Almitu Bekele won a gold medal in the women's 3,000-meter event

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 Hatipoğlu, 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 Aydın was runnerup in the women's 800-meter race in the World Youth Championship [last summer], and Nevin Yanıt finished first in the women's 100-meter hurdle race at the U-23 European Championship. Yanıt 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 Hatipoğlu 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 ÖSS [Student Selection Examination] to the KPSS [State Personnel Examination]." He added that the federation does not deserve the harsh criticism it receives for relying on foreign athletes.
The names or nationalities of athletes do not matter to Hatipoğlu: "For me, discipline and the integrity of the sport are important. I will train any athlete, regardless of nationality."
The Youth and Sports General Directorate (GSGM), which is the umbrella institution for most of the sports federations in Turkey, works hard to improve athletics, but Turkey still lacks facilities. "We still do not have an indoor athletics facility, but a world indoor championship will by hosted by Turkey in 2012. Five indoor athletics facilities will be built before 2012," he said.
The word "devşirme," an Ottoman word meaning "collecting, gathering," has been used to criticize the practice of recruiting foreigners into Turkish athletics. "Devşirme" originally refers to the Ottoman practice of recruiting boys of non-Muslim origin into the army and the government.
Abeylegesse, who won two silver medals in the 2008 Olympic Games, said she is a Turk and does not like to be treated as a foreigner; she is insulted by the connotation of being labeled a product of "devşirme."
Terzi refuses to use this expression: "Every country accepts foreign athletes. In our case, the sports clubs recruit them and we adopt those who excel in the sport and will be important to its development," he said.
In athletics, teammates often have to race against each other and therefore have no team spirit, said Hatipoğlu, adding: "It does not matter which country's passport you have."
Hatipoğlu points to the French national soccer team, which has more foreign players than natives, asking, if they can still enjoy the success of their athletes, why can't Turkey?
Hatipoğlu further stated: "Recently, women have become more successful in athletics than men in Turkey. In the recent past, there were many male champions. But now, women seem to be more successful in athletics. It is an indication of modernization, in my opinion. Besides, women are more determined and self disciplined."
The trainer also noted that it is harder for a man to change nationality than for a woman. "A woman can change her nationality by getting married, but a man cannot," he added.