The history of Turkish participation in the European Cross Country Championships is an outrageous story that, when fully examined, exposes the tragedy that Turkish Athletics has always been.
Between 1994 and 2011, Turkey competed in the men’s race 10 times out of the 18 years, and their women on nine occasions. During this time, the Turkish men only once achieved a top-30 individual position and their best team finish was 10th. Typically, Turkey would finish among the last two teams.
The story of their women remained similar to their men through to 2001, with a highest individual finish of 25th and a team finish of ninth – then something within Turkish athletics thinking changed dramatically.
The change first came in the form of Ethiopian woman, Hewan Abeye (aka Elvan Abeylegesse, aka Elvan Can). Abeye* was invited to Turkey after competing in the World Junior Women’s Cross Country Championship in Belfast in 1999.
In 2002, Abeye finished third at the European Cross event representing Turkey, improving to second the following year.
At this point in time, though, success through recruiting foreign talent wasn’t the main performance strategy employed by the Turkish Federation. This was to be achieved instead primarily through doping. Turkey grabbed another women’s individual medal through Binnaz Uslu’s second place finish in 2010. Both Abeye and Uslu have since served suspensions due to serious doping offences.
Success, however, still eluded the Turkish men – but this was to dramatically change in 2012 when Turkey deployed the next stage of its performance plan which was to subsequently deliver them individual medals in the men’s race every year since 2013.
Kenyan athlete, Paul Kipkosgei Kemboi (aka Polat Kemboi Arikan) switched his allegiance to Turkey in early 2012 and immediately contributed to giving Turkey its highest individual (7th) and team position (6th) at the 2012 European Cross Country Championships.
Buoyed by this success, the Turkish emphasis now shifted away from the Turkish women and their doping spotlight, and instead fully onto the men’s competitions.
The following year, Kemboi was to finish second, earning Turkey its first individual men’s medal. Turkey has since won 50% of all available men’s individual medals through Kemboi and Amos Kibitok (aka Aras Kaya) and all individual golds for the last three editions.
The Turkish transfer-of-allegiance strategy reached its pinnacle in 2014 when their men’s team achieved gold in both individual and team events – quite a contrast to 10 years earlier when their best finisher was 74th and their team ranking was last.
Not content now with only dominating the men’s event, in 2016 Turkey expanded once again into the women’s event, achieving gold and silver in the individual race through the performances of Vivian Jemutu (aka Yasemin Can) and Mirriam Jepchirchir Maiyo (aka Meryem Akda) with another gold in the women’s team competition.
The impact that African athletes transferring their allegiance to Turkey has had on European athletics cannot be underestimated. Of particular concern is that it is a deliberate strategy at the highest decision-making level of the Turkish Federation, an unprecedented direction for a European federation.
Many other European countries have had individual athletes that were born or transferred from African countries, but they achieved this transfer mainly through their own initiatives and not through a deliberate federation policy.
It’s possible Turkish officials reflected on the number of Moroccans competing successfully for France and Spain, or maybe the small number of other former Africans competing for other European countries, and then decided that this was where the future of athletics success was headed for all countries and so believed they were just following suit.
This comparison isn’t valid, though, as the majority of Africans competing for other European countries have strong family or residential ties to their adopted countries – unlike the Turkish representatives whose only connection to Turkey is their supplied travel document.
The most successful European countries at cross country are largely those that have a strong tradition in the sport dating back many decades. Turkey, however, does not have a strong cross country heritage and therefore doesn’t feel any obligation to respect the history of the sport. It only sees the sport as a vehicle to project its nationalist agenda through false sporting success. I find it hard to believe how the average Turk can really take any pride in hearing their national anthem being played due to the prowess of hired African athletes.
Is it really fair that the majority of European federations, who devote substantial effort and money to develop their athletes and coaches, are run out of the medals by a rogue federation that is too inept to build its own genuine high performance programme?
A good question is how does Turkey think this strategy will further their athletes in the long term once the IAAF close the door on sham transfers? The Turkish Federation has failed its own athletes more than anyone else through it’s enthusiasm for success through, first, drug use and then relieving itself of all athlete development obligations. The athletes of Turkey should be seething with anger at the foul deeds their federation has committed over the past 15 years.
What I see more than anything else is a complete lack of understanding of what sport is meant to be about. Moving forward, I think it is critical that all member federations are on the same page when it comes to the meaning of sport and sporting ethics.
Turkey and other countries have successfully exploited the IAAF’s transfer of allegiance system which, when initially designed, could not have imagined that a member federation would be so contemptible in its disregard for respecting fairness and the sport’s established practice.
Currently, the IAAF is figuring out how it can design a system of transfer of allegiance that takes it back to its original intent of allowing athletes to change nationality through legitimate reasons like marriage or committed residency.
Back in 2008, I transferred my allegiance from Great Britain to Canada, a country where I had lived for 12 years and held citizenship. There will always be a need for a legitimate transfer of allegiance process. Hopefully the IAAF will design a process this time around that will prevent its deliberate manipulation by countries looking to exploit the sport for their own egotistical reasons.
*Note that I have used the athletes real birth names instead of their assigned Turkish name. I refuse to give legitimacy to the ridiculous.
Jon Brown is a former GB international and three-time Olympian. Jon won the individual title at the European Cross Country Championships in 1996, finished in fourth-place in consecutive Olympic marathons and has run personal bests of 27:18 for 10,000m and 2:09.31 for the marathon. Jon now manages Run By Common Sense and helps others reach their potential through online coaching.