The great taste and benefits of olive oil are unquestionable. But in Turkey, olive oil has some other purposes that might surprise you. It is used in a traditional sport called “oil wrestling”. As one of the most popular sports in Turkey, oil wrestling has a long history dating back to the Persian era around 1065 B.C. In this interesting sport, two wrestlers cover themselves with olive oil before wrestling and try to find the perfect balance for winning. Before they start to wrestle they scream the famous expression “Hayda Bre!” in order to get each other excited about the wrestle. It’s like a warning, or almost like throwing down the glove to each other.
They wear tight short leather trousers called “kispet” weighing around 13 kilograms (almost 30 pounds). Made of water buffalo leather, kispets are the only item of clothing worn by oil wrestlers. They are also most important because kispets can effect the results of the game. With their bodies oiled, a wrestler will try to get a hand inside his opponent’s kispet in an attempt to get a hold and throw him onto his back.
The tournaments are like big fairs with music, food and celebrations. It’s not only sharing a sports event but also perpetuating an ancient tradition. Turkish oil wrestling was first done officially in 1347 when Suleiman Pasha, son of the 2nd Ottoman Sultan Orhan Gazi set up a temporary camp near Edirne district of Turkey.
The legend is told that during this camping, his crew of 40 men played music, enjoyed food and drinks as well as practiced oil wrestling with each other. The sports turned into a never-ending contest where the two wrestlers were found dead because of exhaustion. They were buried under a fig tree and the following year when Suleiman Pasha returned to the grave with his troops, they saw that there was a spring formed around the grave. Today the area is known as “Kırkpınar” which literally means “Forty Springs” and the most famous oil wrestling tournaments happen here every year.
In Turkish the wrestler is called “Pehlivan” which also has a meaning like “hero”. Each wrestler has an apprentice ( “çırak” in Turkish) in training and when the master wrestler quits the arena, the “chirak” takes it over to continue the tradition. In the tournament, there are thirteen categories, each with a 1st, 2nd and 3rd place winner. These categories are not set by weight only but also according to size, age and track record. The only exception is the top category Chief Wrestler (“Baş Pehlivan” in Turkish) where match ups are decided by a lottery in front of the crowd. The age range for example goes from 12 to 40 in modern tournaments.
Kırkpınar is a three-day long event where the president of Turkey arrives on the third day to watch the finals. And before the finals, the municipality organizes an auction where the bids are placed on a ram. The highest bidder becomes the “aga” of the next year’s Kırkpınar as well as a sponsor who organizes dinners, events and festivities. So at the end of the tournament, the Baş Pehlivan prize is given by the president, the aga and the mayor. Last year in June, the 649th edition of historical Kırkpınar oil wrestlings went on for a week and, on the first day, about 500 kg of olive oil was used to cover the wrestlers’ bodies. In 2011, the 650th edition of the matches will be held between June 20th-26th.
There’s also a spiritual side of oil wrestling which is about finding the “balance”. Oil makes it really hard to achieve this goal but olive oil wrestling is more about strength and endurance than clever moves. In this case, olive oil may not be for tasting but definitely offers a great taste of an ancient sport to experience.