8 September 2020

For Turkey’s Meltem Hocaoğlu Akyol, the postponement of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 didn’t merely mean she would have to wait an additional year between Olympic cycles. For the 28-year-old, it meant an additional year tacked onto an entire lifetime of waiting.

That’s because the sport she excels at – karate – was scheduled to make its long-awaited Olympic debut in the Japanese capital this year. Like so many other karate aficionados around the world, the anticipation of waiting another year to finally see their sport showcased on the biggest stage of all has been practically unbearable.

“Karate being included in the Olympics for the first time was something we couldn’t even imagine,” Hocaoğlu Akyol recently told Turkey’s Anadolu Agency. “Before, the biggest event for us was the World Championship. Now we have a dream of the Olympics. Participating in the Games became a big dream for me from the first moment it was announced.”

Hocaoğlu Akyol will not only get to see her sport make its debut at the Olympic Games next year, she may also be one of the competitors – one with a very good shot at winning a medal.

The Istanbul native was ranked second in the world rankings in the women’s +61 kg category heading into the 2020 Olympic year, and she appeared well-placed to book her ticket to the Games as qualifying tournaments hit full swing. But when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early spring and qualifying was suspended, all bets were suddenly off.

For reasons of fairness, the World Karate Federation (WFK) decided to revise its Olympic qualification process following the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decision to postpone of Tokyo 2020 to 2021. What seemed like a sure thing for Hocaoğlu Akyol earlier this year was once again in doubt.

Her focus now is to remain in the top four until May 2021, the new cut-off date for Olympic qualification. In the meantime, she is relying on her years of competitive experience and lessons learned under lockdown as motivation.

No stranger to international tournaments, Hocaoğlu Akyol has competed in WKF-sanctioned events around the world since 2009. But it was her time at the first two editions of the European Games that arguably prepared her best for Tokyo 2020 as they provided a first taste of the magical Olympic environment.

“The European Games were really joyful for me,” she said. “The atmosphere during the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, created by the athletes from different sports from all around the world, impressed me a lot.”

She in turn also impressed at both European Games, winning silver at Baku 2015 and again at Minsk 2019. “The medal I won in Minsk was very important for me in terms of the WKF ranking system … and it was a source of motivation for me during this break. I am very happy with the medal I received there. I think of this as a preview of the medal I will get in Tokyo. I will do my best to improve.”

The biggest obstacle standing in the way of improvement is of course the disruption brought about by the coronavirus, including the long delay between competitions. But with a few adjustments and a positive mindset, Hocaoğlu Akyol says she is coping quite well.

“My club sent [practice] mats to my house so I am continuing my training in my living room,” she says. “In addition, I try to do fitness movements with the chairs, couch, and water canisters in the house. Our federation continues our training with online videos. We also do yoga, Pilates, aerobics. With the permission of the Ministry of Youth and Sports, every athlete can continue running and doing fitness exercises in the gym allocated to them. I’m continuing my training this way.”

Aside from being a little frustrated at not being able to train with her club teammates or finding a proper release to burn off her energy, Hocaoğlu Akyol says she has learned some key lessons during the pandemic that will hold her in good stead in years to come. The most important, she says, is to stop procrastinating and take decisions quickly.

All things considered, Hocaoğlu Akyol is in a good place despite having to wait another year for her Olympic dream to come true. But as she readily admits, if it wasn’t for the dream she wouldn’t be in the position she’s in to begin with.

We wish Meltem all the best in her preparations and look forward to seeing her compete next year at Tokyo 2020!