Turkey turned some heads when it took home seven medals at last week’s European Athletics Championships held in Helsinki, Finland, making them the fifth most successful country at the competition and giving Turks a boost of hope and confidence before the upcoming Olympic Games in London.
The 21st European Championships were held between June 27-July 1 with the participation of 50 countries competing in 42 events -- 21 for men and 21 for women. Germany came in first with six gold, six silver and four bronze medals, closely followed by Russia with five gold, four silver and six bronze, and then France with five gold, four silver and five bronze medals. Ukraine, which had the most medals in total with 17, had four gold, seven silver and six bronze medals. With four gold, two silver and one bronze, the Turks edged Team Britain, who also brought home seven medals -- three gold, three silver and one bronze. This is quite an achievement, as Britain is ranked second in the all-time European Championship medal table.
This constitutes an unprecedented result for Turkey’s athletes and a significant addition to the country’s overall medal table for the competition; the Turks have an all-time medal count of 14 with eight gold, three silver and three bronze, meaning they have doubled their medal count this year. The fact that most of those are gold medals also speaks volumes -- it is either all or nothing for Turkey. The country is now ranked 19th overall in European Athletics Championships history. This is also the year in which Turkey has entered the most athletes in the championships, 41.
Turkey’s star-studded squad
The successful athletes returned to Turkey and met the press at the Pera Palace Hotel on Tuesday. There they were honored by the president of the Turkish Athletics Federation, Mehmet Terzi, who emphasized how far Turkey has come. “There are actually three or four more medals we missed by just centimeters,” he explained.
Foremost among the athletes is Polat Kemboi Arıkan, the young and promising Kenyan-turned-Turk who brought home a gold in the 10,000-meter and bronze in the 5,000-meter events. Arıkan, who became a Turkish citizen just last year, emphasized his excitement about his success and qualification for the 5,000 meter in the upcoming Olympics. “It made me very happy to return to Turkey with a medal. I hope to be successful in the Olympics,” he said upon returning to his adopted homeland. “I love Turkey,” he added. Another successful Kenyan import is Tarık Langat Akdağ, who won his silver for Turkey in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and qualified in the same event for the London games starting in just about a month.
Heading up the Turkish women is Aslı Çakır Alptekin, a middle-distance runner who is steadily building up an impressive trophy cabinet of her own. She had her first taste of true international competition in the 2008 Summer Olympics and the 2009 World Championships in Berlin. She attended the European Championships for the first time in 2010, placing fifth, followed by the 2011 Summer Universiade in China, where she brought home her first medal -- gold in the 1,500 meter.
Before winning the gold medal in Helsinki this year, Çakır also participated in the IAAF World Indoor Championships in İstanbul, where she won bronze. “This goes to show how far Turkish athletics have come and how successful our athletes have become,” she said of Turkey’s impressive haul at the European Championships.
Behind her came 19-year-old Gamze Bulut, taking silver in the same event. Bulut, who won a gold medal in the 2009 Balkan Junior Championships in Greece, has also qualified for the 3,000-meter steeplechase in London this year. “Even coming in second behind Aslı was a wonderful feeling,” she enthused after the double victory for Turkey.
One of the most successful women in Turkish athletics is Nevin Yanıt, who did not disappoint with her gold-medal performance in the 100-meter hurdles last week. Aside from her gold medals in the 2007 European U23 Championships, the 2009 Mediterranean Games and Universiade, the 2010 European Championships, Yanıt currently holds the national records for both the 100- and 60-meter hurdle events. She was the first Turk to compete in the Olympics for the 100-meter hurdles, and that was in Beijing in 2008.
Turkey’s final gold medal came from Gülcan Mıngır’s victory in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. She previously won gold in the 2011 European U23 Championships and participated in the same event at the World Championships that year.
However, many of these star athletes, who are busy showing the world what Turkey is made of, have very little time to bask in the glow of their recent victories, as Yanıt told the press this week. “I have about a month ahead of me [until the Olympics begin]. I want to utilize this month and I believe I will get a good rank in the Olympics,” she explained. “You have to see what point we have come to. Turkish athletics are advancing and will continue to accelerate. Our biggest goal is the Olympics,” Terzi agreed, adding proudly, “These developments in Turkish athletics are surprising Europeans.”
He and many others are confident that Turkish athletes can keep up with this winning pace in the Olympics and many competitions to come.