The Prime Volleyball League, currently underway in Hyderabad, is not only providing Indian players with a glitzy platform but also hoping to introduce the sport to India’s prime time audience. One friendly voice helping to bridge the gap is that of former Turkish player Başak Koç. Having blazed a trail for female sports commentators in her own country, Koç is looking to expand her horizons.
“Can you believe this is my first time commentating in English,” exclaims the 40-year-old, who has worked for premier channels like Eurosport and has been part of broadcast teams at the Olympic Games since 2008. “It is a big challenge for me. It can be better. I am thinking so fast and I have to find the right word for the right moment.”
Even though Koç’s English is a work in progress, she understands the semantics of volleyball better than most. The Istanbul-native was recruited by Eczacıbaşı, the first Turkish volleyball club to win the women’s European championship title, at the age of 12. Since then she has represented the national team and played for notable sports clubs like Galatasaray and Fenerbahce, better known worldwide for their men’s football teams.
While volleyball is still a fringe sport in India, it is one of the most popular games in Turkey. Women’s volleyball in the country dates back to the 1910s and the national team, known as ‘Filenin Sultanları’(Sultans of the Net), is ranked No 4 in the world.
Sport can be fickle and the shelf-life of an athlete very short. Keeping that in mind, Koç worked towards a degree in TV journalism while she was at the peak of her volleyball career. “I was in the national team also,” she says. “There was no time to sleep. Just education and being a professional is really something. But it is a good combination for job opportunities. It gave me a chance to remain a part of the sports ecosystem dominated by men.”
Koç was determined not to be the token female host in a sports cast. “I think in many countries, they choose a beautiful woman on screen,” she says. “But I wanted to show them that the gender doesn’t matter, it’s just about doing the job the right way. We should be looking at who is a good worker, who is doing the job well?”
After graduating from Istanbul Bilgi University, Department of Television Journalism in English in 2002, Koç started looking for opportunities in sports broadcast. Despite being a recognized figure in volleyball, her first assignment came in cycling, with the prestigious Presidential Cycling Tour of Turkey. She works with the national cycling and athletics federation and has also commentated on swimming, mountain biking and beach volleyball. Though she has become a prominent ‘voice of sport’ in Turkey, it hasn’t been without a struggle against prejudice. “In Turkey, there are two rival channels who broadcast volleyball,” she says. “One channel just concentrates on international tournaments, the other works more on national events. I work for the guys who do the international championships. The other side, I don’t think they want me to go there and take the microphone. It’s the way they are thinking; this kind of mindset is there.”
Koç is a pioneer in her field but she maintains that women in Turkey have the freedom to choose their life path. In case that feels like a stereotype about Arab women crumbling, it is interesting to note that women in Turkey won the right to vote in 1930, more than a decade before those in Greece, the supposed birthplace of democracy. The former volleyball star believes what helps her hold her own in a male-dominated profession is her knowledge about the sport and her ability to humanise the moment. “A lot of commentators talk only about the action happening on the field,” she says. “I try to bring the players’ stories. It’s not just the game it’s about life also. It’s nice to give people some insights on how their preparations went, their families and their dreams.”
Her latest assignment has brought her to India, a country she has so far only seen through the bio-secure bubble. “They don’t have much time. Each team plays six games,” she says about the seven-team Prime Volleyball League, which concludes on 27 February. “In the six games, they have to show what they are made of. They didn’t have much time for pre-season, may be only two-three weeks. Creating a team is not something you can do in three weeks. They are trying to understand the methodology. Rubbing shoulders with foreign players will help a lot. But you have very talented Indian volleyball players who can play in Europe or anywhere else.” Even though she is still learning about Indian volleyball and the players, Koç is confident the sport is set for a spike in popularity.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.