ISTANBUL, Turkey (WOMENSENEWS)--Three hundred wrestlers from 24 countries sweated it out at the 38th Yasar Dogu International freestyle wrestling tournament hosted here in February.
They each paid $75 a day to participate. At the end, the winning men divided up $4, 000 in prize money. For the 100 women, including 23 who were Turkish, there was no cash at stake. For them the rewards were medals, flowers and free accommodation.
That's the way it goes for women's wrestling in Turkey, said Ismail Nizamoglu, technical director of the women's team. "There is prize money for men at the competitions, but there is no prize for women. We protest and struggle to change this. It is not fair," he said.
Despite the lack of prize money and social acceptance, the female wrestlers are not swayed from their goal: the Olympics.
Nizamoglu, a former wrestling champion, was recently hired by the Turkish Wrestling Federation to train the women for the Olympics. The team is now practicing with an eye on the 2011 world wrestling championship in Istanbul and the 2012 London Olympics. It will be the team's first time at the Olympics.
"I believe that if we succeed, then support will automatically come," he said.
Women's freestyle wrestling was introduced in the Olympics in 2004, more than 100 years after male freestyle wrestling. Men's wrestling became part of modern Olympics in 1896 with the introduction of Greco-Roman wrestling. The Turkish national women's team was formed in 1999 and now includes 40 members. There are about 500 female wrestlers in Turkey.
Turkish male wrestlers, known as Pehlivan, have won 57 medals in the Olympics. Turkish oil wrestling is part of popular culture.
But women's international wrestling competitions, which Turkey started entering in 1998, are still battling a stereotype that assumes contestants have bulky muscles, are sweaty, uneducated and poor.
"They don't give importance to wrestling because it is quite new for women to be involved with wrestling," said Dilek Atakol, 21, a student in Afyonkarahisar's Kocatepe University's physical education department who has been a professional wrestler for nine years. "Our image is that we are rustic and manly but we like fashion, style, makeup."
Sumeyye Sezer, 19, a petite wrestler who turned professional seven years ago, knows what she's up against.
She said the body hugging one-piece costume is often criticized as too revealing.
"Other athletes wear shorts, a swimmer wears a swimsuit, but what we are wearing is outrageous for people. They don't like women wrestlers, they don't want it," Sezer said.
She and her sister Reyhan were introduced to wrestling by their high school gym coach, Ismail Erdogean, in her hometown of Afyonkarahisar, in western Turkey. "He is my mentor. He trains me and also pays for all my expenses," she said.
Her family is also very supportive, but she said not all wrestlers are so lucky.
The workouts are demanding: two-to-six hours a day, six days a week, for local and national tournaments, which are held two or three times a month. The team goes abroad at least once a month for international competitions.
But there is no proper training facility for the female wrestlers, Sezer said. Padded wall-to-wall mats required for women are a rarity. Most end up practicing pins, grappling, throws and takedowns on judo mats.
"I go to the stadium and work out under the stairs of the stadium. It is very cold. It smells. There is no place for me to take a shower," Sezer said. She said she loses 6 to 7 kilograms every year during training. The women's team does not have their own nutritionist so they often seek advice from the physician assigned to the men's team.
She said she has many back, neck and head injuries. But there is no health insurance for wrestlers, male or female.
Because of the negative stereotypes, it is difficult for the wrestlers to find partners to practice with. "We need male partners to practice," said Atakol, also a member of the Turkish female national wrestling team. "That is how it is done abroad."
After the women's team began winning medals and tournaments abroad, stipends started popping up according to their ranks.
Since 2009, local sports clubs began paying about $200 a month to some individual female wrestlers. The Turkish Wrestling Federation pays $250 to $350. The National Olympic Committee of Turkey pays a few wrestlers about $300.
Social Acceptance Long Way Off
Still, Itir Erhart, assistant professor in the media and communications department at Istanbul's Bilgi University, who specializes in gender and sports, says widespread social acceptance is still a long way off.
"Women athletes and wrestlers, they don't mix together," said Erhart. "Parents wouldn't encourage them. Friends would not like it. It could be hard for a female wrestler to find a date. It is really sexist."
Erhart said the sport of female wrestling is still considered kinky by many male fans.
In the 1990s, Turkish painter Bedri Baykam opened the Dadaist Bar in Istanbul, Erhart said, where oiled topless women clad only in skimpy bikini bottoms wrestled. Men cheered and many like them go to the stadiums, she said.
"They just take photos, they would cheer the girls. It is more like a fantasy than serious sports," she said.
Despite the negative atmosphere, Erhart said the women who take up wrestling do it with a nationalistic fervor.
"When you meet a tennis player she would be probably saying I worked very hard but the wrestlers on the other hand would say this is a Turkish thing. It is in our bones; in our blood," Erhart said.
Sezer can attest to that. Before she steps on a wrestling mat she thinks about her country and prays to God.
"I believe I can do something that will make Turkey proud," she said.
Bijoyeta Das is a freelance multimedia journalist. Her work is available at www.bijoyetadas.com.