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  • OpEd: Istanbul Rises to the Challenge


    Ed Hula at the Bosphorus (Around the Rings)
    (ATR) Istanbul is the city that answers an important question in the race for the 2020 Olympics.

    After visits to Tokyo and Madrid, Istanbul seems to be the city that answers that nagging question facing all bids: Why bid for the Olympic Games?

    This crossroads of the ancient and modern world displayed its charm and allure during this week’s inspection of the IOC Evaluation Commission for the 2020 Olympics.

    From the moment the IOC Commission arrived at an airport studded with branding for the bid, to the extraordinary view from their hotel on the historic Bosporus, members would find it difficult to overlook Istanbul’s atmosphere.

    At the same time, leaders of the bid and the government were consistent in delivering a message that the youthful population of Turkey would welcome the inspiration of the Olympics. Beyond Turkey an Olympics in Istanbul would mean inspiration to this region as the first Muslim society to host the Games.

    “Bridge Together” is the new slogan for Istanbul 2020 that expresses the view of bid leaders that the Games would succeed as a unifying force, neatly coupling the imagery of geography that spans Europe and Asia.

    But as much as Istanbul takes command of the “why” of the bid, explaining how it will stage the Games is more of the challenge facing five-time bidder Istanbul.

    With Madrid and Tokyo serving up bids that offer compact venue plans that are well-served by an existing transport system, Istanbul is at a disadvantage. Seven clusters of venues, some 30+ km from the Olympic Village, will require robust and efficient transport for athletes, officials, media and spectators. Do not be surprised if the IOC report on the 2020 bids flags transport needs as one of the must-haves for Istanbul over comments it will make on the same issue regarding Madrid and Tokyo. Still, the IOC commission appeared to have little trouble moving about during this week's visit.
    The Bosphorus leads to the Marmara Sea in the west (Around the Rings)

    On the other hand, the Olympic City cluster of venues means travel times of 10 minutes or less from the Olympic Village for aquatics, athletics, gymnastics, hockey and tennis. Media also would be working nearby in the Main Press Center/ International Broadcast Center. Media housing is also in the vicinity. The Olympic Stadium is already in place, to be expanded if Istanbul wins the Games.

    The convenience comes at some sacrifice; this cluster is located in the sparsely settled western suburbs of Istanbul, far from the icons and atmosphere that make the city special. There is no stunning view of the Bosporus from this side of Istanbul.

    That said, the bid proposes venues along the Bosporus for archery, rowing, sailing, beach volleyball and the marathon. Ceremonies will take place in a new stadium in a refurbished port district on the Asian side. The settings will be magnificent as ever possible for and Olympic Games. Whether Istanbul gets the athletes to the venues could be the question.

    As an occasional visitor to Istanbul since the 1990s for the city’s first bids for the Games, I can see the changes that have taken place since then. Venues such as the Olympic Stadium have been built, transport improvements have lowered travel times and more work is ahead of 2020. This not to say traffic jams are now rare in this city of 15 million; they are part of daily life.

    Istanbul has been singled out for the $19 billion planned to be spent on the Games, but officials say more than 25 percent of that figure has already been spent on the new Olympic Stadium, the new Bosporus rail tunnel due to open this year as well as other improvements. The rest of the billions for Olympic preps are also part of a master plan to make the city shine for the 2023 centennial of the Turkish Republic.

    More than physical changes to the city and nation may be the degree of confidence one feels from bid leaders and
    Turkish flags outside the Four Seasons (Around the Rings)
    the heads of government that they can deliver the Games. Political stability, a bustling economy and business support all tell a different story about Turkey and Istanbul from the one laced with doubt that came with previous bids.

    After an extended visit with a group of international reporters this week, Turkish President Abdullah Gul came across as a convincing exponent for the Istanbul bid. He personifies the new generation of Turkish politicians determined to make the nation one of the most important in the world.

    Just as the influence of Turkey grows, so does its exposure to the consequences that can come from such a high profile. The past week brought positive steps that could mean a truce with Kurdish separatists and restoration of diplomatic ties with Israel. But the situation on the long southern border with troubled Syria is still of concern. Refugee camps in Turkey are growing in size as the turmoil in Syria lingers, a potential flash point in months to come.

    Keeping foreign policy issues at bay is just one factor that could weigh on the Istanbul bid. Delivering the Istanbul message to the IOC may be more critical. As with Tokyo, Istanbul has only one IOC member to campaign for the bid as opposed to Madrid, which has three from Spain. A male-dominated bid team could also use the presence of women or two in the campaign – as well as representatives of the youth of the country for whom the Olympics are to have meaning.

    Our meeting with the president of Turkey brought the admission that Istanbul wasn’t ready for the Olympics when it bid before. Now he says it is. I would agree with him. Istanbul is a clear contender that cannot be dismissed any longer as an Olympics wannabe.

    Written by Ed Hula.

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