The annual Kirkpinar oil wrestling festival will open July 20 in Edirne, Turkey and continue until the July 26 final round.
This oil wrestling competition is a tradition going back over 650 years and is said to be the world’s oldest annual sporting event. It is inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, where it is described as “strongly rooted in the practitioner community as a symbol of identity and continuity highlighting the virtues of generosity and honesty and reinforcing members’ bonds with tradition and custom, thus contributing to social cohesion and harmony.”
This annual competition has over 1,000 wrestlers competing for the “Kirkpinar golden belt” and the title “Baspehlivan” (chief wrestler). The wrestlers are stocky, well-built men of all ages, cultures and origins who train professionally to compete in the event.
The pehlivans wear long shorts made of buffalo hide called kispet and cover themselves in generous amounts of olive oil before the battle begins on a grassy field. Over 500 liters of olive oil are used during a tournament. The oiled skin of the competitors is slick and slippery, making it difficult to get a good grip on the opponent. Thus the challenge of this unique sport.
Last year, Fatih Atlı, from the Ladik district of Samsun, defeated defending champion Ismail Balaban to take home the coveted gold belt and the title of Başpehlivan.
The festival is launched with much fanfare, with 40 bands of drummers beating a drum called a davul accompanied by musicians playing a wind instrument called a zurna, as the Kirkpinar Aga (the sponsor or patron of the festival) announces the start of proceedings. The master of ceremonies introduces the pehlivans to the audience in a sing-song verse, reciting each wrestler’s name, title and skills, before a designated person pours olive oil over each of the competitors.
Before the wrestlers battle it out, they touch the earth using a ritualized gesture symbolizing their origin from the earth while at the same time receiving its energy. They then acknowledge and greet each other and begin their warm-up exercises.
Several paired-off wrestlers compete simultaneously with judges looking on to make sure the rules are respected. They have 40 minutes to beat their opponent, with an additional seven minutes of overtime if needed. The winner claims victory if he can pin his opponent’s shoulders to the ground, carry him above his shoulders, or if his kisbet gets torn in the process.