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Friday, July 20, 2001

'Field of Dreams' schemes bleed taxpayers

Staff writer

A good deal of discussion on Japan's economic problems emphasizes the need to trim wasteful public works projects. Critics are quick to zero in on "hard" schemes such as bridges, highways, airports and dams that eat up huge chunks of tax money and are rarely used.

But just as serious a problem are "soft" schemes that local politicians use as pretexts for keeping the tax money, the concrete, and thus the votes from the construction industry, flowing in the first place. Many grandiose plans were dreamed up during the bubble years or presented as alternate plans for original ideas that didn't pan out. Prominent examples include the 2005 Expo near Nagoya (being held where the city originally had hoped to host the 1988 Olympics), and, perhaps most ambitious of all, Osaka's failed bid for the 2008 Olympics.

The idea for an Osaka Olympics dates back to about 1991. Original plans to turn Maishima, a man-made island in Osaka bay, into a new urban zone had fallen through because nobody wanted to live so far away from central Osaka. Wondering how to make the island pay, Osaka officials looked around and saw how Atlanta, which had won the 1996 Games and Nagano, which had won the 1998 Winter Games, were predicting how the money would flow in thanks to the magic of the Olympics.

Thus, the idea of an Osaka Olympics on Maishima Island was born.

Despite criticism of the Atlanta Olympics' crass marketing campaign and the financial failure of the Nagano Games, Osaka continued forward. In August 1997, the city beat Yokohama to become Japan's Olympic candidate and that's where the trouble may have started.

December 1998 was the turning point. First Beijing announced it was going after the 2008 Games, dimming Osaka's hopes. Then the Olympic bribery scandal broke. Before it was over, Salt Lake City, Nagano, Atlanta, and Sydney were all found to have violated IOC rules, and, in some cases, the law, by giving cash, scholarships, and expensive gifts to IOC members in exchange for their vote. Some of the more honest IOC members were furious when they learned Nagano had destroyed bid records rather than risk having them fall into the hands of angry citizens. One IOC member said the credibility of the JOC, and by association the Osaka bid, had been severely damaged.

Osaka officials didn't help their case by appearing arrogant and unwilling to address concerns of even the bid's most enthusiastic supporters. Over the years, many outside the city hall and big business groups that managed the bid warned it had major flaws, ranging from the proposed schedule (the city wanted to hold the Olympics at the end of July when temperatures reach the upper 30s) to traffic jams. Such concerns were brushed off by official Osaka.

Then there was the question of cost. Osaka now has outstanding bonds of over 5 trillion yen, a good bit of which is due to failed public works projects. Not surprisingly, taxpayers were alarmed at the prospect of Osaka building even more stadiums, roads, subways and sports facilities in the gamble that an Olympics would cover costs.

Osaka kept its critics at bay until this past May, when the IOC gave the bid a poor evaluation. Concerns were cited about the burden to taxpayers, potential traffic jams, and the 52 percent public support rate for the Games, the lowest of the five bid cities.

Upset, Mayor Takafumi Isomura and Olympic supporters claimed there was a misunderstanding about some of some of the cost burdens, especially for construction at Kansai International Airport. He argued that the airport was a national project and that they would not have to pay for the whole thing.

Until the very end, Osaka insisted its loss was due to a lack of international recognition and a misunderstanding over the Kansai airport cost issue. They refused to admit their poor showing was due to any basic flaws in the bid itself or their management of it.

Yet the paltry number of votes shows clearly that the most basic flaw in the Osaka bid was not technical but political. Osaka has long paid more attention to its relations with Asian countries than America or Europe, and the city's "Asia First" diplomatic policy backfired with an IOC that is still heavily European and North American in nature.

The tragedy of their indifference was never more apparent than at the IOC vote in Moscow. For all of the overblown rhetoric from the mayor and Osaka Pref. Gov. Fusae Ohta about how the bid raised the city's international image, one must ask the question: What kind of image does the world now have of a city that was judged unfit to hold the Olympics because of its huge debt and transportation problems, and thus received a grand total of six votes?

Locally, attention has turned to the fate of Isomura, who has two years left in his term. Pressure is mounting for him to resign even as he insists planned sports facilities will go forward as scheduled. Why? Because, as the mayor has said, Osaka should try again for the Olympic rings.

It's the "Field of Dreams" approach to urban planning: If we build it, they will come. All throughout Japan, local municipalities are searching for soft public relations events (an Olympics, an international greenery expo, a flower exposition, etc.) to distract attention from the fact that their hard schemes where these events will theoretically take place are already failures that taxpayers will ultimately have to support.

The job of the central government is to prevent national tax money from being funneled into local "hard" public works schemes based on bad "soft" public relations' ideas. But stopping these ideas before they become reality is still the responsibility of local voters. Unless Osaka has shown it has truly learned from its mistakes and can bear the costs, financial and otherwise, a bid for the Olympics again is one idea that should be given a thumbs down, by not only Osaka but by the whole nation.

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