Why there is still hope for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

What a contrast to the 1964 Games, remembered as the greatest ever

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were hailed by LIFE Magazine as “The Greatest Olympics Ever.” Given the restrictions that apply to foreign journalists visiting Tokyo in 2021, it is unlikely that anyone will be describing the 2020 Olympics in such glowing terms. (

ROBERT WHITING, Contributing writerJuly 21, 2021 08:00 JST

TOKYO — The 2020 Olympics are upon us.

The athletes are ensconced in a bubble with restricted access to the outside world thanks to a coronavirus pandemic that is now in its fifth wave. There are no foreign tourists in attendance and local spectators have been banned. The movements of reporters from abroad are closely guarded by special minders to ensure they have minimal contact with anyone. The second Olympics held in Tokyo is proving to be a depressing contrast to the first one.

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were hailed by LIFE Magazine as “The Greatest Olympics Ever,” and were a defining event for the Japanese. Eighty thousand people, domestic and foreign, as well as Emperor Hirohito, filled the National Stadium for the opening ceremony which was beamed around the world by satellite TV, a first for any sporting event.

It was the first time in the history of Tokyo that this many gaikokujin from around the world had gathered there — in the entire nation in fact, much less in one city — with the exception of the early postwar occupation when several hundred thousand mostly American soldiers descended upon the country — not exactly what you would call welcome guests. Many Japanese appearing in man-in-the-street interviews said they were seeing foreigners for the first time in their lives.

During the two-week period of the Games, the streets of Tokyo were filled with athletes, officials, journalists, and spectators who had converged on the capital. Smiling interpreters, organized by the municipal government, roamed the city in special cars, searching for bewildered-looking foreigners to help — and they were not hard to find.

In Ginza, at the big shrines like Meiji Jingu, at cafes, clubs, and restaurants, there was never a shortage of loud-talking foreign tourists anxiously poring over their guidebooks and maps, attempting to decipher Japan’s arcane chronologically based address system and quite evidently in need of assistance. The citizens of Tokyo had been trained to accord the highest courtesy and hospitality to the visitors. I was here during that time and I found it nearly impossible to walk down a street in any of the main shopping and entertainment areas without being stopped by someone asking if I needed help finding my destination.

Flags all over the city honored the 94 nations participating in the games — 7,000 of them, the papers reported, each one of tended to by a Japanese Boy Scout. An enormous image of African-American sprinter Bob Hayes occupied the site of a Ginza department store.

To prepare for the Olympics, Tokyo had turned itself upside down in what many historians called the greatest urban transformation in history.

In 1958, when Tokyo won the right to host the 1964 Games, the city was a polluted, fetid mess, hardly up to Western standards. The smog was so pervasive that many people wore face masks. There were oxygen tanks at police boxes for patrolmen overcome by smog. An electronic sign near Ginza provided, in addition to the time and temperature, the current sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide levels. Tokyo had had virtually no modern infrastructure, just narrow roads and old, low buildings. The only 5-star hotel, the Imperial, was falling into disrepair.

Living conditions were still largely primitive in most areas outside the main hubs. The harbor and the capital’s main rivers were thick with sludge from the human and industrial waste that poured into them, while drinking local tap water, visitors were told, was unsafe, with hepatitis A constant worry.

Decades later, Tokyo would become justifiably famous for the high-tech toilets — with their automated lids, music modes, water jets, blow-dry functions, and computer analyses — that headlined an impressive sewage system. But back then, less than a quarter of the city’s twenty-three sprawling wards had flush toilets, making Tokyo one of the world’s most undeveloped (and odoriferous) megalopolises. As for the rest, vacuum trucks sucked out waste, depositing it either in Tokyo bay or stored it in so-called “honey buckets” for use as fertilizer in rice paddies outside the city

Tokyo was also rat-infested, and some 40% of Japanese had tapeworm. There were no ambulances and infant mortality was twenty times what it is today, average life expectancy was only 62, 22 years fewer than in 2021, burglaries were rampant, narcotics use was endemic, and it was considered too dangerous to walk in public parks at night. Yakuza (gangsters) were everywhere, their numbers at an all-time high.

