Why Istanbul lost out on the 2020 Olympics

Mahir Zeynalov

Published: Updated:

All of Turkey held its breath on Saturday night, waiting for the head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to announce Istanbul as a host city for the 2020 Olympics. But the honor went to Tokyo, for the second time.

Boasting of its unique location, a bridge between Asia and Europe, Istanbul was hoping that members of the Olympic Committee would grant the summer games to a city that is a nexus of different civilizations and cultures. Turkish bidders were promoting Turkey’s financial heartland as a “diamond in the sky” that would also contribute to peace and spread Olympic spirit to other Muslim nations in a region long plagued with conflict and bloodshed. But the Olympic Committee cast their votes for Tokyo.

Losing out

The announcement by the head of IOC that selected Tokyo as the winning city sent chills through the Turkish delegation in Buenos Aires amid cheers of Japanese bidders. The silence of the Turkish delegation, headed by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, echoed similar situation back in his homeland, with many blaming Istanbul’s ailing infrastructure while others were questioning why the IOC once again rejected a Muslim city to host the summer games.

If it won, Turkey would be the first Muslim country to host the summer Olympic games

Mahir Zeynalov

“May my wife and children forgive me, I’m addicted to Istanbul and sports as I’m bound to them,” Erdoğan told before the Olympic Committee on Saturday morning who were preparing to vote for a host city in a matter hours. The prime minister’s forceful promotion of Istanbul was evidence that he would personally work to realize pledges made by Turkish bidders to the committee. The Turkish delegation repeatedly made the point that the IOC members should vote for Istanbul in 2020, not today’s city where many residents complain of over-crowding.

This was Istanbul’s fifth failed bid and the prime minister sent little signal that Turkey will run for 2024 Olympics. Istanbul’s failure to be designated as the host city for 2020 summer games highlighted the problems Europe’s most crowded city faces. Although most of its expansion took place in the past few decades, Istanbul’s urban development is an example of “how not build a city.” With nearly half a million people entering and exiting the city daily, the rapid immigration floods the city with people desperate to find jobs and homes.

Not pretty enough

Past district municipalities of Istanbul granted plots to construction businessmen almost randomly and rampant corruption in the construction industry destroyed Istanbul’s historic silhouette over decades of rapid building. The construction of ugly buildings ate away green spaces and parks, narrowed highways and pavements. Municipalities paid little attention to the costly work of transportation, and underground metro systems were only built in the past two decades.

With a growing population, transportation remains the most significant challenge that Istanbul faces. Temporary cosmetic improvements in public transportation offer little to a city that hosts millions of unregistered residents with the total estimated to exceed 20 million. To avoid traffic and transportation chaos during the Olympics, Istanbul bidders vowed to put significant infrastructure investment into transportation and to transport athletes to stadiums in 16 minutes with a “transportation master plan.”

Dubious doping

Another factor that could play a negative role in Istanbul’s disqualification for 2020 Olympics is an unusual number of Turkish dopers among athletes. Turkish bidders, however, claimed that the spate of doping cases in Turkey should help Istanbul increase its chances because it shows that sports authorities are fighting with these cases.

Nearly 30 Turkish athletes tested positive for banned substances in this summer’s Mediterranean Games in Mersin. In addition, eight Turkish field athletes and eight Turkish weightlifters have recently tested positive. In May, 1,500m Olympic gold medalist Aslı Çakır Alptekin and two-time European 100-meter hurdles champion Nevin Yanıt tested positive; these cases illustrate the level of the problem in Turkish sports.

Regardless of Saturday’s result, Istanbul authorities should go ahead with their plan to improve the transportation infrastructure of the city in case they want to win a future Olympic bid.

Istanbul is no less deserving of the Olympics than Tokyo once it improves its sports, accommodation and transportation facilities. If it won, Turkey would be the first Muslim country to host the summer Olympic games. But, IOC members didn’t vote for a city that made promises, but for the city that went ahead and completed its transportation infrastructure.


Mahir Zeynalov is an Istanbul-based journalist with English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.