Turkey’s Olympic Bid Almost Helpless amid Intensifying Protests

As tensions heighten and protests continue across Istanbul and Turkey, the Istanbul 2020 Olympic bid can only watch on the sidelines and offer damage control, hoping timing is on its side as the clock ticks down to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) vote in September.

Eighty-seven days from today, 100-or-so IOC members will cast ballots for either Istanbul, Madrid or Tokyo; protests, initially triggered by outrage at a development project in Gezi Park, are now into day 12.

“This situation will have no bearing on our ability to deliver our Games concept, which was designed after consultation with environmental groups and NGOs,” a statement released by the bid committee Wednesday read.

“That consultation process will continue in partnership with the national and municipal authorities throughout the construction programme.”

But as the bid team heads to an important ANOC General Assembly in Lausanne this week to present to a large group of voters, they’ll likely be anticipating many questions that have nothing to do with construction, finances or athletes.

“The feedback Istanbul 2020 has received from IOC members and the wider Olympic family continues to be positive and very understanding, the statement continued.

“While they are obviously as keen as we are for a swift and peaceful resolution, the majority of people we have spoken to recognise that 2020 is still seven years away.”

However, IOC members who couldn’t possibly miss the international media coverage and graphic images of events unfolding in Taksim Square, are forming their opinions now.

Istanbul’s narrative, its “bridge together” theme, was introduced at the Evaluation Commission visit in March, evolved at SportAccord in Saint Petersburg in May and will continue to develop through two presentations in Lausanne in June and July culminating at the election in Buenos Aires in September.

It represents “a bridge between the East and West, a bridge between Europe and Asia, a bridge between civilizations, a bridge between cultures and a bridge between faiths,” Turkey’s Minister of Youth and Sport, Suat Kiliç said in March.

The widespread protests have been positioned as anti-government demonstrations – the newly-secularized democracy pushing back against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamic-rooted government.

“What is most important is that the people of Istanbul and Turkey believe in the Games,” the bid committee statement continued.

“The latest IOC poll put public support in Istanbul at 83% – very few bid cities have ever had that kind of backing. This is a bid for the people of Turkey and we are united by our passion to bring the Games here for the first time.

“Istanbul 2020, and the 20-year dream of the Turkish people, will not be affected by these events.”

However, the nation of Turkey and its people will be fundamentally affected by these events, as will they be impacted by an awarding of the Olympic Games to Istanbul in 2020.

The protestors themselves represent living proof that the bridge together theme is not merely a vision – but the reflection of a reality in modern Turkey.  The 83% of supporters are those ready to embrace the values of the Olympic movement and of Istanbul’s bid, something that may help them grow as a nation – and they are prepared to fight for it.

The Turkish government, however, with its outrageous response to the unfolding events poses a direct threat to the bid, and to the Olympic dreams of its own citizens.

Now it’s up to the IOC to decide whether to award the Games to the people of Turkey, or deny them from their leadership.  Or, they can take the easier road and go with Tokyo or Madrid.

If put into historical context, Istanbul 2020 will have challenges ahead.

In 1993, Beijing mounted a strong bid for the 2000 Olympics but throughout its campaign it was burdened with the unshakeable memories of the Tiananmen Square protest that occurred four years earlier.  Beijing lost out to Sydney by a count of 45 to 43 on a fourth ballot.

Perhaps one or two undecided voters took the 1989 protests into account; that’s all it would have taken to seal Beijing’s demise – that’s how close these elections often are.

Though widespread reports indicate that high-ranking IOC officials are denying that Istanbul’s bid has been damaged by the protests – the reality is members are guided by rigid ethics rules and will do what they can to avoid damaging their Olympic brand and the bids.  The final election is by secret ballot.

Expect the bid committee to address these issues head-on at the upcoming presentations.  The scripts are being rewritten as historical events occur in Istanbul.