A frantic rebuilding effort to redo Tokyo’s urban infrastructure was undertaken in conjunction with a massive government plan to simultaneously double the size of the economy and per capita income by the end of the 1960s through the manufacture and export of transistors, radios, television sets, and automobiles.

Thousands of new workers flowed into the city every day to participate in the construction which went on seven days a week, 24 hours a day. People in the city put thick black curtains to block out the all-night construction lights and went to sleep wearing earplugs because of the omnipresent noise of pile drivers and other heavy machinery. Observers called Tokyo the world’s largest construction site.

The pace of life in the city was dizzying — “double that of New York,” according to Time magazine, which, despite the haze and smell enveloping the city called Tokyo the “most dynamic city on the face of the earth.” There was so much going on that it was impossible to take it all in.

By October 10, 1964, when the Games began — it was considered too hot to hold the Games in July and August — the city had put up eight overhead expressways, along with 10,000 new buildings and five 5-star hotels, including the Okura and the Hotel New Otani. Streetcars had to be removed to facilitate construction. There were two new subway lines, a monorail from Haneda Airport into the city and a bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka, hailed as the fastest train in the world.

Equally impressive were the Olympic venues, like Kenzo Tange’s Yoyogi National Stadium, which, with its arched roof, won the Pritzker Prize for architecture.

The Opening Ceremony, conducted under clear blue skies thanks to a rainstorm that washed away all the pollution, brought tears to the eyes of many Japanese. Symbolically, the torchbearer was a survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bombing. The Games represented Japan’s reentry into the global community after its defeat in war. The rebuilding of Tokyo into a global megalopolis was so impressive that tourism spiked, and the owners of the James Bond movie franchise chose the city as the setting for the smash hit “You Only Live Twice.”

What a contrast it all is to the 2020(1) Games, with tourists and participants alike nowhere to be found because of COVID. Athletes must live inside a hermetically sealed environment, are required to dine alone in the Olympic Village, maintain social distancing and sleep alone. Unlike previous games, no condoms will be handed out until it’s time to go home.

There will be no hugging, no singing, no chanting and no cheering. The participants will compete in front of empty stands. Masks must be worn at all times. The whole idea of the Olympics — the world coming together through sport in a giant global festival — will go down the drain. The combatants will have to leave two days after their events with no chance to explore the city or to meet ordinary Tokyo citizens. The only way Tokyoites would know 11,000 athletes from abroad were in their city is through media reports and the ubiquitous 2020 signs all over the city.

Some of the new Olympic venues are impressive, starting with Kengo Kuma’s all wood National Stadium. Global television broadcasters will introduce viewers to a city that is radically different from what many people previously associated with Tokyo.

Instead of Tokyo Tower, Ginza, Asakusa Kannon, viewers will see the stunning Rainbow Bridge, the new city center of Odaeba, the overhead Yurikamome Train that traverses Tokyo Bay, the recently opened Toyosu fish market and the many new high rise buildings, including the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Headquarters, the Park Hyatt hotel and the 45 new skyscrapers that went up in the preceding five years.

Televisions announcers will cite the metrics that show Tokyo to be the greatest city in the world at the moment, one with the highest GDP, the largest population, the world’s cleanest, most efficient and most extensive subway and train system, the longest life expectancy, the highest literacy rate, the most Fortune 500 Global Headquarters, the most Michelin starred restaurants — twice as many three-star restaurants as Paris, as well as the lowest crime rate as well as the politest, most fashion-conscious citizens.

Missing, of course, is the excitement factor. Indeed, if Japanese today are shedding tears at the Opening Ceremony it is only because they have lost faith in their government which has insisted on going forward with the Games in the face of the pandemic — despite massive opposition.

