Politics & Policy

2020: Too Soon for Turkey

Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan (top right) attends an Olympic event in London, July 28, 2012.
Desire to pick a Muslim-majority host shouldn’t overrule other concerns.

On Sunday, the 2012 Summer Olympic Games came to a close. London’s spectacle was successful, even if marred at times by scandal and excessive political correctness. The end of the games may bring calm to London traffic, but the closing ceremony was simply the starting whistle for the final leg of another race: The competition to host the 2020 games.

The Olympics will travel to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Games, but the 2020 decision is looming. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) already whittled the finalists down to three, when Baku, Azerbaijan, and Doha, Qatar, failed to make the final cut. In January 2013, the remaining contenders — Madrid, Tokyo, and Istanbul — will submit bid books and, over the following several months, will welcome visiting IOC delegations. In June, the three finalists will address issues raised during the evaluation visits at IOC headquarters in Lausanne; on September 7, 2013, the IOC will formally elect the 2020 host at a meeting in Buenos Aires.

Of the three finalists’ countries, only Turkey has never before hosted the Olympic Games. Tokyo won the bid for the 1940 games, cancelled because of World War II, but hosted the event 24 years later. Barcelona brought the Olympics to Spain in 1992. Madrid has bid for the honor three times already — in 1972 it lost to Munich; it failed to make the final cut for 2012; and it lost to Rio for the 2016 games. Many Spaniards question whether they can even afford to continue their 2020 bid, and so it is likely that Madrid will become a four-time loser.

Enter Turkey. On its surface, there is much to be said for Istanbul. It is a beautiful city, and can literally claim to bridge two continents. Having failed to make the cut for five previous Olympiads, it has persistence going for it. Yet, because of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s statements in London, awarding Istanbul the games could do more to undercut the Olympic spirit than any choice since Berlin in 1936.

Speaking to reporters in London after meeting privately with IOC head Jacques Rogge, Erdogan rooted Turkey’s case to host the games in religion. “No country with a majority of Muslim population has ever hosted the Olympics,” he said, later telling Turkish television, “It is not fair.” Emphasizing the point, the Turkish Olympic Committee selected from five Istanbul 2020 logo finalists the only one that emphasized mosques and minarets. Never has a host-city logo featured such religious symbols unless one counts those incorporated into the national flag or, in the case of the 1992 winter games in Albertville, the regional flag of Savoy.  

There is nothing wrong with a majority-Muslim state hosting the Olympics. Dubai, the major commercial city in the United Arab Emirates, is bidding for the 2024 Olympics. Dubai crown prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum rooted the city’s bid in regional pride. “Hosting the Olympic Games in the Middle East would be a dream come true for the entire region,” he explained, adding that the bid would go forward if Dubai could “host the greatest sporting event in history in a way that would add value to the Olympic movement itself, as well as the youth of the Arab world.” Casablanca, Morocco, is readying a bid for either the 2024 or 2028 Olympics. Qatar and Azerbaijan have held successful major international sports competitions, and will again be Olympic contenders in the near future. While Indonesia has yet to throw its hat into any ring, the world’s largest Muslim country could be a formidable candidate.

But to assign the Olympics on the basis of religion would set a dangerous precedent. If Erdogan envisions Istanbul 2020 as the “Muslim Olympics,” does that mean he sees Madrid 2020 as the Christian ones and Tokyo 2020 as the Shinto and/or Buddhist games? He likely does. “Thank God Almighty, I am a servant of shari’a,” he told Milliyet, a major Turkish newspaper, in 1994, going on to describe himself as “the imam of Istanbul.” To affirm Erdogan’s thinking would encourage the worst instincts of the “clash of civilizations” to which the Olympic ideals stand in opposition.

Erdogan is correct that much of the world has yet to host the Olympics. Durban is a perennial favorite to host the first games on the African continent, although Nairobi is also a contender. Should India one day bring the games to the subcontinent, the choice should be seen as affirming India’s status as the world’s largest democracy rather than filling a quota to select a majority-Hindu country.

Turkey today faces myriad problems. For the Olympics to be a showcase, journalists must be allowed to ply their trade freely. Yet Turkey today ranks below Russia in press freedom and imprisons more journalists than even Communist China. Nor can Turkey’s diplomatic problems be swept under the rug. After decades of ethnic cleansing in northern Cyprus, Turkey continues to occupy northern Cyprus, alone in the world recognizing it as an independent country. Turkey is also not secure. Its Kurdish insurgency is flaring anew, with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) seizing territory in the east, kidnapping tourists in central Anatolia, and detonating bombs in western Turkey.

Religious affirmative action should not trump the safety of athletes and spectators. Turkey’s construction industry is notoriously corrupt. The Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning recently found that one-third of Turkey’s 20 million homes might need to be demolished if the state were to enforce codes. Most of the deaths in the October 2011 Van earthquake in eastern Turkey can be attributed to illegal construction. Istanbul is a beautiful city, but until Turkey reins in corruption, it is also a potential death trap.

Make no mistake: Turkey should one day host the Olympics, but it should do so on the merits of tolerance, plurality, organization, and democracy, not on the basis of grievance or religion. It should do so as a modern nation-state, not as the perpetrator of Europe’s last occupation. In the meantime, perhaps Erdogan can be first in line for Dubai 2024 tickets.

— Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.


The Latest