Female Wrestlers Vie for Piece of Turkey's Heart

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Turkey's women's wrestling team is getting ready for the world championships in Istanbul next year and the 2012 Olympics in London. The athletes are finding it tough to break the gender barriers of a beloved national sport.

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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.

40-Member Team

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.

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