Istanbul 2020

Istanbul 2020's dilemma

The backers of Istanbul's 2020 Olympic bid can seek to spin this all they want. The International Olympic Committee's senior leadership can make like this is all maybe just a passing threat.

But what happened -- and is happening in Turkey -- is not normal. Protests make up the fabric of everyday democracy. But using water cannons and tear gas on thousands of your citizens, and making the front pages of newspapers all over the world -- that's not usual. And when it happens in the context of an Olympic bid, especially with just three weeks to go until you're due to tell your story to the 100 members of the IOC at an assembly in Lausanne, Switzerland, that presents an extraordinary -- if not unprecedented -- dilemma.

Time is ticking. Every day with protests in the streets in Turkey brings the Istanbul bid up against these questions:

Does the IOC want to take on this risk for seven years?

How does the team from Istanbul go now to Lausanne in a few weeks and, in good faith, convince the IOC there's little to no risk?

The unrest in Turkey comes just days after all three 2020 bids -- Istanbul, Madrid, Tokyo -- made presentations at the SportAccord convention in St. Petersburg, Russia, each claiming to be the safe choice in an uncertain world. The IOC will pick the 2020 city on Sept. 7 in a vote in an all-members assembly in Buenos Aires.

In St. Petersburg, Istanbul 2020 leader Hasan Arat reiterated one of the bid's tag lines, saying, "In the past, Turkey bid for the Games as an emerging nation. This time, Turkey is bidding as an emerged nation."

For the IOC, security is -- as the current president, Jacques Rogge, is given to say -- priority Number One. This has been the case since the 1972 Munich Games, when Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and murdered 11 Israeli athletes and coaches.

Since April's Boston Marathon bombings, security issues at high-profile sport events have taken on renewed urgency. Plans for the 2014 Sochi Games, now just months away, are being subjected to heightened scrutiny.

It's against that backdrop that the situation in Istanbul and across Turkey continues to unfold.

Monday's protests marked the fourth straight day of unrest in major Turkish cities, the situation escalating with the first reports of deaths at two demonstrations. A protestor in Ankara died after a vehicle slammed into a crowd there late Sunday, according to Associated Press, citing a medical official. And in the southern border town of Antakya, a 22-year-old man died; there were conflicting reports about the cause of his death.

Tuesday saw the IOC leadership headed for New York, and the International Forum on Sport for Peace & Development, jointly sponsored by the United Nations. In Turkey, the protests moved into Day Five; in Ankara, the capital, hundreds of riot police backed by water cannons deployed around the office of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Before leaving on an official visit Monday to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, Erdogan suggested the demonstrations were tied to "extremists" led by political opponents trying to overthrow his government.

The IOC is used to protests. The peaceful kind come up all the time in Olympic bids. But widespread confrontation with police in an Olympic context -- that hasn't been seen since the Beijing torch relays in London, Paris and San Francisco in the spring of 2008.

This is different. Beijing had won the Games seven years before. Istanbul is bidding.

It's different twice over because, fair or not, these protests are arising in a country that has a Muslim majority. Indeed, it's a primary selling point of the Istanbul bid that going to Turkey in 2020 would make for the first Games in a nation with a Muslim majority. It makes for a fascinating connotative turn of language, incidentally, that the Istanbul team quite deliberately has throughout its bid used the word "Muslim," not "Islamic."

But, of course, that is -- at their core -- what the protests in Istanbul are all about.

The violence was originally sparked by government plans to build on an Istanbul city park.

It broadened Friday into nationwide anti-government unrest that turns on deep-seated concerns that the Turkish government, led by Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), is trying to impose more-conservative Islamic values on the officially secular country.

Which in Turkey better -- or best -- reflects key values there right now?

That community activists helped clean up a central Istanbul park after protests there?

Or that the government last month tightened regulations on alcohol sales and use?

Or that Erdogan has blamed the unrest on on what he called "lies" circulating on Twitter and other social networks: "There is this curse called Twitter. It's all lies … That thing called social media is the curse of society today."

The Turkish mainstream media has provided scant coverage of the demonstrations. On Twitter, however, protestors have shared graphic evidence of wounded protestors.

