September 11, 2013, 11:47
By ANDREW FINKEL ISTANBUL — If he knew me, Suat Kilic, Turkey’s sports minister, would probably say that I decorate my backside with henna — Turkish vernacular for a naysayer who gloats over the misfortunes of others.
I did feel a twinge of regret late Saturday night when the news tickers flashed word that Tokyo, rather than my home city of Istanbul, would host the 2020 Summer Olympics. It would have been fun, and good for business, for the greatest sporting show on earth to come to town. But after a pause, I breathed a very deep sigh of relief.
I believe that hosting the Games would have given the Turkish authorities license to impose their pharaonic vision of Istanbul. The Olympic bid was already being cited as justification for building a third airport. This government revels in huge, environmentally reckless projects. It has madcap plans to build not just another bridge across the Bosphorus, but another Bosphorus altogether: a new canal to link the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara.
Pro-government media are blaming Istanbul’s failure to win the games on us tree-huggers, especially the Gezi Park protesters. “The Hooligans are Happy” was the headline in the daily Aksam on Sunday. Kilic tweeted “They must have exhausted their supply of henna.”
The newspaper Yeni Safak has pointed a finger at Reuters — for daring to show that demonstrations in Istanbul were starting afresh by posting a photo of a restaurant full of tear gas on the day the International Olympic Committee made its selection. The police were trying to disperse a recent Gezi-style protest against plans to build a highway through a forest on a university campus on the outskirts of Ankara.
But the reason Istanbul didn’t win the Olympic bid had less to do with Gezi Park than doping scandals and game fixing in Turkish sports and the rumblings of war next door in Syria. The strength of its application was the city’s symbolism — great commercial center, past capital of an Islamic empire, link between Europe and Asia — but that symbolism wasn’t strong enough.
If anything, Istanbul is now in danger of becoming the symbol of a city divided, not just between Europe and Asia but by irreconcilable internal differences. The promotional video the Turkish government showed the I.O.C. depicted cappuccino-drinking young executives, out jogging, flirting and having fun. Yet these were henna-bottomed Turks: They are the ones who rallied to save Gezi Park and were pleased to see Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Olympics pitch turned down.
The government seems unable to deal with dissent from this freer-thinking urban professional class other than with police batons. And yet in its bid to host the Games — and to develop the city in just the ways these people contest — it touted their image as its own. I don’t know whether that’s the ultimate sign of disconnect or cynicism.
Andrew Finkel has been a foreign correspondent in Istanbul for over 20 years, as well as a columnist for Turkish-language newspapers. He is the author of the book “Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know.”