Tokyo was awarded the 2020 summer Olympics, with the International Olympic Committee convinced that continued leaks from a nuclear power plant in Fukushima are no threat to safety.
Dawn was barely minutes old when Tokyo residents learned that their city is to host the Olympics for a second time, beating off rival bids from Madrid and Istanbul, Turkey, for the 2020 Games.
The few thousand among Tokyo’s 13 million residents who stayed up to watch International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge make the announcement in Buenos Aires cheered, hugged, and wept as soon as the news came at 5:20 a.m. local time.
At Komazawa sports park – built to host events at the first Tokyo Olympics in 1964 – 2,000 people shattered the early-morning calm with chants of “Tokyo! Tokyo!” as gold ticker tape rained down on them.
TV presenters announced the portentous arrival of a rainbow in otherwise gray skies over the Japanese capital, while an iPhone weather application described the heavy rain that fell later in the day as “tears of joy.” Newspapers rushed out special editions, and one department store attempted to cash in on the jubilant mood with a range of Olympic-themed cakes.
Mitsushi Matsufuji, who woke up early to watch the announcement at the sports park, says the decision has given Japan "courage and hope” as it struggles to recover from a March 2011 tsunami, which left almost 19,000 people dead and drove hundreds of thousands from their homes.
"I'm willing to trust the government to take care of the problems in Fukushima,” says Matsufuji. “It's going to be tough to organize the Games, but this is our chance to tell the rest of the world that Japan is OK."
In another part of the city, more than 1,200 Olympic athletes and dignitaries greeted the news with the traditional victory cry of "Banzai!"
"This is a credit to the efforts of the entire nation," Saori Yoshida, a three-time gold medalist in women's wrestling and a bid ambassador, told The Associated Press. "The chance to see the highest level of sport live is a great chance for everyone, and as an Olympic athlete I'm thrilled."
There was relief, too, that enough of the IOC’s 96 voting members had overcome concerns about the continuing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, 150 miles north of Tokyo. In the end, Tokyo won comfortably, gaining 60 votes to Istanbul’s 36 after Madrid was eliminated in the first round of voting.
Tokyo’s bid stuttered earlier in the year when the city’s governor, Naoki Inose, made a culturally insensitive remark aimed at Istanbul and was later forced to apologize. But it was the recent slew of grim headlines about serious radiation leaks at Fukushima Daiichi that posed the biggest threat to Tokyo’s chances.
It took an intervention by Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who left the Group of 20 summit in Russia early to attend the vote in Buenos Aires, to offer the strongest assurance yet that Tokyo is safe. The situation at the plant was “under control,” he said.
"It has never done and will never do any damage to Tokyo,” he added. “There are no health-related problems until now, and nor will there be in the future. I say this to you in the most emphatic and unequivocal way."
Mr. Abe’s optimism surprised many, coming so soon after the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), belatedly admitted last month that about 300 tons of contaminated ground water is leaking into the Pacific Ocean every day. That was followed by reports of leaks from poorly monitored water tanks and the use of substandard equipment to measure radiation levels.
Abe’s repeated attempts to play down radiation fears in Tokyo were far from reassuring, said one woman among the 160,000 Fukushima residents who had to flee their homes after the March 2011 tsunami on Japan’s northeast coast caused a triple meltdown at the nuclear plant.
Instead, they “only serve to show that the situation in Fukushima is serious,” she told the Mainichi Shimbun shortly before the IOC decision.
If the 1964 Olympics heralded Japan’s reemergence into the international community less than two decades after its defeat in World War II, there is guarded optimism that the 2020 version will mark a turning point for the world’s third biggest economy after almost two decades of stagnation.
The Tokyo Olympics will make use of refurbished existing venues and several new sports arenas. Along with infrastructure projects, the cost of hosting has been estimated at just under $8 billion, more than half of which is already in the bank.
The centerpiece will be a futuristic, 80,000-seat main stadium shaped like an aerodynamic bicycle helmet. Organizers claim the Games will be the most compact in Olympic history, with 85 percent of the venues within five miles of the athletes’ village.
Hosting the Games could produce economic effects of more than $40 billion and create more than 150,000 jobs, according to an estimate by SMBC Nikko Securities.
Japan’s economy will benefit from rising demand in the construction sector, the report said, along with an expected boom in sales of Olympic-related goods and consumer electronics. The government hopes to attract 8.5 million tourists during the event.
Tokyo’s victory would "cheer up the Japanese people, and above all, bring courage and hope to those in areas affected” by the earthquake, Hiromasa Yonekura, head of the Japan Business Federation, said in a statement. The momentum generated by Olympic redevelopment in Tokyo, increased tourism and investment in infrastructure, would drive Japan’s economic recovery, he added.
Some have questioned the merits of embarking on such a costly exercise before Japan has addressed its huge public debt – now more than twice the size of its gross national product – and when so little progress has been made toward rebuilding its tsunami-hit northeast coast and decommissioning Fukushima Daiichi.
Having intervened to calm fears about radiation levels in Tokyo, Abe appears to recognize that, for the next seven years, the world will be scrutinizing his response to the nuclear plant’s myriad challenges even more closely than before.
"We have made promises,” he said after the vote. "Now we have a responsibility to meet those expectations."