least they said they were sorry.

I felt terrible. Crestfallen. Could not really focus on work when I got the email from Tokyo2020.

Thank you for your interest in purchasing Tokyo 2020 tickets.

The demand for tickets was incredibly high, and unfortunately, you were not awarded any of the tickets you requested in the lottery.

As a resident of Japan, I was able to register for a lottery that gave me a chance to buy tickets to events of my choice…an opportunity that up to 85 million other people in Japan also took up.

In an interview with the hosts of the podcast Olympic Fever, Ken Hanscom, the chief operating officer of TicketManager in the United States, explained why I was left brooding all day June 20.

This lottery has been extremely successful. At the close of the lottery, seven and a half million registered for what is really a total of 7.8 million tickets in its entirety. So Tokyo 2020 is already super popular.

The way I look at Tokyo is, it will be in my opinion the highest demand Olympics of all time. It could be the highest demand event of all time.

Of course, that is fantastic news for Japan (and the IOC) – Tokyo 2020 will be a hit! But I was still left wondering if the only way I’m going to see the Tokyo Olympics is from my living room a few kilometers away from the Olympic venues.

But later in the podcast, Hanscom provided some additional context on the lottery in Japan that ran from May 9 to 28, which gave me  hope.

We’re talking about requests for 85 million tickets when there is only 3.5 million that are going to be granted as a part of this lottery process. Roughly 90% of people making requests are not going to receive any tickets, assuming everything is similar to London. So they’re only making a sub-set of these tickets available.

In other words, a relatively small percentage of the overall ticket numbers were made available in this lottery in Japan. This is just the beginning of the ticket sales process, which he said will continue in earnest in the opening months of 2020. And more significantly to me, Hanscom said that 75% of all tickets are made available to those in Japan.

For those outside of Japan, Hanscom explained that most other countries will have their own official re-seller and that there were about 8 to 10 authorized sellers of Olympic tickets around the world, including such companies as Kingdom Sports, CoSport, and Cartan.

Hanscom explained that that each country gets an allotment of tickets based on historical allotment numbers and number of participating athletes, for example, and that those tickets can be purchased only through the authorized seller for their country. The exception is in Europe, where a person living in France, for example, can buy tickets in France, or in Germany or in any other country that is under the European directive.

If tickets are not selling in certain countries, Tokyo 2020 has the right to take back those unsold tickets and re-sell them, or sell them on behalf of that country. But as Hanscom pointed out, this is unlikely for Tokyo2020, which is going to be a must-see Games.

Scalping will be illegal, as Japan enacted a ticket scalping law ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. So for those in Japan, Tokyo 2020 will make a re-sale site available for those people who are not able to use their tickets, in order to offer their tickets to the public at face value.

Hanscom tells those of us who did not land tickets in the lottery to stay positive, that there will be other opportunities.

Tickets are released in blocs over time, so if you miss out on one or two of these opportunities, you’re going to continue to have opportunities next year if you are very diligent, and you put a lot of hard work in. You are going to be able to get a lot of the tickets you want from the market.

Ok. Time to prepare for trench warfare.

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Another shiny black Japan Taxi.

Designed by committee, Toyota’s Japan Taxi becomes an expensive Olympic symbol.

That’s a damning headline, one that Olympic-haters love to see. News editors like it because they know readership will want to read and moan about the waste that the Olympics and other big-tent events incur. That’s why so many news channels picked up this May 22 Reuters story.

Toyota built a taxi that sticks out on the Tokyo roads – a black high-roofed automobile that boasts the Olympic and Paralympic logos – and they’re called “Japan Taxi”.

The Reuters article leads with the premise that the Japan Taxi has become a “high-priced icon of Tokyo’s budget-busting 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.” It goes on to state that the taxi was designed to answer too many stakeholder needs, including an air purifying conditioner, wheelchair ramp, liquefied petroleum and gas-hybrid engine – in other words, a Frankenstein-sort of taxi had been created. As a result, the car ended up retailing for over USD30,000, some USD7 to 8,000 more than the Toyota Crown that are gradually being replaced as taxis in Tokyo.

