Ali Gürbüz claims his third title at Kırkpınar. Photo courtesy of Haber Ne Diyor

Ali Gürbüz has defeated last year’s champion, Orhan Okulu, in the final match of the 658th Kırkpınar olive oil wrestling championship.

Gürbüz claimed the title of başpehlivan — or head wrestler — in front of record-breaking crowds in the northwestern Turkish city of Erdine. He takes home a prize of 51,000 Turkish lira ($9,060) and has redeemed himself in the eyes of many commentators.

Oil wrestling unites people across our country, and I’m proud of being part of this ancient tournament that has been going on for centuries.- Ali Gökçen, 25-year veteran of Kırkpınar

After winning back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012, Gürbüz was famously disqualified from the 2013 semi-final after testing positive for banned substances. He also made it to last year’s semi-final, where he was defeated by Şaban Yılmaz, the 2005 champion.

In order to claim his third title, Gürbüz defeated Hamza Köseoğlu in his semi-final match, while two-time former champion Okulu defeated Mehmet Yeşil, the runner-up in 2016, in his semi-final bout.

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Gürbüz and Okulu had met twice before at Kırkpınar, with each wrestler having previously won one match against the other.

This year’s edition of Kırkpınar broke last year’s record for the number of wrestlers participating, as 2,380 Turks from across the country grappled on grassy fields over the course of the week. Gürbüz’s victory came in front of the largest live and television audience that the event has also ever seen, according to the Anadolu news agency.

Kırkpınar is widely considered to be the oldest sporting event in the world, dating back to the mid-fourteenth century, and was recognized in 2010 as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage event.

According to legend, the first edition of the event took place in 1357 when a group of Ottoman soldiers stopped near Erdine. While they were waiting near the former capital of the Ottoman Empire, 40 of the soldiers began wrestling to pass the time. After the rest had finished, the final two continued fighting into the night and both were found dead the next morning.

There was no winner that year, but since then the event has been held annually with participants wrestling in pairs for a week until only one man is left standing.

“Oil wrestling unites people across our country, and I’m proud of being part of this ancient tournament that has been going on for centuries,” Ali Gökçen, a 25-year veteran of Kırkpınar, told Anadolu news agency. “It reflects our culture.”

Kırkpınar wrestlers wear only a kıspet — the short, leather pants after which the event is named — and grapple with one another while covered in olive oil. It is estimated that about two tons of olive oil is used each year during the event.

The match begins with both combatants locking their hands together and keeping their heads close. In order to win, one of the fighters must knock his opponent onto his back and pin him or lift him into the air. If this does not occur within 40 minutes then the referee calls time and awards a golden point to the wrestler he believed to be superior.

The olive oil makes it very difficult for the wrestlers to get a grip on one another, so they are allowed to grab the pockets of the opponent’s kıspet. Wrestlers also say that olive oil reduces the pain caused by injuries and helps their wounds to heal more quickly.

Gürbüz defeated Okulu for the second time at Kırkpınar in order to claim his third title. Photo courtesy of Haber Ne Diyor.

Kırkpınar has always been popular in Turkey, attracting thousands of spectators each year, and is becoming increasingly popular with foreign tourists visiting the northwestern city as well.

“Lots of tourists come to see Edirne’s cultural and historical sites,” Mustafa Kabak, a local hotel employee, told Anadolu news agency. “But when the festival kicks off, it’s a whole different story, as an incredible number of tourists arrive in the region.”

“The demand is so high during the Kırkpınar festival that it’s almost impossible to find a single vacant room,” he added. “In fact, there are local residents who leave the city and rent out their houses to tourists.”

Among the foreign nationals who have been spotted at this year’s edition of the competition were Japanese, Bulgarian, Russian, and British tourists. Roughly 3.8 million visitors come to Erdine each year, with many coming specifically for Kırkpınar.

“Honoring the country’s old tradition is truly beautiful,” Mariana, a local baker, told Anadolu news agency. “In addition to the spiritual satisfaction, we also reap the benefits by earning more and serving more.”

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