Bid organizers on Sunday issued a statement that said they were "monitoring the regrettable situation" in Istanbul "very carefully" and while buoyed by the "positive community spirit in helping to clean up and repair damage," the situation remains "fluid."

The statement also says, "Despite these recent events, all sections of Turkey remain united in our dream to host our nation's first ever Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2020. The slogan for our Olympic bid is 'Bridge Together' and there is a common desire to unite in the Olympic spirit and show the world that we can work together for a better Turkey."

No matter what, the IOC evaluation commission report, due to be made public June 25, won't mention a word about the unrest. The report, a culmination of visits earlier this year to all three cities, is already in the process of being printed.

On Monday, Denis Oswald, a leading Swiss member of the IOC, speaking in a conference call at which he outlined his plans for his presidential candidacy, said of the situation in Turkey, "It's a beginning of a protest that can happen in any democratic country For the time being we'll see how it develops, how important this protest is. We have had that in many countries where we had Olympic Games.

"I don't think it would necessarily affect the candidature. We are still three months away from the decision. It will depend if this continues and develops, but for the time being I don't think it's a real threat for the candidature."

Germany's Thomas Bach, an IOC vice president and another presidential candidate, also said he didn't think the protests would be a factor in the bid race.

He told the German wire service dpa, "It's not going to have any influence on the decision of the IOC members. All of them are experienced enough to realize that you are talking about a bid for the Olympic Games in seven years."

Both Bach and Oswald are lawyers. One of the things they teach you in law school is a concept called an "excited utterance." It means an unplanned reaction to a startling event -- something that's said so spontaneously it's then considered so trustworthy to be an exception to the rule that bars hearsay from being admitted to evidence.

After police had confronted tens of thousands of people in Istanbul's Taksim Square, here was mayor Kadir Topbaş in an interview:  "As Istanbul's mayor going through such an event, the fact that the whole world watched saddens me. How will we explain it? With what claims will we host the 2020 Olympic Games?"


Fast times for Istanbul's 2020 bid

ISTANBUL -- No one ever said they weren't anything but smart and clever here. They knew coming in, because the working group report last spring from the International Olympic Committee said so, that transport issues are -- and will be -- problematic in a city growing so fast it's hard to keep up.

The rhythm of the four-day IOC evaluation commission package inevitably features afternoon site visits. On Day Two, the members checked out, among other locations, a waterfront cluster, which naturally enough includes the marina for Olympic sailing. The sun started sinking lower; time to get back. Uh-oh -- it was rush hour.

Ah, but these Turks had thought of that. Truth be told, traffic was not so bad for a Monday workday. Even so, the IOC made its way back to its hotel base not on the roads but by fast boat, the sea breeze brisk and refreshing.

Istanbul made an "excellent impression," Sir Craig Reedie, the head of the evaluation commission said at a Wednesday news conference, quickly adding that in his world "excellent impression" was "exactly the same" as "hugely impressed," the phrase he used to describe Tokyo, or "greatly impressed," what he said about Madrid.

IOC evaluation commission chief Sir Craig Reedie and IOC Games executive director Gilbert Felli at the closing news conference in Istanbul // photo courtesy Istanbul 2020

The news conference Wednesday wrapped up the evaluation commission's tour of the three 2020 cities. It saw Madrid last week. It visited Tokyo March 4-7. It will now set to work on producing a report that will be released at some point before the IOC's all-members July 3-4 session on the 2020 candidates in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The IOC will pick the 2020 winner Sept. 7 by secret ballot at a vote in Buenos Aires.

The evaluation report will by design focus on the so-called "technical" process of the campaign -- how many roads, subway lines, sports venues, hotel rooms and so on are already on the ground or would need to be built for each of the cities to get ready by 2020.

Already, however, the outlines of the three bids can be fairly characterized:

The Tokyo bid, it can be said, is spearheaded by city government. Madrid might be portrayed as a sports project. And Istanbul is for sure a national effort.

Istanbul's bid would spend $19.2 billion on infrastructure costs. That's 10 times more than Madrid, at $1.9 billion. Tokyo's capital costs come in at $4.9 billion.

This is Istanbul's fifth bid. It is Madrid's third in a row, Tokyo's second straight.

