Dealing With Civil Unrest, Istanbul's 2020 Olympic Bid Takes A Hit

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The Turkish government and its people are at odds, just three months before the IOC votes on Istanbul's bid for the 2020 Olympics. (Thanassis Stavrakis/AP)
The Turkish government and its people are at odds, just three months before the IOC votes on Istanbul's bid for the 2020 Olympics. (Thanassis Stavrakis/AP)

Last weekend, representatives from Tokyo, Madrid, and Istanbul met with the members of more than 200 national Olympic committees in Switzerland and made their pitches to host the 2020 Olympic Games. The IOC evaluation commission will issue an assessment of the three bids on Tuesday, and the winner will be determined on September 7.

Christopher Clarey was recently in Istanbul, and he wrote about that experience for the New York Times.

BL: Chris, describe the scene in Istanbul from when you were there. 

CC: You know, it was an amazing spot to be because it was really a period of time when was pretty peaceful, actually.  It was a lot of protests in the street in Istanbul and in Taksim Square and Gezi Park, and I picked a day to go to see what was going on, and the day I was there was actually very peaceful. It looked like Woodstock or something. The only smoke in the air was from the kebab sellers and the chestnut roasters.  And there was really no tension at all.  People were taking pictures with police on their iPhones in the central squares.  Very much a peaceful vibe. So it made it all the more shocking less than 24 hours after visiting the place and talking to people about the future the riot police came in and Prime Minister Erdoğan obviously lost patience and decided to resolve it. The park was cleared with tear gas and hoses and a lot of injuries. A very different scene in such a short time.

BL: Tell me a little bit about concerns that this spring's demonstrations in Taksim Square and government crackdowns on those demonstrations make the city a poor choice for an international celebration?

CC: You know, it’s a very sensitive time.  This vote for the 2020 Olympics will take place in September in Buenos Aires. There’s still time before that vote, so things can change.  But I think the timing of this is not good for the bid.  And I think in general it cast a bit of doubt about the prime minister and the government’s ability to maintain a peaceful dialogue with its people.  If you show weakness at this late stage, it’s got to have an influence on some of the voters.

BL: And weakness, I guess, would be inability to maintain security, a gigantic concern at this point.

CC: Well, I think the Olympics likes to balance risk and reward, it looks to me from having observed the movement for many years. And I think there’s always that desire to try to push into new territories and take chances and try to expand the reach of the Olympics.  They’ve done a good job of that over the years.  I just think at this point, it’s a matter of what the members want to do in terms of their risk and reward threshold. Do they want to go after a place like Istanbul which is really, in general terms, a pretty stable place and a very symbolic place? Or do they want more or less a sure thing, which would be Tokyo at this point, in terms of the developmental phase of it, the support of the bid, and the stability of the politics. So it’s an interesting choice. It didn’t look that interesting a few months ago, but it sure does now.

BL: Tokyo hosted the Olympics in 1964. Madrid hasn't hosted the games, but Barcelona did in 1992. Turkey would be a first. Does that work to Istanbul's advantage?

CC: What I’ve heard from the few members that I talked to about this in the IOC, and obviously people hold things pretty close to their vests, and it’s a secret ballot so you never know. But the sense was before all this happened that Istanbul was the leader, because they are a bridge between Europe and Asia. It’s one of the world’s great cities with a great amount of history. It’s a growing region and the Games have never been held in a predominately-Muslim nation. All those are pretty strong arguments. So I think it is new territory and in that sense the best story of the three bids for the 2020 Games. But Tokyo is also a strong bid.  Madrid I have a harder time seeing getting it one because of the Spanish economy and two because Barcelona did have the games in 1992 and Spain is a country of under 50 million people and to have two Summer Games, the main show, in a country that small in a pretty short period of time would be pretty surprising.

BL: How do the promoters of Istanbul's bid say the city would benefit from hosting the Games?

CC: Well, I think their approach is a way to really reach youth in their country, in their city, and also in their region, which is one of their more compelling arguments. Istanbul’s had a lot of major sporting events. They’ve hosted the World Basketball Championships, World Indoor Track and Field, and the end of year tennis championships. So, they’ve proven they can host big events. And I feel like they want to energize their people and also they want to use the Olympics, as everyone seems to use them these days, as a great urban renewal project to get the kind of funds and momentum behind new projects like new airports, new roads, new bridges that they can’t get any other way. And I think that’s what Istanbul would do. There would be a lot of building, a lot of short-term inconvenience, for hopefully long-term benefit.

BL: OK, so let's assume that Instanbul wins out and they get the Olympic Games.  This means, of course, that wrestling has to come back to the Olympics, right?

CC: (Chuckles) Yeah, I think that’s a given no matter what they vote, coming up here. Right, exactly. That’s gonna be brought back in again.  You know, I don’t know what’s going to happen with wrestling. I think they’re the favorite to get in, but you’re right. Turkey has to have some say in that, right?

This segment aired on June 22, 2013.


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