Friday, September 6, 2013

Who Should Host the 2020 Summer Olympics? Place Your Bets Now!

If you love sports like me, you probably like to place bets on the competitions and today is a biggie. In less than 24 hours we will find out who will be chosen as the host for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games and picking a winner is turning out to be as tough and as close as a 100 metre sprint final. Coming off the racks we have three cities; Madrid, Tokyo and Istanbul. At first Istanbul seemed the favourite; a sensible and noble choice of having the games for the first time in a Muslim country, straddling two continents. Nipping on its heels and inching past recently has been Tokyo, site of the 1964 Olympics. However if one is to hear the chattering from insiders it appears Madrid is right up there with Tokyo. When the International Olympic Committee decides today at their meeting in Buenos Aires, it could be a very tight photo-finish.

One thing to point out is that all three have been here before in the last twenty years and at the final hurdle have failed to win the gold medal of hosting. Istanbul lost the bid twice for the 2000 and 2008 games, Tokyo once for 2016 and more noticeably Madrid for 2012 and 2016. Not only are the final three made up of previous losers, they all have very noticeable handicaps. It is in many respects the weakest Olympics bid in decades. For all the talk of the importance of the games and legacy to their countries and the world, most likely these impediments will be a big factor to the IOC committee members and how they decide in the voting later today. The recent self-promotion by each of the host cities however makes the decision a race between “the safe pair of hands” vs “the best atmosphere” vs “something new”.

“The Self Pair of Hands”

The Japanese pride themselves on their sensibility and reliability. In a country where a train is a minute late is something to raise an eyebrow over, Tokyo is selling itself as the city that will deliver the monumental planning for the games in time, on budget and with the least, if any fuss. The Japanese delegation have emphasized the positioning of the Games, meaning nothing is ever more than 8km away and deciding to reuse the 1964 Olympic stadium, albeit spruced up with a slinky Zaha Hadid design. The Games would cost only $4.9bn, in many respects about half what London ended up costing with no need for major infrastructure construction to cater for the two weeks each of the Olympics and Paralympics Games.

The chair of the Tokyo bid, Masato Mizuno stated: “ We are a safe pair of hands….These are the hands that can be used to lead to show a super Games in uncertain times”. Sadly recent news about continuing and dangerous radiation leaks at the Fukushima nuclear power plant damaged in the 2011 earthquake have raised questions as to how reliable the Japanese really are. The Japanese have unfortunately developed a reputation for covering things up, whether it is the health risks of Fukushima or the corporate fraud at Olympus. Furthermore, it is still not clear if the IOC has been influenced by the events of FIFA in wanting to geographically rotate the World Cup to other continents. If that is the case, having the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang South Korea may make some delegates consider a different region for the next games.

“The Best Atmosphere”

You’ve got to give it to Madrid. It came tantalizingly close to stealing the crown from London for the 2012 games, even going ahead in the first round of voting. It fought admirably against Rio for the 2016 games considering the Brazilian city was always the firm favourite from the start. Could it be third time lucky? If there is going to be a sympathy vote today, Madrid will get it. The city has hinted it may just give up trying after today and no one really wants a good sport to just resign itself like that. The city has learned from its deficiencies in the previous two bids and has a well-refined proposal for the IOC. In many ways it lost to London because the British capital teased the IOC members with lots of spectacular settings for many of the sports in central, historical locations such as Greenwich for equestrian and Horse Guard Parade for beach volleyball. Madrid plans to do exactly the same for example transforming an old bullring in to the venue of basketball and the Bernabeu, home of Real Madrid for football. It also plans the Games to be cheap, emphasizing that it will only cost just over $2bn as basically all infrastructure and venues are in place with only a few things such as the Olympic Village to be built.

Madrid is seen as a vibrant, fun city, socially liberal where all are welcome, a glaring contrast to the situation of Sochi next year. The IOC was in awe at the vibrancy of London and the great atmosphere of the 2012 games and Madrid is quick to assert that it can even surpass that.  It is they state the defining impression people around the world have of the Olympics, a big sports party and if there is one thing Spain is good at, it is hosting a party.

Madrid has its faults. No matter how much it reiterates the modest bill of the Games, Spain is a deeply troubled country economically, with a quarter of the workforce unemployed. The IOC likes to hear how the Games will inspire the youth of the host country (something London did very well for the 2012 bid) and looking at a nation that in many ways is failing theirs with nearly a half of them without a job doesn’t look inspiring. Madrid counters that things are looking up economically and that the construction and hosting of the Games will be an economic stimulus. We will know later today if the IOC members can be swayed to look above current financial constraints and give the Games to Madrid.

