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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Demanding Workouts

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

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