Tokyo 2020 Olympic bid
The Tokyo Stadium, one of the proposed stadiums for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, is seen in this computer-generated handout image provided by the Tokyo 2020 Bid Committee. Reuters

The host-selection process for the 2020 Olympic Games took a strange twist in recent weeks, away from which city would be the best pick for the world’s biggest and most-expensive sporting event to which city had the least flaws. For Istanbul, it was political instability, riots and a doping scandal. For Madrid, it was high debts ($9.8 billion) and staggering unemployment (27 percent). And for Tokyo, it was troubles at the tsunami-crippled Fukushima nuclear plant and the attendant radiation concerns.

In the end, however, it was Tokyo that did the best job convincing the International Olympic Committee that it was the least-flawed of the pack during the selection process in Buenos Aires this weekend. The Tokyo 2020 campaign launched an all-out blitz to assure the IOC that mounting concerns over the leak of radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear plant wouldn't affect Tokyo. “Let me assure you the situation is under control,” Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the committee Saturday. “It has never done and will never do any damage to Tokyo.”

After the IOC eliminated Madrid from its third consecutive bid for the Games, Tokyo received 60 votes to Istanbul’s 36 to seal the deal as Olympic host. The honor affords Tokyo its second shot at Olympic glory after becoming the first city in Asia to host the Games in 1964.

“Tokyo presented a very strong technical bid from the outset -- and it needed to in competition with two such high-caliber bids from Istanbul and Madrid,” explained IOC President Jacques Rogge, whose 12-year term comes to an end Tuesday. “All three cities were capable of staging excellent Games in 2020, but in the end it was Tokyo’s bid that resonated the most with the IOC membership, inviting us to ‘discover tomorrow’ by delivering a well-organized and safe Games that will reinforce the Olympic values while demonstrating the benefits of sport to a new generation.”

“A pair of safe hands” was Tokyo’s promise from the start, and the IOC vote confirmed suspicions that the organization would favor a sure bet over a riskier choice that could potentially generate societal change (Istanbul) or one that could potentially kick-start a troubled economy (Madrid).

If selected, Istanbul would've become the first city in the Middle East to host the Olympics, “giving hope, trust and peace to a region,” as bid leader Hasan Arat said. Yet, while Turkey’s location was a key part of its marketing effort, its borders with Syria and Iraq proved to be a double-edged sword. The nation’s heavy-handed reaction to mass antigovernment protests in June, coupled with a doping scandal involving its athletes at the World Athletics Championship in August, further undermined Istanbul’s bid at the very moment when it looked like the Olympics could be a real possibility for Turkey after years of failed attempts.

By most accounts, Tokyo was the favorite going into this weekend’s vote in Buenos Aires. Of all the candidate cities, analysts viewed it as the safe, economically sound choice to deliver on its promises in a timely and orderly fashion -- aspects of particular importance to the IOC, given the current construction delays in building venues in Rio de Janeiro for 2016 and the controversy swirling around the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, over human-rights concerns.

Tokyo’s estimated budget of $8.5 billion put it squarely in the middle of the pack, with Madrid offering a $5 billion “austerity Games” and Istanbul boasting a combined $19 billion for Olympic costs and the city’s own infrastructure projects. Japan’s promise that, if selected, the money would be available from the moment the organizing committee set up operations was no doubt pivotal to its success, as was its list of 20 high-profile corporate sponsors.

Beyond offering “a pair of safe hands,” Tokyo promised to bring the Olympics into the 21st century by capitalizing on global trends in everything from fashion to digital technology. Organizers brought talking robots to Buenos Aires this past week as a glimpse of what’s to come, and said they’ll imbue the Games with other state-of-the-art innovations at venues such as a sleek Zaha Hadid-designed stadium right in the heart of the city of 35 million people.

Hosting the 2020 Olympics could spark positive economic effects of more than $40 billion and create more than 150,000 jobs in Japan, according to SMBC Nikko Securities. The government hopes a boom in global travel -- particularly in Asia -- will help lure some 8.5 million tourists to Tokyo over the two-week event.