That is indeed a high price and Toyota admits to finding few interested buyers outside  Tokyo and Japan. Toyota admits they are losing money on this, manufacturing only 1,000 of these cars a month.

According to the article, taxi drivers have expressed discontent, although reasons beyond an unwieldy rarely-deployed wheelchair ramp are not provided. Additionally, taxi operators are concerned subsidies from the city and federal governments will disappear after the Olympics, although it is unclear in the article how big that overall cost is.

But what does the number one stakeholder think – the ones who are transported in Japan Taxi?

I’ll start with a highly unscientific study of one – myself. I LOVE these taxis! And I suspect I’m not alone. They’re easy to enter and they’re spacious – a business-class taxi with economy fares. You can cart your luggage in with ease. They’re classic looking, harking back to the design of the big old London taxis. And those who are wheelchair bound appear to have found an easier option.

The video report on this Reuters story (below) quotes Josh Grisdale, a wheelchair resident of Japan, who commented on the fact that before Japan Taxi you had to rely on specialized vans. Now he says you see Japan Taxi on the street all the time. “The most important thing is to have something available when you need it,” said Grisdale, the Head of Accessible Japan. “Up till now, you’ve had to book way in advance to book a taxi, and that’s very difficult for people who are not from Japan.

All the way at the end of the article, Reuters admits that taxi distributors actually like their Japan Taxis because “they consume half the fuel of older vehicles and their anti-collision sensors have reduced accidents by 10%,” and that “Toyota made other tweaks when it addressed the wheelchair ramp problem. It also made the automatic sliding passenger door close 1.5 seconds faster, reduced rear windscreen wiper noise with an intermittent setting and lowered the money tray on the driver’s seat to reduce shoulder strain.”

If a news agency comes out with a story on Japan Taxi about significant taxpayer money being wasted on something that  taxpayers don’t like, then fine. But my guess is that if you had a line of people waiting for taxis and the next two cars on the queue were a Japan Taxi and an older Toyota Crown (a perfectly fine car), the person first on line will likely be happy he’s not second.

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The wide-open road to Segrada Familia in Barcelona.

In my view, the streets in Barcelona are not suffocating with traffic. I was only in Barcelona for a few days in April, but the roads in the business districts are amazingly wide, and we were never slowed in our travels. When I walked the narrow paths of Gracia, a cozy neighborhood in the middle of Barcelona, I never felt squeezed by cars. I lived in Bangkok for 11 years. I know what bad traffic looks like.

But of course it is all relative. While Barcelona is no where near as hot, congested or polluted as Bangkok, for citizens of Barcelona, conditions are not as good as they should be. According to this VOX article by David Roberts of the University of Pennsylvania, Barcelona is the fourth-most population-dense city in Europe, is well under the World Health Organization’s recommendation for 9 square meters of green space per resident at 2.7 square meters, suffers from urban heat island effect at 3 to 8 degrees Celsius warmer than the region around it, and is considered one of the noisiest in the world.

One of the reasons for this poorer quality of life is due to decades of negligence by former totalitarian leader, Francisco Franco,  After the generalissimo passed away in 1975, development in Barcelona began again, peaking with financing sparked by the Olympics, which may be another reason for the state of Barcelona today.

According to Samuel Rosenthal and his article, Olympic Cities and the Legacy of Infrastructure: Barcelona 1992 and Athens 2004, the planners for Barcelona were essentially taking advantage of global trends, including the desire for large cities to invest in urban renewal, and to also brand Barcelona as an exciting destination for tourists and global financing. In fact, Rosenthal explained that planners shifted attention from “publicly planned, small-scale infrastructural improvements to larger schemes funded by private investors.”

This is not unique to Barcelona. The organizers leveraged the Olympics to realize long-held plans for the development of Barcelona as would any other city. But as I wrote previously, these Games were so successful economically that it is often held up as the gold standard for an organization of an Olympiad, cited as The Barcelona Model. But one can argue that the Olympics triggered inflows of private capital that brought both benefits and detriments to Barcelona, as Rosenthal explains.

