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Sunday, September 08, 2013

The Bid to Be Better

I remember in 2005 how ecstatic I was when I heard that London was to host the 2012 Summer Olympics. London could more than stand up to the task, logistically, financially and - especially in terms of the Paralympics - had the requisite wherewithal to lay the necessary foundations for such a large organisation. Indeed, when London hosted the Paralympic Games the mayor and the British government say more disabled people travelled to more events at more locations than at any previous games.

I went to a lot of those games, and the united spirit in the country really helped foster a "feel-good" factor as a nation. It had a transformative effect on the city and the country.

Now, with the news that Tokyo has been chosen to host the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games ahead of Istanbul, if I am to be honest, I am relieved - and not much surprised.

Financial concerns have become the background to this race, especially with worries over the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and next year's winter Games in Sochi being the most expensive ever, and I hear over here that Japan pledged to spend a fraction of the cost of the London 2012 Games, which tipped the vote.

Tokyo deserves the boost the Olympics can give it after suffering a massive Tsunami in 2011, even though fears still remain over leaks at the damaged nuclear reactor play Fukushima. It was absolutely the right choice. Madrid would have been fine, too, but had Istanbul been chosen, to me it would have felt like the Turkish government was being "rewarded" for the brutal way it handled the Gezi Park protests.

The protests left too many dead, thousands were injured, followed by the jailing of (yet more) political opponents and journalists. You can't get away from the fact that Turkey has more journalists jailed than murderers.

Although Gezi Park was "saved", when the Turkish government decided to start a smear campaign and blacken the peaceful protesters to alienate the majority from the protest's original cause, I remembered something my father told me. When someone points the finger, always look at who's doing the pointing, too, and see what they're trying to shift the focus away from.

My disappointment when the peaceful protests turned to violence was measurable, but that it turned into violent anti-government protests was more to do with the Turkish government's reaction in defence of police brutality, than anything else.

It came off as though the government were calling people's right to protest thuggery, not the violent actions of a fringe group. By pointing the finger at the whole protest, to trash it as the intervention of some foreign power just made them sound paranoid - and when they blamed Israel with no evidence - positively anti-Semitic. Feeding into their paranoia and blaming the protesters (or anyone they felt like to win support of their Islamic hardcore base) seemed easier, I suppose, then actually trying to listen to what people were trying to say.

A riot is the language of the unheard, so said Martin Luther King Jr., and rather than point fingers, trash people and spin madcap conspiracy theories, it may have been wiser to listen to what they were saying, and re-think their own views. If we're so sensitive to criticism, it usually means it's because we secretly think its true.

Meanwhile, the Istanbul authorities continue to close Gezi Park as and when they see fit. It has been closed for two days now because of university protests in Ankara - where protesters are being pepper-sprayed by the police. The park was closed on 1 September, too, which is World Peace Day in Turkey. In the spirit of the day, people had taken to the streets to protest military action in Syria.

More practically, with all the doping and match-rigging scandals that have rocked Turkish sport and its football leagues recently, you can see they have a lot more work to do.

Obviously it's not as if Turkish sport is the only one suffering with match-ringing or from dope claims. Police oppression isn't unique to Istanbul. Nor is the Turkish government the only one currently pursuing aggressive policies in and outside of its borders, but when did the wrongs of others make ours right? There is too much wrong with the picture in Turkey to play the Islamophobia red card at losing the bid.

Moreover, the fact it has no long-standing framework for people with special needs to travel around the city as of yet, is also a real issue. My mother is wheelchair bound, and she has no trouble at all travelling in London, but when she has gone to Istanbul there have been times she has felt almost institutionalised in her hotel room. It's not people like my mother who are disabled, but we as a society are disabled when we are unable to accommodate them. Things are getting better for people with special needs in the city, but there is still a long way to go.

Rather than go through the troubles Athens suffered due to its run-up in 2004, I, for one, think Istanbul is not ready for such an organisation, and it's a good wake-up call for the Turkish government. Even if they don't hear alarm bells ringing - at the very least they cannot use a "win" as a PR stunt for their continuing aggressive form of politics - which has seen them stand so readily behind America to war with a neighbour on its own doorstep. It could have done much to mediate in the past, and try and avoid America from being forced into a position where it feels morally obliged to police the world one again.

On this point, the West continues to be a "good" role model for Turkey, with its anti-Turkish bias fuelling the Turkish government's aggressive stance, and then its willingness to use that aggressiveness when it is politically expedient to do so to make war with its neighbours. It makes Turkey (look) a tool. The lack of understanding of how democracy should work, in the West and elsewhere in the world, does nothing to help, either.

Had the circumstances been different, I would have been over the moon for Istanbul - a place where east meets west - to be the first city where the Games where held in a predominantly Muslim country. It had the chance to be an arena of peace for the great sporting spectacle - but set in a country with an aggressive government willing to alienate its minority groups, and so quick to isolate itself from its neighbours, would have cheapened the sincerity of any such message.

Istanbul may have "lost" its bid, but in the long-run I see it as a win, if only because the disappointment will push people to strive to be better. If the Turkish government has learnt lessons from Gezi Park, it won't spin the loss to cause further alienation and look for blame elsewhere.

When Istanbul finally does win the bid, it will be on its real merits; this will benefit everyone, because winning the bid is only half the battle. The real task comes in holding the Olympics and Paralympics Games. Even the best cities can struggle, as Athens showed, (their overspending might have even helped cause their subsequent financial problems), but they ultimately did themselves proud.

Istanbul will too, when the time is right.

Read more: The Gezi Park protests | What I have to say >>

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