Istanbul can win Olympic bid thanks to Gezi Park protests

Istanbul can win Olympic bid thanks to Gezi Park protests

In less than a month we will know whether Istanbul will host the 2020 Olympic Games.

Some Turkish officials, including Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbaş and Youth and Sports Minister Suat Kılıç have warned about what they see as the negative effect of the mass protests that took place last month in Istanbul on the city’s Olympic bid.

This is another piece of proof that Turkish officials understand neither the spirit of “Gezi” nor the spirit of the Olympics. They are actually the same thing.

Mass demonstrations that have spilled over into Turkey were initially sparked by a group of environmentalists who objected to the demolition of Gezi Park, in the framework of plans to redesign Istanbul’s iconic Taksim Square. The handful of activists had chosen to “occupy” Gezi Park because the government did not permit them any other means. Previous attempts, which also included legal processes to stop such projects, have all failed. Look at the Sulukule neighborhood, where Roma people used to live, the Tarlabaşı neighborhood near Taksim, the historical Emek Theater, Haydarpaşa train station, Galataport, the new bridge over the Golden Horn; the list can go on and on.

It is ironic that while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insists on constructing a replica of Ottoman artillery barracks in Gezi Park and thereby tries to show his loyalty to Turkey’s Ottoman past, the biggest betrayal to the Ottoman legacy came during his governance. Istanbul’s classical silhouette made up of minarets (which is supposedly sacred for Erdoğan’s pious constituency) has been tarnished by the construction of the new bridge (whose architect is Istanbul Mayor Topbaş) as well as the construction of skyscrapers that now make their appearance between the minarets.

No one is against development and restoration. But what the government understands by renovation and restoration is to demolish the old and construct something brand new. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s dream is not to make Istanbul like Paris, London or Rome but to make it look like New York or Shanghai.

The analogy between the Gezi Park protests and the Olympic Games lies in the government’s lust to make Istanbul a construction site to keep the economy running as well as to satisfy the appetite of its supporters from the business world.

But the Olympic Games are not about constructing sports facilities; as far as the city is concerned it is to transform it into a sport-friendly city. That does not mean constructing a facility that will remain idle after the Olympic Games, but to have bicycle lanes along the streets, for instance.

While the support for Istanbul’s bid among locals is more than 80 percent, according to the International Olympic Committee (which is basing this number on polls that were done prior to the Gezi protests), it is certain that Istanbul’s locals (at least 50 percent of them) will scrutinize much more the projects that will be undertaken to prepare the city for the games. That certainly is not going to please the government. But it is a great irony that actually what Erdoğan has called çapulcu (marauders) are of a generation of his own making.

This is a generation that has grown up in a freer environment, without the paranoia that Kurds will disintegrate Turkey, that Islamists and headscarf-wearing women will bring shariah law and that non-Muslim minorities are the fifth arm of some countries. They were raised hearing EU reforms, democratic opening, Alevi opening, Kurdish opening. Myths about the Turkish Army as the savior of the country, or about official Turkish history, were deconstructed while they were growing up. The prime minister gave them an extra-large jacket, and now he wants to take it back and give an extra-small jacket instead. It is too late; the genie is out of the bottle.
Istanbul can win the bid precisely because it has people who are very conscientious about everything surrounding them, whose common ideology is fundamental freedoms, which is in conformity with the Olympic spirit.