One Giant Leap too Far

People react after announcements for the 2020 Olympic Games host city on September 7, 2013 in Istanbul. (Baris Acarli/Getty Images)

People react after the announcement of the 2020 Olympic Games host city on September 7, 2013, in Istanbul. (Baris Acarli/Getty Images)



Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan clearly wanted Istanbul to win the bid for the 2020 Olympics. For the former semi-pro soccer player, bringing the games to Turkey would have been another triumph to add to his record. The prime minister made numerous public statements throwing his weight behind Istanbul’s bid in the run up to the International Olympic Committee’s decision, from stressing that the games would have his government’s full backing to showcasing the infrastructure and urban development work already underway. He also made the pointed argument that it was about time the Olympics were held in a Muslim country, and modern, secular, growing Turkey was the perfect such candidate. At a press conference in May with the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, Erdoğan went so far as to suggest that Tokyo withdraw from the race for the 2020 Olympics in favor of Istanbul.

When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) met on September 7 to award the games, Tokyo won by a margin of sixty votes against Istanbul’s thirty-six in the final round. It was not always so skewed. Istanbul—for whom this was a fifth attempt to win the Olympics—had probably never been so close to securing the games, with its ambitious and expansive bid raising hopes of a win among Turkish officialdom and creating waves in the sporting community. Yet in late May the city’s Olympic dreams were put in clear danger almost overnight, when large-scale anti-government protests broke out over the government’s plans to destroy Gezi Park, in the heart of Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, to make way for yet another shopping mall. The protests became an articulation not just of Turkish citizens’ frustrations with what they saw to be an increasingly authoritarian government, but also for what has come to be seen as a harmful and inorganic urban planning policy. The government’s heavy-handed crackdown on the protesters probably only raised more questions among critics.

The protests in Istanbul were also followed by protests in Brazil against the country’s hosting the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which dovetailed with the larger frustrations Brazilians have with inequality and corruption. Brazil has also come under harsh criticism for being woefully underprepared for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics and has faced criticisms about how it has handled relocating neighborhoods cleared for the construction of Olympics venues and infrastructure. These are concerns that would have been raised in Istanbul as well—especially with the economic boat having been rocked over the past couple of months, a marked departure from the smooth sailing that has characterized the Turkish economy over the past few years. To make matters worse, Turkey suffered from one of the worst doping scandals in its history over the summer, and the Syrian crisis is exploding on its borders with no way of knowing how it might unfold over the next few years. In the matter of a few months, the bright Turkish future had turned into one that could not really be banked on. Tokyo, clearly, was a much safer bet.

The day the IOC was to announce its decision, the Istanbul set up giant screens at Sultanahmet Square next to the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, in Taksim Square, and in Bebek, on the shores of the Bosporus, to show the voting session live. While dejection greeted the announcement in Sultanahmet, in Taksim—ground zero for the anti-government protests—cheers met Istanbul’s loss. There was genuine concern that the Olympics would have been used as an excuse to ignore environmental concerns and proceed with large-scale building projects. A group of urban planners and architects had speared a “Boycott Istanbul 2020” campaign arguing that Istanbul’s candidate file was too focused on construction and devoid of the Olympic ideals of legacy, spirit and sustainability. Erdoğan’s loss is a victory for such groups, but it also points at the larger polarization that has come to characterize Turkey in recent months.

As if in preparation for a potential loss in the lead up to the IOC’s decision, the country’s EU minister, Egemen Bağış, argued that the Gezi protesters would be responsible if the country lost the race. After the vote, Ankara mayor Melih Gökçek wrote on Twitter that the anti-government protesters were traitors who had caused Istanbul to lose the bid. The pro-Erdoğan daily Yeni Safak blamed the loss on Reuters for publishing photos of Istanbul with Gezi protesters on the day of the vote. Another government mouthpiece ran an article with the headline “Hooligans Happy,” referring to the Gezi crowds.

Erdoğan himself joined in with those who stated that the choice of Tokyo over of Istanbul to host the 2020 Olympic Games was unfair and meant the IOC was turning its back on the Muslim world. For a man who has set himself and his government some grand visions to achieve, Erdoğan will have to watch in envy as Qatar becomes the first Muslim-majority country to host a major sporting event, the FIFA World Cup, in 2022. As if that were not bad enough, the Olympics loss will also probably call into question some of the prime minister’s pet projects—in particular, the third bridge over the Bosporus and the third airport, which aims to be the world’s biggest. The repercussions of the Olympic loss will likely be felt for quite some time.


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