By Duncan Mackay

Mark Spitz_with_Galatasaray_shirtJuly 16 - Istanbul's bid to host the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics has received its first signifcant endorsement from a major international figure after Mark Spitz lent it his support.

The American, winner of nine Olympic gold medals, spoke out in favour of the Turkish city after swimming in the Cross-continental Race, a 6.5 kilometre event across the Bosphorus from Kanlıca on the city's Asian side to Kuruçeşme on the European side, organised by the National Olympic Committee of Turkey (NOCT).

Other competitors in the race, which attracted 1,200 entries from 41 countries, included the United States Ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone.

"Considering how much work will be required to host the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the organisational ability shown during this race highlights the promise of Istanbul," said Spitz.

"I am here to lend my support to Turkey."

To mark his trip to Turkey Spitz was presented with a towel inscribed with the name of Galatasaray, the country's most popular football team. 

Spitz, who is now 62, won two gold medals at Mexico City in 1968 and then seven at Munich four years later, a record that stood until Michael Phelps broke it in Beijing in 2008, a Games which Istanbul had bid unsuccessfully for.

"Turkey has never hosted the Games before, but it has a real chance of being selected for 2020," said Spitz.

"The 2020 Games offer a great opportunity for this country's young population."

Istanbul river_race
Another key feature of Istanbul's 2020 bid, officials claim, is its incorporation of the city's many historic and spectacular landmarks into the Games venues, which will be linked by modern infrastructure.

The potential to include the spectacular backdrop afforded by the city into sports events was showcased by this race, which had swimmers passing under the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, alongside the Rumeli Hisarı fortress and past riverfront towns.

Spitz's public backing is a welcome boost for Istanbul on the eve of them leaving to attend London 2012 as observers, where they will be joined by 2020 rivals, Madrid and Tokyo.

"When a bid city gets a powerful message of support from one of the most iconic athletes in the history of the Games, it really means something," said Hasan Arat, the leader of Istanbul 2020.

"We do not take it for granted.

"The people of Turkey are greatly heartened by this show of support from Mark Spitz.

"I believe yesterday's race shows the sporting world that Istanbul acts as a bridge between tradition and innovation."

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