Mediterranean Games in Mersin start with fanfare, controversy, hope

Mediterranean Games in Mersin start with fanfare, controversy, hope

MERSİN - Hürriyet Daily News
Mediterranean Games in Mersin start with fanfare, controversy, hope

Dancers perform at the opening ceremony of the 17th Mediterranean Games, which brings together more than 4,000 athletes from 24 countries in Mersin. DHA photo

The Mediterranean Games started with much fanfare, medals, controversy and hope that the event could turn Mersin into a sports powerhouse.

The southern Turkish city will host the multi-sports event until June 30, in which more than 4,000 athletes from 24 countries across three continents will compete in one of the biggest sports events Turkey has ever hosted.

On June 21, Tunisia’s Khalil El Maoui became the first gold medalist with his victory in the men’s 56kg weightlifting. Turkey did not have to wait too long for its first medals, with weightlifter Bünyamin Sezer winning one gold and one silver in the men’s 62kg competition. In the women’s taekwondo, Hatice Kübra İlgün and Rukiye Yıldırım won silver medals in the 57kg and 49kg final bouts respectively. Turkey is bidding for its most successful performance in the Mediterranean Games yet, at least to surpass the 34 gold medals claimed in 1993.

Turkey’s Youth and Sports Minister, Suat Kılıç, said the Games could be pivotal for Mersin, and Istanbul, which is currently running for an Olympic bid.

“With those Games, Mersin will be one of our powerhouses in bringing athletes,” Kılıç said at the opening ceremony late on June 20. “The steps that we took in Mersin will be inspiring for Istanbul’s 2020 candidacy.”

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reiterated Turkey’s intent to host the Olympics, saying the country wanted “to show the same hospitality in Istanbul as well.”

Erdoğan’s speech was remarkably more restrained than his recent public addresses, especially regarding the Gezi Park events, which started as protests against a central park renovation project before turning into widespread anti-government rallies. He sent out messages of peace to the region, and the most talked-about part of his speech was his referring to the Mediterranean as the “White Sea.”

The opening ceremony was dominated by a dramatic, loud, yet a little too slow choreography that focused on the history of the Mediterranean and Mersin folklore before going on to embrace some highlights from the Anatolian culture. While it was all about the show on the northern front, down south in the city, there was tension. Police intervened against a crowd protesting Erdoğan with tear gas and water cannon. The local organization committee had played it safe to let the right ones in; Kılıç admitted that the ministry “allocated 20,000 [of 25,000] tickets to protocol” seemingly in an attempt to avoid letting a fiery crowd in. Prime Minister Erdoğan was booed in stadiums before; at the 2010 World Basketball Championship final in Istanbul and the 2011 opening of the Türk Telekom Arena.

Even without the medals, Mersin and Turkey have already won a lot. Turkey has fulfilled its promise to deliver the Games on time, finishing the construction of 11 brand new facilities in a space of 18 months. For Mersin, on the other hand, this is a serious chance to leap out of the shadows of its two neighbors: the hot tourist spot Antalya and always-strong Adana. As a city that has tried to combine some aspects of both characteristic cities, Mersin could find itself as the heart of Turkish sports, as Minister Kılıç put it, if those beautiful facilities are used to develop local talent after the closing ceremony on June 30.

Over the next 10 days, some of the finest athletes from the Mediterranean will clash for the medals as Mersin, a coastal city that is never short of sunlight, will try to use its chance to shine.