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Tea Leaves

Japan's Olympic challenge holds echoes of 1964

Tokyo overcame huge problems first time around and could do it again, coronavirus permitting

The Japanese Olympic team enters the National Stadium during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Games on Oct. 10, 1964.    © Kyodo

When I arrived in Tokyo in 1962, working for the CIA as a 19-year-old member of the U.S. military, the city was an unsightly sprawl of ramshackle wooden houses, rickety shanties and cheaply constructed buildings that had mushroomed from the wartime detritus left by American B-29 Superfortress bombers.

Living conditions were primitive in most areas outside the main hubs, and both the harbor and the capital's main rivers were filled with sludge from the human and industrial waste that poured into them. Drinking water was unsafe, with hepatitis a constant worry.

Unsurprisingly, the city was rat-infested, and about 40% of residents had tapeworms. There were no ambulances, and infant mortality was 20 times today's level. Burglary was rampant, illegal narcotics endemic, and public parks were dangerous at night.

What followed was a historic transformation as Tokyo's urban infrastructure was rebuilt for the 1964 Olympic Games, carried out in conjunction with government plans to double both the size of the economy and per capita income by the end of the 1960s.

More than 10,000 new buildings went up, including several 5-star hotels, along with a network of overhead expressways, a subway line, a monorail link between Haneda airport and downtown Tokyo, and a 250 kph shinkansen (bullet train) between Tokyo and Osaka.

When the new train started operations on Oct. 1, 1964 -- nine days before the Games opened -- the city was almost unrecognizable. Construction had halted, and glistening new buildings were everywhere. Smiling interpreters roamed the streets in special cars, searching for bewildered-looking tourists needing assistance.

The Tokyo Olympics was the first Games to use computers to keep results, introducing electronic timing devices that are still in use. Such advances thrust Japan into the forefront of global technological development.

Yoshinori Sakai lights the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony of the 1964 Tokyo Games.   © Kyodo

For Tokyo's citizens, the success of the Games was doubly important because their city had been transformed into an international metropolis that would be a magnet for foreign tourists, businesspeople, scholars and others, as well as the setting for the 1967 James Bond film "You Only Live Twice," a global smash hit.

The Games planned for Tokyo in 2020 have also been beset by problems, including embarrassing cost overruns, ineffective leadership, a scandal over the official logo and widespread doubts that a seemingly inept Japanese government can get everything ready in time. In 2019 the president of the Japanese Olympic Committee resigned, and was replaced, amid corruption allegations.

Controversy over the main stadium design caused construction delays and about 70,000 people had to be relocated to make way for the stadium and other facilities.

There have also been fears about the prospect of deadly mid-summer heat during the Games -- scheduled to take place from July 22 to Aug. 9. In 2018, the temperature in late July hit an all-time record of 41.1 C, causing more than 60 deaths and prompting tens of thousands of people to seek hospital treatment.

In November 2019 the International Olympic Committee took the drastic step of moving the marathons and race walks to the cooler climes of the northern island of Hokkaido. Some have urged that open water events and golf competitions should also be moved because of the heat.

Now, overriding all this are fears about the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Thomas Bach, the IOC president, has insisted that the Olympics will continue as scheduled, telling athletes in Lausanne, Switzerland, on March 3 that they should continue their preparations "with great confidence."

The new National Stadium in Tokyo. (Photo by Hirofumi Yamamoto)

His comments followed a meeting of the IOC's executive board, which confirmed that it remains committed to holding the Olympics as scheduled, in spite of suggestions by Seiko Hashimoto, Japan's Olympic minister, that the event could be moved to the end of the year.

Whether the Games go ahead on time may depend on the course of the coronavirus outbreak. It is hard to imagine, amid Japan's growing preoccupation with face masks, toilet paper and school closures, that the country could be smoothly hosting the Olympics in a few months' time.

One option might be to stage an athletes-only Games, in empty stadiums and other venues, to reduce the risk of contagion among spectators. Already, the March Sumo Tournament in Osaka is being held before an empty auditorium, as are all of Japan's preseason professional baseball exhibition games.

Coronavirus aside, Tokyo is still short of interpreters and lags other international cities in the availability of public Wi-Fi services. But the city certainly does not need reconstruction on the scale of 1964.

In many ways Tokyo is more advanced that almost any other city on the planet, with the world's best public transportation system, a wealth of high-technology intelligent buildings and many more Michelin 3-star restaurants than Paris.

Looking back at the problems that plagued the run-up to the highly successful 1964 Olympics provides a reassuring reminder of what Japan is capable of. The difficulties that have bedeviled the country's preparations for its second Olympics are undeniable, but it would be unwise to bet against its chances of pulling off another historic Games -- unless coronavirus rules otherwise.

Robert Whiting is a Tokyo-based writer whose books include "Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan" and "You Gotta Have Wa."

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