No fans or tourists: Can Tokyo still medal with the Olympics?

National banners hang from balconies at an athlete's village as Tokyo prepares for the 2020 Summer Olympics, set to begin July 23 without spectators. Photo: The Associated Press


By Michael R. Malone

National banners hang from balconies at an athlete's village as Tokyo prepares for the 2020 Summer Olympics, set to begin July 23 without spectators. Photo: The Associated Press


No fans or tourists: Can Tokyo still medal with the Olympics?

By Michael R. Malone
Applying resilient urban design concepts and transparent marketing strategies may help Japan mitigate a mountain of challenges and stage a successful Olympics, suggest University of Miami specialists in those fields.

Even under normal circumstances, hosting the world’s largest sporting event is a colossal undertaking. 

With the start of the postponed 2020 Summer Olympics just hours away, Japan faces a daunting public relations challenge in its quest to pull off an Olympic win—surging indices of the coronavirus, fears of an outbreak among athletes, the absence of fans and the infusion of money they provide, and massive public opposition to the games. 

Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Malcolm Matheson Distinguished Professor of Architecture and director of the Master of Urban Design program at the Miami School of Architecture, and Uzma Kahn, associate professor of marketing in the Miami Herbert Business School, explored how applying design lessons from past Olympics and a marketing strategy that stresses innovative engagement and transparency might benefit the country. 

Cities vie to host the games in hopes of an economic boom. Infrastructure construction—roads, new or enhanced airports, hotels, and more—generate temporary jobs, and thousands of athletes, sponsors, media, and spectators tour the host city for months before and months after the games—bringing in millions of tourism dollars. 

A winning bid can serve to galvanize a city and government, according to Plater-Zyberk. 

“Organizing for the Olympics prompts the civic structure to become goal oriented and to produce some specific improvements by a specific time,” she said. “Creating highly specific plans and getting those in city government to agree to major infrastructure changes is far from business-as-usual.” 

Plater-Zyberk noted that in recent years, the trend for host cities has been to utilize existing structures where possible; to embrace density, diversity, and mix of uses, users, building types, and public spaces; and to develop in a way that is transit supportive—and following other urban design principles as well. 

“At one point, there was much more of a desire to build monumental Olympic facilities—strikingly new stadiums—but now the movement is toward reusing existing facilities, take advantage of what you have already—and fill in what you need—or use the opportunity to develop a piece of infrastructure or redevelop a part,” she pointed out. 

Following an urban plan means a more integrated planning approach. And “while you may need a specialized stadium for every sport,” public transit can be used to move spectators and athletes around the city, she explained. 

“There was a time when building a new stadium meant you built a lot of new parking around it and then the housing would be by itself somewhere else, probably with its own load of parking,” she said. “Yet now there is an understanding that a certain number of these physical pieces of the Olympics can be connected by transit and be set up to be a walkable city of the future—with less dependence on the automobile.” 

To highlight this approach, Plater-Zyberk noted the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada, which built a new northwest extension for its CTrain, light rail rapid transit system. And she also listed the 2012 Summer Olympics and Paralympic Games, where Great Britain used the opportunity to revitalize the historically neglected neighborhood of East London with new housing, shops, and jobs. 

“East London was seen as an urban plan, one that would be available for urban habitation and redevelopment beyond the games,” she said. 

In stark contrast and in terms of Olympic infrastructure disaster is the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, Greece. Nearly two decades later, Greece’s economy still sags under the debt burden of the disastrously managed, heightened-security games, and 21 of the 22 sports-specific venues—for sports largely unpracticed in the country—today lay desolate and abandoned, according to media reports. 

Plater-Zyberk was hopeful that Japan’s infrastructure approach applied resilient urban design thinking with a longer-term development vision. 

In terms of marketing, Khan emphasized that she always starts with the question of determining the marketer’s goal. 

