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Erdogan Wants the Olympics

Troubled at home and abroad, Turkey’s prime minister hopes for an Olympic win for Istanbul that can provide a much-needed antidote to his political woes.
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (2nd L)  and his wife Emine Erdogan attend the women's qualification game Olympic basketball match between Turkey and Angola during the London 2012 Olympic Games July 28, 2012.  REUTERS/Luke MacGregor  (BRITAIN - Tags: POLITICS SPORT OLYMPICS BASKETBALL) - RTR35I0J

The request lacked diplomatic tact, but then, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not exactly known for his savoir-faire.

At a joint press conference with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe, May 3, Erdogan brought up the 2020 Summer Olympics, which Tokyo and Istanbul are both bidding to host.

“I told the prime minister that they should withdraw and let us host this one,” Erdogan said. “I believe the prime minister will appreciate our request and give the necessary instructions to the Tokyo governor.”

His words caused laughter in the room, but Erdogan was only half joking. Tokyo’s governor, Naoki Inosei, had recently apologized for his own inappropriate remarks regarding Turkey and Islamic countries. Erdogan hoped to take advantage of Inosei’s mistake by raising the issue during the signing of a $22 billion deal giving Japan the right to build a nuclear reactor in Turkey.

Abe declined politely. “I’d be the first to congratulate you if Turkey wins,” he said. “But, if Tokyo is selected, we’d like you to be the first to congratulate as well.”

When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) convenes Sept. 7 in Buenos Aires to make its final decision, the three cities slugging it out for the 2020 games will be Istanbul, Tokyo and Madrid. In an effort to show the Turkish government’s commitment and do some last-minute lobbying, Erdogan will travel to Argentina and be present when the IOC announces its decision.

All along, strong government backing has been a plus for Istanbul’s bid. In a report that indicated no clear favorites, the IOC gave Istanbul a thumbs-up for its “government’s full support.” However, the committee also encouraged Istanbul’s rivals, stating that its economic meltdown did not lessen Madrid’s chances and the lack of public enthusiasm for the games in Japan was evened out by the bid’s financial strength.

Nonetheless, Istanbul has its advantages. A win for the city will make Turkey the first country with a Muslim majority to host the Olympics. Home to 14 million people, Istanbul offers one of the grandest venues ever for the games.

It is “an expansive, ambitious vision that promises to unite east and west on the banks of the Bosphorus,” Owen Gibson wrote in the Observer, Aug. 31. “It was making real headway until the wall-to-wall live coverage of the Taksim Square protests stopped it in its tracks.”

Although the IOC has not indicated that the police violence against protesters would hurt Istanbul’s bid, Turkish government fears that it might. EU minister Egemen Bagis argued that the demonstrators would be responsible if Istanbul lost the Olympics race, saying, “Those who caused a scene at Taksim’s Gezi Park … requested Istanbul to be dropped off the candidates list. Thank God they couldn’t succeed. If Istanbul loses, it will be because of them.”

Bagis did not elaborate on his murky accusation, but the fact that scapegoating has already begun in Ankara attests to high political stakes.

For his part, Erdogan could not be more actively involved. Before Buenos Aires, he will be at the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg and, while Syria will top the summit’s agenda, Turkish bureaucrats tell the press that Erdogan’s priority is to get world leaders’ support for Istanbul’s bid.

One reason behind his enthusiasm is the boost the games can provide to the Turkish economy. Local elections are scheduled for March 30, 2014, and with an annual growth rate that misses the 4% target, a depreciating lira and higher borrowing costs, Turkish voters might not be as eager to support the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) as they were in the previous polls.

Meanwhile, the jury is still out on the “burden or boom” question with respect to the midterm financial effects of hosting the Olympics. The “No to Olympics” movement in Istanbul believes the games will ultimately hurt the economy. In a recent statement, the group said, “We know the cities that hosted the Olympics with pride and excitement and afterward were left with destroyed neighborhoods, heavy debts, displaced millions and facilities left to rot.”

Nonetheless, a win for Istanbul will boost local and national morale, making it easier for Erdogan to justify both the controversial urban renovation plans already underway and his two mega projects — the third bridge over the Bosphorus and the new Istanbul airport that aims to surpass the world’s busiest hub in Atlanta. With budgets of $6 billion and $22.2 billion respectively, the viability of these ambitious ventures is likely to be rigorously questioned once the economic downturn makes itself felt. It will be easier for Erdogan to handle such questioning if he can claim the Olympic motto of “citius, altius, fortius” (faster, higher, stronger) as Istanbul’s own.

The political patronage of Turkey’s urban dynamo is at stake here. Economist Vedat Ozdan points out that it would be “a big fiasco” for Erdogan — himself a former Istanbul mayor — if the AKP loses the city’s mayoral race. An unlikely prospect until recently, a political change of hands in Istanbul is now foreseeable thanks to the rejuvenated spirit of dissent in the city. 

Ozdan thinks that such a loss combined with a weakened economy might result in breakups within the AKP and force Erdogan to forfeit his presidential dreams. But he also describes a political fantasy: “If Istanbul is selected, [there will be] a magnificent homecoming from Buenos Aires; afterward, a pompous celebration and show-of-strength ceremony to be followed by an Olympiad mobilization, public-service advertisement, tenders …”

You get the point. Erdogan needs this. With developments in Syria and Egypt not going as the AKP anticipated, Turkey’s prime minister can no longer claim a leadership role in the region. Meanwhile, his outlandish statements at home — from blaming the West for the Gezi protests to linking a French intellectual’s remarks with Israeli state policy — have been ridiculed in the international press and slammed by various administrations, including the White House.

At this time, a possible decision by the IOC in favor of Istanbul would be interpreted by Erdogan’s supporters as a signal of international endorsement and provide a much-needed remedy for his tarnished image. Ironically, Erdogan’s reputation abroad stands in the way of a possible win for Istanbul.

The city’s bid is also handicapped by a series of sport scandals in which Erdogan and his government did not always act responsibly.

Turkish track and field is in disgrace. Almost three dozen athletes — including an Olympic gold medalist who was embraced by Erdogan himself after her win in 2012 in London — have been either banned this summer or face suspension due to doping. The massive findings of illegal drug use suggest involvement by the authorities, and the chair of the Turkish Athletics Federation had to resign last month.

In another development, the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld on Aug. 28 a two-year ban from European competition for Turkey’s Fenerbahce football club over a match-fixing scandal.

A Fenerbahce fan, Erdogan had suggested all along the team should not have been punished even if individuals were sanctioned. More significantly, under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkish parliament passed in 2011 — not once, but twice, thus overriding President Abdullah Gul’s veto — legislation that reduced the prison terms for match-fixing.

And Turkish wrestler and Olympic bronze medalist Riza Kayaalp, who was suspended recently by the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles for his racist Twitter posts against the Gezi protesters, Greeks and Armenians, will be remembered as the flagholder at the opening ceremony of the 2013 Mediterranean Games in June — an honor bestowed on him by Turkish authorities despite the uproar his tweets had caused.

These hurdles are big for Istanbul. But if the city is selected, despite everything, to host the 2020 Summer Games, it will be an Olympic win for Erdogan.

Yasemin Çongar is the author of four books in Turkish, among them Artık Sır Değil (No More A Secret), a detailed analysis of the US diplomatic cables on Turkey first made public by WikiLeaks. A former Washington bureau chief for Milliyet (1995–2007) and a founding deputy editor-in-chief of  Taraf (2007–2012), Çongar is currently based in Istanbul and is a columnist for the Internet newspaper T24.  

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