Opinion polls suggest that as many as 80% of people wanted the games postponed or canceled. The Asahi Shimbun newspaper called for the Games to be put off in a recent editorial, while important business leaders did the same. Even Emperor Naruhito — the official patron of the games — has voiced his concerns. Citizens are angered over this state of affairs especially given the sluggish, vaccine rollout which lags behind other developed countries.

However, the International Olympic Committee, which technically has the last word and stands to make billions from broadcasting revenue, insisted on going forward. U.S.-network NBC, which owns the global televising rights, also insisted the Games be held in July, despite the fact average temperatures in Tokyo have risen 3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1964. The Japanese organizers, which had already lost a fortune in ticket sales and refunds, stand to lose billions.

The Opening Ceremony will take place on Friday from 8 p.m. to 11:20 p.m., and will carry a subtle message the Tokyo residents will not miss. While 11,000 thousand athletes, innumerable “special guests” and 8,500 Self-Defense Force security workers gather in Yoyogi’s National Stadium, Tokyoites are being urged to stay at home and off the streets. The double standard is glaring.

IOC chairman Bach and his cohorts will be staying in Tokyo’s finest 5-star hotels drinking the city’s finest whiskeys and wines. The rest of Tokyo will not.

In 1964, reporters left the city gushing with praise about Tokyo in their reports. This time around, press dispatches may be less sanguine.

Several dozen American reporters, for example, have already sent a letter of complaint addressed to the Tokyo Organizing Committee, the IOC, the Prime Minister’s Office, and the Foreign Ministry. They objected to the requirement that they download GPS apps to track their movements which may be subject to digital security attacks.

They also objected to restrictions which include a ban on interviewing the few spectators allowed inside the venue and conducting interviews in the city of Tokyo, restrictions on walking outdoors even while vaccinated and masked, despite clear scientific evidence that the virus does not spread through simple casual outdoor interactions such as passing a pedestrian on the street or going for a jog in the park, and clearly impractical restrictions that require supervision and permission merely to walk to a convenience store or to an Olympic venue from a hotel.

They also noted that such restrictions do not apply to journalists living in Tokyo, even if they have not been vaccinated. Such overreach will not bode well for those in charge of running the Games, especially after Toshiro Muto, the chief executive of the organizing committee responded to reporters’ complaints by saying that the monitoring of journalists’ whereabouts is “not relevant to the freedom of the press.”

Given all this, it is unlikely any foreign reporters will be describing the 2020(1) Games as the “Greatest Ever.” However, there is still hope. In 2016, the Rio de Janeiro Olympics had lots of issues too. So many that there were Brazilians at the airport urging Olympic tourists to turn around and go back.

There was the money-laundering corruption crisis that threatened to destabilize the country, a Zika virus outbreak caused inefficient sewage treatment, uncollected trash and other waste that polluted Guanabara Bay, and bad air pollution.

There were also terrorist threats by Islamic Jihadists, a Russian doping scandal, and an Olympic Village plagued by maintenance problems, including blocked toilets, leaking pipes and exposed wiring. Australia went as far as to send over 700 athletes to stay in hotels while repairs were made, with a team representative claiming that only 10 of the 31 buildings were “inhabitable.”

Oh, there was also a small problem of crime. Two members of the Australian Paralympic team were robbed. A New Zealand athlete was reportedly kidnapped and relieved of his belongings by police. Human body parts washed up on the shore near one of the beach volleyball sites. All this in a year when Rio experienced a huge uptick in police-related deaths and street muggings.

Still, Rio survived, and the Games were watched by more people than ever before. Half the world’s population watched coverage of the Olympic events, and there were over 7 billion video views of official content on social media platforms. There were also over 100 World and Olympic records broken in what was a relatively drugs-free affair.

In light of this, perhaps there is hope for Tokyo 2020 after all.

Robert Whiting is a Tokyo-based journalist and author of books including “You Gotta Have Wa,” and “Tokyo Underworld.” His memoir “Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys… and Baseball” was published this year.

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