Main Body

Chapter 11 Sports in Turkey

By Muhammad Mansour

According to Yurdadon (1992), Turkish culture can be understood via the history of “physical cultural activities [which] document the nation’s values, its spirit, times and mentalities” (p.5). Turkey’s love of sports extends from such universally recognized sports as soccer (futbol), to unique regional sports such as camel fighting. Traditional sports extend back to the Ottomans (Green, 2001), and even further into antiquity (Poliakoff, 2018). There is evidence of both Hellenistic and Persian influences on Turkish wrestling traditions (Green, 2001). (The annual wrestling tournament of Kırkpınar dates back over 650 years (Yurdadon,1992)).  According to Yurdadon:

The successes of Turkish wrestlers in the modern Olympic Games until the 1968 Mexico City Games were not a coincidence but extensions of these historical and cultural sport traditions in Turkish culture. (p. 2)

Some of the earliest inscriptions of Turkic tribes in Mongolia and Siberia, circa the 8th century B.C., mention archery, horseback riding, and wrestling (Yurdadon,1992).


Football (soccer) was established as an organized sport just prior to the founding of the Turkish Republic, and helped cultivate the post-Ottoman Turkish national identity (Güney, 2017). Established at the beginning of the 20th century, Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe, and Beşiktaş remain the most prominent of the national futbol clubs (Güney, 2017). Non-team sports, such as sailing, rowing, bird watching, and ballooning, are also very popular. Sports are played with enthusiasm and often develop fan communities, especially futbol (Güney, 2017). Futbol matches are played in various arenas, such as the Telekom Stadium located in the Eastern part of Istanbul for the Galatasaray club and the Vodafone arena for Beşiktaş club. While futbol in Turkey is dominated by the Istanbul-based ‘big three’ mentioned above, other teams throughout the country can pose serious competition.


In recent years, basketball has also become popular in Turkey (Washburn, 2012) which hosted the 2010 FIBA World Championship. Turkey came in second to the United States in that event. The national team made it to the finals of the Eurobasket Cup in 2001, but lost the number one position to Serbia. The Turkish Efes Pilsen team was the national champion for the 1995-1996 season (Turkish Basketball Super League History).


As mentioned, some popular sports in Turkey date back to earliest civilization. Oil wrestling, for example, originated in ancient Greece (Harris, 1979), and evidence of wrestling exists for civilizations as ancient as Sumerian and Babylonian (Dellinger, n.d.). The key to oil wrestling is not about size or strength but about technique. It doesn’t matter how big your opponent is, as you are both greased up with oil and the first one to face his belly button to the sky loses the match (or the one who taps out from submission).


Camel fighting, a particularly entertaining sport which includes visual and musical performative elements (Berrakçay & Yükselsi̇n, 2015), originated with the Turkic tribes of Central Asia. The earliest recording of a camel wrestling match in Turkey dates back 200 years (Aydin, 2011). Two camels enter the field and use their necks as leverage in order to pin the other camel down. These aren’t typical camels: they are well fed and trained to fight (Aydin, 2011). According to Aydin (2011): “A camel can win by making the other camel retreat, by making the other camel scream, or by making the other camel fall” (p. 57). The sport has remained popular in Western Turkey as a way to celebrate Turkish heritage and attract people with festive events (Aydin, 2011; Berrakçay & Yükselsi̇n, 2015).


Lastly, cirit (pronounced “jerred”) dates back to Central Asia. In this sport, two teams have men who ride horses and launch javelins at their opponents. If a rider fails to hit the opponent and hits the horse instead, it shows that he is inexperienced in the sport and he is asked to leave the playing field. Cirit was used for battle training in the Ottoman period, but its origins are much older as part of horse-centered nomadic culture in Central Asia (Yurdadon, 1992). Erzurum, in Eastern Turkey, continues the cirit tradition with annual festivals dating back at least 200 years (Yurdadon, 1992).


Today, Turkish women are demonstrating that they can be just as competitive as men in sports. Hulya Sahin (a German citizen of Turkish identity), for example, has won numerous international championships and gold medals in boxing. Yurdadon (1992) observed that even in the oldest records of Turkic sport, athletic achievement was celebrated “regardless of gender” (p. 2).


Turkey has made great efforts to host the Olympics several times and continues to vie for the hosting position of various prestigious international sports events. They lost the bid to Japan to host the Olympics in 2012, but they were able to host the 2012 European Capital of Sports.


Sports are part of Turks’ daily lives and are built into the culture of Turkey. They use sports not only as a form of entertainment and enjoyment, but also as a way to communicate with the rest of the world. Turkey’s love for sports has taken them far on the global scene and they continue to impress the rest of the world with their talents.


Image of oil wrestling
Oil Wrestling.No machine-readable author provided. Math34 assumed (based on copyright claims). CC.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Works Cited

“Tokyo Wins Bid to Host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games.” Inhabitat Green Design Innovation Architecture Green Building, 9 Sept. 2013,


Washburn, Gary. (2012). Basketball boon in Turkey due partly to ‘The White Shadow’ – The Boston Globe. Retrieved October 19, 2018, from


Camel wrestling. (2017). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from

Güney, E. (2017). Supporter ownership in Turkish football. In B. García & J. Zheng (Eds.), Football and supporter activism in Europe: whose game is it?

Turkish Basketball Super League History. (n.d.). Retrieved October 19, 2018, from

Yurdadon, E. (1992). The development of sport in Turkiye (Turkey). Retrieved from


Poliakoff, M. B. (2018, August 26). Ancient Combat Sports. Retrieved October 19, 2018, from


Green, T. A. (2001). Martial Arts of the World: A-Q. ABC-CLIO.


Harris, H. A. (1979), Greek Athletes and Athletics, London: Hutchinson of London


Yalav-Heckeroth, F. (2017). 10 Things to Know About Oil Wrestling, Turkey’s National Sport. Retrieved October 19, 2018, from


Berrakçay, O., & Yükselsi̇n, İ. Y. (2015). Deve Güreşi̇ Ri̇tüelleri̇nde Müzi̇k Ve Müzi̇syenli̇k. MUSIC AND MUSICIANSHIP IN CAMEL WRESTLING RITUALS., 8(41), 1428–1443.

Aydin, A. F. (2011). A brief introduction to the camel wrestling events in Western Turkey. Retrieved from



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