For the athletic elite, the world indoor championships are a tuneup for the London Olympics. Host Istanbul is looking further ahead, hoping a successful event this weekend will help the city’s campaign to stage the 2020 Olympics.
About 800 athletes from around the world are competing in Turkey’s biggest city, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended the opening ceremony at the 7,500-seat Atakoy Arena on Friday.
Turkey has made big diplomatic and economic strides in the past decade, and Istanbul, split between the European and Asian continents, is emerging as a strong contender after four previous Olympic bids.
Glitches aside, the first day of the world indoors suggested Istanbul is on track. Some athletes said there was a sound problem with the starting gun, and that the new arena was too warm, but many were impressed by the organization and facilities.
The arena was built in less than a year, and Turkish workers were laying the final touches just days before the event began.
“So far, so good,” said Chris Brown of the Bahamas, who won his first-round heat in the 400 meters. “I think everything is in order. The venues are nice. The track is fast. I think they’re on point.”
Brown, however, did say it was a bit hot inside.
“Hopefully, it will cool down a little bit. But hey, that’s the championships,” Brown said. “You’ve got to be able to compete in any kind of conditions. In London, it might be raining. Then what are we going to do, you know?”
Chaunte Howard Lowe of the United States, who qualified in the high jump, said she was pretty sure she wouldn’t be competing at the 2020 Olympics, wherever the games are held. But the 28-year-old mother-of-two was impressed.
“The facilities are very nice,” she said. “This is a good practice, to be able to prepare for that type of competition.”
Like other athletes, Lowe said she had not had a chance to look around Istanbul, which bills its history as the capital of Byzantine and Ottoman empires as a cultural asset in its campaign for the Olympics.
“I’m just totally focused on trying to get on the medal stand,” Lowe said.
Other contenders for the 2020 Olympics are Tokyo; Doha, Qatar; Madrid; and Baku, Azerbaijan. The decision will be announced in September 2013.
Istanbul, a city of more than 13 million, has sought to build its resume by hosting international sports events. It staged the WTA tennis championships for the first time last year, and the final stages of the world basketball championships in 2010. It has hosted a Formula One Grand Prix since 2005; the event was dropped from this year’s calendar.
“Please feel at home in Istanbul, the cradle of civilizations,” Erdogan said in his opening-ceremony speech. “We hope the Turkish hospitality and the beauty of Istanbul and other cities will attract you again in the future.”
A troupe in white outfits emerged from under a large cube and performed a dance that mixed modern steps with traditional Turkish folklore. The stadium was about half-full, but the mood was boisterous and organizers said they expected a full house over the weekend.
“The championships can do so much for the young people in Turkey,” said South Africa-born Karin Melis Mey, who obtained Turkish citizenship in 2008 and won the bronze at the outdoor world championships in Berlin the following year. “Just imagine what it could do if we hosted an Olympics.
“I don’t feel pressure, because it is a competition in my home country. I put the biggest pressure on myself, not the people.”
At the headquarters of Turkey’s National Olympic Committee, mementoes of past bids lie in a glass case.
There’s a brochure that refers to the 1996 Games in the United States. “Take some time off in Atlanta... Istanbul is just around the corner,” the title reads.
Another document bears the signatures of the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians as well as other leaders of religious minorities in Turkey, and notes “the unique legacy of peace the Games could generate here” if Istanbul were to get the 2000 Olympics.
Turkey has made strong advances in democracy since that declaration, but minorities still endure discrimination. Still, the country touts its stability on behalf of Istanbul’s bid, as well as a young population, and cites World Bank figures that show Turkey’s economy nearly quadrupled from 2001 to 2010. By some estimates, however, economic growth is expected to shrink to just over 2 percent this year.
Icelandic runner Trausti Stefansson is convinced.
“I really like it,” he said of the Turkish organization. “They are definitely capable of having the Olympics.”