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2020 Olympics: Why did Tokyo win Summer Games? (+video)

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Kyodo News/AP

(Read caption) Citizens form "Thank you" in the Tokyo Municipal Government office square Sunday after the city was awarded the 2020 Olympics.

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For the International Olympic Committee, it came down to a matter of Tokyo's "safe hands."

The choice for the 2020 Summer Olympics came down to Istanbul, Madrid, and Tokyo, and among that trio, the situation at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant turned out to be the least of the IOC's concerns.

Istanbul is the city beset by recent civil disorder, with critics accusing the Turkish prime minister of autocratic tendencies. It also sits just north of the brutal civil war in Syria.  

Madrid is the capital of a nation that could become the next Greece – a country that spent itself into financial crisis, partly by overspending on its own Olympics. This, as protesters in Brazil take to the streets to protest government spending for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

The IOC is an organization that does not like bad press. It sometimes goes to almost absurd lengths to try to ensure that the Olympic movement is suffused only in a rosy glow. So when the IOC chose Tokyo over Istanbul, 60-36, in the final round of voting in its meeting in Buenos Aires Saturday, it was a signal that the committee wanted to make sure the drama in 2020 was all of the right sort.

“There you have one candidature addressing more the sense of tradition and stability and another candidature addresses the longing for new shores," Thomas Bach, an IOC member from Germany, told Around the Rings, a website that covers the Olympic movement. "This we have seen in the past also with different bids and this time the IOC members – in a fragile world – have decided in favor of tradition and stability."

Tokyo made its pitch well. It has held three Olympics (one summer and two winter), so there's no question of whether Japan can handle it. Its bid motto was: a safe pair of hands. But there were questions about whether Japan could hold its Games with verve and passion.

"Previous Tokyo bids had been praised for their competence but criticised for lacking passion. That was not an accusation that could be levelled at them this time, with the urbane Princess Takamodo breaking with royal protocol to travel to Buenos Aires and lobby on behalf of the bid, and Mami Sato – a Paralympic athlete who saw her hometown devastated by the [2011] tsunami – delivering poise and passion," writes The Guardian, a British newspaper.

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also emphasized a point that made the London 2012 Games such a notable success. Just as London organizers promised to make their Games a gift to the world rather than primarily a statement of British patriotism, Mr. Abe noted that the 2020 Games would be Japan's way of thanking the world for the help it gave Japan after the 2011 tsunami.

The lingering effects from that tsunami appeared to be the only lingering question for IOC voters. Despite fresh reports of radioactive seawater flowing from the damaged Fukushima power plant into the Pacific, however, IOC voters appeared to accept Abe's statement that the crisis had never – and would never – threaten Tokyo 150 miles south.

Tokyo Olympic organizers have even spoken of ensuring that the pre-Olympics torch relay passed through the area as a testament to its efforts at revival.

“It was a very good decision," Denis Oswald, an IOC member from Switzerland, told Around the Rings. "We go on the safe side after two Games where we have some risks, Sochi and Rio. It is nice to have Games where we are sure the organizers will deliver. It is technically a good bid, very concentrated.”

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