Ismail Balaban, winner of the 656th Kirkpinar

Thirty-year-old Ismail Balaban, a farmer’s son from the Akmay village of Elmali beat Orhan Okulu to take the title of Turkey’s 2017 Kirkpinar olive oil wrestling champion today. Balaban fought hard for the title and was treated by medics during the match, before gaining victory over Antalya’s Okulu, the 2015 winner, and taking home 50,000 Turkish Lira ($14,132) in prize money.
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Balaban narrowly missed out on the title in 2013, when he was beaten by Ali Gürbüz. Gürbüz was later stripped of the title when he was exposed as one of 16 “pehlivan,” (oil wrestlers) who had tested positive for banned substances.

A record number of olive oil wrestlers totaling over 2,200 took part in Turkey’s 2017 Kirkpinar festival, held in the city of Edirne in northern Turkey.

2017 was not a Golden Belt year, as the sport’s rules state that a wrestler has to win the title of “Kırkpınar Chief Wrestler” for three successive years to be awarded the “Golden Belt,” a symbolic award that the winner holds for the following year. 62 “başpehlivan” (chief wrestlers) competed for the title; up from 56 in 2016.


The Kirkpinar festival took its name from the traditional short, leather pants “kıspet,” worn by the wrestlers, whose bodies are slathered with olive oil before they grapple for the coveted title on a grassy field.

Two tons of olive oil used to coat the wrestlers during the festival was supplied by Trakya Birlik, a local cooperative of oil seed growers. Dilşen Oktay, a fifth generation olive oil producer from Karaağaç told Olive Oil Times.

Oktay recalled that in the past, it had been suggested that sunflower oil could replace the traditional olive oil. This caused outrage among the wrestlers who insisted on using olive oil; believing that as well as being good for their skin, olive oil reduces the amount of pain caused by injuries and helps wounds to heal quicker.


Wresters enter the arena ready for battle at the Kirkpinar Turkish Oi Wrestling Festival, Edirne, Turkey.

Kirkpinar is believed to be the oldest sporting event in the world with a 650-year history. It was inscribed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage’s in 2010 and has been described as the world’s top oil wrestling event by Musa Aydın, head of the Turkish Wrestling Federation.

In 2016 Recep Kara beat Mehmet Y. Yeşil and earned the title of the 655th “başpehlivan,” (head of the pehlivans). Kara has held the title four times since his first victory in 2004.

Turkeys olive growers and olive oil producers fought their own battle earlier this year, to save the country’s olive trees from proposed changes to “The Olive Law,” which threatened smaller olive groves and would have left them vulnerable to being ousted by mines, industrial projects and housing schemes.

After widespread outrage, a heated debate and 32,000 people pledging support for the “Don’t touch my olive tree” campaign, the controversial article was removed, although industry insiders fear the government will attempt to reintroduce it at a later date.

The 2017 Kirkpinar festival coincided with the commemoration of a failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016. In a speech made in Istanbul to celebrate the failed plot, President Erdogan vowed to “rip the heads off” traitors behind the coup.

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