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Why Turkey Needs the Olympics - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Turkish Olympic Committee members speak about Istanbul's bid to host the 2020 Olympics during a news conference in Istanbul, Turkey, Wednesday, March 27, 2013. Source: AP Photo

Turkish Olympic Committee members speak about Istanbul’s bid to host the 2020 Olympics during a news conference in Istanbul, Turkey, Wednesday, March 27, 2013. Source: AP Photo

Imagine yourself catching a taxi in Paris or London. On discovering you are a tourist, the driver may—or likely will not—inquire after your opinion of the city. This is small talk, and the driver invests little in your response.

The experience is rather different in Turkey. The taxi driver will undoubtedly ask after your thoughts on the city, in hopeful expectation that you will be full of praise.

This comparison was drawn by a foreign colleague living in Turkey, and is clearly indicative of the Turkish peoples’ desire to be liked. The citizens of Turkey want to be appreciated and are anxious to prove to the world that they are as good as others.

Turkey has recently gained a new opportunity to prove its credentials to the world: Istanbul is one of the three candidates contending to host the 2020 Olympics Games. This will be Turkey’s fifth attempt at hosting the Games. If Istanbul does succeed this time, ahead of the two other candidate cities, Madrid and Tokyo, it will be the first time that Olympiads are hosted in a country with a majority Muslim population.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently visited Turkey to assess Istanbul’s 2020 bid. Although the official motto for Istanbul 2020 is “Bridge Together,” the main line of persuasion appears to be, “We deserve it!” What lies behind this conviction is the belief that Turkey can successfully organize the Olympic Games, in view of the huge strides it has made in the last two decades—but according to experts, this is not the right strategy.

Bağış Erten, a Turkish sports journalist feels that “it is not right to enter this type of competition with Madrid and Tokyo about who deserves it most. If we enter that kind of race, Madrid, for instance, will get ahead since it has a much better sports culture and much better sport infrastructure.” The Olympic Games are not just about constructing sports facilities, but about creating a sports culture, and in this respect Turkey does not have the “Olympic spirit,” Erten told me.

But this absence of Olympic spirit can be turned into an opportunity: “Precisely if the Olympic Games are about creating that spirit, then granting them to Turkey will then provide it with the opportunity to create that spirit. Different types of sports find it hard to strive in Turkey; but the Olympic Games might open the way for other sports to develop,” Erten said.

Banu Yelkovan, another sports journalist, recalled the advice given by Terrence Burns, one of the IOC consultants who visited Turkey last year.

“He told us openly: ‘The right question is not how; everybody knows how to do it, but you should ask yourself why we are going to do this.’” According to Erten, the answer should be, “Because we need it.” Erten is concerned that in Turkey, the Olympic Games are being perceived purely as a construction matter, he says that he has yet to see any proof of how the Olympic Games will create a much-needed sports culture in the country.

Erten insists that Turkey has to make a choice between whether it will become like Athens, where the wasted investment is counted among the reasons for their current economic turmoil, or Barcelona, which thrived in sports after hosting the Olympics. before reminding me of the poor state of sport in Turkey at present:

[blockquote]Officials said the facilities will be open to the people; they will not become parking lots. But in Istanbul there are already sports facilities that are underused. The issue is about creating that awareness, that conscience. This needs to have a pedagogical dimension, media dimension, but in a country where there are efforts to make sports an elective course in schools, you can’t talk about a sports culture.[/blockquote]

Istanbul’s projected infrastructure budget of USD 19.2 billion is by far the highest of the three bid cities, compared with the USD 1.9 billion for Madrid and USD 4.9 billion for Tokyo. Public support among the Turkish people is equally high, as polls show that Istanbul’s bid has the support of 83% of the city’s residents and 76% of Turkey’s population.

Why is public support so high? Is it because Turkish people want to show the world that they are capable of successfully hosting the world’s biggest sporting event? Have they really considered the economic sacrifices that will have to be made? Are they motivated by a desire to promote sport, or is it all for show? I, for one, am not convinced these questions are being asked by the public, which is instead driven by the sense of achievement that the Olympic Games will bring.