The commission will be keen to write a report that offers a clear differentiation. That way the members can be offered a distinct choice. As it turns out, this 2020 race, even if it can not be said at this preliminary stage to have a front-runner, will likely present many if not most IOC members with a threshold decision.

It's -- what to do about Istanbul?

Madrid and Tokyo absolutely have their cases to make.

Madrid, with 28 of 35 venues already on the ground, wants to re-define the idea of "legacy," to re-purpose the Olympic movement so that it becomes something well beyond just buildings and metro lines, instead a source of inspiration for "healthy living and healthy habits," as Spanish Olympic Committee and Madrid 2020 president Alejandro Blanco put it, and particularly for young people.

That $4.9 billion for Tokyo? It literally is just sitting there, banked, waiting, in today's uncertain economic climate. You want safety and security? Along with Japanese high-tech? The economic clout of the world's third-largest economy? Tokyo's amazing metro and rail system? Plus, like Madrid at night, Tokyo is -- fun.

Not to say Istanbul isn't. They even put on a fireworks show here Tuesday night for the IOC.

Here is the difference:

Istanbul fits the mold of recent IOC winners. The Turks -- again, they notice these things -- picked up on what worked, and have more or less designed their bid to fit that mold.

The issue is whether this strategy will still prevail, or whether -- and especially in light of developments in Sochi and Rio de Janeiro, sites of the 2014 Winter and 2016 Summer Games -- it has played out.

In the 1982 movie "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," a shirtless Sean Penn, playing the surfer dude Jeff Spicoli, walks into a hamburger joint with two of his buddies and says, ever-so-memorably, "Who's got the beaucoup dollars today?" Actually, Spicoli pronounces "dollars" as "dolares," so much the better.

Does the IOC want to keep spending the beaucoup dolares? Or not?

If it does, your winner Sept. 7 will be Istanbul, where $19.2 billion buys you powerful "legacy" in the form of another huge construction project on the order of Beijing 2008, London 2012, Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016 -- all, obviously, winners.

The corollary question, perhaps, is whether it also buys you headaches like in Sochi (construction costs already north of $50 billion) and Rio (significant delays evocative of Athens 2004, officials announcing Tuesday they are closing the stadium due to host track and field at the 2016 Games because of structural problems with the roof, and this at a facility built for the Pan Am Games in 2007).

Reedie -- and it should be emphasized that he was speaking generally, not referring to any bid specifically -- addressed the topic at the closing news conference last week in Madrid. He said, "The IOC are very well aware that the Games simply can not get more expensive, more expensive and more expensive."


There's no getting around the fact that traffic in Istanbul is congested. They are making a huge -- repeat, huge -- effort to do something about that, including construction of a $4.5 billion metro tunnel under the Bosphorus (that amount is included in the $19.2 billion).

Normal traffic on a rainy Wednesday in Istanbul -- going nowhere fast in one lane, the other wide open

Deep down inside the construction project that is the cross-Bosphorus metro tunnel

They might experiment with flex-time work schedules, special congestion pricing for inner-city road usage, PR campaigns for mass-transit use -- anything and everything to get people out of their cars and onto the trains, in hopes of reducing car use by 30 percent in 2020. Will it work?

They made a point of saying, repeatedly, that such projects are all part of Istanbul's master plan -- that they're going to get done whether the Olympics are coming or not. Yet they're right there in the bid book budgets. So which is it? Both?

The four-cluster venue plan in Istanbul virtually guarantees, meantime, that transport is likely to be the No. 1 technical issue in the evaluation report. Last spring's report noted travel times would be "substantial" and average estimated speeds seem "too optimistic for current traffic conditions."

Speaking of Turkish optimism, a senior transport minister, Muzaffer Hacimustafaoğlu, at a news conference Tuesday, declared that in 2020, "We will aim to make the transport experience immune from unforeseen events." Asked a few moments later to clarify, he said, "I don't think there will be any big surprises."

Meanwhile, a factor that has gotten virtually no scrutiny whatsoever -- yet -- is that the current IOC Games executive director, Gilbert Felli, will be stepping down soon. He has more than 20 years experience. If the IOC votes for Istanbul, these Games presumably would be in the hands of his successor, Christophe Dubi. On Dubi's watch, does the IOC want to take on another massive project?

