Cengiz Yağız, former chairman of the Turkish Taekwondo Federation (TTF), has called for a detailed investigation into incidents surrounding the death of Seyithan Akbalık during a match at the Luxor Open Taekwondo Tournament in Egypt on Feb. 16.
Akbalık died on Feb. 16 after going into cardiac arrest on the mat. Earlier this week, Yağız said that the incident might even be considered murder due to gross negligence on part of the authorities.
The former TTF head says he is filing a criminal complaint in regard to the case, which he did not immediately file out of respect for the family's loss. “As far as I can see, this case is trying to be closed. It's being made to sound as if the family is at fault, as if they closed their eyes to their boy in order to get a medal,” he said.
“Everyone is passing the blame; the federation, the athlete's club, the General Directorate of Sports, the Surgeon General's Office and the trainer of the national team are all saying, ‘If we had known we would not have given him permission [to compete]',” he said, adding, “They are obligated to know [the health status of their athletes].”
The fact that Akbalık had acted under the supervision of the family doctor is not a valid excuse for not ensuring that taekwondo practitioners are fit for competition. A more specialized doctor is required in such instances.
According to Yağız, the role of the General Directorate of Sports -- and specifically, its health committee -- is clearly laid out. The role includes ensuring that athletes undergo periodic and systematic health checks. “Did this health committee perform its duties?” the former TTF chairman asked, adding, “If it had done its job, then it would have known that our athlete had a health problem.”
Death of an athlete
Akbalık was in the third round of preliminaries in the 63-kilogram weight category at the Luxor Open when he suddenly went into cardiac arrest. He was treated immediately and rushed to the hospital. According to his coach, Akbalık had last competed in May. The athlete had to take time off due to a heart rhythm disorder and palpitations.
The family doctor said it was not an obstacle to taekwondo and eventually gave him permission to compete. He was prescribed medicine for his condition, but his family has reported that he frequently forgot to take it. They also noted that they do not know if he took it on the day of the match.
Akbalık and his family were concerned about the medication falling into the category of banned substances, which is perhaps one reason for his reluctance to take it regularly. However, they should have had the support of the federation when dealing in such matters.
The 21-year-old was buried the day after his death in his hometown of İzmir in Turkey and remembered by taekwondo athletes around the world.
The first ever Luxor Open took place on Feb. 15-17. Athletes, including 13 Turkish representatives, were competing for points toward attending the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
The 21-year-old athlete started out in the sport in his hometown of İzmir and it quickly became a passion for him. He was a European youth champion in 2009 and a member of Ulaştırma Spor Kulübü. His younger brother Eyüp also practices taekwondo.
The athlete's father stated that as a boy, Seyithan had always expressed his desire to become a “martyr,” which is what the Turkish authorities use to designate someone who dies while in service to the country, usually during military service. He is being hailed as a “martyr” because he was representing Turkey in international competition when he passed. This is a nice sentiment for the family, but if negligence was involved in Akbalık's death, then this alone will not provide justice.
“We hear that health checks are being done. We hear that athletes are being screened in [training] camp. We want follow up on whether past athletes such as Seyithan have been checked,” Yağız insisted, calling on the Ministry of Sports to take ownership of the situation.
Indeed, steps should be taken to insure such an unfortunate incident does not happen in the future. Health checks should be more thorough for any athletes competing on a professional or international level. Turkey's authorities must take the issue into their own hands, rather than trying to pass the blame off on the family and its doctor.
“This is murder. It is negligence,” Yağız stated, adding, “The federation failed to do their job and perform their duties according to the regulations."