…this largely positive appraisal of the Barcelona Olympics belies the negative consequences of its planning strategy that have become evident in succeeding years. The regeneration of the waterfront, while touted as a positive outcome of the Games, has increased housing prices across the city, forcing many longtime residents to leave. Additionally, following the Barcelona Games, inflation in the city increased and unemployment rose. And on a larger scale the city branding approaches used for the Barcelona Olympics have increasingly placed control of the city in the hands of private agents. Generally, post-Olympic city planning in Barcelona has become less focused on the improvement of the lives of the city’s residents, and more attuned to strategies that seek to maximize the attraction of capital.

Part of the woes of urbanization and increased emphasis on development is a diminished prioritization of the working class. Economist Andrew Zimbalist, author of the fascinating book, Circus Maximus – The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, quoted Josep Maria Montaner, an architectural critic, in explaining how old housing and factories, landmarks of a different age, were demolished, and new development lacked any environmental or sustainability standards. Zimbalist then went on to explain how inflows of private capital led to gentrification.

Barcelona’s new urban zones were redeveloped with improved public services and, in some cases, direct access to the sea. These parts of the city became gentrified, and hand in hand with gentrification came higher prices. Higher prices meant that lower-income people had to relocate, and, more generally, plans for public housing were underfulfilled. One study noted the following impacts:

  • Strong increases in the prices of housing for rent and for sale (from 1986 to 1993 the cumulative increase was 139% for home sale prices and nearly 145% in home rentals)
  • A drastic decrease in the availability of public housing (from 1986 to 1992 there was a cumulative decrease of 5.9%)
  • A gradual decrease in the availability of private houses for rent (from 1981 to 1991 the cumulative decrease was 23.7%)11 Thus, like the experience with mega-events elsewhere, hosting the games in Barcelona was accompanied by a redistribution of living standards to the detriment of lower-income groups.

One can argue that the decrease in supply is being driven by a Silicon Valley start up called Airbnb, which is highly popular in Spain. For those who don’t know, Airbnb is a service that connects you with people who are offering accommodations in their own properties. The original premise of Airbnb was that you could rent out a person’s room, and you could spend time with the owner. Today, people and companies run businesses renting out apartments and houses to people who are looking for alternatives to hotels.

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I spent a week in Madrid and Barcelona in April. In Madrid, I stayed in a room the owner lived in. He was out of town, but a guest occupied another room. It was a great experience as we got along well with the other occupant. In contrast, our Airbnb accommodation in Barcelona was owned by a couple who managed three properties, none of which they lived in. Overall, both experiences were great for us. But while Airbnb is a boon for tourists, it is to the detriment of local residents, as explained in this New Yorker article.

Nearly half the Airbnb properties in Barcelona are entire houses or apartments. The conceit of friendly locals renting out spare rooms has been supplanted by a more mercenary model, in which centuries-old apartment buildings are hollowed out with ersatz hotel rooms. Many properties have been bought specifically as short-term-rental investments, managed by agencies that have dozens of such properties. Especially in coveted areas, Airbnb can drive up rents, as longtime residents sell their apartments to people eager to use them as profit engines.

It was early 1987 and Freddie Mercury was finally meeting one of his heroes – the great Spanish soprano, Montserrat Caballé.

As described in El Pais, they met at the Hotel Ritz in Barcelona. Mercury sat down and began to improve his song, “Exercises in Free Love“, singing in a falsetto a part he hoped Caballe would be willing to perform for him.

Caballé liked that Mercury, contrary to appearances, sold his voice instead of his image. “When he sat down at the piano to improvise, I realized that a true musician was before me,” she said. He made such a good impression that she agreed to meet him again at his house in London to record a demo.

Thus began a creative collaboration that resulted in an album called “Barcelona”, with three tracks sung by Mercury and Caballe, including the title track “Barcelona”. When the song came out in 1987, it hit #8 in the UK Singles Chart, peaking at #2 after Mercury passed away in 1991.

In the run-up to the 1992 Summer Olympics, Mercury was priming the world for the PR explosion to come for Barcelona, a city of sun and fun that was gearing up for its global coming-out party. Today, Barcelona is one of the most popular destinations in a country that is the third most visited in the world. And while city after city reject initiatives to bring the Olympics to their neighborhood, the 1992 Barcelona Olympics is often held up as one of the most successful Olympics ever.