These are all legitimate questions.

As are other factors, some geopolitical, that also may weigh on the vote:

-- The IOC has in recent years not just opted for big projects but gone to cities and countries keen to make plain their station in the world -- China, Russia and South Korea, in particular. Turkey would fit that pattern precisely, bid chairman Hasan Arat noting in an interview Wednesday with a small group of international journalists the impact the 1988 Seoul Games had on Korea and in turning Barcelona into a world-class destination after 1992, declaring, "It's a great opportunity."

-- Istanbul is a hot tourist destination. Feza Solaklar, the bid's head of accommodation, said Tuesday, that it is now the third-most popular destination in Europe, after London and Paris.

-- One of Istanbul's major selling points is that it would offer the IOC the chance to take the Games to a Muslim nation for the first time. In the Eurocentric IOC, how does that play -- positively, not or makes no difference?

-- Unsaid in that selling point -- but well-understood in IOC circles -- is that a vote for Istanbul would probably take Doha, the Qatari capital, out of the bid game for 20 years. There are elements within the IOC who would view that with favor and those who assuredly would not.

-- The conflict in Syria, on Turkey's eastern border -- they sought here this week to downplay that, understandably enough. How, if at all, will that conflict, figure into the vote?

In Istanbul, they know they have a real chance at 2020. Indeed, they have a confidence that borders -- already -- on something close to bravado.

The president of the country, Abdullah Gül; bid leader Arat; the sports minister, Suat Kiliç -- each of them used the word "deserve" this week. As in, Istanbul deserves the Olympics.

Asked to explain the word choice, Kiliç said at a Monday news conference, his comments translated to English, "As a Turkish delegation, we did not say anything negative. We did not make negative comments about the other candidates. Olympic ethics and morals are involved. We are competitors. That doesn't mean we should treat them bad. We don't belittle them. We don't underestimate them. We don't treat them bad. We don't make negative comments. But I am a Turk. I am minister of youth and sport.

"… I share what I believe is true regarding Istanbul. I have used the appropriate discourse for that. Istanbul is a candidate city. I have to use a discourse which fits this identity. We are also a modest city. We are open to all diversities.

"… Istanbul will show itself to you. We are trying to tell you to what extent we are ready to host the Games, to what extent we want and are willing to host the Games. The words we are using reflect our excitement [and] the commitment of the government … please look at my words from this point of view."

For a group that is indeed very smart and very clever, "deserve" -- and such a round-about way to explain it -- seems off-message, indeed. Typically, humility plays better in bidding campaigns within the International Olympic Committee.

After all, it's a long, long way until September.


Istanbul 2020's triple-play up-day

ISTANBUL -- Olympic bids are generally an exercise in crisis management. Rarely do you get a triple-play up-day like Istanbul's 2020 Summer Games campaign engineered Monday.

For starters, the International Olympic Committee's evaluation commission made public poll results that showed 83 percent of local residents support the Games, 76 percent nationwide.

The 83 percent is not only the highest of the three cities in the 2020 campaign -- Madrid and Tokyo are also in the race -- but also marks a 10 percent jump from a similar IOC poll last year.

Next: Istanbul unveiled its new bid slogan, "Bridge Together," the country's sports minister, Suat Kiliç, asserting that it highlighted the city's role as a "bridge between East and West, Europe and Asia, between civilizations, faiths and religions."

Finally: a leading Turkish businessman, Ali Koç, a board member of Turkey's Koç Holding conglomerate, said the nation's business leaders were ready to "help one of the most important projects in Turkey's history," adding that the country is "truly experiencing a "dramatic transformation."

So what is the import of all this?

Turkey's sports minister, Suat Kiliç, reveals the Istanbul 2020 bid slogan // photo courtesy Istanbul 2020

IOC evaluation commission and Istanbul 2020 officials checking out the local sports sites // photo courtesy Istanbul 2020

No one knows. This is all, if you will, positioning. If this were a U.S. presidential election, it would be primary season. The real deal is yet to come.

The IOC will select the 2020 winner Sept. 7 in balloting in Buenos Aires.

