Host city and mega-events: Olympic legacy in Japan

Prof John Horne

Visiting Professor of Sport and Social Theory in the Graduate School of Sport Sciences, Waseda University, Tokyo, Japan. His many publications include: Understanding the Olympics (3rd edition, 2020), Mega-Events and Globalization (2016), Sports Mega-Events (2006), and Japan, Korea and the 2002 World Cup (2002).

Section 1: Tokyo & Mega-Events

In this brief commentary I will refer to two distinctions with respect to legacies – that they can be tangible and intangible, but also universal and selective. It is well established that legacies can be tangible, that is related to, for example, changes in some way to the material or physical infrastructure or economic performance, and intangible, that is related to, for example, emotional responses to a mega-event whether individual or collective. Tangible legacies refer to substantial and long-standing changes to the urban infrastructure – the building of iconic stadia being one of the most notable when it comes to the Olympics. The intangible legacies of the Olympics refer predominantly to popular memories, evocations and analyses of specific events and incidents associated with the Games. Tokyo 2020 may have supplied both kinds of legacy – from the (re-)built stadium in the Heritage Zone and newly built facilities in the Bay Zone to memorable moments of sporting excellence on the track, in the stadia and various arenas – but a central issue with the Olympic Games is whether legacy can ever match the often lofty legacy objectives and rhetoric that has become prominent in promotional discourse associated with it. The philosophical underpinning of the Olympic Games, ‘Olympism’, and associated talk of an Olympic ‘movement’ means that the Games has a self-imposed challenge to meet the ideals of the promotion of universal values and associated liberal social programmes. 

A second distinction I want to suggest when thinking about legacy is that legacies can be selective and universal. By this distinction I mean the following. Selective legacies are particular, individualist, and elitist, and tend to serve the interests of those dominating powerful political and economic positions in society. In the case of the Olympics, alongside national and city governments, this would include sponsors, broadcasters, and specific economic sectors such as security associated with the Games. Universal legacies are communal, collectivist, and inherently democratic, available to all by virtue of being made freely accessible. A problem for sports mega-events is that they largely generate tangible legacies that are selective and intangible legacies that are universal.

For many observers of the Olympic Games and other sports mega-events, legacy is an essentially contested concept and practice. It is a political notion through and through, whilst at the same time appearing simple, common sense, and therefore attractive and seductive. The promise of legacy is that something good, beneficial and welcome will emerge from the undertaking, hosting or staging of a large-scale project or sports mega-event. It has been suggested that legacy usually comes with a golden halo in that it was assumed to invariably be positive. Yet this language masks developments associated with sports mega-events affecting, usually poor, less mobile, people most directly involved. This includes the compulsory purchase of homes and property, familial relocation and displacement before an event and through other means such as gentrification after an event has taken place.

The positive vision of the Olympics fits well with the urban strategy of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) launched in December 2014, Creating the Future: The long-term vision for Tokyo 2014-2024.  The TMG has been looking to use event-led regeneration as a catalyst to develop the transportation network, a more disaster-resilient infrastructure, open up more green spaces, and brand the city as a cosmopolitan capital city. In July 2021 it published a document identifying a total of 24 legacies from the Games that it sought to build on ‘beyond 2020’, including a more inclusive society, developing a new volunteer culture in Japan, and support for the area impacted by the triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor leak) of 2011 in north-east Japan. How this is to be achieved in the midst of a pandemic, without spectators requiring the assistance of volunteers, and several hundred kilometres from the epicentre of the 2011 disaster, remains to be seen.

There is a clear difficulty with indiscriminate use of the legacy concept. It creates a tension between the IOC and the local organizing committee (LOC) over who will be responsible for acknowledging that there can be negative legacies emerging from a mega-event. Equally widespread use of the term in bid documents and in publicity for an Olympics can amount to ‘overkill’ and raise local host and national population expectations too much. 

To return to the distinction between selective and universal legacies mentioned at the outset, selective legacies are of benefit, enjoyed, and delivered to specific individuals or interests, rather than all, and exclude those considered not eligible to receive them. Selectivism serves to facilitate the sovereignty of the market. Universal legacies on the other hand are those that affect, reach and are shared by all rather than specific individuals or communities. Legacies established universally to serve everybody might need to be financed by governments, philanthropic organizations or exceptionally private enterprises. Prioritising universal legacies would mean that organisers of sports mega-events would be obligated to deliver them to all without constraints. Rather than vague claims regarding legacy they would have to demonstrate a properly funded legacy management programme that continued for some years after the event. For sports mega-events to live up to the promotional claims made for them the legacies associated with them should follow the principle of universalism and this would require greater control and regulation over the IOC and LOCOGs by independent regulatory authorities.