Istanbul aims for 2020 Olympics

With the promise of modern venues and the Olympics being staged on two continents, including marathon runners crossing a bridge over the Bosporus from Asia to Europe, Turkey insists Istanbul’s 2020 bid "shines like a diamond."

But the government’s crackdown on anti-government protests in June, concerns over human rights, a slew of recent doping scandals and the country’s inability to fill seats at football’s Under-20 World Cup have taken away some of Istanbul’s luster.

Bid leaders are, however, confident that Istanbul has a good chance of hosting the games on its fifth attempt because of its unique charms.

"Istanbul is a truly magical city and I believe that it will be successful," Hasan Arat, the chairman of Istanbul’s bidding committee, told The Associated Press.

He notes that Istanbul would take the games to a new region in a city straddling both Asia and Europe and a country that is considered a bridge between cultures. Turkey would also be the first predominantly Muslim country to host the games.

"Istanbul is a city that presents a series of firsts to the world. For the first time the games would be staged in a country with such a young population, for the first time the games would be staged on two continents at the same time," he said.

Istanbul, a city of about 15 million, is competing against Madrid and Tokyo for the games. The International Olympic Committee will vote by secret ballot for the host city on Sept. 7 in Argentina, after the three cities make their final presentations on the day of the vote. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is scheduled to travel to Buenos Aires to make Istanbul’s case.

But he will be doing it just months after Istanbul burst on to the world’s consciousness with images of police using tear gas on protesters in the heart of the city.

Unrest broke out in June after police cracked down on a group of peaceful environmental protesters and it quickly spread to other cities, turning into an unprecedented mass protest against Erdogan’s government. At least five people — four protesters and a police officer — were killed in the protests and human rights groups have accused the country’s police of using excessive force.

Turkey’s minister in charge of ties with the European Union, Egemen Bagis, caused a storm earlier this month when he suggested that anti-government protesters would be to blame if Istanbul lost the bid — a charge the country’s main opposition party said was an attempt to "camouflage" any possible failure.

Turkey’s international sporting image has also been hit by a spate of doping cases in recent weeks. Earlier this month, the Turkish Athletics Federation suspended 31 track and field athletes for two years each for doping violations. Two-time European 100-meter hurdles champion Nevin Yanit has also been suspended for two years while the federation is investigating the case against Olympic 1,500-meter champion Asli Cakir Alptekin. Others recently caught doping include eight Turkish weightlifters.

Turkey puts a positive spin on the development, arguing that it is a sign that the country is serious about combatting doping.

"The fact that so many doping tests are being conducted and athletes are being exposed is having a positive impact on the Olympic world. It is a show of Turkey’s determination to stamp out doping and its determination to clean up sports," Arat said. "We are determined to go into the 2020 Games with clean athletes. This is a zero-tolerance (for doping) step and Turkey will not make any concessions on the issue."

A recent multi-city sporting event in Turkey also did not help the case for the Olympics. FIFA has criticized Turkey for the record-low attendances at the Under-20 World Cup in June and July after noting that it was an opportunity for the country to show that it could fill stadiums.

Turkey, which has previously bid for the 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympics, has been pointing at its relative economic strength and is promising to build modern venues specifically suited to meet the needs of the 2020 Games.

In June, Turkey staged the Olympic-like Mediterranean Games in the city of Mersin, building high-quality venues in a short period of time. The country stepped in to replace Greece, which bowed out of the games because of its steep economic crisis.

Arat said Turkey had made considerable progress since 1992, when it first declared its intention to host the games.

"Turkey is not the same country as in 1992. The GDP (gross domestic product) was $151 billion, now it is $789 billion. And according to OECD projections, it will be $2 trillion by 2020," he said.

In its evaluation report released in June, the IOC pointed to Istanbul’s infrastructure problems, insisting the risk of road congestion during the games "remains high." It also noted that Turkey shares a border with Syria, which is currently engaged in a civil war that is driving refugees into Turkey.

"Syria is thousands of kilometers from Istanbul and the games are seven years away," Arat said, adding that the city was constantly improving transportation in the city.

Turkey is already undertaking a series of massive projects, including the construction of a third bridge crossing the Bosporus, an underwater rail link also uniting the European and Asian sides of the city, as well as expanded metro and light rail lines. The country is also constructing a six-runway third airport for the city to be built by 2016.

"When Istanbul first bid there wasn’t even a metro in the city. Now there are new stations opening all the time," Arat said.

Istanbul has boasted an infrastructure budget for the Olympics is $19.2 billion — 10 times that of Madrid ($1.9 billion) and much higher than Tokyo ($4.9 billion). But officials concede that the figure seems large because $16.5 billion of the money is already being invested in city projects that will go ahead whether or not the city gets games, leaving only $2.9 billion for specific Olympic needs.

The Istanbul bid does seem to have strong popular backing at home with 83 percent support among the people of Istanbul, according to a poll conducted by the IOC earlier this year, compared to 76 percent for Madrid and 70 percent for Tokyo.

"We have to see how the Olympics changes countries. Great Britain won a few medals in Atlanta (in 1996). But it won a record number of medals at London 2012," Arat said. "The timing is just perfect for Istanbul. We have a very young population and it is the right time for them to be channeled toward sports."

Arat said plans for the games include an opening ceremony in a 70,000-capacity stadium with seating for 10,000 athletes. Half a million more people would be able to view it from areas along the Bosporus Strait.