This was an honest insider’s view. At least 15 medals were expected at the London Olympic Games, but this did not happen. Many, including Pirim, were actually aware that it wouldn’t.
Turkey participated in the London Olympic Games with 114 athletes. This was a record compared to 68 in Beijing and 66 in Athens. Turkish athletes won 10 medals in Athens and eight in Beijing, but only five in London. This was a big disappointment for Turkish sports. Wrestlers and weightlifters failed with one exception; the women’s volleyball team, which was representing Turkey for the first time in the Olympics, was eliminated in the first round. The women’s basketball squad, on the other hand, made a great achievement, being ranked fifth in the Games.
Only five out of 114 Turkish athletes won medals. But why? Why did we fail in the Olympic Games while countries like China and South Korea won a huge number of medals? Why can we not have great athletes after Naim Süleymanoğlu, Halil Mutlu and Hamza Yerlikaya -- who were all Olympic gold medalists. Ten medals in Athens were not seen as sufficient in 2004, but the performance remained almost the same in Beijing in 2008. Then ambitious goals were set for London 2012. But nothing has changed; things even got worse.
Sports councils have convened in Turkey since 1946 to discuss the problems. But nothing has ever changed. In 2000, Marmara University drafted a project on the Olympic Games; the Sports Ministry and an İstanbul board established to work on Olympic preparations of the city decided to support the project. The sports minister of the time, Fikret Ünlü, attempted to implement the project across the entire country. But this did not happen.
The greatest obstacle before success in Turkish sports is the incompetent administrators. Speaking on condition of anonymity, an official from a federation said: “You have to make compromises in order to get elected as chair. You are not able to pick your own team. You recruit people who could attract more votes. You make compromises to the clubs to win the elections. For this reason, you are unable to create your own team and take the necessary steps.”
Federations are autonomous in Turkey; the chairs are elected to their positions. However, the eligibility criteria are not strict. College graduation was required in the past, but this condition was removed. Despite the fact that they are autonomous the federations are unable to work freely. The chairs make decisions based on goals of being re-elected. In addition, their hands are tied because the budgets are allocated by the government. The criteria for allocation of the budget are not clear.
There is a war going on between the opposition and the ruling group in the federations. The chairs usually fail to address the real matters and problems because they are heavily occupied with preserving their positions. But what is the solution? It is generally agreed that the federation chairs should be appointed and the eligibility criteria should be strict, so that they will not be fearful of losing their position. Media reported that some federation chairs were working to preserve their status in London. This was pretty awkward considering that the athletes were working hard to win medals, whereas their chairs were more concerned about their own personal interests.
Facilities there, but athletes are not
There are many sporting facilities all around the country, but the facilities remain unused and empty. There is no long-term plan or program for body training at schools. The most crucial step for success in Olympic Games is to train athletes. However, Turkey has so far failed to take the necessary steps to promote sports among the public. With the exception of soccer, the number of professional athletes in Turkey is around 2 million. It is not possible to expect success in Olympic Games under these circumstances.
A national athlete who failed in class
High schools specializing in sports have been created in Turkey. However, they have failed to meet expectations. The athletes remained ambivalent between school and training. Nevin Yanıt, who ranked fifth in the Olympic Games failed, in her class during her education at one of these schools. Because of training sessions and international competitions, she was unable to attend classes. In the end, she failed in all courses including the one on athleticism. So far, the Education Ministry and the federations have failed to coordinate on how to train athletes who have to make tough choices out of concerns over sacrificing their education.
However, physical eligibility tests should have been performed and multipurpose training programs should have been implemented so that the future of the Turkish athleticism and sports would have been saved. The Gymnastics Training Center launched in Bolu in the late 1990s was a successful example of this approach. Based on this successful example, sports training centers should be introduced. Most of the wrestlers who take to the ring at the Olympic Games have been trained in local wrestling training centers in different parts of Anatolia. And most of them studied at sports academies, too. This training method should be followed in other sports as well.
Is experience enough for being a trainer?
One of the biggest problems in Turkey is the failure to involve universities in sports. The universities are adequate in terms of equipment and scientific competence, but in technical terms, there are serious flaws. The trainers are not competent in the relevant sciences. Ambition and hard work are necessary for success; however, the contributions of the sciences are also essential. It is necessary to get help from nutrition experts, psychologists and others.
