Fenerbahçe's Euroleague victory 'is for Turkey'

Quality of Turkish sports risen over past decade as Turkish society became more democratic and Turkish economy expanded

Anadolu Agency

Fenerbahçe's recent European basketball championship – not Turkey's first European sports championship but the first in a major men's team sport – certainly got noticed on the Atlantic’s eastern shores. Most in North America probably missed it, but not only because the NBA playoffs dominate current sports news there.

The most important reason is that Fenerbahçe's success does not fit the U.S. press narrative. If Barcelona or Real Madrid had won, the European basketball championship would have garnered more attention in North America. But a Turkish team?

Most Americans encountering the news would wonder how it was possible because, if one judges only by the reports in the U.S. media, Turkey is ruled by a dictator.

Even as Fenerbahce's fans headed home after a night of celebrating on the streets, the New York Times once again had a fright piece up on its web page. But that has been the NYT’s narrative since the moment that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's political party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), was first elected to government in November 2002.

The AKP’s and Erdogan’s repeated victories in transparent democratic elections have not spurred that publication to reconsider its stance.

Instead of an article about Fenerbahce's impressive success on the parquet, the NYT preferred to portray Turkish NBA player Enes Kanter, an unrepentant promoter of Fetullah Gulen’s cult, as a victim after his Turkish passport was nullified by the Turkish authorities.

Though Fenerbahce is the Turkish team that Kanter originally played for, even that apparently is not sufficient for the NYT to mention who lifted Europe's most important basketball trophy. Maybe the NYT also didn’t want to mention that the European Final Four took place in Istanbul, or that the Euroleague's primary sponsor is Turkish Airlines?

Even worse for the NYT, the Euroleague championship game was broadcast live all over the world, so viewers in more than 200 countries and territories could see for themselves the contrast between what the international press writes about Turkey and Turkish society’s reality. It was a weekend to inspire pride in all Turkish sports fans.

So it is no mystery why few on the northwest side of the Atlantic will learn that a Turkish basketball team brushed aside opponents on its way to a spectacular success for Turkish sports. Those who do notice will wonder at the disconnect between what they read in the Western press about Turkey, and the success of a Turkish sporting club.

First of all, in order to achieve a major sports championship, more than just money is necessary. Most importantly, a European-type sporting club must be well-organized, and possess the technical knowledge and resources to plan and construct a team that can compete at the top level of European sports.

Fenerbahce’s victory, which comes in its third straight appearance in the Final Four of European basketball’s most important club championship, illustrates the organizational competence that Turkish sporting clubs are now able to achieve.

Organization comes with experience, hierarchical decision-making, and stability. None of which, of course, would be possible if Turkey were truly some sort of dictatorship. Few would care about such matters if no prospect for economic betterment existed, or if political openness was not present.

If Turkey were some sort of non-democratic authoritarian state, the resources necessary for Fenerbahce's success also would not be available. Fenerbahce is a private sporting club, so their revenue sources come from their club members and their club’s organization.

Besides basketball and soccer, Fenerbahce sponsors a number of other sports, from swimming to table tennis and track-and-field. This makes Fenerbahce an extensive organization that has a budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Fenerbahce is also financially transparent, in accordance with the standards set by European sporting federations. If Turkey were a dictatorship, would this level of organization on the private level be possible? Authoritarian governments detest any sort of large, independent organizations, which they see as potential threats, so they are generally not possible in such societies.

Similarly, sponsors and advertisers are an increasingly important aspect of Fenerbahce's success, as they are in all Turkish sports. Endorsement deals and advertising are, of course, types of investment, but authoritarian states have a notoriously difficult time attracting investors since the rule of law is weak and all are subject to the autocrat's whims.

In contrast, Fenerbahce's success at attracting sponsors and advertisers illustrates a general truth in the Turkish economy: despite all of the fear mongering in the Western press, investment in the Turkish economy continues, while Turkish economic growth advances steadily.

And now that the prospects for political stability have been greatly improved by the passage of the April 16 constitutional referendum, the Turkish stock market has begun to reclaim some of the ground lost since May 2013. None of this would be possible if the Turkish government were truly dictatorial.

A final neglected detail is the fact that foreign athletes make up a highly visible component of Turkey’s sports scene. Turkish clubs continue to attract major international sporting figures, and neither the Gulen cult’s failed coup attempt, nor the violence perpetrated by extremist militants, nor the scare articles abroad deter them from coming to compete in Turkey.

European women's volleyball has been a Turkish monopoly for more than five years, and Turkish teams are now a dominant feature of European women's basketball. In men's team sports, Turkish teams are now starting to achieve more consistent success. And all of this is happening despite the political events of the past four years.

The quality of Turkish sports has risen over the past decade as Turkish society became more democratic and the Turkish economy expanded. In other words, sports success has followed political and economic reform.

Those who refuse to comprehend this development will doubtlessly continue to turn out hate-filled content for whatever international publication they work for. But Turkish society, the majority of which does understand the massive accomplishments over the past fifteen years, has great cause to feel positive about the future.

In the meantime, Turkish citizens can relish an unprecedented sports accomplishment that comes after a period of intense political instability and tragedy.

As Fenerbahce's American-born center, Ekpe Udoh, told the press after the championship game's conclusion, "This is for Turkey".