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Editorial from Kadir Topbaş, Mayor of Istanbul

Exactly one year before the IOC’s host city selection in Buenos Aires on 7 September 2013, Kadir Topbaş reflects on why the time is right for Istanbul 2020

Today marks one year until the International Olympic Committee selects the host city of the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The milestone comes just as a glorious summer in London draws to a close, having redefined the boundaries of global sporting celebration and – I firmly believe – having inspired a generation.

I was lucky enough to experience London 2012 firsthand. I felt the vibrancy of a cosmopolitan mega-city; the warmth of a country eager to welcome the world; and the passion of a people steeped in sport. To sustain that atmosphere for the duration of the Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games is quite extraordinary. My most sincere congratulations must go to the President of the IOC, Jacques Rogge, to the Lord Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and to Lord Sebastian Coe and his team at LOCOG. Their achievements in harnessing the spirit of a nation over the last seven years since the IOC Session in Singapore cannot be overstated.

2005 was not the right moment for Istanbul and Turkey. But our dedication to our Olympic dream never diminished. So while London was preparing to stage the Greatest Show on Earth, Istanbul was evolving into a city worthy of the mantle of host. The last seven years have seen a new Turkey emerge, and we have developed a new bid to match. Istanbul is bridging lessons of the past with new capabilities of the present. Now we are ready to deliver.
The city has spent an average of $1.2 billion a year every year since 2005 on improvements to transport infrastructure alone. Just last month we opened the first metro line on the Asian side of the city, and the proposal for a new tunnel beneath the Bosphorus – a crucial third crossing point – has just been ratified; construction will begin next year. We have made a commitment to connect our citizens with a world-class, modernised transport network. That commitment means in 2020 a city of nearly 13 million people would be able to offer Olympic and Paralympic athletes average travel times of just 20 minutes.

Our strategic development plan has transformed Istanbul into the fifth most visited destination on the planet. In 2004, Istanbul had 26,000 hotel rooms. Now, there are 63,000. That public and private investment in tourist infrastructure has fuelled a boom in the tourism industry – in the 12 months to November 2011, there was a 16% increase in visitors from abroad.

The government has identified sports events as a key national development stimulus, and our sports industry has flourished since 2005. Turkey has hosted more than 40 major events in the last seven years, many of them in Istanbul. Now the city and its sports industry professionals are regarded internationally as trusted, credible hosts for elite sport, so much so that Istanbul was named the 2012 European Capital of Sport.
Istanbul is alive with progress and possibility, driven forward by a young, dynamic and ambitious population. The time is right, and the people here can feel it. Earlier this year, 87% of people in the city were behind Istanbul 2020. Since then we have sent our largest ever delegation to the Olympic Games, and recorded our best ever performance at the Paralympic Games. The feats of our Olympians and Paralympians have captured the imagination in Turkey; our nation’s desire to bring the Games to Turkey for the first time in our history has never been greater. Just as importantly, Istanbul’s capacity to realise our vision has never been greater. Now our city is ready to host the first Games in Olympic history to span two continents at once – to reach across the Bosphorus and bridge east and west, new and old, rich history and united future.

I would like to take this opportunity to wish the very best of luck to our fellow Candidate Cities. I am sure we will continue this most remarkable of races in the same spirit of fair play and respect over the next twelve months.

The last seven years have been an exciting time for Turkey and for Istanbul, the City of Seven Hills. But the next 365 days will be more exciting still: a defining moment in the rejuvenation of an ancient city.

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After covering the Atlanta Olympics from the days of the bid in the late 1980’s, there was a sense of loss watching the flame in the caldron flicker out the night of Aug. 4, 1996 . Atlanta was my initiation into the world of the Olympics, a rite of passage. Wherever this Olympic journey would take me, I would always think of Atlanta as the home of the dream.

The Atlanta Olympics Closing Ceremony, Aug. 4, 1996. (Getty Images)

The 17 days of the Games (and the eight years before) were quite a ride. Sometimes magnificent, sometimes stumbling, tinged with tragedy, surrounded by triumphs, Atlanta marked a turning point for the city as well as the Olympics of today.

