Senkaku dispute opens door wider for Istanbul 2020 bid

by Jack Gallagher and Ed Odeven

Staff Writers

A prominent Turkish journalist believes that the ongoing dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands could affect the outcome of the voting for the 2020 Olympics, thereby making Istanbul’s path to victory easier.

Sports editor Cetin Cem Yilmaz, of the English-language Hurriyet Daily News, told The Japan Times in an exclusive interview that the ongoing conflict has been mentioned as a “possible advantage” for the Turkish bid.

The dispute between Japan and China has sparked protests, vandalism, economic boycotts and complicated already tense diplomatic relations between the nations. Some see the very real possibility of China using its economic might to persuade nations that benefit from its relationship with China to vote against Tokyo for the 2020 bid.

“China, a main factor with its power, may swing votes with its stance, and a political conflict can be hurting Tokyo’s chances. (But) I am sure that the lobbyists will use the counter-argument of the China-Japan conflict whenever they are told about the conflict in Syria and would claim no country is immune to that kind of problem,” he said.

The general public’s unbridled enthusiasm to host the 2020 Summer Olympics could also give Istanbul the boost it needs to win the vote over Tokyo and Madrid, and Yilmaz believes that is the driving force behind the Turkish Olympic Committee’s bid.

“Actually, that looks as the most important factor in Istanbul’s Olympic aspirations,” he wrote in an email, providing an important perspective just 11 months before International Olympic Committee members will convene in Buenos Aires, officially on Sept. 7, 2013, to vote for the 2020 host city.

“The local officials, the government and the public are firmly standing behind Istanbul’s bid. A well-known survey stated that 87 percent of the public want Istanbul to host the Olympic Games, which is a remarkably higher number than other candidate cities.”

Before the 2012 London Games, Shintaro Ishihara, the controversial, ultranationalist Tokyo governor, criticized the general public for its apathy and underwhelming support for the 2020 bid.

Why have Turks expressed far greater support for the 2020 bid than Japanese and Spaniards?

“The biggest factor in the support is the belief that this Games would showcase Turkey’s rising to the global stage,” Yilmaz said. “For many people, hosting the Olympic Games would symbolize Turkey’s power that it can be up there with other major countries: USA, China, the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany or France who have hosted previous events. On the other hand, people know that Istanbul can benefit greatly for the Games for infrastructure, city planning, etc.”

Interestingly enough, a number of Turks are more outspoken about the nation’s pursuit of the 2020 European Soccer Championship, though the energy and time being spent bidding for both could prove to be mistake in the end.

“I think the Euro 2020 bid has been a severe distraction,” he commented, “and with football clearly being the most-followed sport in the country. But given the Olympics’ legacy undoubtedly exceeds the importance of the European Football Championships, I should say that the average citizen is not yet informed about how important it could be to have the games in Istanbul.”

Japan’s financial muscle, stable economy, experience hosting past Olympics and 2002 World Cup matches, as well as Tokyo’s reputation as a clean, safe city with a quality mass transit system are all factors that can be pointed out time and again.

For Turkey, its unique status as “bridge between different cultures,” Yilmaz pointed out, “is a key selling point of the bid. Indeed, Istanbul is a city that connects Europe and Asia in a modern, secular, Muslim nation in a region surrounded by nations with governments fueled by Islamic ideology.

“National Olympic Committee leader Ugur Erdener has told the Hurriyet Daily News that Turkey’s economic and political consistency is a key factor, as well as the country having a charismatic leader in (Prime Minister) Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” he said.

He added: “I believe that bringing the Olympic Games to a new destination after Beijing (in 2008) and Rio (the 2016 Summer Games host city) will boost Turkey’s chances, given that Istanbul is one of the biggest cities in the world that has never hosted the Olympics.”

Turkey has become a major player for global sporting spectacles in recent years, with the nation hosting the UEFA Champions League final (2005), the Euroleague Final Four, the 2010 FIBA World Basketball Championship, the World Indoor Athletic Championships and the WTA Championships.

That’s a good sign. Plus, the sports editor said, “Turkey is getting more and more used to hosting big events. The crowds are coming in big numbers and that might be somewhat strange to say that, but the finals held in Istanbul have been quite magical as well, thinking about the 2005 Champions League final between Liverpool and Milan, or at last summer’s Olympiacos’ basketball fairy tale in the Euroleague final.

“Of course, the Olympics are a completely different experience, but the last decade of hosting sports events do look quite good on Turkey’s resume.”

IOC voters can give Istanbul the opportunity to stage the most prestigious sporting extravaganza in the world. And if that happens, “it will be the first time that this part of Europe and Asia will be the Games’ host. This might bring a freshness and a new dimension to the Games and that, I think, is a bigger contribution than, say, the fancy two continents’ part,” Yilmaz said.

There may be sentiment among some voters that by awarding the 2020 Games to Japan it could help the nation’s recovery after the 3/11 disaster. On the other hand, Turkey can benefit from support throughout the region in its attempt to become the first predominantly Muslim nation to host the Olympics. Prime Minister Erdogan has urged IOC voters to give Turkey that chance.

“I have no doubt that Turkish bidders will ask the support of Muslim countries and actually a few of them, including Iran, have already made it clear that they would support the Istanbul bid,” Yilmaz said.

Of course, the financial opportunities that would spring forth if Istanbul wins the bid are reason enough for neighboring countries to pledge support for Turkey in a region where sectarian conflicts have been major problems. In other words, money talks.

“They will be aware that huge amounts of money will be at stake if Istanbul wins,” Yilmaz said. “That would leave the religious and political differences aside.”

The Syrian civil war remains a constant reminder of the instability in the region and the rapid changes taking place that began with the Arab Spring. As the death toll rises in Syria, some IOC voters may feel Turkey is an unsafe choice to host the Olympics, pundits have warned.

“Yes, that might be a big factor,” said Yilmaz, echoing that view. He elaborated by saying, “That may be the biggest problem on the Turkish bidding team and I am sure they will need the government’s guarantee that problems in the region will not affect Istanbul’s bid.”

Previously, Turkey has made four failed bids for the Olympics — 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012. It went out on the first ballot for the 2000 Games that went to Sydney, and the second ballot for the 2008 Games that went to Beijing.

The fifth bid, if it is successful, could be a boost for the government, which has fervently backed it.

Sympathy could be a factor in the final vote — the feeling that Istanbul has made a concerted effort four previous times to win the right to host the games and therefore deserves the nod this time around.

However, in the past the IOC members have proven that they are not always the most empathetic folks. Take the case of Detroit, which bid five consecutive times (1956, 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972) for the Summer Games and was rejected in each instance. The closest the Motor City came was in 1964, when it finished second to Tokyo.

“The feeling that this is Istanbul’s turn prevails,” noted Yilmaz. “Istanbul is emerging as a powerhouse in art, culture, sports, business and many other aspects, and most Turks believe that after four failed attempts the city deserves its chance.”

In the final analysis, Yilmaz believes Turkish citizens are “cautiously optimistic” about the bid, saying the odds of winning are “50-50″ for Tokyo and Istanbul.

Japan has had its chances with the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, the 1972 Sapporo Winter Games and the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. Barcelona hosted the 1992 Summer Games, but Madrid has never done so.

Having the 2020 Olympic experience in Istanbul, a gateway between the East and West, may be an irresistible idea to IOC voters, similar to the first-time opportunity given to South America, to host the 2016 Games in Brazil.