— Published 6 October 2021

‘At some point, we became inaudible’

The Olympic flag changed hands. Tokyo passed it on to Paris. Only a few weeks after the last fires of the Paralympic Games, most of the employees left the Japanese organising committee.

Among them, a Frenchman. Tristan Lavier (photo below) has been involved in the Tokyo 2020 adventure for ten years. Already present during the bid phase, he joined the communications department after the Japanese bid won in the autumn of 2013.

As international communications manager, he experienced the improbable saga of the organising committee from the inside. A few days before leaving Japan for good, he told FrancsJeux about what happened behind the scenes during this experience that will remain historic forever.

FrancsJeux: In what state of mind did you end this long adventure of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games?

Tristan Lavier: With the satisfaction of having delivered Games that seemed impossible, and of having delivered them in the promised sanitary conditions. The gamble paid off. The bubble did not burst. There was no spread of the virus, neither from the Games to the rest of the population, nor in the other way around. To have met this challenge is a real team satisfaction.

At the end of the Olympic Games, what was the prevailing feeling within the organising committee?

I expected more jubilation. Everything remained fairly contained. But it was always clear to all of us that we had two events to deliver: the Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games. The end of the former, on the evening of the Closing Ceremony, was only the signal for half-time. The celebration of the end of the Games came later, on the evening of the Paralympics. There was applause, shouts of joy, some tears. The emotion was more visible than usual within the organising committee. But there was no great celebration. Tokyo was still under a state of emergency. The teams stayed where they were, on the sites, in the press centre… There was no question of us all being in the same place and forgetting the barrier gestures and vigilance. The playbooks were respected until the end.

The Tokyo Games were marked by considerable extra costs. Were you aware of this within the organising committee? Was there ever a real cost-cutting policy?

You have to remember that Agenda 2020 was adopted by the IOC about a year after Tokyo’s victory. So cost control was a principle from the beginning of the preparation. After that, you have to understand how the budget for the Games was made up. This was one of the questions I had to explain to the foreign media the most, at least until the start of the pandemic. The organising committee’s budget of 6.7 billion dollars was provided by private money, especially marketing, where Tokyo 2020 broke all records. The rest is investment, and is part of the legacy. No less than five facilities dating from the 1964 Tokyo Games were used. They have been renovated. This has extended their existence by about 50 years. A huge effort was made on accessibility, which is very important in an ageing country like Japan.

The Tokyo Games were also marked by several incidents, including the resignation of the president, Yoshiro Mori. Which one had the greatest impact on the organising committee?

The most difficult period for me during these eight years was the month that led to the decision to postpone. March 2020. New information was brought to us every day. We had to improvise, adapt to a new situation and try to get by. A postponement seemed so complicated that it was unreal. But as we moved through March, the impossible began to become concrete. A few days before the decision to postpone, which was taken on March 24th, we were beginning to see it coming. But operationally, the task was Herculean.

Was the cancellation scenario, which became a refrain in the media after the decision to postpone, really discussed within the organising committee?

No. We never had this option in the back of our minds. Our job was to organise the Games, not to cancel them. But the pandemic was less difficult to live with and to manage in Japan than in Europe and the United States, for example. There was never a lockdown. That gave us confidence that the Games would actually take place.

In your position within the communications department, what was the most difficult message to convey to the foreign media?

There was a time in June and early July 2021 when we became inaudible. We could put forward any fact, bring in any expert, to explain that the Games could take place in safe conditions, but the message was no longer getting through. The foreign press correspondents could no longer hear us. They were predicting the apocalypse and the end of Japan. The media bubble burst.

The last year before the event saw the Japanese public expressing its distrust of the Games in polls. Did this have an effect on the work of the organising committee?

The reality was much more nuanced than the polls claimed. They combined the number of Japanese who wanted the Games to be cancelled with the number who were in favour of postponing them, in order to obtain a very high result and make headlines. It was a mix. Moreover, a second postponement was never an option. So it didn’t make sense to ask the question. After the end of the Games, about 60% of Japanese people said they were satisfied that Tokyo had organised them.

How did you experience the Games without an audience?

The closed-door decision was the most visible. But there were so many other programmes that were cancelled because of COVID. I tried not to think about it too much. The absence of spectators was the right decision. It allowed the Games to be delivered as promised.

With the IOC in mind, many people suggested that only Japan was capable of maintaining and organising the Games in such a context. Is that your view too?

Japan is obviously to be congratulated for being able to take up such a challenge. But it was also possible because everything was ready when the decision to postpone was made. The sites were delivered. The teams were therefore able to concentrate on the postponement and its consequences. And then, the management of the pandemic explains a lot. In the city of Tokyo, with a population of 30 million, there are only about 100 cases per day. Its ability to rise to the challenge will remain one of the legacies of the Games for Japan. So much the better. Let’s hope that the sports movement will remember this and return to it in crowded stadiums.