Why Istanbul lost the Olympics

Why Istanbul lost the Olympics

First, let me remind you about a rule about Turkey: In this country, every single issue has the potential to become an icon, and a battle cry, for the culture war. We Turks, in other words, fiercely fight on matters that can easily be solved with a little bit of reason, reasonableness, dialogue and mutual concession – none of which are abundant in any of the bitterly opposed social camps.

The domestic controversy over the 2020 Olympic Games, which Istanbul lost to Tokyo last Saturday, is a case in point. Despite discussing what the Olympics would bring to Istanbul in terms of the economy or infrastructure, most opinion leaders rather focused on what the Games would mean for the political scene. Those who supported Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government hoped that Istanbul would win the games, thinking that it would add to the success story of “the New Turkey.” Many others who disliked Erdoğan, however, hoped that Istanbul would lose, because they simply did not want the premier to come back home happily with new projects of construction. “Tokyo won, Tayyip lost,” wrote Mine Kırıkkanat, a fiercely secular pundit, happily on Twitter. “Nothing can stop this decline!”

Of course, some commentators had rational objections to bringing Olympics to Istanbul: It would make life even more unbearable in this already-crowded, congested and badly organized city. Or the billions of dollars we would spend in the next seven years would not be compensated enough. But the more dominant reason for the unwillingness to host the Olympics was the distaste with the prime minister who went all the way to Buenos Aires to get it.

Moreover, the very loss of the Olympics also became a reason for tension. The government and its supporters have put the blame on the Gezi Park protestors, who, by “destabilizing” Turkey, had betrayed the nation. Those who supported the Gezi Park protests, in return, put the blame on the government for causing these protests in the first place, by not allowing the initially peaceful and limited demonstrations.

Few pointed to the fact Tokyo had very non-political reasons to beat Istanbul as well. The stadium plans designed by the world-renowned architect Zaha Hadid were breathtaking, and few people in the world had any doubt that the Japanese were superb at organizing complicated things. (Turkey certainly improved its brand value in the past decade, but if you wanted to buy a car or TV, wouldn’t you still go for “made in Japan” ones?) 

The unpleasant fact is that we Turks have become so bitterly divided and so dogmatically polarized that we have lost the sense of “common happiness and common concerns,” as we have been taught in schools as the definition of being a nation. We in fact look less like a nation, but more like an arena of tribes that deeply suspect and despise each other. Thank God, we are still a heaven on earth compared to other some divided countries around us, such as Syria, Iraq or even Egypt. Yet we are still far away from being an open society, which enjoys liberal democracy and tries to solve its problems with reasoned dialogue.

If there is a political reason that made us lose the bid for Olympics, besides Japan’s obvious technical advantages, it is this passion to fight each other. And the blame lies not only with the government and its opponents, but with all of us. None of us are innocent, and we will not start to move forward unless we look in the mirror honestly to see that unpleasant fact.