David Owen

If you live in a country that has hosted the FIFA World Cup in the past 20 years or so, you might have seen us: zombie journalists.

Glassy-eyed and sketchily-washed, we shuffle around airports and railway stations, pinballing across what are typically quite sizeable territories in pursuit of the next match.

If it’s Wednesday, it must be Nantes/Bloemfontein/Shizuoka.

Of course, a hefty proportion of the world’s population would swap places with us in a heartbeat.

Nevertheless, the lack of sleep and monotony of daily travel do quickly dull your edge; the deeper into the tournament, the more hit and miss our personal hygiene and the glassier our eyes.

Why am I telling you this? Because it looks like the zombie journalists are on the rise.

Pretty soon their dead-eyed shuffle may be a thing at the planet’s other transcendent sporting mega-event, the Olympic Games.

A Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) Task Force, commissioned by new city Governor Yuriko Koike, has proposed that more sports be moved outside the Japanese capital in order to save money.

Rowing and sprint canoeing might be moved 400 kilometres away to Tome City in the north-eastern Prefecture of Miyagi.

Swimming and volleyball could also face venue switches.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike commissioned a report which has proposed moving more Olympic venues outside of the city ©Getty Images
Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike commissioned a report which has proposed moving more Olympic venues outside of the city ©Getty Images

Given that track cycling has already been shifted 145km south-west to Izu, that other sports such as surfing might be located away from Tokyo on competition rather than cost grounds, and that Olympic football tournaments are habitually staged in a variety of different cities anyway, you could argue for a change in title to the Japan 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Yes, the newly-flagged switches have not yet been approved, are apparently opposed by Games organisers and might turn out to be a political tactic by a Metropolitan Government painting things black in order to make people sit up and take notice that construction costs in Japan are rising.

But for all that International Olympic Committee (IOC) Coordination Commission chairman John Coates is reported to have expressed "grave concerns", it seems to me that the IOC's room for manoeuvre is limited.

The IOC, after all, encouraged the retrospective application of cost-cutting measures to the original Games blueprint in 2014-15 in the name of Agenda 2020, with Coates himself stating that, "[The IOC] has come out and specifically said that we should make the maximum use of existing facilities”. 

It then mixed its messages by approving additional expense in the shape of five new sports in the name, this time, of youth and local engagement.

Nonetheless, if Governor Koike is serious about reining in costs, she is well-placed to argue that what is sauce for the IOC goose should be sauce for the TMG gander.

Certainly, if there has ever been an Olympic plan that departed further from the project approved at the end of the host selection process by IOC members, I would like to see it.

In the end, of course, the importance of this lies not in its impact on the working lifestyles of a few hundred privileged sports reporters, but in what it says about the credibility of this host selection process and the likely consequences if far-flung, rather than compact, Games are to be the norm in future.

I can buy the argument that the vast scale of reconstruction work in the wake of the 2011 earthquake/tsunami - coupled with Japanese reluctance to import foreign labour to ease bottlenecks - is pushing up construction costs. 

But Tokyo wasn’t picked as the 2020 host until September 2013, more than two years after the disaster.

Track cycling has already been moved south from Tokyo to Izu  ©Google Maps
Track cycling has already been moved south from Tokyo to Izu ©Google Maps

While I clearly remember concerns over possible radiation being front and centre in the latter stages of the race, I don’t recall risks associated with an eminently foreseeable spike in demand for construction services coming under scrutiny.

The IOC Evaluation Commission report stated: "Despite a significant construction programme, the Commission is confident that work could be completed on time and that Tokyo has the necessary financial strength to do so through the TMG’s "Hosting Reserve Fund" of $4.5 billion (£3.5 billion/€4 billion), earmarked for venue construction."

Of course, it is always difficult to peer seven years into the future, but it is hard not to conclude that high demand in the building industry during the Games preparation period is something that a rigorous evaluation process should have flagged up as a risk.

And what, if future Games are to be spread to all parts to make maximum use of existing venues, does it mean for the time-honoured concept of the Olympic Village, where athletes from all sports and all nations live and mingle?

I would say it is likely to put it under considerable pressure, wouldn’t you?

Perhaps this should be seen as part and parcel of the modernisation of the Movement in a world where we all travel far more than even a generation ago; or perhaps abandonment of the single Village concept would deal a hammer blow to the Olympic ethos.

Is anyone assessing this? Wouldn’t it have been a good idea if a detailed evaluation of the pros and cons of the Olympic Village in the 21st century had been the sort of task envisaged under the Agenda 2020 rubric?

And if future Olympic/Paralympic projects are to require much less construction, is a seven-year lead-time between selection and event still necessary?

I have no idea, but a shorter lead-time would reduce certain risks, such as the host-nation’s economy falling, Brazil-like, out of bed in the interim.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics could potentially be dubbed as "Japan 2020" ©Getty Images
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics could potentially be dubbed as "Japan 2020" ©Getty Images

Once again, is anyone seriously evaluating this?

A final thought: I actually feel sorry for devisers of the original Tokyo 2020 blueprint: there are good megaprojects, even in this day and age, and it seems to me that a sympathetically-realised transformation of this part of Tokyo Bay into one of the city’s most desirable residential neighbourhoods might have been one of them - particularly in a country which, though wealthy, has long struggled with sluggish economic growth.

With the repercussions of the 2011 disaster, it now looks like the timing just isn’t right, with the consequences for the Olympic project - with its fixed deadline - that we are now observing.

Had the disaster come after the IOC’s host-selection vote, one would have been wholly sympathetic.

But it didn’t; which prompts the thought, not for the first time, that the IOC’s evaluation process needs to be far more robust.

Perhaps the reforms applied for the 2024 race will prove sufficient.

Or perhaps the IOC needs incentivising by, as I suggested last week, accepting liability for a small proportion of sport-related cost overruns.