Japan's Olympic Stadium Debacle Should be an Example for Other Olympic Cities 

By Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan on at

After years of controversy, Japan’s Sport Council has chosen a new design for an Olympic stadium in Tokyo. It will be smaller, more sensitive to its surroundings, and (relatively) inexpensive; it could even become a model for other host cities.

It’s been more than two years since Japan’s architects first revolted against the British-designed New National Stadium planned for Tokyo’s 2020 Olympic Games. The group of high-profile architects called it oversized, ridiculous-looking, and wildly more expensive than the city could handle — causing locals to march against the proposed design, which ultimately led to the abandonment of the Zaha Hadid design, which would have cost 252 billion yen – equivalent to £1.3 billion.

Over the past few months, the Japanese government has scrambled to stage a new competition for a new design, and today they released two (anonymous) frontrunners to The Japan Times.

We don’t know many details about the nameless proposals (“A” and “B”), but they’re already radically different than pretty much any contemporary Olympic stadium. For example, both use a renewable resource rarely found in stadiums — wood — structurally in an effort to make the buildings less overbearing and integrate them subtly into the surrounding parkland. They’re also low-slung buildings (again, the keyword here is subtle) and one is even “sunken” into the ground so that the total height is only 50 metres, according to Japan Today. It is also designed to camouflage itself with plantings along the facade.

But while the designs seem to be more context-sensitive and thoughtful, what’s really telling about the way the stadium debacle has affected the development process? The fact that they’re being released at all. Many stadium designs are only revealed once they’ve been chosen, but the Japanese Sport Council released these two front-runners well in advance of a final decision. And crucially, they included the cost. While neither stadium is cheap (at £793m and £859m) they’re half as expensive as the others.

It’s an unusual move in the world of stadium development, but it should be standard operating procedure for every major stadium. Hopefully, the council’s decision to share the designs will usher in an era when cities are more transparent about how major sports events are developed. With voters all over the world rejecting their cities’ bids to host the Olympics, it seems that cities are listening; Japan, which has spent the past two years embroiled in debate over a potential folly of stadium, is a vanguard of what that future may look like. Cities will need to be more open, more realistic, and less unilateral in how they decide to spend money on these events.

It’s been tough going for Tokyo, but the long years of controversy seem like they could end up being a good thing for cities all over the world.

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