Why the AKP failed in its Olympics gambit

Why the AKP failed in its Olympics gambit

I agree that it would have been good not just for Turkey but for the whole region if the Olympics had gone to Istanbul. Clearly, however, it was not to be. This outcome is frustrating for Turks since it is the fifth time Turkey has vied unsuccessfully to host the games. It was, of course, the first time Turkey was shortlisted to become one of three, and then one of two contenders. But this is not enough in a race where only the winner counts. 

In the end, 60 out of 96 members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted for Tokyo. This can hardly be considered a close race. Obviously, there were factors that weighed against Turkey and made the overwhelming majority opt for Tokyo. Inevitably there is a lot of recrimination and conspiracy theorizing in Turkey now. 

These include allegations of bribery through sponsorship deals, as well as claims about wily calculations by Western members of the IOC who did not want the Olympics to go to an Islamic country. Those who argue this, however, do not appear interested in questioning why Istanbul was shortlisted in the first place, and then beat Madrid to be shortlisted with non-Christian Japan. 

Once again playing for victimhood appears more attractive for many Turks. It is easier to find external reasons for a failure, than look in the mirror to come up with objective answers. This is not unique to Turks of course. 

Judging by press reports, the Spanish media is also rife with unsubstantiated claims of political vote fixing by the IOC. More sober minds in that country are, however, pointing to the economic crisis that has hit Spain, and will clearly take time to overcome, leaving few resources for hosting the Olympics.

Turkey is in a better situation in this respect. The Olympics are a burden on any economy, but the cost benefit-analysis in this case showed Turkey could reap all sort of tangential advantages from this very expensive investment. What Turkey does not have at the moment, however, is stability. 

The violent manner in which the Gezi Park protests were crushed by the government clearly created a negative impression within the IOC. Tellingly, there was more police brutality in Ankara, at the Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ), against demonstrating students just as the IOC was meeting.

The highly charged political atmosphere in Turkey is also exemplified by the fact that many people, including some prominent names, made it clear they did not want Istanbul to win, and are happy that it lost. In their minds, awarding the Olympics to Istanbul would have merely added to the arrogance of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

This does not point to a politically stable environment, indicating instead that Turkey’s postmodern civil war still has some time to run its course. It is not just this though. There is also the fact that as the IOC was meeting, Turkish authorities were taking precautions against chemical attacks from Syria or terrorism related to the Syrian crisis. 

The 2020 Olympics may still be seven years down the road, but it looks like it could take more than that to stabilize the Middle East, and the tense situation on Turkey’s eastern and southern borders. 

Had Ankara maintained a clinical distance from regional disputes, as it did for decades in the past, then the situation might have been different. But Ankara has taken sides and gotten embroiled in these disputes now, a fact that is drawing Turkey in dangerous directions. 

Some may accuse the IOC of “wily calculations” in voting down Madrid and Istanbul in favor of Tokyo. Logic, however, tells us that the image Turkey is projecting to the world at the moment probably had something to do with the disappointing outcome in Buenos Aires late on Saturday night. It seems the AKP wants to have its cake and eat it too, but that is not how the world works.