At this point, an important problem emerges. There is almost no trainer who could represent Turkey in the international arena. China has laid the groundwork for its current success through foreign trainers. Some federations have done the same in Turkey. However, this has not become a rule. Experts agree that Turkey is not good at training the trainers. They particularly note that the trainers do not read foreign publications and do not adapt to the world. Instead of proper knowledge, the trainers mainly rely on their past experience in their practice.
The athletes do not have proper social security, even though the rewards associated with successful performances in international tournaments are generous. An athlete is admitted to university without having to take the central placement exam if he wins a world championship. These are all attractive privileges for the athletes. However, the incentives are applicable to successful athletes only. There is no alternative for regular athletes to make a living.
Success is measured by results in Turkey. In consideration of this, federations make some mistakes in picking the athletes. Some federations prefer athletes who have won medals before. But sometimes a rookie athlete may need to take part in a few tournaments. Still, this fact is ignored.
Psychological unpreparedness is a major problem. Many athletes cited excessive excitement and nervousness as an issue during the Games. One of the reasons for the failure of Turkish athletes at the London Olympics is a lack of mental training and psychological support. Experts recall that every athlete needs to reserve time for mental training as well. None of the Turkish athletes referred to physical weakness or technical shortcomings in the London Olympic Games. They mostly cited psychological inadequacy as a problem.
Three ministers; three views
1999: Sports Minister Fikret Ünlü: “We need to transform this outdated structure and system. We have to modernize the organization.” 2004: Sports Minister Mehmet Ali Şahin: “We were not successful in Athens. We noticed our flaws and shortcomings. The 10 medals we won may be considered a success, but this is not the expectation of this nation. We need to reconsider these results very carefully and go through a process of restructuring. We have to be realistic in sports. We won only one medal in athletics. We have to pay greater attention to this field. We also need to reconsider our performance in wrestling.”
2012: Sports Minister Suat Kılıç: “We would like to become a country that wins medals in all branches by 2020. I believe that İstanbul will host the 2020 Olympic Games. We have been preparing for this. The prime minister has extended his full support. As government, we are determined to get good results.”
Sports writer Hıncal Uluç: Only ministers change
Veteran sports writer Hıncal Uluç argues that there is no sports minister in Turkey. He says: “I am telling you, the sports minister is like a public officer that has been appointed to the position randomly. And this is not the case with this government alone. I have been doing this job since 1957. Every sports minister goes to the Olympic Games, and when he gets back, he says they will change the whole structure and system. But only the sports ministers change; Turkish sports remains the same.”
Natives, not ‘imported’ athletes, successful
History shows that Turkey wins cornerstone success thanks to its native athletes, rather than its “imported” ones, those who are recruited from other nationalities to compete for Turkey. Turkish wrestlers made history in the 1948 London Olympic Games; women runners, on the other hand, stole the spotlight in the 2012 London Olympic Games. Aslı Çakır Alptekin and Gamze Bulut won gold and silver medals in the 1,500-meter race.
Aslı, born in 1985, qualified in the finals in the 2004 World Juniors’ Championship. She was banned from sports for two years because some medicine she bought from a pharmacy included a banned ingredient. She considered quitting sports. However, İlhal Alptekin, her trainer and then husband, motivated her to become a world champion. Aslı returned to athletics in Sept 2006; she won the gold medal in World Universiade in Daegu in 2011. She spent time in Kenya to get prepared at the beginning of this year. After returning from camp in Kenya, she ranked third in the 2012 IAFF World Indoor Championships held in İstanbul. Gamze Bulut, born in 1992, won the silver medal in the same race. She became a champion in 2010 Balkan Games held in Greece.
Turkey was relatively successful in athletics in Athens in the 2004 Olympic Games. The success is mainly attributed to service by federation Chairman Mehmet Terzi, who is a former athlete. Terzi hired foreign trainers on contract and organized high-level seminars for the trainers. He identified talented athletes and established specialized schools, as well as holding long-term camps. The athletes acquired experience thanks to participation in international competitions.