Tokyo (AFP) – On a nondescript patch of land east of Tokyo, cranes are whirring frantically against a city skyscraper backdrop as 200 workers toil on the 2020 Olympic canoe venue.
With the Pyeongchang winter games closed, Tokyo is stepping up preparations for the next event on the Olympic calendar, with busy building sites dotted around the Japanese capital.
Unlike in previous Olympic host countries, where there was a scramble to finish venues on time, Japan appears to be living up to its reputation for efficiency, with foreman after foreman telling AFP on a recent tour of sites: “We are on schedule.”
The Aquatics Centre in Tokyo Bay is a hive of activity with workers scurrying around the huge site, pushing to finish a venue that will eventually welcome 24,000 cheering supporters.
“Roughly 25 percent of the work is already done,” said Daishuu Tone, director of venues for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.
“We are confident we will be on time,” he added, with the first test events scheduled for mid-2019.
The city’s governor Yuriko Koike told AFP in an interview that Tokyo was making “steady progress” towards hosting the games, the second in its history after 1964.
“We hope to make it a wonderful Games,” she said during an interview in an imposing 48-floor office looming over the Tokyo skyline.
And Tokyo 2020 chief executive officer Toshiro Muto is also bullish, telling reporters: “Everything is going very smoothly and I can clearly say that most of the competition venues are on track and they will be completed as scheduled.”
– ‘Significant’ cuts –
During the bid process, Japan sold itself as a “safe pair of hands” — an advanced economy with a history of efficiency and excellence.
But organisers are still battling to wrench the Games back on track following a series of PR disasters after Tokyo beat Madrid and Istanbul to win the bid in 2013.
The main issue has been the budget, which rapidly spiralled out of control and forced a red-faced Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to tear up the blueprints for the original Olympic stadium.
Koike admitted: “There was a time when Tokyo’s budget seriously ballooned. We have reviewed it and then we reviewed it again. So it has been very much squeezed from the previous budget.”
In December, Tokyo 2020 organisers announced a “significant” cut of $1.4 billion in the budget, bringing the overall bill to 1.35 trillion yen ($12.6 billion).
“The budget should be reduced to the greatest extent possible,” stressed Koike, adding she would continue to make efforts towards “creative” budget solutions.
Tokyo 2020 organisers were also embarrassed by a plagiarism scandal that led to the scrapping of the original games logo due to its similarity to that of a Belgian theatre and a separate Spanish design.
But the unveiling last month of a pair of futuristic “superhero” mascots picked by schoolchildren around Japan sought to draw a line under that scandal and rekindle enthusiasm for the Olympics and Paralympics.
– Battle against heat –
If the pace of constructing venues is unlikely to cause headaches for Tokyo, plenty of challenges remain, notably dealing with the summer heat in the Japanese capital where temperatures regularly top 35C (95F).
Koike noted that Pyeongchang had the opposite problem, with fans urged to wrap up warm in extreme cold and buffeting winds forcing organisers to postpone the showcase men’s downhill.
“In Tokyo, we will… need to implement various creative efforts and ideas to deal with the heat,” she said.
The governor said she was more concerned for the supporters than the athletes who “are very capable — more so than ordinary people — of bringing their physical fitness to deal with any climate.”
Organisers are looking at coating pavements with a substance to reduce the surface temperature and making sure there are trees to provide shade for competitors and spectators alike, Koike said.
There are also worries over contamination in Odaiba Bay, where the triathlon and open-water swimming events will be held.
Samples taken between July and September last year showed levels of e-coli bacteria more than 20 times higher than permitted — apparently brought about by unseasonably heavy rain.
Muto said organisers would solve this problem using special “underwater filters” that have proved successful in cleaning water in testing.
He acknowledged that the problems at the outset had impacted public confidence but insisted the Games had turned the corner.
“I understand that ordinary people still have the idea that things did not proceed smoothly in the beginning,” he said.
“But I think the situation has rapidly improved and now we have reached the stage where preparations are very smooth.”