As the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) only Israeli member, 71-year old Alex Gilady must have breathed a sigh of relief when US President Barack Obama brokered a deal between the Turkish and Israeli prime ministers to pave the way for the normalization of ties between Ankara and Tel Aviv. As the supporter of the Turkish bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, he sure did not want to embroil himself in another controversy after he was wrongly accused of selling out Israel when the IOC members, including Gilady, denied a tribute to the Israeli athletes who were murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympics during the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Games, which was in line with the IOC’s long-held policy.
Gilady even stood up against a member of the Knesset, Danny Danon, who wrote a letter to IOC President Jacques Rogge in November 2011 asking him to reject the bid from İstanbul. He convinced him to drop the letter, saying that the deep, strong friendship and cooperation between the Turkish sport movement and the Israeli sport movement must be preserved, and that Israeli sports had suffered from the agony of boycotts in the past. Judging from the pattern of his behavior that was displayed even when Turkey and Israel were at odds over the killing of eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American by Israeli soldiers on an aid ship bound to Gaza in May 2010, Gilady would have still supported the Turkish bid based on Olympic principles, not on Israeli state interests. But he must have appreciated Obama’s role, because that saved Gilady more face in the right-wing Israeli media, which did not hesitate to declare him as a Jewish enemy last year.
In sharp contrast with Gilady, however, Tsunekazu Takeda, a Japanese member of the IOC and president of the Japanese Olympic Committee, does not seem to mind what insiders are calling the dirty game his government has reportedly been playing with underbelly punches to the Turkish front-runner city, İstanbul. Instead of letting the best city win based on the fair assessment of benchmarks the IOC seeks in candidate cities, the Japanese have cooked up smear campaigns against İstanbul, and those did not go unnoticed by officials in Ankara. For example, Fumio Kaneko, a specialist at Japan’s Agency for International Development, suddenly announced in early March that there would be a major earthquake in İstanbul in a few years’ time, with a magnitude of 7 to 7.5. According to Kaneko, the epicenter will be at sea, creating a major tsunami along the shorelines of İstanbul and Bursa.
The Japanese expert’s claims, though refuted by Turkish seismologists as unsubstantiated, came just a few weeks before the members of the Evaluation Commission of the IOC paid a four-day inspections visit for the city’s 2020 Olympics preparedness. It is also kind of ironic that Kaneko, whose country suffered a powerful earthquake and devastating tsunami in 2011, resorted to such fear-mongering in Turkey just to inflict damage on İstanbul’s 2020 bid. Fortunately, this sinister campaign did not pay off, and the assessment team, headed by IOC Vice President Craig Reedie, left the country with very good impressions. It was also reported that another Japanese agency directed a group of journalists to regional and international forums where some IOC members with swing votes will be present. Turkey, from the beginning, gave up on the idea of negative campaigning, thinking that İstanbul, with all its charm, will play positively among the IOC members. The heads of government and state are strongly committed to the Turkish bid, and both Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Turkish President Abdullah Gül have personally been lobbying on behalf of Turkey at each official encounter they think will have an impact on the final decision.
Frankly, Turkey deserves the win, not just because this is the fifth time Turkey has sought to host the games in the last six successive voting rounds, or because Japan and Spain have already hosted the Games, but in fact, because of what İstanbul has come to symbolize in what is happening in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Turkey, a country that has turned into a great economic power and major tourist hub in the last decade, has been an island of stability amid economic woes in Europe and political upheaval in the MENA region. İstanbul, the largest city in Europe with 14 million residents, is a precious gem located at the crossroads between the continents of Europe and Asia. Furnishing the city with the spirit of the Olympics will carry a significant message that will reverberate across continents and help reaffirm the lofty ideals and principles that the IOC has been touting for decades. It may be, for the first time, that a few of the 101 IOC members that have not cast a vote in the past will vote for Turkey this time.
I believe the capacity building role of the IOC, in terms of infrastructure for the host city, is not that important at this juncture because the bulk of Turkey’s $19.2 billion budget, vastly higher than that of Tokyo and Madrid, allocated for the Olympics by the Turkish government, will be spent on developing the infrastructure of the city — whether the IOC awards the prize to İstanbul or not. The cost includes the $9 billion tender for building İstanbul’s third airport, which will be the world’s largest. The new airport is needed to meet the growing passenger and cargo demand in İstanbul, which is also a hub for fast-growing national carrier Turkish Airlines (THY). The third bridge in İstanbul, with a connecting Northern Marmara Highway spanning 414 kilometers between the European and Asian sides, a $6 billion project, is also included in this figure. There are other infrastructure projects, including tunnels under the Sea of Marmara, roadways, sporting halls and facilities that are not tied to the Olympics. Overall, $15 billion out of $19.2 billion will be spent on İstanbul, the IOC decision notwithstanding.
But if we mean capacity building in terms of triggering an interest from youth and cultivating a stronger sporting culture in Turkey, I think the IOC can do a lot in a country where young people under 25 compose half of the nation’s population. The popular support of the Olympics in İstanbul is higher than in Madrid or Tokyo, according to the IOC’s own surveys. Unlike other competing cities, İstanbul has secured firm support both from business and government circles. By the way, the decision to grant İstanbul the ability to host the games will reverberate across the Muslim world, because İstanbul will be the first city with a predominantly Muslim population to host the event in the history of the Olympics. It is a shame that none of the 57 member countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have been ever awarded the honor of hosting the Olympic Games in the past.
The fact that Rio de Janeiro will host the 2016 Games boosts İstanbul’s chances as well because the tradition shows that a European city usually holds the Games following a non-European one. New restrictions imposed after the Salt Lake City scandals prohibit IOC members from visiting competing cities, but Turkish officials are making their cases to members using international venues or sporting events. The campaign to raise awareness of İstanbul’s bid for the Olympics is being handled by a dedicated and very professional 186-member team. More than half are foreign nationals who had secured wins for Beijing, London and Rio de Janeiro, and they are hopeful about bringing the title this time to İstanbul.
My sources in the Turkish capital tell me that, looking at the support pledges coming from various countries, they feel confident that this time İstanbul will score the win. Although IOC members do not necessarily vote in line with state interests, as they are supposed to represent the IOC rather than countries, the pledges obtained publicly or privately are a good indicator on how the vote will eventually turn out. The Turkish government secured the support of the US, the UK, Russia, China and most of the African, Central Asian and Commonwealth countries as well as members of the OIC. The Latin American bloc favors Madrid, as Spain has traditionally garnered support from these countries. But if Madrid looses out to Tokyo in the first round, the Latin support will switch to İstanbul rather than Tokyo, as one prominent Latin politician told a Turkish counterpart a while ago.
France and Germany are the only cool customers when it comes to letting the color of their votes show. This is very much like Turkey’s long voyage to becoming a full member of the EU, where Germany and France put up resistance for acceleration of the process. Against this stage, the Baltic and Nordic countries strongly support the Turkish bid to become a venue for 2020 Olympics. As it will probably turn out, Turkey will have a better chance to host the Olympics than becoming a full member of the EU, even by 2020.
By the way, Turkey is also asking to host the 2020 Paralympic Games, for which it secured the support of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). Its president, Xavier Gonzales, announced the IPC’s support for the Turkish bid last week. It would be great if the IOC members would reciprocate that call at its 125th session in Buenos Aires on Sept. 7, 2013.