Istanbul, Madrid, Tokyo 2020: Olympic Year, Olympian Challenges

This Saturday, September 7, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will announce the venue of the 2020 Olympic Games. Istanbul, Madrid, and Tokyo (in alphabetical order) are the three contenders.

There is arguably no obvious choice for the winner. Tokyo probably has the best urban infrastructure of the three, but some critics argue that Japan’s colossal fiscal deficit and debt burden mean that the country can ill-afford the Olympic Games. The fiscal risks surely apply to Spain, too. Some also argue that Tokyo would lack a captivating ‘narrative’ for the Olympics. In this regard, Istanbul would be a more ‘interesting’ choice, because it would mark Turkey’s emergence on the world stage, and it would be good politics to award the Olympics to a Muslim country for the first time. Istanbul would also allow the Olympics to be hosted simultaneously on two continents for the first time. Narratives are important. Previous or future Olympic Games, such as Rome in 1960, Tokyo in 1964, Munich in 1972, Seoul in 1988, Beijing in 2008, and Brazil in 2016, marked or will mark the emergence or re-emergence of their host nations on the world stage.

Some observers will have been rattled by recent street protests in Turkey, including in Istanbul, but clearly the fact that Turkey saw urban unrest in 2013 does not mean that it will be politically unstable in 2020. Similarly, the fact that there is currently a civil war underway in Syria in no way implies that Istanbul (which is a long way from the Syrian border) would be a risky host in seven years time.

Madrid would seem an odd Olympic choice, given Spain’s present economic woes, and also because the Spanish city of Barcelona hosted the Olympics relatively recently, in 1992. But Spain’s current difficulties will not last forever.

Although Tokyo would seem to be a ‘safe’ choice – if not the safest choice – for the 2020 Olympics, this is cannot be taken for granted. By 2020, Japan could well be heading towards a colossal financial crisis, due to its massive debt burdens. In addition, we can never know when massive earthquakes might strike Tokyo – a risk shared by Istanbul. Organisers of Tokyo’s Olympic bid have been reassuring the IOC that ongoing radiation leaks from Fukushima will not affect the capital.

On a more positive note, it is not true that Tokyo 2020 would lack a narrative. The revival of Japan after two lost decades would be a great story.

Overall, though, whichever city prevails, each of their host nations faces considerable political and economic challenges over the next seven years.