FLASH OLYMPIC GAMES : Why Kurds should back Tokyo 2020

By Michael Rubin – 5.9.2012 – Kurdish pride received a boost when British Olympic authorities chose two young Kurds as torch bearers in the lead-up to the London Olympics. “We are delighted and proud that these young Kurds from our community in Britain have been chosen to carry the flame to mark the special occasion of the London Olympics,” the Kurdistan Regional Government’s office in Great Britain declared in a press release.

While athletes and fans of the summer sports can now look forward to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games, Kurds who embrace national pride and hope to take their seat among countries competing one day should instead focus on 2020.

Competition to host the 2020 Summer Olympics is well underway. Of the six applicant cities, only three remain. Rome withdrew its bid for financial reasons, and both Doha and Baku failed to make the final cut to be candidate cities in May 2012. Beginning in January 2013, the remaining contenders — Madrid, Tokyo, and Istanbul — will prepare detailed bids and host International Olympic Committee (IOC) delegations. Just over a year from now—on September 7, 2013—the IOC will elect the 2020 host at a meeting in Buenos Aires.

It is doubtful Madrid’s bid will last long enough to receive a formal rejection. The Spanish economy is in tatters. Even if Spain manages to remain part of the Euro Zone, it will be in no shape to spend the money and incur the debt now expected of Olympic hosts. That leaves two finalists: Tokyo and Istanbul.

Never before has Istanbul’s case been so strong. Istanbul can not only claim to be the only candidate to span two continents but it also has persistence working in its favor: It has tried for the Olympic honor five times previously, and Tokyo has already hosted the games. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has also rooted Turkey’s pitch in religion. “No country with a majority of Muslim population has ever hosted the Olympics,” he told the press in London after meeting with IOC head Jacques Rogge, later telling Turkish television, “It is not fair.” Such an appeal could sway IOC members, especially of the larger Islamic bloc lobbies for Turkey.

Should the IOC Turkey win the games, it would, in effect, bless a two-week orgy of Turkish nationalism, much of which would come at the expense of Kurds and their struggle to uphold Kurdish identity, both inside Turkey and outside.

Should Kurds find their voice in the coming year, however, they might effectively lobby the IOC to deny Turkey’s bid until such a time that Turkey comes to terms with all its peoples, and those nations surrounding it. The IOC has never awarded the Games to a country experiencing as active an insurgency as Turkey faces with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its offshoots. Nor has Erdoğan demonstrated seriousness with regard to a resolution of the Kurdish problem. He may appear sincere with outreach to Kurds when he needs their votes, but the second he experiences political trouble, he reverts to the same old tired Turkish nationalist rhetoric.

An Istanbul Olympics might actually make Turkey’s repression of its Kurdish minority worse. In the name of security, Turkey might restrict political speech and debate even more severely than it does now. An Istanbul Olympics bid also exposes an irony: Turkey is willing to spend billions of dollars to construct Olympic infrastructure, but it refuses to reconstruct Kurdish villages it razed during the height of its counterinsurgency fight in the late 1980s and 1990s.

The current Turkish government might argue that Kurdish objections to Turkey’s bid undercut Islamic solidarity, but rejecting Turkey has nothing to do with disrespect for Islam. After all, Dubai is bidding for the 2024 Summer Olympics. “Hosting the Olympic Games in the Middle East would be a dream come true for the entire region,” Dubai crown prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum explained.

Kurds often complain about their maltreatment on the international stage, and yet seldom do the representatives of the Kurdish community speak up and lobby for their own interests. Weeks prior to the Roboski massacre, for example, President Masud Barzani, Prime Minister Barham Salih, and Qubad Talabani, at the time the KRG representative to Washington, had the opportunity to sideline a U.S. drone and weapons sale to Turkey but declined to do so.

If Kurds speak up against Turkey’s Olympic bid, they might convince Ankara that there are no shortcuts to international prestige that do not first involve addressing Turkey’s Kurdish issue. Turkey should one day host the Olympics, but it should do so on the merits of tolerance, plurality, and freedom, not as a paean to religion or nationalism. In the meantime, Kurds lose nothing and could gain much Japanese gratitude if they lend their important voice to Tokyo 2020.