Istanbul Is Not An Olympic City...

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It was on a midnight ferry home from some awful, lazer-light-and-Rihanna bar that I heard the news that Istanbul did not land the 2020 Olympic Games. On that ferry was me, hand-in-hand with a mediocre chicken doner kebab, along with a whole bunch of families dejectedly holding the Turkish flags they’d brought with them to Sultanahmet to celebrate. Have you ever seen someone dejectedly hold a flag? If you’ve watched the Olympics, you have. The entire parade of sport is feted with tepid nationalism.

There is and was plenty of ambivalence here about Istanbul getting/not getting the Olympics. On the one hand, Istanbul is a world city with a couple of very nice airports, a mega tourist destination, and built what I’ve been told is a wonderful Olympic Stadium way back in 2002. On the other hand, the population of Istanbul has skyrocketed well past the actual land’s carrying capacity and the city itself is experiencing a hypercapitalist construction boom that is as much “addled” as “frenzied” and is about as useful for aforementioned skyrocketing population as, well, a swimming complex and a towering new archery stadium.

Also, of course, the protests. It’s probably worth mentioning that on my way out to aforementioned awful bar I passed the following series of events:

  • beer bottle thrown at plexi-shielded riot police
  • riot police foreman giving exasperated sigh, shouts out at people to run out of the square
  • people run out of square
  • in no great hurry to go to some awful bar, I shuffle-step a bit faster
  • tear gas canister opens up behind me, I go up side street along with lots of other people

The protests are not some sort of disjointed anti-establishment thing, though, but more of a concerted expression of unease with a connected class that is more enthusiastic at handing each other plum projects in the lucrative field of gold-plating a Manhattanized concept of Istanbul than with trying to connect services to constituents. What sort of gold-plated projects are these? Well, things like the Olympics.

The Olympics as an event are wonderful, but the Olympics as a vehicle of urban revitalization not so much. The stadia in Athens have already been abandoned, although Greece is sort of its own case. Beijing and London became hyper-securitized data points for Cities Under Siege, and Rio de Janiero’s Olympic and World Cup-fueled construction projects have been met with Istanbul-esque angry crowds. This is generally the way it goes.

The Olympics are pretty cool when it comes to watching lanky immortals run faster than the camera flashes chasing them, but they’re also the present pinnacle of the entertainment-security-construction complex, a magnificent edifice of state power and favored globo-brands that even Roger Goodell must gawk at. The construction lobby and its speculators are already doing well enough in Istanbul. I can look out my window and see all sorts of cranes and skyscrapers and some gargantuan pyramidesque Khan Shatyr-looking monstrosity out over in Levent; most residents can look out their windows and see something similar. The powers in charge of this city don’t need to chop down more forest to put in a boreal Pentathalon pavilion in order to make a buck. They’re making plenty of them already.

Anyway, that’s all Tokyo’s problem now. As a nationalist-by-borrowing, I’m dejected. It would have been great to have had the excuse to be excited about something exciting coming here, something more fresh and enthusiastic than the posters billing Jamiroquai’s Rock N’ Coke concert. It would have been great to imagine an Istanbul full of South Americans besides the ones dressed like Plains Indians playing “Sounds of Silence” on pan flute, to imagine metro lines and the metrobüs zipping around the city, expunging the class hierarchy that keeps the rich and the foreign within the Bosphorus’ sea breeze.

The excitement would have worn off, though, by the time the third airport and the third bridge were expensively underway. It would have worn off sooner, when all the the public space was privatized to prepare for the Olympic Stage, as everyone would know that those spaces would be welcome to scalding tea and spooning couples no longer. The forest chopped down, the parks requiring an entrance fee, cops on cops on cops: the Olympics are great, but everything would’ve sucked.

This city’s been the host to plenty of performances for Britishers’ entertainment before, from nightly “Dervish” dances to Liverpool’s improbable defeat of Milan in the 2005 Champions League Final. I don’t think the city, the country, the agonizingly-construed Muslim world really need a photo-op of an Andy Murray clone eating baklava. This city is better than that, and deserves better. Most cities are, and do.

So I tried to enjoy my doner and eavesdrop on parents. Istanbul will still perform for the tourist droves, sports-or-no. The tangle-haired leftists get their success against the IOC’s debt-desperate death drive and get ready to fight against the next freeway; this one in Ankara, going through a university’s campus. How the Olympics would or could have fit into the story of this city becomes science fiction. It’s fun to think about, at least up to the point that it becomes un-fun. But it’s ultimately irrelevant to how this city will fight over its irrepressible future tomorrow.

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