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Turkey's imported athletes deliver medals but not national glory

Turkey has imported athletes from Ethiopia, Cuba and Azerbaijan to win on the world stage. But some Turks complain they bring hollow victories
Yasmani Copello Escobar, seen here in Amsterdam in 2016 (AFP)

ISTANBUL, Turkey – The flag was Turkish, the national anthem was Turkish, but the names of those competing for Turkey at the recent world athletics championship were decidedly not.

Ramil Guliev and Yasmani Copello Escobar. Jak Ali Harvey and Emre Barnes. All competing for Turkey at the London event and all, as their names suggest, foreign imports.

For many in this highly nationalistic country such success on the world stage is bittersweet. They enjoy seeing the Turkish flag displayed prominently on a global stage. But they aren't thrilled that it is imported talent delivering the honours.

Turkey's nationalist segments are not really warmed by the successes of imported stars

- Caner Eler, Socrates magazine

"Turkey's nationalist segments are not really warmed by the successes of imported stars. This is what I have perceived over the years," Caner Eler, the editor-in-chief of the Turkish sports magazine Socrates, told Middle East Eye.

Eler said a clear distinction, however, was made in cases where the athletes had Turkish roots or had grown up in Turkey.

For instance, Azerbaijan-born Guliev's 200m gold in London led to widespread celebrations. Escobar's silver in the 400m hurdles gained recognition. Ethiopia-born Elvan Abeylegesse's past successes have also been widely hailed.

Ertan Hatipoglu, one of Turkey's successful track trainers who coached Abeylegesse until 2010, told MEE that there was nothing wrong with some types of imported athletes but the real issue was a lack of proper long-term strategic planning by officials in charge of Turkish athletics to develop local stars.

Ramil Guliev, Turkish through sport. Azeri through birth (AFP)

Modern-day jannisaries

The imported athletes are called Devsirme in Turkish, an Ottoman-era word for the non-Muslim boys taken from Anatolia and the Balkans, converted to Islam and trained to become the sultan's elite fighting force.

Imported athletes representing Turkey are no more than a handful out of 160,000 officially registered athletes in 2016, based on Turkish athletics federation figures. But they feature prominently on the international stage, placing them in the public spotlight.  

"Elvan, who I started training in Turkey when she was 14 was always revered by the people," says Hatipoglu.

"She has become one of us. She only went to Ethiopia to train for one month each year in December and that was because the climate there was better. The same goes for Ramil. He has Turkish blood."

Elvan has become one of us. Ramil has Turkish blood

- Ertan Hatipoglu, athletics coach

"But I can understand the unease when it comes to someone like Yasmani Copello Escobar. He is Cuban, has a Spanish trainer, a Bulgarian manager and trains elsewhere. But he runs for Turkey."

Yet Hatipoglu said imported athletes were not a major issue either in Turkey or globally. In many instances he sees it as a win-win situation for all sides.

He cited the cases of Jamaican-born Harvey and Barnes, who run for Turkey, and said "they would never stand a chance of representing Jamaica with the talent pool available there".

The same applies to medium and long distance runners from east African countries.

Jak Ali Harvey celebrates silver in Amsterdam's 2016 world championships 100m final (AFP)

Does local talent get sidelined?

Turkey has the financial muscle, classy training facilities and successful coaches to attract top foreign athletes, Hatipoglu said. Why it would wish to do so is another question.

Turkey has had more than its fair share of rags-to-riches tales in various sporting fields. One of them is Kadir Dalkiran, an 18-year-old mixed martial arts star, whose rise from waste collector to national hero earned him the title of Turkey's "Rocky".

For Eler, the answer lies in genetics. According to him, the Turkish race is Caucasian and essentially hampered when it comes to track disciplines like sprints.

That, he said, does not mean that the nurturing of local talent is neglected but the hope is to give various disciplines a boost and attract youth to a difficult field by buying ready-made success.

"Turkey does focus on its young talent. The main policy though is to draw the attention of the state and sponsors by buying success to help expand the local talent pool and create additional resources to then develop it. It is not just at the national level but clubs in Turkey do this too," he said.

Even the dominant US imports when it needs to boost a certain discipline, he said.

"They imported Bernard Lagatt of Kenya. This resulted in a new crop of American middle distance runners emerging in his wake. Imports work when combined with infrastructure planning," said Eler.    

Short-term goals lack long term vision

Hatipoglu agrees that imported athletes can serve as role models and inspire budding local athletes, but said a lack of long-term strategic vision in Turkey had hampered a cohesive plan from taking shape.

"Eastern Turkey has the perfect terrain to train medium and long distance runners. We had the role models like Elvan and Alemitu Bekele Degfa, another Ethiopian-born Turkish runner. We could have had developed success stories from eastern Turkey with a little bit of planning," said Hatipoglu.

"There are no training camps or facilities there though."

Eastern Turkey has the perfect terrain to train medium and long distance runners. There are no training camps there

- Ertan Hatipoglu, athletics coach

Another area where this lack of cohesion exists is in Turkey's quest to land the summer Olympics for Istanbul.

Turkish law obliges Istanbul to bid for the summer Olympics until it wins the right to host one. The city's strongest bid was at the fifth time of asking for the 2020 games. It lost out to Tokyo.

Hatipoglu dismissed the political reasons cited in the media for the failure to land the Olympics and said it was the result of ineptitude.

"The International Olympic Committee voting members include 23 people from a background in athletics. They usually vote in a bloc. The Turkish bidding committee didn't have a single person from the athletics community on its team," said Hatipoglu.

The doping curse

Apart from its imported athletes, Turkey has also produced its share of home-grown stars, especially women middle distance runners. All, however, saw their careers curtailed for doping violations.

Sureyya Ayhan became European and world 1,500m champion in 2002 before being banned for life for doping.

Asli Cakir Alptekin was stripped of her 1,500m Olympic gold in 2012 and all other medals. She is serving an eight-year ban for doping.

Gamze Bulut was stripped of her 1,500m Olympic silver in 2012 and is currently serving a four-year ban which runs to May 2020.    

None of them has spoken about their violations.

Hatipoglu said it would be wrong to blame imported athletes in any way for Turkey's doping woes and said it represented "one of the biggest problems in global athletics".

However, his former proteges Abeylegesse and Bekele were also caught in their own doping scandals.

Eler, too, was unsure whether the presence of imported athletes puts off aspiring young athletes.

"It is too soon to tell whether their presence has a negative impact," said Eler.

"But the achievements of people like Ramil certainly serves as encouragement. The similarity means aspiring athletes say if he can do it then so can we."

And while undoubtedly the applause would be louder and the joy more unabated if home grown stars were winning medals, for now a haul of one gold and one silver by Turkey's imported athletes at a world championship is considered decent.

Even better, as Hatipoglu put it, is the boost it provides to the sport in Turkey.

"The day after Ramil's win, I was seeing kids sprinting on the street and getting into arguments over who gets to be Ramil. Imported or not, that can only be a good thing."

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