A Muslim Country Should Host the Olympics

Awarding the 2020 Games to Tokyo and not Turkey highlights an unfair pattern

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Fabrice Coffrini / Reuters

International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge leaves the stage after giving an inaugural speech at the opening ceremony of the 125th IOC Session at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires on Sept. 6, 2013

Correction appended: Sept. 10, 2013, 3:42 a.m. E.T.

Before we recently learned that the 2020 Summer Olympic Games were officially awarded to Tokyo by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), there were literally hundreds of millions of people around the world who had our fingers crossed and earnestly hoped that Istanbul would finally become the first Muslim-majority country in history to ever host the Summer Olympic Games.

Istanbul made it to the final round of voting against Tokyo after beating Madrid in a tiebreaker round of voting where Istanbul received 49 votes to Madrid’s 45 votes. But in the final round of voting, Tokyo ultimately beat Istanbul with a final vote of 60 to 36.

So Japan will get to host the Olympics for the third time (they also hosted the 1964 Summer Olympics and 1972 and 1998 Winter Olympics) while Turkey has never been chosen even once, despite having been in the running five times.

Since nearly 57 out of 193 countries (29.5%) in the U.N. (a.k.a. “the world”) are Muslim-majority nations, the fact that a Muslim nation has never hosted an Olympic Games is truly baffling. “No country with a majority of Muslim population has ever hosted the Olympics … Why? What is missing [in these countries]?” asked Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey during a July 2012 interview about his quest for his nation to become the first. “Tokyo has hosted three Games. Istanbul has [unsuccessfully] bid to host the Olympics five times but has never been handed the rights. This is not a fair approach.”

Many people think the IOC ultimately chose Tokyo as a “safe” choice for the 2020 Summer Games, even though I am not sure how “safe” it could be in light of the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster that will continue to have adverse effects on Japan for decades. But according to the New York Times, these “environmental concerns in Japan appeared less urgent than the Syrian war on Turkey’s border, a harsh crackdown against antigovernment protesters recently in Istanbul and Spain’s economic recession and high unemployment.”

One simply cannot argue that Muslim-majority countries do not have the organizational abilities or resources to host. The small Arab Gulf state of Qatar (better known for its capital Doha) was successful in being selected as the host country for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, beating out the U.S. According to the Wall Street Journal, the people at FIFA “chose to bring the World Cup to a Muslim nation for the first time, with a desire to make history and the opportunity to partner with the natural-gas fortune of the Qatari royal family.” The tiny emirate has promised to spend at least $4 billion to build nine stadiums, spend $50 billion on infrastructure and renovate three other stadiums and equip all of them with a high-tech, outdoor air-conditioning system to combat summer temperatures that can reach 120ºF (48.9ºC).

Eventually, a Muslim-majority nation like Turkey, which shares commonalities with nearly 30% of countries on earth and represents the collective aspirations of over 1.7 billion people worldwide, will get chosen to host the Olympics. Until that happens, the greater question we should be asking the International Olympic Committee is why it’s taking so long.

An earlier version of this article misstated that Japan hosted the 1988 Winter Olympics. It hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics. An earlier version of this article also cited a quote that included inaccurate information.