Oil wrestlers seek glory in Turkey’s age-old contest

ISTANBUL (AP) — It took nearly an hour of battling his opponent in the scorching Turkish sun for Cengizhan Simsek to win the tournament and join a long list of previous winners.

A very long list – this was the 661st Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling Championship, which was held in the western province of Edirne.

In the festival, which is on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, wrestlers cover themselves in olive oil, which makes it harder for opponents to grab each other. The winner is the wrestler who makes their opponent’s back touch the ground – or their “belly facing the sky”.

To the cheers of thousands of spectators and the tunes of drums and zurna flutes ringing in his ears, Simsek, 26, from the Mediterranean province of Antalya, was presented with the golden belt by Sports Minister Mehmet Kasapoglu .

“God granted me this. I thank God. I put the belt around my neck and achieved my dream,” Simsek said.

This year, more than 2,475 pehlivans, or wrestlers, registered for the event, the highest number ever, according to the official Anadolu news agency.

There were moments of joy, but also of tension. At one point, riot police were called in to secure the arena after the wrestlers clashed with the judges in the scorching sun.

The festival is said to have started in the 1360s when legend says that the second Ottoman Sultan, Sultan Orhan, wanted to keep his soldiers fit and ready for battle. But oil wrestling has been practiced throughout the region for thousands of years.

The wrestlers are chosen from men who demonstrate morality and must be invited by the master Kirkpinar. The invitation is issued by sending a candle with a red base to the nominated pehlivans in early March.

The wrestlers, dressed in leather pants called “kispet”, are covered in oil poured from a copper jug ​​before the start of the fight, and they engage in a highly ritualized procession to begin their fight. At the start of the tournament, dozens of wrestlers fight on a large grass arena.

The winner wins the title of “Baspehlivan”, or chief wrestler. Simsek was crowned for the first time after beating a group of established favorites.

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