Turkish Protests Put Istanbul’s 2020 Olympic Bid on Back Foot

Violent clashes between police and tens of thousands of protesters have turned Istanbul into a riskier bet to host the 2020 Olympic Games just as it seemed an attractive option, sports industry consultants said.

The unrest which broke out in late May gives the other two candidates, Tokyo and Madrid, a better chance of being selected, Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based Sportscorp Ltd. said. The International Olympic Committee, or IOC, is scheduled to pick the host on Sept. 7.

The IOC will have to weigh the prospect of social unrest in 2020 against its own mandate of seeking to take the Olympics to new territories, Ganis said. Turkey, which straddles Asia and Europe, hasn’t staged the Games before.

“The IOC has to be worried” by the protests, Ganis said by phone. “There’s a lot of value in Istanbul considering its geographical position on the globe but at the same time it may not be ready.”

Istanbul, which bid unsuccessfully for the 2000 to 2012 editions of the summer Olympics, is second-favorite after Tokyo with all seven bookmakers listed on oddschecker.com. Madrid is the outsider, according to the website.

Protests against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan erupted over what demonstrators say is his increasingly authoritarian conduct and attempts to impose Islamic rules. Protesters smashed and overturned police cars and municipal vehicles, scrawling graffiti on the wreckage. Their grievances included alleged brutality by security forces, curbs on alcohol sales and labor unions, urban development projects that encroach on green spaces, and a growing religious influence on education.

Protesters ‘Traitors’

Police repeatedly used tear gas and water cannons to disperse crowds, and detained hundreds. The unrest eased after June 15, when security forces drove protesters out of their camp in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, though there have been sporadic clashes since then. Demonstrators have adopted new tactics, including staging silent vigils and holding forums in downtown parks.

Turkey’s Sports Minister Suat Kilic told state-run TRT television on June 20 that the protests in Istanbul hadn’t affected its chances of hosting the games, although that may change if they continue. Kilic described protesters opposed to the Olympic bid as “traitors.”

Mahmut Kalp, a taxi driver who was among protesters in Istanbul’s Taksim Square for several days in early June, said that Erdogan’s government has modernized Turkey but “its success story in the last decade is being trashed” by the government’s crackdown on demonstrators.

‘Impossible Place’

“If this rhetoric continues, these protests will never stop and that will make Turkey an impossible place to hold” the Olympics, said Kalp, 34.

The IOC might see choosing Istanbul as a chance to act as an intermediary in order to increase its own relevance, according to Janice Forsyth, director of the International Center for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario, Canada.

“The IOC can’t make changes to a host country but they can put pressure on governments to change,” Forsyth said. “If you are hosting the Olympics, you have to open your country up to the world.”

Merve Sarigul, a 24-year-old graphic designer staging a silent protest in Taksim last month, said the protests were a “very local issue” that shouldn’t preclude Istanbul staging the games. Hosting the Olympics would help Turkey get closer to the western world, Sarigul added.

‘Hug It Closer’

“If the world wants to help Turkey to avoid riots like these they should really not isolate it,” Sarigul said. “They have to hug it closer.”

The IOC has taken risks with hosts before, picking Sochi in Russia to host the 2014 Winter Games even though it knew security would be a concern, Forsyth said. The Olympic organizers chose Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 summer games amid crime and social issues, Ganis said.

“It’s almost as if they had their fingers crossed behind their back” in choosing Rio, Ganis said.

More than a million people took to the streets in Brazil in June to call for better health and education, with some directing anger at spending on soccer’s Confederations Cup, which concluded yesterday, and the 2014 World Cup.

An IOC evaluation of Istanbul’s bid published June 25 flagged issues including the risk of traffic congestion. The report, which called security plans “adequate,” was finalized on April 19, more than a month before the rioting broke out.

‘Risky Option’

A proposal to recruit 20,000 private security staff could be a challenge, the report added.

The demonstrations are likely to influence the IOC’s voting, according to Simon Chadwick, a professor of sports business strategy at the U.K.’s Coventry University who has advised the International Tennis Federation.

“Istanbul would have been a powerful choice because it’s the nexus of Europe and Asia but now they will be thinking it’s unstable and they don’t know what’s going to happen there,” Chadwick said. “It has suddenly become the risky option.”

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