x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Variety is the spice of life for Istanbul's 2020 Olympics bid

Turkish city on standby alongside Madrid and Tokyo as decision looms.

Istanbul, the European Capital of Culture in 2010, has a thriving tourist trade and a rich diversity of cultures. It is up against Madrid and Tokyo to host the 2020 Olympic Games.
Istanbul, the European Capital of Culture in 2010, has a thriving tourist trade and a rich diversity of cultures. It is up against Madrid and Tokyo to host the 2020 Olympic Games.

In Madrid, Istanbul and Tokyo, the celebrations are on standby.

Today, the voting members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) meet in Buenos Aires to decide which of the three cities will host the 2020 Olympic Games. Politics, as ever, will play a big part in the decision.

Much has been made of the possibility of Istanbul becoming the first Muslim nation to hold an Olympic Games. It is an unnecessary, and patronising, distinction.

Istanbul's "Muslim" character should no more be a factor in its ability to host a successful games any more than Beijing's "communist" one was in 2008.

There are many criteria to take into account when judging potential bids.

Religion, however, should not be one of them.

All three candidates have had their bids undermined by real issues without resorting to such superfluous labels.

Istanbul has suffered from social unrest and a string of sports doping scandals; Tokyo from the fallout of the biggest nuclear meltdown since Chernobyl, at Fukushima; and Madrid from Spain's mushrooming economic woes.

In Istanbul's case, critics will point to the government's overreaction to the Gezi protests this summer, a clampdown that targeted the very people that the bid champions as the city's greatest resource - the country's youth.

The bid's supporters will counterclaim that, historically, the IOC has not been pressured into decisions on political grounds.

It stood by Moscow in the face of a mass Western boycott in 1980.

And if it was not swayed by criticism of Beijing 2008 due to China's human-rights record, then should Istanbul not get a pass as well?

Second guessing how the voting will go is futile.

"IOC members vote with their hearts, not with their heads," the Norwegian IOC member Gerhard Heiberg said.

"They will look at the presentations and vote right there and then, not thinking that this is seven years ahead. That could decide who will take the gold medal."

The winners of the 2020 vote, not to mention Rio de Janeiro in 2016, have much to live up to.

The London Olympics raised the bar significantly in terms of organisation and multiculturalism. Before that, Beijing dazzled with gleaming infrastructure.

The IOC, like football's governing body Fifa, is trying to expand its horizons, taking its flagship event to new frontiers.

Rio 2016 will be the first Games held in South America.

Today, Turkey is the only one out of the three candidate countries not to host an Olympics, and an Istanbul Games would also be the first to be held in the wider Middle East region.

It is this, rather than the focus on religion, that should be pivotal in Istanbul's bid. Few cities rival Istanbul's cultural variety.

The city's tourism potential is beyond question, with more than 10 million visitors expected through Ataturk International airport this year.

Famously, the city also acts as a link between the west and east, literally, in the case of the Bosphorus Bridge, which connects Europe to Asia.

The IOC is very fond of such symbolism.

Perhaps what the IOC loves even more is leaving an "Olympic legacy". With Istanbul in need of constructing a major part of its facilities and infrastructure in the next seven years - at an estimated cost of US$19.2 billion (Dh70.52bn) - it would seem to fit that profile more than its two more established rivals.

The ruling AKP party has thrown its weight behind the bid and Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be present in Buenos Aires for the decision.

Yet Istanbul, it must be said, are not the front-runners. The unrest saw to that, and those preoccupied with religion may decide that the time for an Olympics in a Muslim country has not arrived yet. If the voters do decide to go for the safe option, then expect Tokyo delegation to be weeping with joy.

As well as choosing the 2020 host city, the next few days will also reveal the identity of the man who will replace the departing IOC president Jacques Rogge.

Germany's Thomas Bach, the current vice president, is favourite for the job, just ahead of Puerto Rico's Richard Carrion and Singapore's Ng Ser Miang.

The former Olympic pole vault champion Sergei Bubka of Ukraine, Taiwan's CK Wu and Swiss sports administrator Denis Oswald are the other candidates.

Only the most doe-eyed idealist will believe the two votes are independent.

What an Istanbul Olympics would do is make the games more accessible to millions of people who live in the Middle East. Regardless of their religion.

Should Istanbul lose the nomination for a fifth time, it will become increasingly likely that the 2024 Olympics will be the first to be held in this part of the world.

Dubai, and perhaps Doha, will be watching with interest.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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