Istanbul 2020 – Game Over?

Istanbul 2020 – Game Over?

What hope now for Istanbul’s 2020 Olympic bid, following the recent and prolonged violent clashes between the police and demonstrators in Taksim Square and elsewhere across Turkey? Contrary to some speculation, the city still has its best ever chance of winning the right to organize the world’s greatest sporting event. Everything will continue to rest on the preferences of the individual members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) when they vote to elect the next Host City.

This is not to say that recent events have made it any easier for Istanbul to be awarded the 2020 Games – far from it, in fact. The competition (Madrid and Tokyo) have always been very strong candidates and a question mark has now been raised about the Turkish authorities’ ability to facilitate legitimate protest in a proportionate way. This is important because protest movements have historically often sought to associate themselves with high profile international events like the Olympics. As a result, the organizations that “own” events like this, such as the IOC, are always going to pay close attention to how any prospective host would be likely to handle such issues.

The impact of the demonstrations on the prospects for Istanbul’s bid should not be overstated for two reasons. Firstly, on 25 June, weeks after the Gezi protests had materialized, the IOC released an “Evaluation Commission Report” which stated that it considers Turkey’s proposed security plans for the Games to be adequate and that the country’s police and other security agencies are “professionally competent.” Secondly, protest – especially anti-government protest – has become a fact of life not just in Istanbul but in many of the world’s major global cities. Like the riots which took place in London during the summer of 2011, the recent demonstrations in Brazil illustrate how even in the face of major disruption a country can continue to prepare to host major international events.

But faced with such strong competition as Madrid and Tokyo, and in any event, the Turkish Government could do more to reassure the members of the international community in general, and the IOC in particular, that lessons have been learnt from Gezi and that it can be trusted to safely police protests around any future major event taking place in its territory. Shortly after the violence erupted in Istanbul, the Prime Minister and other senior political figures seemed to accept that the initial police response was too heavy-handed. It was also suggested that an investigation would be conducted into any disproportionate incidences of police violence. For the sake of Istanbul’s 2020 Olympic bid, and more generally, it would be beneficial for the outcome of any such inquiry to be promoted as soon as possible – and certainly before the IOC’s 2020 Host City election on 7 September.

Istanbul, Madrid and Tokyo will each have one last major opportunity to present their candidatures to the members of the IOC in Buenos Aires before the vote takes place. If the former is to be successful, it will be important that nothing overshadows its final “pitch.” The focus needs to remain on sport and the country’s compelling vision for the Games – not the recent violence.

This is not to recommend that the causes or impact of the recent protests should be “hidden under the carpet.” It is likely and absolutely right that these will be very hotly debated for many years to come. Meanwhile, in the short term, the authorities have work to do to persuade the world that whilst the police made errors over Gezi they will be able to handle legitimate protest in the future. A serious commitment to improving the way that police officers are trained is likely to be part of the solution. Game Over? Not necessarily.