Sat, Jun 15, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Reconstruction and robots: Tokyo attempts to live up to the 1964 Olympic Games

The Japanese capital’s futuristic first Games in 1964 set a dazzlingly high bar it will struggle to reach next year

By Sean Ingle  /  The Guardian, TOKYO

Illustration: Lance Liu

There is a simple riposte to anyone who doubts an Olympics can truly transform a city: Tokyo.

When Japan’s capital first won the right to host the Games, in 1959, it suffered from a desperate shortage of housing and functional infrastructure — and the lack of flush toilets meant most waste had to be vacuumed daily out of cesspits underneath buildings by “honey wagon” trucks — but within five years Japan’s capital had undergone such a metamorphosis that visitors to the 1964 Olympics responded with stunned awe.

“Out of the jungle of concrete mixers, mud and timber that has been Tokyo for years, the city has emerged, as from a chrysalis, to stand glitteringly ready for the Olympics,” a Times correspondent swooned, citing a long list of buildings and accomplishments “all blurring into a neon haze … that will convince the new arrival he has come upon a mirage.”

However, Tokyo’s makeover was real.

There were 100km of freshly laid highways, a new sewage system, new luxury hotels and 21km of monorail from the new international airport to downtown. Meanwhile, the new Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train blasted to Kyoto and back at world-record speed and startlingly modernist arenas, such as the Tokyo metropolitan gymnasium, which was shaped like a flying saucer, only added to the futuristic wonderland vibe.

There were also technological innovations.

Computers were used for the first time at an Olympics, along with timing devices that could separate competitors to 0.01 seconds, and the Syncom III satellite, combined with cutting-edge Japanese technology, enabled live TV pictures to be beamed across the globe — another first.

No wonder it was hailed as the “science fiction” Olympics.

Tokyo 1964 was, according to David Goldblatt in his excellent book The Games, “the single greatest act of collective reimagining in Japan’s post-war history,” and there was a clear message for the wider world, too, reflected in the choice of Yoshinori Sakai, born in Hiroshima on the day the atomic bomb was dropped on the city, to light the Olympic flame.

The 19-year-old athlete was not only a symbol of his nation’s rebirth following the World War II — but also its hope for a brighter future.

Such was the event’s success that it has set the bar dazzlingly high for Tokyo next year. Every Olympian knows, after all, that while winning a gold medal is a formidable task, repeating the trick years later is tougher still.

On the 24th floor of the Harumi Triton Y building, organizers finalizing plans for next year’s Olympics and Paralympics says the world is going to see the “most innovative” Games in history.

Not everyone, to put it mildly, is as upbeat.

Shortly after Japan won the right to host the Games, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe toured the Queen Elizabeth Park in Stratford, London, with Sebastian Coe, who had steered the hugely successful 2012 Olympics. There was only one thing on Abe’s mind: money.

“The only question he kept asking was: ‘How much was that? How much was that?’” Coe said. “He loved the velodrome, which he thought was a beautiful building architecturally. I also explained the difficulties we had with the Olympic Stadium because we couldn’t get football engaged and he said: ‘Oh yeah, I get that.’ Then he pointed at the Aquatics Centre and said: ‘And that one?’ I told him that was the most expensive and that Zaha Hadid had designed it. At that point blood drained out of his face and he said: ‘She’s done our new Olympic Stadium.’”

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