Commentary: Why Tokyo Is the Best Choice to Host the 2020 Olympics

Commentary by Jeff Commings

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, September 6. ON Saturday, the International Olympic Committee will pick the city that will host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. In some ways, I don’t envy the job of the men and women chosen to make this monumental vote. And in other ways, I wish I could be a part of the group that gets to make this major vote. It’s a huge responsibility picking the city that will host thousands of athletes over a 17-day period, but I’m sure it’s also a fun one.

When I was in Barcelona covering the swimming portion of the FINA world aquatics championships, I spent time at the booths for each of the three candidate cities. Surely, each candidate did not need to convince the public that their city was better than the other, since this is not American Idol. But it was great to see the bid proposals up close and hear firsthand what each city offered.

For the first time in the 117-year history of the modern Olympics, the Games could be held in the Middle East. Or, it could return to a city that last brought the world together in 1964. Or, it could be held in a country that has hosted the Olympics before, but in a different city. Istanbul, Tokyo and Madrid each hold their own special advantages to hosting the Olympics, and each have several disadvantages working against them. To their credit, none of the cities have a long list of disadvantages, which would explain why they’ve made it this far. Based on the perceived pros and cons, I made my decision on the best city to host the Games. I also took into account what might not have been spelled out in each city’s bid proposals, such as geography and sporting history. My thoughts come from a purely swimming background, and my choice is primarily based on the city that will do the best job with aquatic sports.


Pros: The major advantage that Tokyo has on Istanbul and Madrid is their previous job as host in 1964. Various reports have described those Games as a rousing success, and Tokyo is one of the few cities to keep a majority of the venues from 1964. The strength of this year’s bid is Tokyo’s Heritage Zone, which includes three of the venues used in 1964, including the venue for swimming. The stadium used for the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as for track and field, in 1964 will be completely remodeled into a sleek and stylish venue that is likely to be one of the icons of the Games. The Tokyo Bay Zone will be the main hub of the 2020 Olympics, with 22 venues in use. Some of these buildings already exist in Tokyo, while some will be built if the city gets the hosting job. The aquatic center is one of those planned new facilities, with seating for 20,000 spectators, about 2,500 more than fit in the London Aquatics Centre. Tokyo already has a prime aquatics facility in the Tatsumi International Swimming Centre, but if the bid book is any indication, the new pool will be a wonder to behold and make the city a major Asian hub for aquatic competitions.

Artist’s rendering of the planned Tokyo Olympic Aquatics Centre:

Cons: With London getting the Games in 2012 for a third time, the IOC might not be keen on giving the 2020 Games to a city that’s been there, done that. Plus, the Games were just in Asia (Beijing in 2008), so it might not be time to come back to Asia.

Percent chance that Tokyo gets the 2020 Olympics: 80 percent


Pros: Only once has an Olympic Games been held on two continents at the same time, and that was during the 1956 Olympics, when a horse quarantine in Australia required the equestrian events to be held in Stockholm, Sweden, five months before the actual Olympics. This would be the first time that the Olympics would be held simultaneously on different continents, with Istanbul straddling the Europe-Asia border. That’s an appealing situation for the city, as its motto for the Games is “Bridge Together.” It’s fitting not just for the physical bridge that exists between continents, but the metaphorical bridging of cultures the Olympics always hopes to create. The region has never hosted an Olympic Games, which also gives Istanbul an advantage. Like its pick for Rio de Janeiro in 2016, the IOC could use Istanbul as a way to show it wants to make history with Olympic bids. (The troubles currently facing the Rio 2016 organizers are probably outweighing the historic implications of having an Olympic Games in South America.) This would be an extraordinary opportunity for Istanbul to lead the growth of sport in the Middle East, a part of the world too strife with conflict to concentrate on huge sporting events. (More on that later.) Part of that opportunity is creating the planned 18,000-seat aquatic center that would need to rival Dubai’s in terms of beauty, functionality and size. The artist’s rendering is very reminiscent of the Water Cube with its flashy ceiling, and it appears that its design attempts to bring spectators closer to the action, which could make for more exciting racing. As for open water swimming, I’m not sure if the marathon swimming course will allow the swimmers to cross the aquatic border for Europe and Asia in the Bosporus Strait, but that could make the 10K race thrilling for athletes and spectators.

Artist’s rendering of the planned Istanbul Olympic Aquatic Centre:

Cons: Istanbul is an attractive place to host an Olympic Games, with its link to the past and hope for a vibrant future. But I fear the legacy of the Olympic Games in Istanbul will be short-lived, much as it was in such cities as Athens and Munich. As I mentioned before, political and religious conflict in the area (especially in Syria) is a huge concern. Though Syria is on Turkey’s eastern border while Istanbul is in northwestern Turkey, the IOC is likely to take the current situation into consideration when casting their votes tomorrow. If Turkey is given the bid, it might provide the impetus for the region to stop the fighting, or for the stronger nations around the world to demand it for the sake of the Games.

Percent chance that Istanbul gets the 2020 Olympics: 50 percent


Pros: Though Madrid has never hosted an Olympic Games, Spain knows how to put on the world’s biggest sporting event, having hosted the Games in Barcelona in 1992. Madrid is considered the more affluent city in Spain, and this bid seems to be an attempt to give Spain another major city to host sporting events outside of soccer (football). The 1992 Olympics gave Barcelona the edge in terms of being a sport hub for Europe and the rest of the world, and Madrid’s bid is a push to bring the world’s attention further inland. Madrid seems to have more venues already in place for 2020: 28 out of a planned 35 facilities already exist in Madrid. According to Madrid’s bid book, the facility to be used for aquatic sports already exists, with a plan to upgrade it to the necessary seating capacity and fulfill the requirements of FINA and the IOC. That will definitely keep costs low. And the venues promise to be in close proximity, allowing spectators to see more sports easily. The main stadium and the aquatic center are separated by a few hundred yards, which could make congestion an issue when swimming and track and field overlap, but will make that area a major hub of excitement for two weeks. Most of the venues will be built in an area of town that has been described as in need of much renovation, as was the case with downtown Atlanta in 1996, and if Madrid gets the nod, it could provide a boon for the city’s expansion.

Artist’s rendering of the planned Istanbul Olympic Aquatic Centre:

Cons: Madrid is in the center of Spain. That’s not good news for open water swimmers. As it was in 2008, the 10K swim will be held in the rowing basin, a man-made tank in which nature will not create a true open-water course. Swimming in such a course was a major complaint among open water swimmers in the debut Olympic event. I would have been OK with Madrid handing off the open water swimming duties to Barcelona, which did a great job of putting on open water competition in the Moll de Fusta this past summer at the world championships.

Percent chance that Madrid gets the 2020 Olympics: 65 percent

As you can see, neither candidate city is perfect. But is there such a thing as the perfect Olympic host city? Tokyo comes closest to perfection, and I was most impressed with their presentation at the vendor booth in Barcelona, as well as their bid book. But what do I know? IOC President Jacques Rogge could prove me wrong tomorrow when he oversees one of the most-anticipated envelope openings of the year.

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