Beyond Gezi: Istanbul’s Failed Bid to Host the 2020 Olympics Points Towards a Destructive Mismanagement of Urban Development
Turkey and Brazil share the same ambition to host prestigious international sporting events. Yet there is a big difference between Brazil’s goal to host the 2014 football world cup and Turkey’s hubristic confidence in aspiring to host the 2020 Olympics: Brazil has been successful in its bid, whereas Turkey saw its Olympic aspirations shattered amidst the turmoil of the Gezi park protests. According to the official State narrative, the failed Olympic bid is to be blamed on the Turkish media. Indeed, they make for a convenient political scapegoat. Yet that is not the full story.
The outcry that brought central Istanbul to a standstill does not address the folly of investing in an infrastructure that will never benefit the majority of the city’s population. Is this ultimately not the paradox of highly centralized middle-class shows of public dissent? Fuelled by the fear of losing their already privileged position in the centre of urban districts, they protest not the big picture, but what lies right in front of them. Yes, Gezi Park is an important and visible part of the problem. But the true malicious intent of the Government lies in the policies that fuel wasteful and unequal urban planning.
Meanwhile the Turkish Government has to face the embarrassing fact that it had already commissioned large parts of the required Olympic infrastructure before actually being selected to act as host.
One of such embarrassments has been the recent expansion of the city’s subway system. Take for example the aptly named subway station “Olympia”, now left in a ghostly state of abandonment. The station, despite appearing on the underground maps, and even blinking on the carriages’ illuminated cabin itineraries, is currently out of order. Indeed, if one travels to seek out this station, as I recently did, one is simply asked to disembark at the next to last station.
Upon exiting the desolate tunnels, it becomes clear that the neighbourhood surrounding the station houses mostly those citizens who live in utter poverty. Not only a lack of resources, but even the widespread illiteracy would prevent many here from ever entering the metro station in the first place. Without the Olympics, the station now lies eerily dormant.
Aside from the banality of such wasted infrastructure, what becomes clear is that the protests in both Turkey and Brazil are not simply political problems. Rather, they are economic. Those who protest in the very epicentre of urban spaces, usually live in areas where the most wealth and the highest levels of education are to be found. Such protests do not address the bigger picture of inequality as part of a larger problem of urban planning, but focus on highly visible examples of changes to already privileged and elite life worlds, be they public or not.
Both the Brazilian and Turkish protest movements, while wildly different in origin, represent a struggle against the disintegration of public infrastructure and urban public spaces. What binds together these acts of mass public solidarity is the urgent call for government to invest responsibly in its urban infrastructure. Yet the current trend is to instead strengthen and reward an already abundantly powerful and wealthy private sector. It is in the dissonance between the freedoms offered by public spaces versus the privatized and securitized restrictions of privatized urbanity, that the overarching problematic of both Istanbul and São Paulo’s unrest is to be found.
For any future form of social protest to be effective, the larger issue of urban development must be forced into the spotlight. The failed Olympic bid is part of the same inherent injustice that sparked the protests in the first place. Indeed, the demolition of Gezi Park is but a symptom of a greater force. The development of Istanbul’s outer urban spaces represents a bigger prize. And one equally worth fighting for.
Julian de Medeiros