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Thursday, July 25, 2013
Istanbul downplays protests ahead of Olympic vote

Associated Press

LONDON -- Despite anti-government protests, doping scandals and low attendance at an international soccer tournament, leaders of Istanbul's bid for the 2020 Olympics say the project has overwhelming domestic support and momentum ahead of the IOC vote.

Turkish officials came to London on Thursday to share in the anniversary celebrations of the 2012 Olympics and promote their bid, which is in the final weeks of the race against Madrid and Tokyo.

Bid officials from all three cities are traveling the world to seek support before the Sept. 7 vote in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The Istanbul bid has been seeking to shake the impact of the demonstrations against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that swept across Turkey in June. Turkish police were criticized for their crackdown on the protests.

"We've talked a lot about this issue," Istanbul bid leader Hasan Arat told The Associated Press. "Now we concentrate on our technical excellence. We feel the last 45 days will be very important for us and we will work a lot. It's like a final game. We will go in it to win it. That's why we feel very strong right now."

The three bid cities made technical presentations this month to the IOC members in Lausanne, Switzerland, and will make their final presentations on the day of the vote. In the meantime, bid officials will be traveling to the world swimming championships in Barcelona, the world track championships in Moscow month and other events.

"I don't want to comment on the others, but Istanbul is really picking up after Lausanne," Arat said. "Now we are doing really very well. I can feel that from the Olympic world."

Istanbul's bid has also been affected by recently doping cases among Turkish athletes. Last month, eight Turkish track and field athletes, including 2004 Olympic hammer silver medalist Esref Apak, and eight Turkish weightlifters were caught doping.

In May, Olympic 1,500-meter champion Asli Cakir Alptekin and two-time European 100-meter hurdles champion Nevin Yanit were charged with doping violations. Dozens of Turkish athletes were reported to have tested positive before last month's Mediterranean Games in Turkey.

"This is a global issue," Arat said. "You need more education. What Turkey is doing now is very good, pushing and testing. Those who are found cheating will be punished. We are really working very tough and I think the NOC (national Olympic committee) is doing very well and Turkish anti-doping agency is doing very well. We will not let anybody to continue like this."

FIFA has criticized Turkey for the record-low attendances at this month's Under-20 World Cup and said it could hurt Istanbul's chances of getting the Olympics.

"We don't have any problem like this," Arat said, citing solid attendance at last year's world indoor track championships, short-course swimming championships and WTA championships in Istanbul.

"Turkey has a great potential of having spectators for the games," he said. "We have no problem."

Arat said public support for the Olympic bid rose to 94 percent among Istanbul residents. He said the bid committee carried out its own survey "about two months ago," which would have been just before the protests started.

The support is significantly higher than the 83 percent in a poll by the IOC earlier this year. That was already the highest support among the three bid cities, with 76 percent for Madrid and 70 percent for Tokyo.

"The support is very strong and remaining positive," Arat said. "We have the highest results from the IOC poll. It will increase more before Buenos Aires."

Istanbul officials elaborated on plans for the opening ceremony, saying it would be held in a 70,000-capacity stadium with seating for 10,000 athletes. It could be viewed by up to half a million people in special seating areas along the Bosphorus strait separating Europe and Asia.