Sunday, July 13, 2003

This Turkish tradition isn't slip-slidin' away

Olive oil wrestlers have shown slick moves for centuries

The Associated Press

EDIRNE, Turkey - For more than 40 grueling minutes, Hasan Tuna grabbed and tugged at his opponent's sweaty, oil-slicked body.

Suddenly, he was on his back, looking up at the sun in a field of uncut grass: Last year's Turkish olive oil wrestling champion was pinned.

"He slipped. There was no way he won," Tuna protested, fist raised.

The crowd roared at the quarterfinal upset by a newcomer, who staggered off the field, exhausted.

Every summer, hundreds of men like Tuna don intricately decorated, long leather shorts and pour olive oil over each other's backs, arms, and legs. Organizers say some 2 tons of oil were used in last month's contest.

"Just like the United States has American football and Spain bullfighting, we have oil-wrestling," said Kadir Birlik, an official from the Turkish Wrestling Federation.

The wrestlers - known as pehlivan - emerge, slapping their thighs as an Ottoman band plays. They stomp across the field, pausing briefly to grab their competitors and gauge their strength.

The contest in Edirne, a city in northwestern Turkey near the Greek border, is hardly just a show. To win, the pehlivan must bring his competitor's shoulders to the ground or pick him up and take three steps. For generations, there was no time limit and some matches lasted hours or - according to legend - days.

Today, if the wrestlers don't win after 40 minutes, the competition enters a 10-minute scored period.

"It's a tough sport. It's 40 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit) outside. Everything is slick and after a while, it's hard to move," said Tuna, who won last year's championship after the winner tested positive for doping.

Tuna's competitor this year, Saban Yilmaz, was defeated in the finals by Kenan Simsek, a 1992 Olympic silver medalist in freestyle wrestling.

Turks trace the contests back more than six centuries to when Ottoman warriors moved toward Greece. Edirne, formerly known as Adrianapolis, was the Ottoman capital before the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople, today's Istanbul, in 1453.

But there is some dispute over the sport's origin. It is practiced across the border in northern Greece and there is mention of wrestling with oil at the ancient Greek Olympic games.

"This is Turkey's sport. Turks started it first and Turks are still doing it," Birlik proclaimed.

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