The bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics has been whittled down to three cities – Tokyo, Madrid, and Istanbul – and Turkey has been lobbying particularly hard to be named as the host country. Writing in the National Review, Michael Rubin argues that Istanbul should not be selected to host the Olympics, punctuating his point with the remarkable statement that “awarding Istanbul the games could do more to undercut the Olympic spirit than any choice since Berlin in 1936.” The reason that Rubin thinks that holding the Olympics in Istanbul would be such an affront to the Olympic spirit is because he believes Turkey’s bid is contingent upon its status as a Muslim majority country and is hence an appeal to religious parochialism. Rubin contends that Prime Minister Erdoğan views the potential Istanbul games as the “Muslim Olympics” and states that what he terms “religious affirmative action” should not trump other problems with the Istanbul bid such as Turkey’s lack of press freedom, its occupation of Cyprus, and security problems due to the PKK.
Rubin is a serious scholar, but this is a laughable argument built upon a host of misleading and shoddy evidence. Rubin’s central claim is that Turkey views hosting the Olympics as a religious statement, and his evidence for this is a remark Erdoğan made while in London for the recent summer games complaining that no Muslim majority country has ever hosted the Olympics and that the Istanbul 2020 logo features religious symbols by incorporating mosques and minarets. These two facts lead Rubin to conclude that awarding the Olympics to Istanbul would be to “assign the Olympics on the basis of religion.” Looking at Erdoğan’s remarks, however, and inferring that he is making a religious argument, rather than pointing out the possibility of bias, is a stretch. The full quote from Erdoğan, which Rubin truncates, is, “No country with a majority of Muslim population has ever hosted the Olympics. People will ask ‘Why? What is missing?’” He also said during the same interview, “This is the third time for London, Madrid was the host twice. Tokyo has hosted three games. Istanbul has bid to host the Olympics five times but has never been handed the rights. This is not a fair approach, and I shared this situation with Rogge.” People can infer whatever they like from this, but it seems pretty clear to me that Erdoğan is not rooting Turkey’s bid in religion, but rather bringing up issues of unfairness in past bid decisions, one of which is the fact that Muslim countries have always been passed over. Rubin also dredges up an 18 year old quote from Erdoğan about his being a “servant of shari’a” which I suppose means that the U.S. should never have been awarded the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City since President Bush reportedly said that God speaks through him and that God wanted him to run for president, so those games must have been an explicit affirmation of Christianity in Rubin’s view.
Rubin’s argument about Istanbul’s logo is problematic as well. Anyone who has ever been to Istanbul will immediately recognize the 2020 logo as an attempt to approximate the iconic Istanbul skyline. Are there lots of minarets in Istanbul? There sure are, but that hardly means that a drawing of some of Istanbul’s most famous features is an overtly religious symbol. You will also notice the Galata Tower prominently featured in the logo, which was built by Genoese traders who named it the Tower of Christ and has never had any Muslim religious significance or been used as a mosque, but you wouldn’t know that from Rubin’s characterization. The logo is an attempt to capitalize on the fact that Istanbul’s historic structures make it instantly recognizable, and is no different than the previous London Olympics logo that featured Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. This is all the more evident in light of the fact that Istanbul’s bid organizers have purposely structured their bid around incorporating Istanbul’s historic landmarks into the Olympic venues, so the logo is just an extension of that strategy. The fact that Istanbul’s logo has minarets is incidental, not any type of coded religious message.
Rubin’s other primary argument is that Turkey is a bad choice for the Olympics because of its various issues with democracy and human rights. Certainly nobody can accuse me of being unaware of the many problems with Turkish democracy, but considering that the 2008 Summer Games were in China and that the 2014 Winter Games are in Russia, this line of reasoning rings hollow. If you are going to make an argument that the Olympics should only ever be held in liberal democracies, go right ahead, but Rubin does not make that argument. Instead, he is holding Turkey to a standard that does not exist for Olympic bids, and the credibility of this line of reasoning really breaks down in light of the fact that he unfavorably compares Turkey to Russia and China, both of which are unquestionably less democratic than Turkey. The assertion that Turkey should be disqualified because “for the Olympics to be a showcase, journalists must be allowed to ply their trade freely” with the unspoken implication that reporters from foreign countries will be jailed should they write unfavorably about the Istanbul Olympics is too silly to even deserve a comment. Additionally, the war against the PKK in southeastern Turkey is no reason to disqualify Istanbul (in Turkey’s northwest corner) on security grounds, and this is particularly so given London just pulling off an incident-free games despite serious worries about jihadist threats. The one place where Rubin is on solid ground is his concern over corruption in the construction industry, but eight years seems like plenty of time to ensure that Turkey’s Olympic venues and tourist lodgings are up to code.
In short, it is difficult to take Rubin’s argument about the Olympics at face value. Turkey has plenty of problems, but as the issues Rubin brings up have never disqualified any other country, including places like China and Russia that are far worse serial abusers of political and civil liberties, I fail to see why Turkey should be a special exception. The comparison to Berlin in 1936 is also outrageously inappropriate, and if Rubin really thinks that awarding the Olympics to Istanbul would undercut the Olympic spirit more than any other venue since then, I would love to read a more detailed exploration of how Moscow in 1980 or Beijing in 2008 better exemplified Olympic values than Istanbul today.