Commentary Magazine


Awarding Olympics to Istanbul Would Discourage Reform

I have written before about the International Olympic Committee’s fast approaching decision about which city to award the 2020 Summer Olympics. There are three finalists: Istanbul, Madrid, and Tokyo. At the core of my initial criticism was that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was framing Turkey’s right to host the Olympics in terms of religion: Turkey would be the first Muslim-majority country to host the games. That would have set a negative precedent in which religious quotas rather than other host qualities become a predominant factor. Regardless, the point should be moot for other reasons: Dubai is the front runner for 2024 and is also majority Muslim, but unlike Turkey, its ruler has not framed the city’s bid in religion.

I also admittedly have been cynical about Erdoğan’s broader motivation: according to a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, the prime minister has used his position to amass great wealth. The billions in construction contracts that would accompany an Istanbul Olympics could propel Erdoğan—a man who already has more than a dozen corruption cases against him—into the ranks of the world’s richest man.

When I criticized Istanbul’s case, however, on Erdoğan’s illiberal policies, correspondents pointed out that the International Olympic Committee has never associated the hosting of the Olympics with an endorsement of any particular country’s human rights situation. That’s true historically, as the 1936 Berlin, 1980 Moscow, and 2008 Beijing games demonstrate, and it is also the case with regard to the 2014 Sochi winter games and the Dubai 2024 bid. But in the post-Cold War era, there has also been an undercurrent that the Olympics might improve society or encourage continued liberalization. That certainly was a factor in the Beijing award.

Alas, as the IOC’s September 2013 decision looms about the 2020 Games, they should recognize that, in the aftermath of the Gezi Park protests, confirming the 2020 Olympics on Istanbul could do serious harm to Turkey. Rather than recognize that the protests are largely a reaction to his own autocratic style, Erdoğan has doubled down on both his own intolerance, endorsement of police brutality, and bizarre anti-Semitic conspiracies. No longer, it seems, is the “Interest Rate Lobby,” as Erdoğan now labels his imagined Jewish conspiracy, just targeting Turkey. Rather, it has Brazil in its sites as well. Nor are the Jews the only conspirators with which Erdoğan now obsesses: On August 5, a judiciary whose independence Erdoğan has eroded will render judgment against dozens of former military officers, journalists, and other officials whom Erdoğan has patched together in a convoluted conspiracy that doesn’t pass the most basic of smell tests. To cap it off, rather than investigate the police abuse which helped sparked Turkey’s recent unrest, Erdoğan has endorsed it.

Turkey is in a fragile state: The Gezi protests have exposed long-simmering fissures which will only worsen if Erdoğan can use the 2020 Olympics as his excuse to bulldoze over political opponents and civil society. Nor are the Kurdish peace talks going well. While Turks celebrated a peace process announced with the long-outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) just two days before the International Olympic Committee’s official visit to Istanbul, both Turks and Kurds are beginning to recognize that the agreement was not just for the PKK to lay down its arms, but that the PKK seeks equally momentous decisions on Turkey’s end, including the release of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, and eventual confederation between Turks and Kurds inside Turkey. If the Turks are not prepared to meet such demands, violence could return to Turkey in the run-up to the Olympics. Istanbul, after all, is now the city with the largest Kurdish population in the world.

Someday Istanbul will host the Olympics, and it will do so with a charm and a friendliness that few other cosmopolitan cities can match. That day cannot come during Erdoğan’s tenure, however, for should the International Olympic Committee choose Istanbul when they meet in Buenos Aires on September 7, they will ensure that the 2020 Olympics will be associated with strife, not celebration.