Photo/IllutrationMorinari Watanabe poses with the Ariake Gymnastics Center under construction in the background. (Photo by Soichiro Yamamoto)

Ballooning costs and other problems are drawing criticism with less than two years to go before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

There are also concerns that the Tokyo Games will end like a single firework, followed by “darkness” in terms of recouping investments and interest in sports.

However, there is still time to ensure success of the Games and the benefits from hosting the event, said Morinari Watanabe, who has served as president of the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) since 2017.

Watanabe, who became a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2018 and is also an executive board member of the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee, said the Tokyo Games should offer “something extra,” like benefits to the aging population in Japan.

Greater cooperation is sorely needed to leave a legacy for posterity, said Watanabe, who was born in 1959 and now works at Aeon Retail Co.

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Excerpts from his interview with The Asahi Shimbun follow:

Question: You became an IOC member in October and a member of Japan’s Olympic organizing committee in November. What do you think of the preparations for the Tokyo Games so far?

Morinari Watanabe: To be honest, there are still negative effects from a succession of problems that arose in the initial phases, such as revisions of estimated construction costs of the new National Stadium, the retracted official logo, and the issue over how much of the expenses the Tokyo metropolitan government should cover.

I feel the organizing committee is in a defensive shell and making no aggressive efforts. It attempted to conceal as much information as possible on the costs and progress, but there is not much time left. The committee should consider disclosing information and working with the media to liven up the Games.

Q: A senior IOC member has reportedly said the Tokyo Olympics could be the worst Games ever. What do you think?

A: Executives of international sports federations had felt a sense of crisis by the first half of 2018. For example, the organizing committee did not listen to the executives’ opinions on the design of event venues.

Although gymnastic competitions are currently held at a horse hoof-shaped facility with a large screen to enhance their entertainment aspects, the organizing committee did not have such basic knowledge. However, the situation recently improved.

Q: Could you explain your previous statement that the IOC is interested in the 2024 Paris Olympics and 2028 Los Angeles Olympics but not the Tokyo Games?

A: The IOC, from the beginning, believes the Tokyo Olympics will be successful. The problem is whether the Games will be innovative.

Q: The organizing committee aspires to make the Tokyo Games “the most innovative in history that will bring about positive reforms to the world.” Do you agree?

A: The IOC expects host cities to present a model of the Olympics held by mature cities and expects Paris and Los Angeles will give “something extra.” Tokyo seemingly cannot show something extra. Tokyo may have a vision, but the vision has not been embodied in concrete strategies or action plans.

Q: You said during an Asahi Shimbun interview in 2017 that there is no vision for the Tokyo Olympics. What efforts will you make to resolve the issue as a member of the organizing committee?

A: We have to urge not only the public sectors but also academic and business communities to cooperate more actively. It will be difficult for them to work closely because their ways of thinking are different.

The organizing committee, as part of the public sector, should concentrate on management of the Games, while corporations and other private organizations, as well as colleges and other types of academic institutions, should voluntarily make their own efforts to improve the Olympics.

If private organizations work separately on their own, their projects will exert little impact.

A single company staging its own campaign alone will not be effective. Corporations should form teams with Olympic sponsors at the core to promote large-scale campaigns across Japan.

Under the initiative of the bureaucratic organizing committee, the Tokyo Games would be only for a limited number of people. As members of a mature city, citizens must join forces to create the Olympics.

Q: You were a gymnast but have built a corporate career, including managing a rhythmic gymnastics school, since entering a company that is now Aeon. You are also working for the Japan Gymnastics Association. How will you use this experience to make the Games innovative?

A: By using the ideas and potential of Japanese companies.

In a rhythmic gymnastics event in the past, I told a sponsor company to do something interesting. The company proposed using an air-conditioning system to allow gymnasts to relax before their performances.

In some cases, more than one business cooperated to achieve a goal that was out of reach of just one company. Doing so will lead to the success of the Olympics and benefits for corporations.

I want to use the 2020 Games as a showcase that Japan can generate profits from. I am not an original member of the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) or the organizing committee. My advantage is that I am free from the shackles of those organizations. I want to develop an environment favorable for athletes under the athlete-first policy.

Q: What kind of “something extra” should Tokyo offer?

