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National middle-distance athlete and world championships runner Süreyya Ayhan Kop won her first gold medal for Turkey at the European championship in Munich in 2002. At age twenty-three, she set a new world record for 1,500-meter distance running and beat the Romanian world and Olympics champion Gabriela Szabo with 3 minutes, 58.79 seconds. It has not been since Ruhi Sarialp’s success in winning the bronze medal in the triple jump in 1950 that Turkey has celebrated such a victory in athletics. In 2003, a silver coin and stamp were released in Turkey in commemoration of Ayhan’s achievements and in recognizing one of the finest Turkish woman athletes of all time. Ayhan is a national heroine for many young women in Turkey today.


Ayhan was born on 6 September 1978 in the Turkish town Korgun, Çankiri. Her father Ya?ar Ayhan, a former athlete and cross-country champion, was a role model and guiding figure throughout Ayhan’s childhood. Ayhan’s love for running began when she was a little girl. Ayhan’s career began when she was fourteen. As a junior high school student she started running competitively at the Athletics Training Center in Çankiri in 1992. She was discovered by her present coach and husband Yücel Kop at one of these local championships.

After high school, Ayhan attended the Sütçü Imam University in Kahramanmara? and received a degree in physical education. Because of her limited financial situation after graduation, Ayhan received great support by the mayor of Gaziantep, Celal Dogan, and Bogaziçi University Professor Deniz Gökçe who found sponsors to promote Ayhan’s career, such as the Turkish bank Yapi Kredi.

Ayhan held victories in the 800-meter (2:00.64) and 1,500-meter (4:03.02) races in Turkish competitions and ran in the semifinals at the Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. She became the first Turkish woman to win a gold medal for Turkey in 1,500-meter distance running at the Eighteenth European Championships in Munich, Germany. As of 2007, she is still an athlete of the Gaziantep Metropolitan Municipality.

Also during these successful years, Ayhan received much attention from the public because of her relationship with her coach Kop, who was married at that time. Their love affair became a subject for parliamentary debate when an Islamist deputy criticized Kop’s behavior as a coach and raised questions of moral values and responsibility. Zeki Çelik insisted that Kop should be fired for his amoral and irresponsible behavior and replaced by another coach. After the ministry began an investigation of Kop and Ayhan, the two wed in order to save their careers. Although Kop’s wife refused initially, she gave in later and agreed to sign the divorce papers.

At the same time, Turkish women’s right activists heavily criticized this conservatism of public officials toward Ayhan. As a result, Vivet Kanetti’s book Ko? Sürreya Ko?: ?ampiyon Olacagiz (2002, Run Süreyya Run) was published in support of the athlete and to question the attitude of the public toward its national heroine.

In 2004, another allegation against the athlete surfaced in the media regarding a doping scandal. During training in German, Ayhan withdrew from the competition because of an injured tendon. The allegations came from the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) that found Ayhan guilty in cheating on a pre-Olympic doping test and refusing to be tested on certain substances. The allegations were cleared but the incident resulted in the athlete’s withdrawal from the 2004 Athens Olympics. Because Ayhan did not comply with the testing procedures of WADA (World Anti-Doping Association), the IAAF suspended her from participating in competitions for two years. Ayhan will be competing in the IAFF world championships in Osaka, Japan in August 2007.


Name: Süreyya Ayhan (Süreyya Ayhan Kop)

Birth: 1978, Korgun, Çankiri, Turkey

Family: Husband, Yücel Kop

Nationality: Turkish

Education: M.A. in Sports, Sütçü Imam University, Kahramanmara?, Turkey


  • 1993: Turkish Stars Indoor Champion in 800 meter distance running, Izmir, Turkey
  • 1996: Places first at Israeli Championships, Tel Aviv, Israel
  • 1999: 1,500-meter winner at Turkish Athletics Championship, Izmir, Turkey
  • 2000: 800-meter winner at Clubs National Athletics Championship, Istanbul
  • 2001: Places first at Second Leg Competitions, Trabzon, Turkey; wins 1,500-meter race at Universiade, Beijing, China
  • 2002: Sets Turkish National and European record of 1,500-meter distance running at Eighteenth European Athletics Championship, Munich, Germany; winner of 1,500-meter race and sets Turkish national record at Memorial van Damme, Brussels, Belgium (Golden League); places first at Sixty-first ISTAF 2002, Berlin, Germany (Golden League); comes in first at Ninth IAAF World Cup in Athletics, Madrid, Spain
  • 2003: Places first at European Nations Cup; comes in first in the Seventy-fifth Weltklasse, Zurich, Switzerland (Golden League); first at Memorial van Damme, Brussels, Belgium (Golden League); places first at First IAAF World Athletics Final, Monaco


Turkey lacks a tradition of female distance running. When Ayhan ran the fastest time of the year and won in the 2002 the European and World Athletics Championship, Turkey’s history regarding this profession and women’s sports changed ineradicably. As Ergün Yurdadön argues regarding Ayhan’s success and the emergence of this Turkish Olympic prodigy, “misconceptions about sport, the abilities of women and the religion of Islam have been hit hard by her unique accomplishments.” According to Yurdadön, a well-known Turkish scholar and chair of Recreational Management at the United States Sports Academy, Ayhan is a “great painter who successfully integrates all contrasts and colors of religion, culture and politics.” Ayhan has not only become a national icon in Turkey, she is also a role model for many girls in the Middle Eastern world.


As Yurdadön describes, Ayhan was born in a country that does not give much attention to women’s sports. She is one of 1,632 licensed women athletes in Turkey. Her rise to prominence in world sports has raised questions of gender discrimination in sports in Turkey. The women’s right activist Filiz Koçali argues “In Turkish sports women’s branches are ignored. Football dominates the scene. Süreyya’s victory is therefore extraordinary. This is the victory of her own will” (Mater, Kürkcü).

Ayhan is seen as a real Turkish delight having been declared, at the age of twenty-four, the European Female Athlete of the Year in 2002 after winning the European and World Championship in the rubric of track and field.


Ayhan has become a role model for Turkey’s female athletes and youth. She is the first national female athlete and middle distance track runner to bring home a gold medal and has entered Turkey’s history of world records and thus changed the public’s opinion about athletics for the future. Her legacy manifests itself in the efforts of different organizations (such as the Turkish company Vestel) and their involvements in increasing the participation of Turkish youth in athletics and sports. To support young athletes on all levels, such projects provide scholarships and activities to further widen the popularity and interest toward athletics in Turkey.

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