Even though athletics is one of the most ancient sports in the world, this sport was not introduced to Turkey until the 1870s by Galatasaray High School’s Monsieur Curel, a physical education teacher originally from France.
The sport gained popularity after the foundation of the Turkish Athletics Foundation in 1922, but now interest in it is waning. Today in Turkey, the leading competitors in athletics are not only foreign born, but are also women. Almitu Degfa Bekele, one such athlete, has recently gained popularity in Turkey. She is originally from Ethiopia, but she has become a Turkish citizen. Bekele won a gold medal in the women’s 3,000-meter event last Sunday in Turin at the European indoor championships, making her the first Turkish medal winner in an indoor athletics competition. Ethiopian-born Elvan Abeylegesse, who enjoys great popularity in Turkey, has won two Olympic medals in athletics for Turkey. The Turks have won only won four Olympic medals in athletics since they officially joined the Olympic fold in 1908.
Elvan and Bekele came to Turkey around 10 years ago, but “these athletes achieved their best rankings in Turkey,” said Turkish Athletics Federation President Mehmet Terzi.Federation stands firm
While some sports writers criticize the federation for allowing foreign-born stars to join Turkish athletics, the federation stands behind these athletes. The leading Turkish athletics coach, Ertan Hatipo?lu, who was Elvan’s trainer and who now works with Bekele, said foreign athletes are important for the development of the sport in Turkey.
“It is not true that we — the federation– seek foreign athletes. We only take the athletes who will be catalysts for developing athletics in Turkey and who will be competitive against other countries in the international arena,” said Terzi. Previously, the athletics team included 11 foreign athletes who raced for Turkey, but Terzi noted that the number has now dropped to only six.
Terzi emphasizes that sport clubs — not the federation — are bringing foreign athletes to Turkey. The athletes later become Turkish citizens, allowing them to join the federation and wear the Turkish jersey.
He highlighted the federation’s efforts to train Turkish-born athletes, and is enthusiastic about many promising young athletes. “The backbone of this sport is composed of foreign athletes, but that does not mean we are not training Turkish athletes as well. We’ve developed numerous programs for young Turkish athletes. Some have even achieved success in international youth competitions. For example, Merve Ayd?n was runnerup in the women’s 800-meter race in the World Youth Championship [last summer], and Nevin Yan?t finished first in the women’s 100-meter hurdle race at the U-23 European Championship. Yan?t also has made it to the semifinals of numerous big athletics events. They and others will be quite successful in the future,” Terzi added.
Athletics coach Hatipo?lu attributed the domination of athletics in Turkey by foreign athletes to the structure of the educational system: “Young people cannot participate in sports due to the educational system in this country. They have to prepare for many exams, from the