ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey must improve sports facilities and spend less on soccer if it is to recover from a disappointing Beijing Olympics and achieve its ambition of hosting the 2020 Games, critics say.
The country won a single gold medal in Beijing, after three in Athens, and its most-heralded weightlifters failed to complete a single lift successfully.
“Everybody who watched the Olympics knows that this is a disgraceful disaster...The culprit is the Turkish sports organization. All federations were entrusted to the supporters of the AKP,” said daily Sabah columnist Hincal Uluc, in a reference to the ruling political party.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has said that everyone, including himself, was responsible for the failure in Beijing and it was time for Turkey to reconsider its sports policy.
The allocation of funds to soccer, which is by far the most popular sport in Turkey, has come under criticism.
“Football takes a large share of revenues at the expense of other branches,” Sports Minister Murat Basesgioglu said.
A committee would be set up to address what went wrong with the Beijing Games and decide on measures for future Games, he told CNN Turk.
Istanbul has repeatedly bid to host the Games and was shortlisted in 2000 and 2008, but failed to win enough votes. A new bid is planned for 2020 but critics say changes are needed in the way Turkey runs sport.
Going into Beijing, Turks had high expectations for their weightlifters, who won all three of the country’s gold medals in Athens four years ago.
Apart from Sibel Ozkan, who brought home a silver medal, no Turkish lifter won a medal in Beijing last month. Two former gold medalists were eliminated early in their classes, shocking the nation.
Turkey’s first female Olympic champion Nurcan Taylan failed to complete a single lift successfully in Beijing. She said after the Games that it was the most painful moment of her life.
The country’s only gold medal came from a wrestler, Ramazan Sahin.
Weightlifting coach Raif Ozel blamed a lack of facilities for the weightlifters’ failure and said past achievements had been due to individual lifters’ own efforts.
“Our weightlifters are working with very limited opportunities. Some work out in corridors and cook their own meals. We do not have a fully-equipped gym even in Istanbul,” said Ozel.
Weightlifters had to stop training when their gym was being used for a conference or basketball match, he said.
Ozel also cited mismanagement, a reluctance by families to dedicate their children to sports careers and intense rivalry between bigger teams as reasons for the disappointing results.
“This was an unusual Olympics. There was intense competition between China and America and it was an unfortunate time with many injuries,” he said.
“We are discussing the results, not the causes. We are looking for heroes but this is not about finding heroes. The system should change.”
Silver medalist Ozkan, however, said poor facilities and a lack of sponsors were not insurmountable hurdles.
“I was the only one without a sponsor in the Turkish team. You do not need doctors, dietitians or to stay in five-star hotels to be successful. It only needs hard work,” she said during a break from training.
The 20-year-old Ozkan said she had already started preparing for the London Olympics in 2012 and was now working out eight hours a day, six days a week, with an eye on a gold medal.
Turkish youth and sports department general director Mehmet Atalay said his government had plans to improve sports organization which would help Istanbul’s Olympic bid.
“We organized the Black Sea games in 2007 and we will hold the European Basketball Championship in Turkey in 2010 and the World Tennis Cup in 2011,” he told Reuters.
“This will bring a serious advantage to Istanbul for winning the 2020 Olympics. These events develop sports culture and help us train new athletes.”
Young athletes were getting government support, he added.
“The government is allocating serious funds from the budget for sports. We pay salaries to 1,000 children between ages 11 and 17 with potential.”
Editing by Clare Fallon