In fact, The Royal Institute of British Architects awarded their 1999 medal to the city of Barcelona for its “ambitious yet pragmatic urban strategy and the highest design standards…(which) transformed the city’s public realm, immensely expanded its amenities and regenerated its economy, providing pride in its inhabitants and delight in its visitors.”

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The site of the former Olympic Village of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, in Poblenou. Photo taken by author.

Starved of investment by Spain’s autocratic leader, Francisco Franco, Barcelona was a congested and polluted city by the sea, whose aging manufacturing infrastructure crumbled during the poor economy of the 1970s and physically blocked the city’s denizens passage to the nearby Mediterranean Sea. Thanks to city plans accelerated by the requirements for the  Olympics, investments into Barcelona’s transportation and communications infrastructure were made. According to Samuel Rosenthal and his article, “Olympic Cities and the Legacy of Infrastructure: Barcelona 1992 and Athens 2004,”

Barcelona renovated an existing stadium and created four Olympic areas with 4,500 apartments and 5,000 hotel rooms. In terms of infrastructure outside the immediate realm of the Games, the city constructed a new Ring Road to connect venues, two communication towers, new cultural centers and museums, expansions to the airport and the metro system, and five kilometers of new beaches.

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The section of ring road that passes by the foot of Mount Tibidabo in Barcelona. Photo taken by the author.

As so few examples of economically successful Olympics exist, this example from 1992 is often called “The Barcelona Model” – in general, a scenario where a city and a country are able to leverage the Olympic brand to accelerate existing plans to develop the host city’s physical and service infrastructure. Or as economist Andrew Zimbalist describes, “Barcelona used the Olympics; the Olympics didn’t use Barcelona.”

Zimbalist explains that there were four factors for Barcelona’s success. (The headings are my words.)

  1. Barcelona cool: In his book, Circus Maximus, Zimbalist described Barcelona in the early 1980s as “a hidden jewel. Its location, climate, architecture, and history meant that the city had a tremendous potential for tourism and business that had been unexploited for decades.” In fact, Zimbalist cited stars like Freddie Mercury who would visit the Catalonian center for its cool factor, and who added to the city’s secret cache. Barcelona was quietly becoming a popular destination for tourism and conventions. As Zimbalist wrote, “with a new airport terminal and forty new hotels in the city, the number of passengers at Barcelona’s airport almost doubled, from 5.46 million in 1985 to 10.04 million in 1992. Barcelona’s ranking as a tourist and business meeting destination among European cities improved from eleventh in 1990 to fourth in 2009.”
  2. Improving economy:  Zimbalist wrote that business was so good in Barcelona that unemployment dropped from 18.4% to 9.6% between the period of November, 1986 to July, 1992. Annual GDP growth was stuck under 1% for well over a decade from 1974 to 1985, which means that large infrastructure projects were few and far between. So when the Olympics rolled around, “the Barcelona economy was ready to receive and benefit from stimulus spending.” Unfortunately for Brazil and Greece, the opposite happened when their Olympics rolled around.
  3. EU Membership: In 1986, Spain joined the European Economic Community (today called the European Union), which gave Spain access to broader opportunities in finance, trade and tourism across Europe.
  4. The Olympics as Part of the Grander Plan: The most important reason that the Barcelona Olympics did not result in the hideous white elephants that we have seen recently in Sochi and Athens, among many others, is that “the Olympics were made to work for the plan. The plan was not created posthaste to work for the Olympics.” Most of the $11.5 billion budget 2000 dollars) was from private sources. Public funds were 40% of the entire budget, and most of the public spend were in projects already part of city plans that had existed for decades.

Part of grand plan of the city planners was to focus on four peripheral areas of Barcelona where investments for the Olympics would spur continued economic use. As Rosenthal explained,  “It was also important that any infrastructure built specifically for the Games had a clear post-Olympic use,” so the planners chose four areas in the peripheries of the city where investment was needed: Montjuïc, Diagonal, Vall d’Hebron, and Poblenou.