Mention Atlanta 1996 and the sneers still come easily for some who dealt with the challenges of the Games. Media transport did not work. The results system went into meltdown. The streets of downtown Atlanta turned into a peddler’s bazaar, rife with over-commercialization. Then the bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park, killing a spectator, injuring dozens.

Little wonder that IOC President Juan Antonio could summon only faint praise as he closed the Atlanta Olympics, describing them as “most exceptional”.

Maybe it is easier to remember flaws than all the things that worked as planned.

But the lists of pluses for Atlanta and the Olympic Movement that resulted from 1996 may be even longer than the faults.

Start with the athletes. Michael Johnson and Jose Marie Perec winning the 400/200 gold medals. The electrifying gold medal for the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, tiny Kerri Strug nailing the win despite a busted ankle. Cuba wins baseball gold on U.S. soil. Pocket Hercules Naim Suleymanoglu wins a third consecutive weightlifting gold, Carl Lewis a fourth gold in the long jump. The second edition of the Dream Team dominated men’s basketball.

There were all kinds of Olympic debuts. Women’s football and softball added hundreds of women to the athletes roster for Atlanta. The IOC’s first stab at adding more youth-oriented sports to the program brought mountain biking and beach volleyball to sold-out venues.

Atlanta still holds the record for ticket sales: 8.1 million.

The fountains at Centennial Olympic Park. (ATR)

The absence of white elephants for Atlanta is remarkable. To one degree or another, every major venue built for 1996 has been put into use since then.

Atlanta Olympic Stadium is now Turner Field, home to the Braves Major League Baseball team. While some in the Olympics world quibble about using marketing revenues to pay for a venue used by a professional baseball team.

But there is no Olympic Stadium built for recent Games that can even come close to the level of regular activity for the Atlanta stadium.

As painful as the Olympic Park bombing was, the venue established the value of live sites as part of the ambience of the Olympics. And the catastrophe of Atlanta helped make sure that security was part of future live sites.

The 21-acre park, conceived by Atlanta Olympics chief Billy Payne two years after winning the Games, became a catalyst for new development in the center of Atlanta. The post-Olympic boom around the park includes the World of Coca Cola, the Georgia Aquarium, new hotels, restaurants and retail.

The Atlanta Olympics also generated a makeover of housing near the stadium, park and other venues. Dilapidated, crime-plagued housing and buildings were removed and replaced with new public and private housing that remains an often-overlooked legacy of 1996.

Atlanta’s foibles with media transport and the results system were other lessons learned by future organizing committees, which have largely avoided those glitches.

What hasn’t happened in Atlanta is much of an interest in Olympic sport, whether hosting events or inspiring new generations of fencers, judoka or heptathletes.

The Atlanta cauldron was moved a half a mile north from its original location and now anchors a corner of a parking lot for the former Olympic Stadium. (ATR)

While no white elephants remain, it might have been nice to see a world-class athletics track as part of the Atlanta legacy to the sport.

Others need some work. The rowing course at Lake Lanier is in need of repairs and maintenance to keep it as a competition venue. It’s the only one of the Atlanta venues that has hosted a world championship (canoeing, 2003) since the Olympics.

Then there’s the orphaned cauldron, lit in storybook fashion by Muhammed Ali. Moved half a mile north from its original location, the steel girder structure anchors a corner of a parking lot for the stadium. There’s talk of moving the ungainly tower and walkway to a place where more people can see it, such as Centennial Olympic Park.

But at least it has a home, unlike Beijing, which dismantled its cauldron last year. And my travels in Atlanta frequently pass the cauldron, often to or from the Atlanta airport, many of those times for trips abroad to the cities that have followed Atlanta as Games hosts.

The flame may have gone out in that cauldron 15 years ago today, but it’s kept me constant company since them.

Written by Ed Hula.

Leave a comment and share your memories from the 1996 Atlanta Games with us!  We’d love to hear from you!

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