“Something New”

If there is one word that comes to mind about Istanbul, it is unique. Situated where east meets west, it is the largest city in Europe. Istanbul is a booming metropolis of 14 million people on a continent beset by economic malaise and the largest city in a secular, Muslim country. Istanbul is highlighting repeatedly the great opportunity their bid has to connect stronger with other regional voices in sports and to inspire more people in the Muslim world to take up sports. It is by far and away the most ambitious of the bids, costing almost $14bn. The vast majority of the money is to be spent transforming the city in to a modern world-class city with the Olympics being the catalyst. Therefore massive infrastructure projects are to be planned or speeded up for the Games in 2020. When the bidding cities were announced, Istanbul was seen as the favourite. It had the most fervent governmental backing of all the bids, not surprisingly considering Turkish PM Erdogan is from Istanbul. Bringing the Olympics to the city would be seen as his crowning achievement and the springboard for his presidential bid next year. Again, like Madrid it had learnt from the London bid and planned many of its spectacular sights as locations for tournaments.

If any of the bids have been offset by recent events, the most likely one to be affected and thus make IOC members vote against it is Istanbul. The recent crackdown on protestors in the city itself and the heavy handedness of PM Erdogan in relation to this has tarnished the Turkish bid. Many in the IOC have said it is not a major factor as they make a more determined decision by looking at what the country will be like in seven years time. Nevertheless the IOC has been getting flak from protestors for handing the Games to Russia, a country that 6 years after winning the bid for the 2014 Winter Olympics passed virulent anti-gay laws. Considering the perceived determination of Erdogan to Islamicse many aspects of Turkish society and therefore antagonize many people in the country, it is not known whether or not the protests this summer were a flash in the pan or the beginning of a conflicting movement in the country. The IOC is not enjoying the attention it has been getting concerning Sochi and the anti-gay laws and may prefer to shunt the Games off to a safer bet. Furthermore, no one knows what will happen in neighbouring Syria, a country falling apart that could become a haven for terrorism.
Buenos Aires, the venue for the IOC conference

Who to Bet For?

Who would I put my money on is a question I have been asking myself for a while. Tokyo for a long time and in many respects still does feel the safest bet. Istanbul seemed at first but it is like those dates you see in movies where it is all going great between the guy and the gal in a bar or a restaurant until suddenly an old drunken friend or ex notices the gal and spills all the dirty, dark secrets on the unsuspecting guy and he’s immediately turned off. For Istanbul that was Syria and Taksim Square, for Tokyo that was Fukushima. In many ways it will ultimately be decided by the presentations today in front of the IOC, that personal interaction where all the great and good is shown, blinding the negativities before the ballot. My safe bet is on Tokyo but I am going to be a bit daring and put it on Madrid.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

We Must Intervene in Syria

Syrians bury their dead in the civil war

Bashar Al Assad was a polite and affable man. During his time doing his postgraduate training in London in ophthalmology, he eschewed any interest in politics and was considered quite simply a nice man. If it wasn’t for the untimely death of his elder brother and heir apparent of his dictator father, he probably would be living a normal life with his elegant wife in some salubrious London suburb. He would not be considered today as a bloodthirsty tyrant, the unflinching instigator in the deaths of over 100,000 of his own people and the displacement of millions more.

Today the world is debating the consequences of his murderous regime and whether or not his minions in the army blatantly ignored international norms and indiscriminately massacred over a thousand Syrians, mostly innocent civilians. For a civil war that has bounced along the headlines for over two years, revealing horrific imagery; the photos of children, lined up dead with little of serious physical injury as if asleep, almost preserving their innocence the victims of a supposed sarin attack were enough to rouse the frustrated anger of nations over the tipping point. If the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons, it is utterly inexcusable and must be punished.

The debate itself is quite rightly centered around the need for firm, verifiable proof of chemical weapons use. For over two years other nations refused to intervene and for a while that was the right move to do. However no one could have perceived when Bashar Al Assad cracked down on some peaceful protestors would result in over two years of unbelievable bloodshed resulting in so much death and suffering, affecting almost every part of the country. There comes a time when the internal difficulties of a nation are so acute that international intervention is needed. Just as it is the case in natural disasters, humanity has a duty to halt an unprecedented calamity, in this case a man made one.

