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Turkish olympic achievements dominated by wrestling and weightlifting

11 Jul
Written by Marc Guillet
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Turkey was invited to the Olympic Games for the first time in 1907. The debut of Turkish athletes competing on that international level was during the 1908 Summer Olympic Games in London. From 1908 to 2008 Turkish athletes got 37 gold medals, 27 silver medals and 24 bronze medals. A total of 88 medals. Ten of those were won by women.

Turkish Olympic achievements are dominated by two traditional Turkish sports: wrestling and weightlifting. Freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling developed from the centuries old Turkish tradition of ‘oil’ wrestling. Those wrestlers are called ‘pehlivan’. During Olympic Games Turkish athletes got 28 gold medals for wrestling and 8 gold medals for weightlifting.

Only in Seoul (1988) a Turkish competitor broke world records. ”, Naim Süleymanoğlu, nicknamed “The Pocket Hercules” because he combined a very small stature (1.47 meters, approx. 4 feet 10 inches) with great strength, consecutively broke six world records in the 60 kg weightlifting category. Turkish athletes also broke three Olympic records: by Nurcan Taylan (weightlifting, 48 kg women, Athens 2004), Taner Sağır (weightlifting, 77 kg men, Athens 2004), and Halil Mutlu (weightlifting, 56 kg men, Sydney 2000).

Since its first Olympic Winter Games in 1936, Turkey has yet to win a medal in any of the winter sports. Turkish athletes have competed in Alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, and figure skating. Figure skater Tuğba Karademir was the flag-bearer for Turkey at the 2006 Winter Olympics, where she placed 21st. As of April 2010, she was ranked 44th in the world by the International Skating Union (ISU).


The translator of Baron Pierre De Coubert, the founder of modern Olympic Games, during his visit in 1907 to Ottoman Turkey was a Galatasaray High School student named Aleko Mullos. He was the first athlete of Turkey, attended the 1908 London Olympic Games in the gymnastics category and won nothing.

Turkey could not get any achievement in 1912 Olympic Games either. In 1920 the Turks were not invited to compete in the Olympic Games in Antwerp (Belgium), because Ottoman Turkey was seen as one of the initiators of World War I together with Germany and Austria. During the 1924 Paris Olympic Games the young Turkish Republic that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established in 1923 did not win any medals.

Greco-Roman wrestler Tayyar Yalaz (in the 67.5 kg category) just missed bronze during the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics and got the fourth place. Because of the distance and the travel expenses Turkey did not attend the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games. Turkish athletes got their first historical achievements during the Olympic Games of 1936 in Berlin. Ahmet “Mersinli” Kireççi, freestyle wrestler in the 79kg category, got the bronze medal and the first ever Olympic medal for Turkey. Two days later, Yaşar Erkan won Turkey’s first gold medal competing in the same category. In freestyle wrestling contestants can use holds above and below the waist. Greco-Roman wrestling allows only holds above the waist.

After World War II Turkey won six gold, four silver and two bronze medals during the 1948 London Olympics. Only medal in athletics: bronze in the long jump category. The rest of them again in the freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling.

Turkey got its best results in 1960 during the Rome Olympics. Turkey won seven gold and two silver medals; all for wrestling. In that year Turkey was number 6 in the overall ranking of medals by country.

Four years later, in Tokyo 1964, Turkey got two gold, three silver and one bronze medals, in 1968 Mexico City Turkey got two gold medals for freestyle wrestling.

During the 1972 and 1988 Olympics Turkey won one silver medal in each for wrestling, and in 1984 games in Los Angeles there was only one bronze medal for Turkey. After the 1960 Rome Olympics the decline of Turkish achievements continued until 1988.

Seoul in 1988 saw the rebirth for Turkey. “The Pocket Hercules” Naim Süleymanoğlu, who had defected from his native communist Bulgaria to turkey in 1986, broke six world and nine Olympic records. By lifting three times his weight he got a lot of publicity and won for Turkey the first gold medals outside the wrestling competition.

Süleymanoğlu  got golden medals in 1992 Barcelona and 1996 Atalanta and became the first weightlifter to claim gold at three different Olympics.

In the 1996 Atalanta Olympics, Turkish athletes were the most successful in 36 years. They won 4 gold, 1 silver, and 1 bronze medals. Two gold medals for weightlifting, and the rest for wrestling again.

In the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, Turkey claimed 2 gold and 1 bronze for wrestling, 1 gold for judo, and 1 bronze for taekwando.

In neighboring Greece they fared better and won ten medals in the 2004 Olympics in Athens. In the Chinese capital Peking four years later it was down to seven. Most for wrestling, weightlifting and other martial arts.

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