The most dramatic and most praised of the changes took place in Poblenou, the eastern seaside part of Barcelona that was opened to the sea, and boasted two gleaming towers that initially housed the athletes as a central part of the Olympic Village, and then went on to become residences for the citizens of Barcelona.  As Rosenthal wrote, “Newspapers lauded the ‘gleaming new Olympic village and beachfront’ which had replaced the ‘grimy industrial area that had blocked access to the sea for decades.'”

In 1992, Spaniards saw the Olympics as a symbol of progress and global integration. But it was also a chance to show off Barcelona cool, and help make the Capital of Catalonia a must-see destination. And nothing symbolized that more than the memorable cauldron lighting of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

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The Olympic cauldron of the Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys in Montjuïc, Barcelona. Photo taken by author.

At the end of the opening ceremony, held in the refurbished Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys in the newly improved Montjuïc area, archer Antonio Rebollo pulled back on the arrow, feeling the tension in the bow, and the heat of the flame that flickered in the wind from his arrow’s tip. Rebollo could barely see the reflection of the silver cauldron beyond the wall of the stadium, but once he was oriented and certain of his angle, he released the bow string sending the flaming arrow into the summer night. The arrow travelled 230 feet up into the air and over the cauldron, setting the fumes alight.

They call it one of the greatest Olympic torch lightings ever, for what is also called one of the greatest Olympics ever.

Yoshioka Nomura and sakura gold torch
Tokujin Yoshioka and judoka Tadahiro Nomura

The 1964 Olympic torch was utilitarian.

The 2020 Olympic torch will be exquisite.

On March 20, 2019, just as cherry blossom buds were  beginning to reveal their delicate pink petals in Tokyo, the organizers of Tokyo2020 revealed their own beautiful blossom – the Olympic torch.

On March 20, 2020, torch bearers will commence the torch relay and carry this 71-centimeter, 1.2 kilogram aluminum torch from Miyagi in Northern Japan, to Okinawa at the archipelago’s western-most tip, and then back to Tokyo in time for the opening ceremonies on July 24, 2020.

As cherry blossoms bloom and fall in March next year, torch bearers will hold aloft a torch gleaming in gold with a hint of pink – a color dubbed “sakura gold” – fashioned in the shape of the iconic Japanese cherry blossom. Fire will arise from the cylinders of the five petals to form a single flame.

Tokuijin Yoshioka, the torch’s designer, was not only inspired by the Olympic rings, but also by schoolchildren at an elementary school in Fukushima he visited, whom he said drew beautiful renditions of cherry blossoms. “I was very impressed with the powerful expression in the cherry blossoms drawn by kids in this area,” Yoshioka said in the Asahi Shimbun. “They are trying to overcome challenges and trying to move forward. I wanted to share that with the world.”

Three-time gold medalist judoka, Tadahiro Nomura, stood on stage with Yoshioka at the unveiling, and was breathless. “To actually be holding this superb work, is frankly giving me shivers,” he said in this Kyodo article. “I can only imagine the joy on the faces of people lining the route of the relay when they see it.”

Tadahiro Nomura and sakura gold torch

Each of the torches to be produced will be made primarily of aluminum, 30% of which has been recycled from the temporary housing provided to those left homeless in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, in the wake of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant meltdowns that stunned Japan on March 11, 2011.

After the flame is ignited in Greece on March 12, 2020, the flame will be transferred to the sakura torch eight days later when the torch relay will begin in northern Japan, making its way through 47 prefectures.

Ten thousand torches will be made, which is probably close to how many people will be needed to cross the nation in the four months prior to the opening ceremonies.

I want to be one of that ten thousand.

Sakura torch side and top views

Fukushima-Stadiums-To-Host-Baseball-and-Softball-Games-At-Tokyo-Olympics
Azuma Stadium in Fukushima will host at least one baseball game and one softball game (Image: The Asahi Shimbun)

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics begin on July 24 next year.

But the first sporting event will take place two days earlier, in Fukushima, when preliminary matches of women’s softball begin  at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium.