A: Tokyo should underscore the significance and effects of the Olympics on Japanese society, which is the most elderly in the world.

What effects will be produced if elderly people work as volunteers and start engaging in physical activity after the Games end? How can the latest technologies for top athletes be used for health care targeting aged individuals? Tokyo can present those effects.

Q: How do you respond to the strong criticism over the costs of the Olympics amid the dwindling birthrate, graying of society and financial difficulty?

A: Funds for the Tokyo Olympics are not costs but investments. I want to prove that investments can be recouped in 20 years and am looking forward to seeing that happen.

If Ichinomiya, Chiba Prefecture, which has been selected as a venue for surfing events, can revitalize local communities for a prolonged period following the Games, the effects can be called benefits from the Olympics.

A restaurant is developing a new meal to coincide with the Games. If that dish leads to increased sales, it can also be regarded as a sort of benefit.

I would like to show the world how to combine such benefits and recover investments. Doing so also means presenting the power of sports. As a sports lover, I feel humiliated when told that the Olympics only require costs and have no benefits.

Q: As an IOC member, you are expected to slash costs. How will you tackle the issue?

A: If the organizer just demands that expenses be cut, it is saying that nothing more can be done. But if costs must be reduced to start a new project, the organizer will work actively to slash expenses.

Instead of simply slashing expenses, efforts are needed to review conventional ways and reduce costs.

Q: Direct and indirect costs to host the Olympics are estimated at 3 trillion yen ($26.69 billion), but the organizing committee, the central government and the Tokyo metropolitan government are trying to make the expenses appear lower than they really are. What should be done?

A: They should not conceal the costs and disclose the expenses along with the benefits. If benefits from the Olympics, including the effects on the increasingly aging society, are estimated, it will become clear that investments can easily be recovered.

While the organizing committee has been taking the initiative toward the Olympics so far, sports associations with know-how about sports and event management should be more involved.

An advertising agent initially estimated the costs of the 2011 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Tokyo at 2.5 billion yen, but the gymnastics association set up a committee to organize the championships on its own, reducing the expenses to 1.1 billion yen.

The costs increase because those who do not have the know-how organize the Games.

Q: 2020 is the ideal time to raise the value of sports, but the sports community is showing no sense of crisis over a reduction in investments and a decrease in interest in sports after the Olympics.

A: The Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics will end like a single firework if nothing is done. The darkness will return soon after the event.

The Japan Sports Agency and the JOC must play a role to convert that firework into an LED that continues shining forever. But they, as well as other sports associations, have not thought about how to achieve the goal.

Meanwhile, private organizations feel that more efforts are needed to raise awareness of sports and enrich a society where the birthrate continues to decline and the population ages.

Momentum could rapidly grow once ignited.

Q: Considering that momentum has not been ignited, do you think Japan’s sports community lacks the necessary personnel?

A: People do not want to work in the sports industry because sports cannot pay salaries and are not considered a kind of business.

The desire to work for sports has been shrinking. Sports are deemed more important in the United States and Europe than in Japan.

People around me are surprised that the government has offered no subsidies since I became president of the FIG and an IOC member.

Other nations provide support because people like me are treasures for the states.

The same goes for medalists. Even for gold medalists, their futures are not guaranteed in Japan. They must seek second careers on their own after retiring as athletes.

Q: You have been involved in promotional events for skateboarding and other urban sports. What is you take on the increasing popularity of new sports and the future of the Olympics?

A: Young people are now less interested in the Olympic Games. What should we do to create value? The advantage of urban sports is flexibility.

Traditional sports in the Olympics are not cool for modern children. Efforts in basketball to combine music and elements from 3-on-3 basketball with traditional 5-on-5 basketball are proving successful.

Sports will decline unless the advantages of both traditional and new sports are connected to create a new form of sporting.

Q: As president of FIG, are you still working to introduce an artificial intelligence system to evaluate performances of gymnasts?

A: We are making full use of the latest information technology for gymnastics to survive. Sports are currently inclined to emphasize their entertainment aspect. Without entertainment factors, people would not be in favor of sports.

I believe athletes themselves hope to fulfill such targets as improving the entertainment aspect and making sports easier for spectators to understand.

(This article is based on an interview by Asahi Shimbun Staff Writer Satoshi Ushio.)