Istanbul is bidding for a fifth time, after tries for the 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 Games. This is Madrid's third straight bid, and Tokyo's second in a row.

Tokyo's poll showed 70 percent local support, up 23 points from 47 percent last year, the evaluation commission said when it was there earlier this month. Madrid got 76 percent local support in its IOC poll, a figure officials there last week said was evidence of the power of the Games to move people emotionally amid the economic hard times that have battered Spain.

Margin of error, survey methodology and other data are due to be provided when the evaluation commission report is made public in advance of the IOC's all-members meeting on the 2020 race at its Lausanne, Switzerland, base.

Also hard to know is what difference, if any, the slogans make. Tokyo's is "Discover Tomorrow." Madrid's: "Illuminate the Future."

Amid the drumbeat of public-relations good vibe for Istanbul, there was this intriguing note from Tokyo:

Carl Lewis, winner of 10 Olympic medals, nine gold, said in appearance there that he hoped Tokyo would win for 2020. Both Associated Press and Reuters deemed the story newsworthy; moreover, AP distributed a 690-word take, which in today's web-oriented environment made for a remarkably long story.

Clearly, Carl Lewis generates press. Of course, no one knows whether there's a shred of evidence that he moves votes in the IOC one way or the other.


Istanbul 2020: James Bond's new hangout


ISTANBUL -- There once was a time, and candidly it was not all that long ago, when if you said, "Turkey," referring to the country, not Thanksgiving, the reference that not infrequently came to the minds of many might well have been the Oscar-winning movie "Midnight Express," depicting American Billy Hayes' time in an infamous Turkish prison, caught trying to smuggle two kilos of hashish at the Istanbul airport. In some ways, Istanbul now is as it was when Hayes was here. As it ever may be. When the sun rises over the hills, it reveals the beauty of mosques and minarets reaching toward the sky. Several times a day, the cry to prayer still beckons the faithful.

Yet this city -- now teeming with nearly 15 million people -- is, in many ways, unrecognizable from the time Billy Hayes met his fate, moving to embrace a new era.

Skyscrapers now dot the skyline, too. Billboards are everywhere, and some of them show pretty girls in nothing but fetching green camisoles. A fancy upscale mall on one of the city's main streets features not only shops like those you could find in London but Wagamama, the noodle chain, too.

This is the message Istanbul is carrying to the International Olympic Committee as it presses its bid for the 2020 Summer Games: it, like Turkey, has arrived on the world stage, and the Games would not only cement that arrival but further propel Istanbul's development as one of the world's great centers in the 21st century.

As Turkey's president, Abdullah Gül -- who bears a resemblance to the American actor, George Clooney -- said in an interview with a small group of international journalists Sunday, the meeting taking place at a former hunting lodge about a half-hour from Istanbul's historic waterfront, "We are very ambitious in this bid."

Istanbul 2020 bid leader Hasan Arat, left, and Sir Craig Reedie, head of the IOC evaluation commission, aboard a new Istanbul metro subway car en route to the would-be Olympic Park // photo courtesy Istanbul 2020

Madrid and Tokyo are also in the 2020 race. The IOC is due to pick the winner Sept. 7 in Buenos Aires.

An IOC evaluation team on Sunday went through the first of a four-day tour of Istanbul's plan. It spent last week in Madrid. It saw Tokyo March 4-7.

Madrid and Tokyo are both well-developed world capitals. Each already has most of the infrastructure needed to stage an Olympics. Tokyo would spend $4.9 billion to ready for 2020, and has it in the bank; Madrid's infrastructure costs -- this is its third straight bid -- are estimated at $1.9 billion, which in this kind of competition is remarkably low.

For those two cities, the challenge is to present a compelling narrative about why the IOC ought to pick one or the other.

In Istanbul, it's a completely different story.

Here the sell is full of strands and would seem, at first blush, crazy easy. It's a "bridge to excellence," or whatever their new slogan is going to be -- they're going to unveil it sometime this week.

This is Istanbul's fifth bid. It tried for the 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 Games. The 2012 bid was cut before the final round; the 2008 campaign, which took place in 2001, made it to the finals but then was eliminated in the second round, with only nine votes, Beijing winning handily with 56.

