Olympic destructionism

olympic stadium

The stadium is half gone. When I cycled past this morning, the cranes were already pecking at the rubble like vultures, the half-demolished stands hovering forlornly over them. Dust rising from the concrete guts.

They didn’t really need to get rid of it. The stadium itself was perfectly serviceable; the gym beneath, the best-kept secret in Tokyo. It was a relic of the 1960s, and the equipment embodied the training philosophy of the era: straight-forward, unapologetically hardcore. There was no padding on the machines, no TRX, no rodeo saddles for the “core”. No fucking Smith machine. Just rows of squat racks, barbells, kettlebells. It looked like the kind of place Arnie would train. No music: just the clatter of plates and heavy panting. The clientele was an incongruous mix of pensioners and powerlifters with belts and gum-guards. The middle-aged women stretched and did laps of the track, while the wiry older men did squats in their ‘80s-coloured spandex. One once coached me through the clean and jerk when he saw me squatting. There was even a separate room for Olympic lifts with a podium.

It was my favourite place in Tokyo, my weekend treat to myself. It was where I went to meditate. No other gym in this city is anything like it: the rest are brightly lit and over-heated, with powder rooms and massage services and a rota full of Zumba and clearly inefficient “sculpting” classes. People do curls in the squat rack and the trainers have about as much muscle as a chicken drumstick.

I was devastated when they said they were knocking the stadium down. They could have found a new clientele, if only they had advertised. Maybe even put a sign out, made a website. It was as if they didn’t want anyone to come, though — its demise was planned. As a final insult, they closed it down for the final week to let AKB48* perform a string of goodbye concerts. It had to go, because of the Olympics.

I’m not an Olympics curmudgeon. I spent most of my childhood summers playing outside, but every four years my family would forgo the August sun and huddle inside, curtains drawn, to watch the Games. The Olympics was my introduction to the world map and formed my primitive image of other nationalities — when my father brought home a colleague and told me he was American, I asked how that could be, because he wasn’t black? (The impression a four-year-old gets from watching the 100m heats).

I believe in the transformative power of the Olympics, even for spectators. Watching the Games spurred me to take up hurdling, long-distance running, Tae Kwon Do. I am without fail moved by the display of power, grit and the ecstasy of victory. Even the most hardcore cynics of the 2012 London Olympics were converted by week two.

But I abhor the way the Olympics is used as a justification for the erasure of history and local flavour and for the blanketing of the city with anodyne, could-be-anywhere identikit structures. Lately the Olympics has been invoked for the motivation behind not just the related sports venues and athletes’ village, but for every dull, plastic-wrapped and brushed-steel monstrosity of a shopping centre around town. Tokyo’s winning of the 2020 bid provided a catalyst for the construction revolution already ripping through the city with glee. The moving of Tsukiji fish market, a delightfully scuzzy and earthy ecosystem riddled with history and stories to a faceless jazzed-up box further up river just shows how much the authorities miss the point. It doesn’t matter that the new one will have a spectator’s gallery looking over the market to avoid collisions between tourists and the frozen tuna handlers, because the tourists won’t come if the place has all the charm of a Tesco fish counter.

Likewise, I despair over the ancient but not yet extinguished plans to raze Golden Gai, a cluster of 300 tiny bars holding between just four to eight seats and each boasting an idiosyncratic or plain loopy theme, from flamenco to punk rock to horse racing or David Lynch’s oeuvre. Concerns over fire risk or a need to “clean up” the “dirtier” face of the city ignore the value such a magical place brings to the urban environment, not only as a tourist attraction but a root of the local community and the revolving crowd of regulars.

Why gut the city of its charms? Who is it for? When the city officials mention “20 million tourists” and “a new Tokyo” in the same breath, I can’t help feeling like they’re missing the point. Are they actually aware what people come for?

I can’t speak for everyone, but to me the beauty of Tokyo is not the gleaming skyscrapers and the precision of the immaculately pruned flowerbeds and the marble facades. It’s the way that manicured Disneyland co-exists with the grimy yakitori joints underneath the train tracks, the dusty low-ceiling shops selling outdated soy sauce next to the supermarket. It’s the chairs thoughtfully placed by the bus stop by a local neighbor, with one bandaged leg and their stuffing sprouting out, not the bolted-down seats at the spanking new bus stop down the road. It’s the higgledy-piggeldy (mecha-kucha) urban development that lets derelict shacks and flatpack houses nestle next to upmarket condos and hive-like apartment blocks. It’s the clusters of flowerpots seemingly breeding on every doorstep in an attempt to inject some green into the concrete jungle. It’s the orangey glare and brown upholstery of the Ginza line that feels comfortingly nostalgic next to the medicinal cleanliness of the Namboku line. It’s dinner one night on the 52nd floor of a skyscraper and a stirfry out of a frypan patina’d with two decades of oil the next. It’s the steady calm of the shrines next to the 10,000-lumen glare of the FamilyMart. It’s the randomness, the unpredictability, the cocktail of local and brute-force planning from the top, the resistance to change and embracing of the future all at once.

Frankly, I don’t know any Tokyoite who wants their city to look more like Singapore, even though that’s the way it’s going.

The stadium will be reduced to a few skips full of concrete in a few weeks or months. (I still don’t know where they put the barbells.) Then, Zaha Hadid’s“cycling helmet”, or “turtle just waiting for Japan to sink so that it can swim away”— take your pick — will rise up from the rubble. Tokyo has a naturally fast metabolism, and those who have lived in the city longer than my seven years have seen it razed and rebuilt countless times. But spare a few moment to mourn what was the best gym Tokyo ever had.

*A girl group composed of dozens of teenage girls perved over by middle-aged men, or, in other words, a national disgrace

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