ANKARA (Reuters) - Turks take pride in the international success of their weightlifters but the basic gym where the team are preparing for the Beijing Games comes as a surprise, given the prestige of their Olympic achievements.
Turkey won three gold medals at the Athens Olympics four years ago and hope to repeat the success this time despite having an older team.
Some of their lifters are preparing to retire after Beijing. Triple Olympic champion Halil Mutlu will be 35 by the time the Games begin on August 8.
“We lack private sponsors. The Ankara municipality is paying basic expenses for Halil Mutlu,” coach Raif Ozel said. “I wonder how a sportsman like Mutlu would be treated if he was in America?”
Mutlu is the focus of attention as he seeks an unprecedented fourth medal in Beijing after winning the 54-kg title in Atlanta in 1996 and the 56-kg at the last two Games.
“I still owe to my country. My debt is not paid completely,” Mutlu, who was born in Bulgaria as an ethnic Turk and emigrated to Turkey, told Reuters.
In their gym in central Ankara, the lifters say they follow a harsh, disciplined programme.
“We work out in the morning and in the afternoon and then take a nap between on some days. My contact with my family is reduced to brief phone calls,” said Derya Acikgoz, a female lifter, before putting weights on a barbell and repeatedly hoisting it above shoulder height alongside five male lifters.
The gym is quiet to allow concentration, apart from the occasional scream of effort from one of the lifters. Advertisements for strength-boosting supplements lie on the floor.
Ozel says the team face a major challenge in Beijing.
“Their performance is worse compared to Athens. They are now four years older and the Chinese are very motivated because they are the hosts,” he said.
Turkey hope Mutlu, as well Taner Sagir, who won the 77-kg gold at the age of 19 in Athens, and Nurcan Taylan, the country’s first female Olympic champion who won the 48-kg class in 2004, will return from Beijing with more gold medals.
Turkey has imposed strict doping checks ahead of the Games after its weightlifters were banned from international competitions in 2005 for widespread abuse.
Despite the doping ban and a scandal involving allegations of harassment by some women weightlifters against a former coach, weightlifting remains a respected sport in the country.
Turkey does not want to give up its hard-gained position in the sport and a bill is currently being discussed in parliament to establish an anti-doping agency and tighten sanctions.
Doping scandals and suspensions are not limited to one country. Greece’s weightlifting squad were threatened with a Beijing ban after 11 members were charged with using illegal substances, while Bulgaria’s team were stripped of three gold medals and sent home from the 2000 Sydney Games after positive tests.
“After 2005 we have taken permanent measures to prevent a repetition of this,” said Hasan Akkus, head of the Turkish Weighting Federation.
In the past, Turkey brought in many Bulgarian-born ethnic Turkish weightlifters such as Naim Suleymanoglu, but it is now working to create its own pool of young, talented lifters.
Dozens of Turkish schools train weightlifters. Turkish weightlifters won two gold medals and a silver at the 2007 world youth championships.
“These young sportsmen and women will compete in the adult categories in a few years and I hope they will win medals because they are really talented and chosen according to scientific criteria,” Akkus said.
The arrival of ethnic Turkish weightlifters from Bulgaria gave a stimulus to the sport but Turkey now had sufficient home-grown talent, he said.
“We occasionally receive applications from foreign weightlifters who say they want to compete for Turkey but we are not very positive on this because we do not need them,” Akkus said.
Apart from soccer, sport is not very popular in Turkey despite government investment to encourage youngsters.
“Middle-income families do not want their children to pursue a sports career while they have other options. Weightlifters usually come from poorer backgrounds and they chose this because they had to,” coach Ozel said.
Women lifters face extra social barriers.
“I could not enjoy my childhood and youth because of competitions. It is impossible for a woman to be married, have children and be a weightlifter,” said Acikgoz, the first Turkish woman lifter to win a gold medal in international competition.
Editing by Clare Fallon