Sunday, 5 August 2012

Will Istanbul Get The 2020 Olympic Games?

Istanbul is one of three cities short-listed to host the 2020 Olympic Games. This is the fifth time that Istanbul has bid for the Games, and Prime MinisterTayyip Erdogan is getting a bit desperate. Unfortunately the prime minister did not help his plea for the Games when he complained that Madrid has hosted the games twice and Tokyo has hosted three Games. “This is not a fair approach,” he was quoted as saying. In fact Madrid has never hosted the Games, and Tokyo has hosted the summer Olympics just once, in 1964. Of course he could be confusing Madrid with Barcelona that hosted  the 1992 Games – something that will not go down well in the fiercely proud capital of Catalonia.

In the same story in the Hurriyet Daily News the prime minister also introduced a new issue, religion, into the selection process. “No country with a majority of Muslim population has ever hosted the Olympics. . . People will ask ‘Why? What is missing in these countries?’” he said. True enough, but it’s not altogether clear why that is a relevant point. Also, Qatar proved that nothing is missing in Moslem countries when it bid successfully for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Qatar played on its role as bridge between the Arab world and the West, but religion per se was not a featured part of its presentation.

The prime minister’s ‘chip-on-the- shoulder’ or ‘you-owe-us’ approach might play well in Turkey but it is less clear how it will influence members of the International Olympic Committee. This is deeply unfortunate because in many ways Istanbul would be a superb setting for the Games. Turkish construction companies are among the best in the world, and I have absolutely no doubt that high quality facilities would be built in plenty of time. Even Istanbul’s chaotic traffic would be tamed by draconian measures that people would accept because the Games would be sold as an issue of national pride – a critical point with manyTurkish citizens who harbour deep suspicions that their country is underappreciated. Istanbul offers some of the finest hotels in Europe, and the views are unsurpassed. There would be crash courses in several foreign languages to help the thousands of volunteers speak enough to guide visitors to the right venues. No, the physical aspects of the Games would pose no problems at all. But there are other potential drawbacks.

One of these is political. What will Turkey do about the Republic of Cyprus, for example? Currently the island of Cyprus is divided between the European Union member and internationally recognized – except  by Turkey – Republic of Cyprus in the south and the isolated Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus – recognized only by Turkey -- in the north. No Republic of Cyprus plane or ship is allowed into Turkey. Will Turkey change this policy by 2020? Will Turkey insist that the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, if it continues to exist by that time and not just become the 82nd province of Turkey,  be allowed to send a team?
Divided Island Of Cyprus
 Another key issue is the very infrastructure of Turkish sport. Winning medals is not an overt criterion for selection, but it doesn’t hurt. A story in the Turkish daily Radikal bemoans that thus far in these Games Turkey has not even “entered the Bronze Age.” Turkey sent a team of 114 members with much fanfare, but so far this large delegation has not managed to win a single medal of any colour. This might change with the traditional Turkish sport of wrestling, but more than one week into the London Olympics the rewards for all the show and expense are slim. 
Dejected Turkish Weightlifter
As Radikal points out this is by no means the fault of the athletes themselves who are dedicated and train as hard as anyone. The newspaper faults the officials who put great pressure on the athletes to “win a medal, and win it now!” I wonder if these same officials realize that it takes much more than overbearing officials and willing athletes to win medals. Do they have any idea of the depth of support required to win medals? Financial support, development programs, coaching, fitness training, psychologists, diet, equipment are all key factors in developing successful international sport programs.

Turkey has tried the short cut of getting medal contenders from the athletic equivalent of eBay, but that doesn’t really demonstrate a country’s commitment to sport. It worked with the great weight lifter Naim Suleymanoglu who was a native of Bulgaria who was persuaded to move to Turkey where he won numerous Olympic medals. But it hasn’t been very successful in most other cases.

And then there are the opening ceremonies. Turkey has the vast opportunities to draw on millennia of culture in Anatolia as well as the deep well of artistic talent in the country. 
Opening Ceremonies In London
But one has to wonder if officials would take a lesson from the opening ceremonies in London that demonstrated the difference between patriotism and jingoism, the difference between genuine pride and insecure arrogance, and, most of all, the value of whimsy, of not taking oneself too seriously.

The Queen, James Bond, And The Corgis
Turkey’s hard working athletes deserve a chance in the international spotlight. It would be useful if the officials took real steps to make that happen rather than rely on whinging rhetoric.

Update (11/8/2012): The Turkish team improved in the second week of Olympic competition with a bronze in wrestling, a silver in Tae Kwan Do, a silver in women's boxing, and a very impressive gold and silver in the women's 1500 meter race. Well done, but the question remains as to whether the country's sport infrastructure is developed enough to build on this. Scandal-marred Turkish football does not set a promising example of administrative competence.


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