When Erzurum in 2006 submitted their bid to host 2011 World University Winter Games, better known as the Universiade, the locals either did not know what the games were all about or they simply did not believe that they would be granted the honor of hosting such a large-scale international sporting event.
But the eastern province won the bid with the support of state authorities and received the largest amount of investment in the history of the Turkish Republic -- more than $500 million -- for the construction of modern facilities. The Winter Universiade was a success for the city. But the millions were not spent with a single event in mind, and so the question arose: What's next?
It has been exactly one year since the event took place. Snow, formerly associated with the cold winter and hardship, is now white gold for the people of Erzurum. The Winter Universiade has been a springboard for the city, according to Erzurum Youth and Sports Director Fatih Çintımar, who says the history of Erzurum will be written in pre and post-Universiade terms.
“Think of the preparations for the Winter Universiade as a springboard. At the time, with the support of the Erzurum Provincial Youth and Sports Directorate and [winter sports] federations, we laid the groundwork for sports with new athletes. Erzurum is now one of the leading sports cities in Turkey. The number of active and registered athletes attest to that,” he told Sunday’s Zaman.
Up from several hundreds, the number of athletes practicing winter sports in Erzurum has risen to well into the thousands in recent years. The city currently has 1,817 registered athletes who ski, while the figure is 1,285 for ice hockey and 1,018 for ice skating. Erzurum’s ice skaters make up almost half of the total number of ice skaters in Turkey (2,169). Those who practice ice hockey make up almost one-third (5,002), according to data from Turkey’s Ministry of Youth and Sports. The number of people who practice winter sports in Erzurum alone equals the total number of those who practice winter sports in the rest of Turkey, Çintımar, also the president of Turkish Ice Hockey Federation, claims.
Since the Universiade, outstanding local athletes who were considered too old to become future world champions were trained to be coaches in winter sports, and professional trainers from around the world were hired by Erzurum teams to train professional athletes.
“Now, all branches of winter sports such as skiing and ice hockey as well as winter tourism are flourishing in our province,” Çintımar said, adding that the city does shy away from hosting national and international tournaments throughout the year. For instance, the International Ski Federation (FIS) Nordic Junior and U23 World Ski Championships have concluded. Some 606 athletes from 38 countries participated in the competitions. Being the fourth international event held in Erzurum since the Universiade, the U23 World Ski Championships will be followed by more than five other international competitions until the end of this year.
Çintımar believes that with hard work the snowball effect started by the University Games will reach as far as staging the Winter Olympics, which was impossible to even contemplate until very recently. Çintımar has every reason to be this confident as the facilities are already attracting a great number of people. Unlike the fate of the racetrack at İstanbul Park built for the Formula 1 Turkish Grand Prix -- which is hardly ever used -- Erzurum’s facilities are used every day for trainingsor to entertain the public during the evening. Young athletes from all ages are on the rinks or mountains whenever they can, and the facilities are open.
Six-year-old Miraç Yörük is a short track speed skater. He is the youngest member of the morning training group. After the session, he attends a nursery school in his neighborhood. “He talks about nothing but short track and his trainer,” his mother, Hatice Yörük, says, adding that her son loves skating more than anything else.
The group’s trainer is Zeynep Erkılıç, who represented Turkey at last year’s Universiade. She has recently become the head coach of the national short track ice skating team after working as an assistant for a Chinese trainer. A former runner, Erkılıç switched to short track skating as part of efforts to find athletes to represent Turkey in the Winter University Games.
“I was 17 when I first started short track. I was too old to win a medal. In international competitions foreign athletes say they first took to an ice skating rink at the age of 1. I couldn’t believe it. But now they [parents] bring their 3-year-olds,” she says. “These kids are future champions.”
As part of a post-Universiade project, Erzurum’s Provincial Youth and Sports Directorate wants everyone to either learn how to skate or how to ski. The same project targets all 15,000 students from primary and secondary schools, to have them learn how to skate or ski by the end of this year as roughly 3,500 students have managed to do thus far, Çintımar says. “Another goal of ours is to have at least 25 percent of the city’s population become registered athletes,” he notes, and adds: “The flame has been ignited. It continues to flare.”
The residents of Erzurum have shown great interest in winter sports since they were introduced last year. With the new facilities, they were given with the chance to participate as a spectator or try winter sports themselves. The ice skating rinks, which are open to the public every day after 5:30 p.m., have visitors every evening. On the weekends large crowds take to the ice, with long queues as a result. The spectacular Universiade competitions and opportunities provided by the city’s authorities, including the governor’s office and the municipality, made Erzurum parents enthusiastic about the prospect of their children possibly being trained to become professional athletes.
“In Erzurum, kids are not out on the streets but on mountains to ski,” İlhami Seven, whose two boys are skiers with Erzurum Büyükşehir Belediyespor, a municipal team, says. Seven’s 8-year-old son Berat is the apple of his coach and the club managers’ eye, and he is expected to make the national skiing team. His 12-year-old brother, Hüsamettin, is also an ardent skier. They both started with ice hockey training but later switched to skiing lessons because there were not any ice hockey teams in their age group. Their parents are happy that the kids are involved in sports.
“In the past one to two years skiing has become a part of daily life here. We [people of Erzurum] used to be scared [of skiing and skating] before. We’ve gotten over it. The men go skiing instead of sitting at kahvehanes [traditional coffee houses],” father Seven says. He observes that skiing, formerly regarded as the sport for the affluent, has come down from the mountains and has reached common people’s homes in Erzurum.