Tokyo 2020: Japan's new Olympics minister Endo faces finance, feuding and stadium fuss

An artist's impression showing the new National Stadium for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid.
An artist's impression showing the new National Stadium for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid.PHOTO: AFP/JAPAN SPORT COUNCIL

TOKYO (REUTERS) - Japan appointed its first Olympics minister on Thursday, naming a veteran politician to a cabinet post created just last month to guide the country through preparations for the 2020 Summer Games - and a host of thorny issues.

Though Tokyo won the Games largely owing to its organisational prowess, the last year has seen the rolling back of bid promises of a cosy, downtown event, ballooning construction costs and messy arguments between Tokyo and the national government over the tab for the new National Stadium.

Taking the post is Mr Toshiaki Endo, 65, a lawmaker of 22 years who has worked on sports policy, been a senior vice-minister in the Education Ministry and plays rugby. "The prime minister told me to keep in close contact with all the appropriate Cabinet ministers, as well as the Tokyo government, and work hard," he told reporters after meeting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

One of Mr Endo's first tasks is likely to be a decision on the final design for the National Stadium, currently the centre of a firestorm over its ballooning costs and what critics say is a general lack of fit with its site in downtown Tokyo, where the now-demolished stadium used for the 1964 Olympics stood.

Designed by Zaha Hadid, who planned the aquatics centre for the 2012 London Olympics, plans for the massive, futuristic stadium were chosen in an international contest by a committee led by noted Japanese architect Tadao Ando.

"He wanted the stadium to be something that would show off Japanese skills to the world, so he chose an extremely difficult design that has ultimately increased costs and construction time," said Hitoshi Sakai, head of the Institute for Social Engineering think tank and a veteran of Tokyo's failed bid for the 2016 Olympics.

The stadium price was 130 billion yen (S$1.4 billion) in Tokyo's bid documents but estimates soared to 300 billion yen last year, prompting officials to scale back the design.

Media reports this week say that if Japan sticks close to this, as it appears set to do, it will cost at least 252 billion yen. "I think building something that would have made use of the old stadium, with modern functions, would have been good," Sakai added, noting that both Sydney and London scaled back on the original plans for their stadiums.

"Having this problem emerge when the old stadium has already been demolished down to the ground is really a shame."

An integral part of Hadid's design is two massive arches that run the length of the stadium and anchor the design. Critics say much of the cost overrun comes from these.

An alternate plan submitted two weeks ago from a group headed by Pritzger Prize-winning architect Fumihiko Maki would abandon the arches for a doughnut-shaped, mostly roofless stadium for roughly 162 billion yen.

"It's not at all epoch-making, just the kind of construction that could be done anywhere," he told Reuters.

But an Education Ministry official said this design lacked details and was "unrealistic".

Other officials have said ditching Hadid's design would damage Japan's reputation and could lead to lawsuits.

"When last year's estimate came in at 300 billion yen, there was a huge rush to cut costs, making it an entirely different stadium," said Munehiko Harada, a professor at Tokyo's Waseda University. "I think at that point a lot of people said, just hold on there."

The new minister will also have to smooth things over between Tokyo and the national government after Tokyo Mayor Yoichi Masuzoe rebelled at being ask to foot some 50 billion yen of the stadium bill without knowing details about construction.

He has recently said he is waiting for a final decision on the stadium before making any more comments.

"That he objects to having Tokyo pay for it, I can understand, since he wasn't part of the decision," Sakai said. "But he and the government need to cooperate and they need to decide things quickly, otherwise it's ridiculous."