Thursday, February 16, 2012

Olympic athlete Elvan Abeylegesse loves her country

By Hilary Johnson
Copy edited and produced by Taylor Pool

What does it mean to become a citizen of a country? Does that mean you’d die for that country or fight a war for that country? Does that mean you would respect that country as if it were your own? After switching citizenship some may still feel tied to their native country in a way, but that isn’t quite as possible if you’re internationally representing the new land you now call home. 

Photo contributed by Salih Munir Yaras
Elvan Abeylegesse, born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, came to Turkey in 1999 when she was only 16 years old. According to her agent Salih Munir Yaras, she was competing for Ethiopia in a cross country championship. After visiting Turkey, she fell in love with the country and the opportunities it had to offer for training conditions and chances for quick advancement because of her skills. 

After she gained Turkish citizenship, many Ethiopians were somewhat angry with her. According to Yaras, after she broke the world record, Ethiopians made it difficult for her to train at her usual Ethiopian camps because of the feelings of abandonment. 

“Ethiopia is only in the view of the world because of runners and so they would be upset that other countries like Turkey are getting more of their publicity,” said Ethiopian native Netsanet Amderber Clemm, who now lives in Clarksburg, WV. 

Clemm also talked about feelings of abandonment the older generation of Ethiopians might have felt because Abeylegesse’s choice to live and work in Turkey. 

Abeylegesse exclaimed, “My country is Turkey… but that does not mean I totally ignore the country that I was born in.” 

Abeylegesse balances her Ethiopian and Turkish identity
Recognizing her dedication and love for his country, the Prime Minister of Turkey put a stop to the difficulties of training in Ethiopia. He spoke with various officials while visiting Ethiopia’s Prime Minister. From that moment on, Abeylegesse has maintained good relations with the authorities at training camps in Ethiopia and individual runners as well.

Although Abeylegesse actively trains in Ethiopia during the winter, she considers herself a Turk just like any other native, and implores her excitement when she sees the Turkish flag raised high before a race. 

Upon moving to Turkey and obtaining Yaras as an agent in 2007, Abeylegesse has received the silver medal in the 10,000m in Osaka, Japan during the World Championships. She has also gone on to win two more silver medals in the 5,000m and 10,000m during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Photo contributed by Salih Munir Yaras
Abeylegesse exclaimed, “It’s a fascinating feeling to win two Olympic silver medals and run below 30 minutes. It was an emotional rush for me to pass (Meseret) Defar in the 5,000m after running a 10,000m and also becoming the first person to achieve this in Turkey. I consider this as payment for the debt to all of the people that helped me by providing all of those opportunities for me.” 

The citizens of Turkey feel the same, maybe even more. Yusuf Ziya Unal, a sports enthusiast from Istanbul, explained his loyalty and love for her and said, “I feel as if she is my elder sister like another Turkish citizen, and I am proud of her!” 

With a great deal of support from citizens, coaches and mentors alike, she still faces challenges for the upcoming 2012 Olympics in London. She changed her trainer in 2009 and has not had a major year for except a 10,000m gold medal in the Mediterranean Games. At the end of the sport year, she got married and had a baby girl, Arsema. She only started serious training, for the London Olympic Games, recently in mid-December. She received help from her mother during the first four months after Arsema’s birth. Her parents still visit two to three times a year and her sister lives and works in Istanbul. With help from her family from Ethiopia and her loving husband in Istanbul, she is able to stick with her training schedule. 

With two Olympic medals, one wonders how athletes maintain their humility; this was never a question with Abeylegesse. According to Yaras, who finds humor in the story, in Berlin Abeylegesse lent her shoes to a fellow athlete and ethiopian, Meselech Melkamu, who left hers at the hotel. Melkamu was nervous to wear a different brand because her current sponsor might get angry. Finally Abeylegesse convinced her of what was most important – the race! Melkamu went on to win second place. 

“She has Turkish heart, she proved that when she lent her shoes in Berlin,” said Unal. From then on, she’s gained credibility and appreciation around the world.
With a wide range of success, Abeylegesse is a natural athlete who loves and appreciates running as if it were an art. She described it and said, “The feeling of the wind passing through my hair is an overwhelming experience. For me, running is liberty, competition, strength and the joyfulness after all. “ 

Heart stretches far and wide and her fans can be found in all places of the globe. Burak Pekmezci, originally from Istanbul but studying in Italy, said, “I can say that I am proud of her as a Turkish runner, and I will always support her as an athlete. I would like to use the following phrase from Atatürk, who is a founder of Republic of Turkey. He said ‘How happy is the one who says I am Turk.’”

No comments: