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1 year to go: Tokyo pins recovery hopes on 2020 Summer Olympics

By Thomas Maresca
1 year to go: Tokyo pins recovery hopes on 2020 Summer Olympics
Olympic officials unveil the gold, silver and bronze medals Wednesday at the "One Year to Go" ceremony for the 2020 Summer Olympic games in Tokyo. Photo by Keizo Mori/UPI | License Photo

TOKYO, July 24 (UPI) -- The 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo are exactly one year away, and Japan is beginning a countdown to what it hopes will be a major boost to a nation looking to shake off decades-long economic doldrums and fallout from the 2011 earthquake and the nuclear plant meltdown.

Innovation and reconstruction are the twin themes for the Games, which will be held from next July 24 to August 9, and Japan hopes to highlight its high-tech prowess and spur development in the regions afflicted by disaster eight years ago.

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Organizers are also looking to stabilize an Olympic movement tarnished in the past by corruption, doping scandals and huge cost overruns that racked previous hosts with debt and frightened others from future bidding.

At the "One Year to Go" event Wednesday, featuring interactive sports demonstrations and the unveiling of the Olympic medal designs, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach lavished the Tokyo organizers with praise.

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"The preparations are making excellent progress," Bach said. "I can truly say I have never seen an Olympic city as prepared as Tokyo with one year to go before the Olympic Games."

Construction on five of eight new permanent facilities is already complete, and the remaining venues are slated to be finished in just months. A total of 43 venues in Tokyo and around Japan will be used for the Summer Games, many of which are existing facilities.

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Speaking at the event Wednesday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Japan's Olympics would "showcase the recovery of the affected areas of the earthquake and tsunami."

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The torch relay will begin in March in Fukushima, where the baseball and softball competitions will be held next summer.

"That is the major significance of the Games," Abe said. "We want to communicate our message of gratitude to those who supported us and continue to do so."

He added that the Games will provide a spark for Tokyo, similar to the last time it held the Summer Games in 1964, which were widely viewed a monumental step in the country's post-World War II development. The 2020 Games "will give us dreams and motivate and inspire us," Abe said.

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Tokyo's bright Olympic dreams have also had dark shadows, however.

Bribery accusations involved in Tokyo's bid for the Games caused the president of the Japanese Olympic Committee to resign last month, and organizers were forced to redesign their original logo after charges of plagiarism.

The costs of hosting the Olympics have also far exceeded the initial estimate of roughly $7.5 billion. A 2018 survey by the Board of Audit of Japan found total expenditures could balloon to over $26 billion. Despite cost-cutting efforts, the budget currently stands at about $12.5 billion.

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Critics have also pointed out negative impacts of hosting the Olympics, from construction projects displacing citizens to government funds being diverted from more pressing needs.

As organizers celebrated Wednesday, counter-protesters held a rally in the bustling Tokyo district of Shinjuku.

"When your city decides to host the Olympics, you are attracting a number of downsides as well for everyday people," said activist Jules Boykoff, a former professional soccer player who previously represented the U.S. Olympic team.

"Who gets affected? It's usually the poor, its usually the marginalized. Who makes off really well from the Olympics? It's usually the rich, it's usually the corporations," he said.

Boykoff, a politics professor at Pacific University in Oregon, who's written extensively about the Olympics, said funds should be spent directly on reconstruction efforts in Fukushima.

Misako Ichimura of anti-Olympics activist group Hangorin No Kai said hundreds of tenants were evicted from city-run apartments during construction of the new National Stadium and many homeless were displaced from a nearby park.

"Public funds flow into huge corporations whereas the poor are evicted and excluded and marginalized," she said. "For us, the Olympics is a disaster."

Tokyo residents can also expect major disruptions to everyday life. Experts estimate Tokyo traffic will double during the Games, where eight million people commute every day. The city started a test run Wednesday of a plan to reduce traffic by closing entry points to major highways in stages. Some companies will allow workers to telecommute during the Games.

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Weather is another serious concern, with hot and humid summers already the norm in Tokyo. A heat wave last summer saw record temperatures kill 138 people and hospitalize tens of thousands more. Japan's Medical Association expressed serious concern about athlete and spectator safety and organizers have scheduled early-morning start times for some events. Officials are also coating roads and courses with a heat-reflecting resin and deploying shaded tents and mist sprays.

All the potential problems haven't quelled public enthusiasm, however, with great demand for tickets so far. A lottery last month saw all 3.2 million snapped up by the general public. A follow-up lottery will be held next month and open ticket sales begin in the fall.

So far, corporate sponsorship has topped $3 billion, far exceeding any previous Olympics. The Tokyo Games will be a technology showcase for sponsors such as Toyota -- which has developed robots to do everything from retrieving javelins on the field to serving beverages. The company will also roll out driverless taxis and zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for the Olympics, while sponsor Panasonic will supply cutting-edge displays and AV equipment.

However the Tokyo 2020 Games turn out, organizers will find it hard to top the impact of the 1964 Games. That event, just 19 years after the end of World War II, was a return for Japan to the world stage as a modern, developed and peaceful nation.

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In his book 1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan, author Roy Tomizawa called the Games "a symbol of the immense collective joy of the time, a psychological purgatory of defeat in the Pacific War, subjugation by the enemy, and the painstaking recovery from destitution and despair."

"Never was the nation more aligned," he wrote, "never was the nation prouder than in 1964 -- rising from the rubble to embark on the greatest Asian economic miracle of the twentieth century."

The Tokyo 2020 Games will be the largest ever, with 339 medals awarded over 33 sports. The Paralympics, which run from August 25 to September 6, will feature 22 sports and 540 medals. Eleven thousand athletes from over 200 countries will compete. New sports to debut in Tokyo include surfing, skateboarding and karate, while baseball and softball, which were dropped after Beijing's 2008 Games, will return.

Next summer's Games will be Japan's first since the turn of the century. It was last an Olympic city in 1998 during the Winter Games in Nagano.

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