"Turkey bid four times as an emerging nation. This time," bid chairman Hasan Arat said at a Sunday night news conference, "Turkey is bidding as an emerged nation."

These would be the first Games in a Muslim country.

These would be Games linking -- literally -- Europe and Asia. Imagine, Arat said, seeing rowing in Asia in the morning and golf in Europe in the afternoon.

These would be Games befitting the IOC's expansionist trend in recent elections in recognizing the strength of assertive regional and global players (see, for instance, China 2008, Russia 2014, Brazil 2016, South Korea 2018).

In Turkey, the challenge in this 2020 election is not why but how.

Because rarely in life is anything worthwhile ever crazy easy.

And for as compelling a narrative as they might be able to present in Istanbul, the issue here is also super-straightforward:

It's not just the technical piece -- meaning, can they get it done, and on time, and on budget?

It's -- in this environment, can they get roughly 55 voters in the IOC to believe all that can happen?

The Istanbul 2020 plan proposes the spending of $19.2 billion in infrastructure.

That is 10 times Madrid's figure, and that is certain to be an issue in a world in which finance makes for front-page headlines day after day.

That infrastructure is, by design, spread out. It would link four sports-related clusters.

For better or worse, the Rio 2016 plan is also a four-cluster plan. As everyone who moves in Olympic circles knows, the Rio project is dogged by delays so significant that comparisons to the Athens 2004 Games are now matter-of-fact.

Istanbul is not Rio. The comparison is hardly perfect. Nor is it, maybe, fair. But IOC elections are not fair. What matters are perceptions. And this election is going to take place in September with Rio absolutely part of the dynamic.

And Sochi 2014, too. Costs there have risen to more than $50 billion.

Getting around and between the four Istanbul clusters is going to be one of the issues sure to draw close attention in the evaluation commission report, when it is released before the IOC's all-members meeting July 3-4 in Lausanne, Switzerland, on the 2020 race.

The IOC came here knowing the traffic was a bear. Usain Bolt runs 100 meters in nine-pus seconds. Along the waterfront Saturday night, it took more than five minutes to go the same distance in a car. The locals shrugged the same way they do when they talk in Los Angeles about the 405 -- it's life.

The Istanbul team, for its part, came prepared to show the aggressive tack they're taking in building a metro system, aiming to change the way people get around town. The commission even took a ride Sunday on a brand-new line out to what is already being called Olympic Park, a development northwest of the waterfront.

By 2018, Arat said, the metro system will feature some 264 kilometers -- 164 miles -- of rail lines.

The president of Turkey, Abdullah Gül, meets the press

On the road, it took just under 45 minutes to get back from the would-be Olympic Park to the waterfront. This was on a Sunday night. It's life.

There are two schools of thought about such a drive.

One is that this is precisely why you have an event like the Olympics. It super-charges development; for public policy wonks, you get done in seven years -- because of the fixed deadline of an opening ceremony -- what might otherwise take 20 to 40.

The other school holds that this is exactly why you don't plunk an event like the Olympics in a place like Istanbul. If it already takes 45 minutes and you are about to load in thousands more people, most of whom don't speak the language and it's the middle of summer -- is that a recipe for racing in the streets?

Proponents of the second school, moreover, would point to, say, Beijing. It's four and a half years after the 2008 Games, they would note, and given all the infrastructure improvements there, would the pollution levels now in Beijing suggest that people are driving less, or more?

To say here in Istanbul, however, that they prefer the first of those arguments would be a gentle understatement. They are brimming with confidence.

It's almost as if they feel as their time has come. Indeed, Gül went so far Sunday as to list the several reasons why, in his words, "we deserve" the 2020 Games -- political stability, economic growth, meaningful physical legacy, an event that at the center of the western world that could cross cultural, religious and racial boundaries.

"Deserve" in Olympic bidding is a concept fraught with peril. Even so, in Turkey, right here, right now, they might ask -- remember James Bond? The guy from the London 2012 opening ceremony? He didn't lack for confidence. That guy filmed his last movie here, "Skyfall." And it was a blockbuster.

What else is there to say?

Arat, welcoming a handful of international reporters to town Saturday evening, said, "We believe very much in our concept and in our city. We are in it to win it."