People could be heard debating whether the women’s basketball team could bring home a medal, while cheering for them with a tune by pop star Candan Ercetin. In her catchy song, Ercetin, who is a board member of the Galatasaray Sports Club, refers to the female basketball players as angels of the hoop, making it a popular way to rally sports enthusiasts for the 2016 games.
Turkey has been participating in the Olympics since 1908, 15 years before the new republic was established. However, its progress has not been impressive. Given that Turkey collected its highest number of medals (12) in the 1948 Olympics in London and its highest number of gold medals (7) in the 1960 Rome Olympics, we can say that most of the younger generations have not caught Olympic fever.
Now with all the news pouring in about the coup plotters and victims, the Olympics is no longer a banner story. Indeed, it is not even clear yet whether the games will be aired on any Turkish TV channels. As odd as it may be, unless TRT secures an agreement, there will be no way to watch the games in Turkey.
Youth and Sports Minister Akif Cagatay Kilic did not help the atmosphere when she lowered expectations for the Rio Games by announcing July 1, “Rio is a preparation stage; our real goal is the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.”
So enthusiasm for the games, just a week before they start, is minimal in Turkey.
Kilic’s words angered many sports writers and nationalists who were already unhappy about Turkey's "devshirme" athletes. Devshirme was a system by which young Christian boys were conscripted for the Ottoman army. The term now is used to identify foreign athletes. The debates about the high number of foreign athletes on Turkey's team has divided sports aficionados.
The issue is a sore spot because Turkey also used foreign athletes during the July 6-10 European Athletics Championships in Amsterdam. The complaints are multiple: It's not like they are foreign-born but raised and trained in Turkey — they're basically mercenaries. Most of them have been given citizenship and cleared to represent Turkey within the last year or two. And most have never even been to Turkey, yet their numbers dominate some of the Turkish teams such as track and field. Their names are Turkish, but Turks joke that the athletes probably can't pronounce them or even find Turkey on a map.
In addition, the European press has not gone easy on the skyrocketing number of foreigners competing in Turkish uniforms. In the European championship, for example, out of 11 medals Turkey won, nine belonged to devshirme athletes. For Rio, Turkey's biggest group of athletes is in track and field and most them are devshirme from countries such as Kenya, Jamaica and South Africa. Out of a total of 103 Turkish athletes, 25 devshirme — nearly one-fourth of the team — will be competing with Turkish uniforms in Rio.
Arif Kizilyalin, chief editor and columnist of the Cumhuriyet daily’s sports section, told Al-Monitor, “I suspect the IAAF [International Association of Athletics Federations] will revise its regulations, given the situation with the high number of foreign athletes. I believe there will be certain restrictions introduced shortly.”
Kizilyalin was the first columnist to bring this matter to the public's attention. Most Turks do not feel enough of a connection to the athletes to cheer for them, not necessarily because they are foreign but because they are not visible to the Turkish public. The athletes do not appear on television, and their voices aren't heard. Several pundits and former athletes have argued that celebrity athletes are common in the world, and these athletes should not be ostracized. Yet there is crucial concern about “buying Olympic medals” by paying high prices to woo athletes who are born, raised and proven in other countries.
How does a country of 80 million with an overwhelmingly young population fail to train successful athletes in many fields? Devshirme athletes provide a quick solution, but we must ask if they are also an impediment for young Turkish athletes to compete on international platforms.
One historian, who asked to remain anonymous, told Al-Monitor, “The term devshirme is not only misleading, but also a rather conscious choice of neo-Ottoman mentality. It is misleading because devshirme would mean assimilating and integrating an individual through proper training for skilled service. These devshirme would start as minors and by the time they are adults they would forget all about their families [and] their city of birth. This is not the case with these foreign athletes." Also, he said, government elites like the implications of the term. They can "tell the Turkish masses they reach out to the world and recruit crucial talents, rejuvenating the national pride of the country.”
How much money is spent to recruit these athletes is not yet known, but they have cost Turkey its public's interest in the Olympics.
One nongovernmental organization — the Turkish Olympics Committee (TOC) — still works diligently for the success of all Turkish athletes at the games. Although most of its members were en route to Rio and could not be reached for comment, a representative of the committee told Al-Monitor, “Turkey is competing at the Rio Games in a record number of events. We have representation in 21 different fields of sports out of 26 categories at the games. We aim to increase this number in the future and strengthen particularly our team sports, such as soccer. We also hope to expand our success from the fields in which Turkey is known to be successful — such as wresting and weightlifting — into other fields as well.”
The TOC representative was also sensitive about the topic of illegal doping. He said, “The TOC established an Anti-Doping Commission in 2011 following the guidelines of WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency]. Our success is immense. Doping levels among Turkish athletes reached 12% in 2010, while in 2015 — despite more sensitive and more frequent testing — the level fell to 1.5%. Today, Turkey has become one of the exemplars for WADA.”
In addition, sports commentators and TOC representatives have shown a strong degree of concern about the athletes' health and security during the Rio Games. The Zika virus, unclean water, increasing political instability and ongoing strikes worry athletes, coaches and their families.
"I really do not know anything about Rio,” he said.
Given the tumultuous situation in Turkey, most Turks do not care how much the devshirme athletes cost them, or whether their successes should be celebrated as Turkish successes. Hence, even if no television channel airs the 2016 Games, not many in Turkey are likely to care.