Orhan Okulu, last year’s runner-up and the winner of the competition in 2015, has won the 657th edition of the Kırkpınar olive oil wrestling championship today in the northwestern Turkish province of Edirne.
He did so in front of thousands of spectators from all over Turkey as well as the rest of the world.
Okulu was the last man standing after 2,228 wrestlers competed in 14 matches over the course of the previous week. According to Musa Aydın, the president of the Turkish Wrestling Federation, this year’s participation was the highest yet.
Okulu defeated Şaban Yılmaz, the winner of the 644th edition of the competition, to become the başpehlivan — or head wrestler — of 2018 and take home the prize of 50,000 lire (about $10,300).
Okulu defeated Serhat Balcı in his semi-final bout, which lasted much longer than that of Yılmaz. Yılmaz, in turn, defeated the disgraced Ali Gürbüz, who was stripped of his 2013 championship after testing positive for banned substances, in his semi-final match.
Kırkpınar is thought to be the oldest sporting event in the world and was recognized in 2010 on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
“The traditional wrestling […] reflects our values and identity,” Edirne Mayor Recep Gürkan said. The event has become a major tourist attraction for the region, drawing tourists from far and wide to witness the spectacle for a small fee.
According to legend, the first edition of the event happened by accident in 1357. A group of Ottoman soldiers stopped near present-day Erdine. Forty bored soldiers started wrestling to pass the time. After the rest had stopped, two continued into the night and were found dead the next morning.
There was no winner that year, but since then the event has been held annually with the participants wrestling in pairs for an entire week until one man is left standing. The wrestlers wear only a kıspet — the short, leather pants after which the event is named — and are covered in olive oil.
The wrestling begins with the men locking their hands and keeping their heads close. In order to win the contest, one of the fighters must knock his opponent on his back and pin him or lift him into the air. The olive oil makes it very difficult for the wrestlers to grab each other, so they are allowed to grab onto the pockets of the opponent’s kıspet.
Roughly two tons of olive oil are used to cover the wrestlers for the duration of the festival. In previous years, sunflower oil has been suggested as a cheaper replacement, but this was met with widespread antipathy from the wrestlers. They prefer olive oil, saying that it is better for their skin, reduces pain caused by injuries and helps wounds to heal more quickly.
This year’s competition was originally scheduled for July 2 to 8, but due to the presidential and parliamentary elections, the Turkish wrestling federation postponed it to this past week.