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Tokyo 2020: what the postponed Olympics can teach us about crisis response

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Bent Flyvbjerg and Alexander Budzier Tokyo olympics.jpg (1).png

Bent Flyvbjerg and Alexander Budzier ask whether support for the Olympics is waning around the world

The Olympics, proponents argue, showcase a country to the world: a two-week event to celebrate sports, national culture and heritage.

Few megaprojects draw as much attention as hosting the Games. In 2013, when Tokyo won the bid for 2020, the world was a different place. Japan hoped that hosting the event would stimulate growth in a lacklustre economy. Eighty per cent of Tokyo residents supported the bid.

In March 2020, COVID-19 forced the postponement of the Games by one year, presenting a massive logistical and financial challenge. Questions remain as to whether 2021 is a certainty.

Cost excesses in the billions, but no boost in growth
We have long been critical of the Games. Bids for hosting consistently and severely underestimate the outlays of the event, and no Olympics that has reliable data has delivered the competition within the budget in the bid.

Cost excesses are in the billions. Tokyo’s budget is 1.35 trillion yen (£10bn). The Japanese state auditor found government projects worth 1.06 trillion yen (£8bn) whose scope is directly relevant to the Games. Yet, the Tokyo Organising Committee does not account for the government spend in its budget. On top of that, the city of Tokyo is spending 810 billion yen (£6bn) on Olympic-related projects. Despite the outlay, an economic boost has not materialised.

Public support globally for hosting the Olympics has waned. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) selected five cities to enter the final bidding process for 2024. Three chose to drop out. Instead of forcing the two remaining cities to compete, the IOC awarded 2024 to Paris and 2028 to Los Angeles.

This setback came despite the IOC’s attempt to change. In 2014, it adopted ‘Agenda 2020’, which set out recommendations to improve the sustainability of hosting the Games in a fragile world facing political, financial and health crises. These changes are not fundamental enough, but at least they show an appreciation of the need to adapt.

How to learn from, and through, crises
Whether crises have an internal trigger, like the Olympics sustainability crisis, or an external trigger, like COVID-19, a set of critical factors determine whether organisations survive or fail. Three failure factors are common in organisations that collapse: they miss the crisis, misunderstand the crisis in a way that leads to ineffective responses, or fail to learn from the crisis.

Most organisations and projects have now grasped what COVID-19 means. Trial-and-error learning dominates when organisations respond to crises. Most organisations have implemented first responses and continue to find new ones. These responses will, hopefully, ensure survival, which is why now is the time to start thinking hard about what can be learned from this.

Our research shows that dismissing a crisis as a unique event kills organisations in the long term. Therefore, learning from and through crises is essential. Research has found that learning focuses on four questions:

  • How did we respond to the crisis?
  • How did the crisis change the relationship between our organisation and its members?
  • What are the structures, routines and processes that we need to (re)build, improve or let go?
  • How did the crisis change our organisation’s identity and values?

Project leaders must reflect on their response to this crisis
This summer, we are having more and more of these conversations, and these will continue long after we emerge from the pandemic. As leaders in projects, we need to drive these conversations, and that starts with reflecting on our leadership.

How did you respond to the crisis? What worked and what did not work? How did the crisis change your relationship with team members? What practices do you want to start, stop or continue? How did the crisis change and challenge your values and identity as a project leader?

The Learning Legacy has been part of the Olympic Movement since Sydney 2000. The IOC and the leaders of the Tokyo Organising Committee will try to learn from the recent events and their response. So should we all.

This article is an edited extract from a piece in the summer 2020 edition of Project journal, APM’s quarterly membership publication. Read more at

Brought to you by Project journal

Image: Kovalov Anatolii/Shutterstock


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