Even as its national team’s 28 athletes arrived in Tokyo for the pandemic-delayed 2020 Olympic Games last month, Indonesia’s Olympic Committee (KOI) had already set its sights on a different Olympic prize: the 2036 Games. Despite losing out on its bid for the 2032 Summer Olympics, awarded to the Australian city of Brisbane just before the opening ceremony in Tokyo, the Indonesian capital of Jakarta still hopes to host an Olympics in 15 years’ time.
Jakarta’s bid to host ASEAN’s first-ever Olympic event is based on the capital city’s successful organization of the 2018 Jakarta-Palembang Asian Games. Compared to the more than 11,656 participants who competed in Tokyo over the past few weeks, Jakarta welcomed 13,000 athletes from 45 countries in 2018. As KOI’s president Raja Sapta Oktohari defiantly stated: “we will not back down and will continue to fight for the 2036 Olympics.”
A controversial bid
With both that experience and the $2.4 billion USD in infrastructure built for those Games in hand, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s government insists Jakarta is “totally ready” to host what would be Asia’s first Olympics to be held outside the East Asian triangle of Japan, China, and South Korea.
While Indonesia’s successful Asian Games acted as a confidence booster for the country’s ability to host a global event on the scale of the Olympics, critics of the bid point out that Jakarta’s infrastructure and notorious congestion are not well-suited for a massive influx of international visitors that would include not only athletes but also their coaches, support staff, millions of spectators, and media organizations from all over the planet.
If the experience of host cities such as Athens and Rio de Janeiro serve as an indication, the substantial additional expense that the Indonesian government would need to undertake to prepare for an Olympic Games would not translate into long-lasting economic benefits for the country. Instead, skeptics argue a Jakarta Olympics would only burden the capital with unused stadiums, exacerbating Indonesia’s existing struggles to maintain and upkeep sports venues and infrastructures.
How Tokyo set a high bar
A future Summer Olympics in Indonesia would be very different from the Games which just concluded in Tokyo, in part because of the Covid-19 pandemic but also because of the major structural advantages that allowed Japan to organize such a large international event in the middle of a global health crisis.
The Tokyo Olympics, which concluded successfully this past Sunday despite months of criticism from local activists and international media over their timing, seemingly confirmed the idea that only Japan could have successfully executed the logistical feat of an Olympics under the current circumstances. Thanks to the legacy of the Japanese’s capital’s 1964 Olympics, which helped transform postwar Tokyo from a “polluted, fetid mess” into one of the world’s most modern and efficient cities, Japan’s organizing committee already had a set of legacy venues equipped to handle sporting competitions on an Olympic scale – including the legendary Nippon Budokan, which housed the judo and karate contests of the now-concluded Games, and the Kokugikan Arena, which usually serves as the “spiritual home” of sumo wrestling but also functioned as the venue for Olympic boxing this year.
Despite domestic and international criticism over the decision to move ahead with the Games, Japan’s Olympic organizers pulled off one of the most effective “bubbles” since the start of the pandemic. By barring international visitors and keeping local spectators away from the various Olympic venues, the closed ecosystem of Olympic athletes and staff saw only 430 cases of Covid out of 624,000 tests conducted over the course of the Games, a positivity rate of just 0.02%.
Japanese athletes further endeared the public to these Olympics by bringing home the best medal tally in the nation’s history, with 27 gold medals and 58 overall. A few days after the closing ceremony, the most recent polls conducted in Japan point to a major shift in public opinion towards the Games, with a majority now supporting the decision to host them.
While a well-thought-out Olympic bid that integrates the Indonesian capital’s pressing infrastructural needs could win over skeptics, Jokowi has a much more pressing item on the agenda. Over the past few weeks, Indonesia has surpassed India and Brazil to become the pandemic’s “new epicenter,” averaging 50,000 cases a day just two weeks ago.
Health officials are still struggling to overcome the country’s worst outbreak since the crisis began, and Indonesia’s president is currently the target of withering public criticism over his handling of Covid-19. The pandemic has already disrupted Jokowi’s infrastructure initiatives; breaking from the central government, Governor Ridwan Kamil of West Java (which abuts Jakarta and is home to nearly 50 million people) has reallocated funds from construction projects to treat Covid-19 patients.
With less than 10% of the population fully vaccinated and widespread anger over inequality of access, Jokowi’s immediate focus will need to be on the health crisis. Any Olympic aspirations will likely need to wait for Indonesia’s next president, who will take office in 2024.