Many have argued that nations like the US, UK and France have been gung-ho about intervening for a long time. I would state that these countries have been incredibly reserved about getting involved. In fact the statement by the Obama administration that they would not get involved unless chemical weapons were used was in itself a strong statement of intent of staying out of the conflict. By making the bar of action so high, by in effect basing it on the use of a kind of weapon virtually the whole word reviles and would consider any nation or regime using it as complete and utter lunacy was a strong admission of wanting to stay out of the action. But the Syrian regime may have been that stupid to use them.

Bashar Al Assad and his Wife
One could call this the Iraq effect. After a coalition of countries invaded Syria’s neighbour ten years ago on dodgy intelligence about supposed WMD,  politicians and the public were burned and loath to get involved in another war, let alone when the evidence is staring them in the face. In many respects the result has been a much more detailed, vociferous debate about the intelligence now concerning the use of chemical weapons and that is a good thing. But there is a fundamental difference between the two: Intent. Saddam Hussein was no angel and had used chemical weapons against Kurds in an uprising in the majorly Kurdish north but there was no fundamental evidence of WMD and the regime’s intent on using them on a grand scale against its own people or others. Yet every day we watch the news and we see the regime of Bashar All Assad intentionally and brutally butchering his own people, disregarding innocent civilians.

With Syria and the debate on intervention, you are damned if you do and you are damned if you don’t. The question is which of the options is the least worse? For me staying out is the worst option. The intervention being considered by the US and others certainly won’t end the war. In many respects that is not the intent of the plans. There will be no ground war that will bog down soldiers for years, the main fear of the electorate in countries like America. If chemical weapons have been found to have been used then the international community is bound to make a stand and punish the Syrian regime for their callous actions. An example must be made that flouting international norms in such a way will not go unpunished and thus make others think twice in the future of using chemical weapons.

Syria is falling apart. As a composite nation, created by bureaucrats in Europe after WWI disregarding its many layered ethnic groups, it risks falling in to the trap of Bosnia twenty years ago. Even now, the rabble opposition that has no central command is ripping out mini fiefdoms and in parts tiny caliphates of fundamentalism that would make groups like Al Quieda proud. This festering cancer risks creating further massacres regardless of who wins the civil war. The longer these groups are allowed to distill their beliefs further, the more dangerous things are for not only Syria but also for the region as a whole. One should only look at recent events in Mali to see this happen. We cannot sit idly by as Syria becomes the next Bosnia.

Samantha Power
My personal opinion is based on a question. What is the difference between guns and sarin? Both are weapons. Both are used to maim innocent people. For the supposed 1,400 people that the US says have been killed by sarin in Syria last month, there have been over 100,000 people murdered by bombs and bullets. Just because one weapon is considered more heinous than the other does not discard from the fact that this regime deliberately intends to murder and that there is no limit to how many their own people get in the way of achieving their goals. It has been a drip feed of murder. If 100,000 people were killed in a day at the start of this civil war by one bomb or like in Srebrenica over a week or Rwanda over four months, rounded up indiscriminately and shot or hacked to pieces we would not be sitting around doing nothing.

Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN has been quite rightly quoted often in this debate. She writes in her book A Problem From Hell:

"Despite graphic media coverage, American policymakers, journalists and citizens are extremely slow to muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil. Ahead of the killings, they assume rational actors will not inflict seemingly gratuitous violence. They trust in good-faith negotiations and traditional diplomacy. Once the killings start, they assume that civilians who keep their head down will be left alone. They urge cease-fires and donate humanitarian aid."

She goes on further to say: “States that murder and torment their own citizens target citizens elsewhere. Their appetites become insatiable.” In essence this really isn’t just a Syrian problem, it is and it can go further than that.

We all watched while 500,000 people were killed in four months in Rwanda. We stood by for too long while Bosnians murdered each other along ethnic and religions lines. With both  we deeply regretted letting down not just them but humanity as a whole. We may learn to regret getting involved in Syria. So one should not just consider the concept of international norms concerning chemical weapons as a justification for intervening.  Intervening will be messy regardless of its outcome. A line must not just be drawn in the sand about the use of sarin but on the indiscriminate massacre of people on an epic scale that has been occurring ceaselessly for over two years. Otherwise when historians look back, Syria will be just another chapter right beside Bosnia and Rwanda in the heinously abject failure to prevent humanity from murdering each other in such a way.