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A SPORTING TRADITION, KIRKPINAR OIL WRESTLING

Turkey’s great sporting tradition, oil wrestling, was born in the town of Kirkpinar, a few miles from the present-day border with Greece, at the beginning of the fifteenth century. Almost every year since then, boys and men traveled there from across the country to test their strength and skill. This is the only wrestling tournament in the world at which contestants use three tons of olive oil.

Rules for these matches have changed only slightly over the centuries. In olden times they could go on for hours or even days, since only way to win was to pin one’s opponent to the ground. Some contestants expended so much energy that they died on the field. Now it is also possible to win on points, and matches are limited to forty-five minutes. But wrestlers still fight stripped to the waist, wear specially designed leather trousers and enjoy the boundless admiration of the countrymen. Most important, they begin fighting only after being drenched with olive oil from head to toe.

Once oiled, the competitors skip across the field in lines, slapping their knees and jumping as they move forward. Drummers in Ottoman costume keep a steady beat, as matches are about to start the announcers sing the praises of “Ye, oh great wrestlers” and recite verses like this one:

You cannot get wood from a willow branch.

Every girl cannot be a woman.

Every woman can give birth.

But not every boy can be a wrestler.

Lovers of this sport say it is psychological as well as physical. Because matches go on for so long, combatants cannot fight without interruption. They spend much time circling, grunting, feinting and trying to intimidate each other. When they sense an opening they charge, grab their opponent, often between the legs, and try to smash him to the ground. Pinning an opponent’s shoulders to the ground for three seconds, or throwing him down more often than he can throw you down, is what it takes to win.

The undisputed king of modern oil wrestling is a former factory worker named Ahmet Tasçi. He is an eight-time champion in the heavy-weight division, considered a superman because he continues to win even though he is more than fifty years old. The only man to have defeated him since he rose to greatness in the 1980s is the whippersnapper in his mid-thirties named Cengiz Elbiye. On the day I saw them face off I realized I was seeing not only a match but the classic confrontation of aging champion versus rising challenger.

Reference: Stephen Kinzer, “Crescent and Star: Turkey between two Worlds", Farrar, Strauss and Girous, 2001.

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