She suggested that Japan’s original goal may have been to use the Olympic platform to showcase the notion “that Japan was back,” that the country, one of the most heavily indebted rich countries in the world, had transcended the 2011 nuclear disaster associated with the Great Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, and nearly two decades of economic stagnation. Japan even curbed the pandemic early on by imposing rigorous guidelines for quarantine, social distancing, and isolation of infected people. 

Yet the recent spike in COVID-19 and the public outcry—reportedly as many as 80 percent of Japanese oppose holding the games—have dramatically altered that narrative. 

“There’s nothing usual about this scenario, so the worst thing for Japan to do is to try and do business as usual,” Khan said. 

The professor of marketing often provides strategic consulting to start-ups that, uncertain of the quality of their new product, may propose to gloss over flaws. “But you should never try to hide the flaws of your product, it’s not sustainable,” she insisted. 

“At this point, Japan is trying to catch a train that has left the station,” Khan said. She’s concerned that the country may have continued to focus on a goal—that of the unity that the Olympics promote in bringing people and athletes together—that is no longer attainable or sustainable. In fact, bringing people together is the one thing you do not want to do, she stated. 

Instead, Khan suggested that the country’s marketing message to the world should be: “Stay home, we will bring the games to you.’’ Not just through television, but through innovative digital tools to engage people. 

“The goal now should be to increase and promote engagement—and you don’t have to have packed stadiums and physical presence to have engagement,” Khan explained. “Talk to anyone who has taught virtually. We were able to do that here at the University. The question is how do I deliver an experience?” 

Khan offered a number of unique ideas that promote audience engagement through broadcasting, social media, and other communication channels.

“There’s so much potential with modern technology—the digital platforms allow us to do things we haven’t done before,” she indicated. “This is the new face of marketing, it’s not about bringing people to your stores, it’s about engaging them differently and delivering the experience to them where they are.” 

She emphasized, too, that marketing has changed and that brands are built over a long time. The brand—in this case the country of Japan—should think in terms of long-term branding as opposed to short-term revenue generation. 

“Advertising has a much longer tail now,” she said. “For the Super Bowl and these other large-scale global events, we don’t think of them as occurring at just one time. We can increase the longevity of any ad shown during these events by putting a longer or a different version of it on Facebook and other media, and it keeps getting watched.” 

While Japan is reportedly forecast to lose as much as $16 billion in terms of ticket sales and lost revenues from tourism in the short term, the country could possibly benefit from managing the situation as a brand transgression, Khan suggested.

“Good brands do bad things—it happens all the time,” she said. “In this case the brand is Japan, and in the eyes of at least the Japanese people and part of the global community, the brand is perceived to have transgressed by jeopardizing the safety of the country and the people.” 

Instead of messaging what the situation might have looked like—people cheering and laughing together and athletes winning and celebrating—Japan could show the contrast and be transparent about the reality of the situation. 

“An athlete being sick, and the Japanese people doing their best to deliver good health care and providing good comfort to them, is playing on the same angle of hospitality that Japan wanted to showcase under normal circumstances but in a very different way,” said Khan. She compared the message to one that she teaches her children: It’s most important to be present for your friends during challenging times. 

“Instead of highlighting how the games could have been a beautiful happy moment, it may well be a very trying and traumatizing event for the whole country,” she said. “This could be very powerful if the country shows how it stood by the global community of athletes, delivered care, and sacrificed. You don’t generally associate messages like those with the Olympics and hence it presents an opportunity to stand out without having to present a fictionalized, happy narrative.” 

A year ago, when Khan first learned that the games were postponed, she believed that Japan—with its reputation for new technologies and innovations—had a golden opportunity to be remembered forever for pioneering a new way to experience the Olympic Games.

“Without a doubt Japan and these Olympics will forever be remembered,” she said. “The question is whether remembered as a fiasco or as a success.” 

The Summer Olympic Games opening ceremony takes place at 8 p.m. local time (7 a.m. EST) on Friday, July 23. The opening ceremony will be replayed in prime time, starting at 7:30 p.m.