Azuma Stadium is about 90 kilometers from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the site of Japan’s gravest nuclear disaster since World War II.

It was 8 years ago today when a 9.1 magnitude earthquake rattled the Pacific coast side of northern Japan (Tohoku), triggering enormous waves of water inland, both resulting in approximately 16,000 deaths, and leading to nuclear meltdowns in the Fukushima reactors as the tsunami overwhelmed the power plants. The nuclear fallout turned communities around Daiichi into ghost towns, and the prefecture into a national  pariah.

The decision by the organizers to bring sporting events to Tohoku during the Olympics was made with the intent to drive investment back to the area, and build a sense of hope to the region.

“This is a great opportunity to bring the spirit of the Olympic Games to this region, which was affected by the tsunami in 2011,” IOC leader Thomas Bach told a press conference in Pyeongchang, South Korea when this was announced on March 17, 2017. “It is also an expression of solidarity of the Olympic movement with the people in this region who are suffering from the consequences of this disaster.”

Baseball infielder, Akinori Iwamura, who played many years for the Yakult Swallows as well as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, was a member of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles when the earthquake and tsunami hit, continuing to play for a minor league squad called the Fukushima Hopes through 2016. His hope too was that the region would be revitalized, and Iwamura was a vocal cheerleader, according to this New York Times article.

“I call myself a missionary,” Iwamura said. “Even though it’s a negative way many people know the name of Fukushima, we have to change it into a positive way.”

Iwamura believed that hosting softball games during the Olympics at Azuma Stadium, where his Fukushima Hopes play, would build the area’s image and attract tourism. “When they go back to their country, they can tell their impression to the local people of their countries so it will bring more people to come for tourism,” he said.

Azuma to Daiichi map

However, there are those who not only consider such thoughts wishful thinking, they consider it a cover up, as this article from The Independent points out.

Immediately after the announcement in March that Fukushima would host baseball, anti-nuclear activists denounced the move. They argued that it created a false impression that Fukushima had returned to normal and glossed over the remaining hardships faced by an estimated 120,000 residents who still cannot – and may never – return to their homes.

Kazuko Nihei has two daughters, and she fled her home in Fukushima City in 2011, and has sworn never to return. The government has provide financial assistance to people evacuated from the terribly affected areas, particularly those in the area where nuclear radiation fears are greatest. The government ended that assistance for people like Nihei, and so she struggles to make ends meet, according to Channel News Asia.

“I have to work with every ounce of energy,” said Nihei, who works seven days a week to help keep the family afloat.

Why won’t she return with her family to Fukushima? The Japanese government has worked hard to decontaminate the area so that families can return. But the fears of radiation in the environment remain.

…the programme has not swayed everyone, with a poll conducted in February by the Asahi Shimbun daily and Fukushima local broadcaster KFB finding that 60 per cent of Fukushima region residents still felt anxious about radiation.

Nihei worries about “various health risks for children, not only thyroid (cancer) but others including damage to their genes. If there was a comprehensive annual health check, I might consider it, but what they are offering now is not enough, it only concentrates on thyroid cancer,” she told AFP.

Then there is the contaminated water used as a coolant in the nuclear reactors – a million tons of water that contain radioactive elements. Processing the contaminated water, as well as the ongoing dismantling of the nuclear plants, are long,  difficult and costly tasks – the New York Times states it would take 40 years and cost nearly USD200 billion.

Additionally, there is a risk to keeping the radioactive water in the thousand or so water tanks on land, near the power plants – the number will rise and the space to store the water is limited. And the tanks could crack, particularly if another major earthquake hits Tohoku.

fukushima water tanks

The Japanese government hopes to purify that water to the point where the water can be disposed of in the Pacific Ocean. But, as one can imagine, that idea doesn’t sit well with people who live there, particularly those in the fishing industry.

“That would destroy what we’ve been building over the past eight years,” said Tetsu Nozaki, head of the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Co-operative Associations. Last year’s catch was just 15 percent of pre-crisis levels, partly because of consumer reluctance to eat fish caught off Fukushima.

The Olympics will come and go. But the disturbing legacy of 3.11 in Fukushima will linger on.