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"Turkish Wrestlemania" By Stephen Kinzer

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Posted 22 December 2003 - 13:05

"Turkish Wrestlemania" By Stephen Kinzer

Turkish Wrestlemania

At a 640-year-old tournament, competitors are slathered with olive oil and the winners bathe in public acclaim.

THERE IS ONLY ONE WRESTLING TOURNAMENT IN THE WORLD at which contestants use tons of olive oil. It is held each year in western Turkey, and its tradition reaches far back into history.
Rules for the matches have changed only slightly over the years. In olden times, some bouts went on for hours or even days, since the only way to win was to pin one's opponent to the ground. Some contestants expended so much energy that they died on the field. Now it is also possible to win on points, and matches are stopped after forty-five minutes.
But in most other ways, the one-on-one combats staged every summer closely resemble the first ones held nearly 700 years ago. Wrestlers are stripped to the waist, wear specially designed leather trousers, and enjoy the boundless respect of their countrymen. Most important, they begin fighting only after being drenched with olive oil from head-to toe. Three tons are consumed this way at each year's tournament.
Oil wrestling tournaments have been held in Turkey every year since the first ones were staged as tests of strength for Ottoman sol- diers and amusements for their rulers. Now the three-day event is not simply a sporting test but a festival that attracts a colorful cross section of Turkey, from gypsy families who camp near the stadium to appliance manufacturers who display their newest refrigerators and microwave ovens. It reveals an aspect of this multifaceted country that many visitors miss.
Although Turkey is in many ways a modern nation that em- braces its European heritage, it still revels in its ancient Turkish history. Many of the same Turks who cheer for soccer or basket- hall teams also love the three traditional sports that reflect the Central Asian origin of Turkish peoples. One is camel fighting, another is the fast-moving horsemanship and javelin-throwing competition called drit, and the third and perhaps most evocative is oil wrestling.
The Ottoman Empire is often thought to have been established in 1453, when Sultan Mehmet II crushed Christian Byzantium by conquering its capital, Constantinople (now Istanbul), and establish- ing a Muslim dynasty in its place. But in fact the Ottoman house was founded by Sultan Osman more than a century and a half earlier, and it was during his reign that the first oil wrestling tournaments were organized. They were held, as they are today, on the outskirts of Edirne, the Thracian city formerly known as Adrianople.
Edirne is near Turkey's border with Greece, two hours west of Istanbul by car, and the rented minivan in which I made the trip with a few friends passed through the plains where Osman and other early Ottoman sultans marshaled their troops for expedi- tions that would ultimately propel them to world leadership. Today the city of around 150,000 is out of the mainstream and not visited by many tourists. That is unfortunate because it boasts some fine architectural treasures, including a grand mosque built by the sixteenth-century architect Sinan that some connoisseurs consider the finest in Turkey. But at the beginning of each sum- mer, Edirne attracts thousands of people who watch some of the country's most admired athletes test their skills.
After parking our van, my friends and I walked toward the con- crete stadium. A veritable carnival had sprung up on the adjacent grounds. It was centered around an entire circus, complete with scary rides for kids. Bypassing the circus, I spent an hour walking past scores of booths th4t sold an extraordinary combination of wonderful crafts like hand-painted ceramic plates and intricately carved chess and backgammon sets,juxtaposed with great amounts of kitsch-like plastic kites decorated with skull-and-crossbones motifs and heart-shaped red pillows embroidered with "I Love You" in English.
As is common when large numbers of people gather in Turkey, some of the picnics spread out by women for their families looked overwhehningly appealing, better than what one could find in any restaurant. But I knew from experience that it is dangerous to stop and admire these homemade banquets, because one will inevitably be invited to sit and join in. Then one is a prisoner for hours, eat- ing marvelously but unable to say goodbye.
So we walked slowly past, eating only what vendors were sell- ing. I bought a sandwich made of lamb meatballs, onions, sliced tomatoes, and spicy peppers, while one of my friends wolfed down a chicken kebab.
In the background we could hear rhythmic drumming from the stadium. We stopped to see two exhibits of photos of oil wrestlers that were certainly not intended to be homoerotic, but seemed so nonetheless; the sport is said to have developed a gay following in recent years.
We had bought tickets in advance, and found our gate by one of the photo shows. An usher showed us to our seats and brusquely refused to take my proffered tip. This was the third and final day of the tournament and we had come to see its climax.
The wrestlers were powerfully built, but looked nothing like the intricately toned men who display their physiques in body- building magazines. At one side of the quadrangular grassy field, a corps of volunteers doused each contestant's naked chest, back, and shoulders with oil, which is supposed to make the competition more difficult than ordinary wrestling, a sport in which many of these fighters also compete. Once oiled, the combatants skip across the field in lines, about half a dozen at a time, slapping their knees and jumping as they move forward. Each man faces off against his designated opponent. Several matches take place at once, each with its own referee. Points are won by turning a rival upside down, pinning one of his shoulders to the ground, or executing other maneuvers.
Because the matches last so long, they seem more like stylized dances than quick-paced contests. Thankfully, it is not necessary to understand the rules to appreciate the surges of activity and seem- ingly calm lulls, which the fighters use to gain subtle tactical and psychological advantage.
Matches go on for most of the day, and spectators watch re- spectfully. Many take this tournament very seriously, occasionally breaking into cries of encouragement, triumph, or anguish, but otherwise remarkably focused.
Besides the drumining, the matches are accompanied by recitals of traditional poetry. Announcers sing the praises of "Ye, oh great wrestlers" and recite verses with lines like these:
Every woman can give birth,
But not every boy can be a wrestler.
The undisputed king of modern oil wrestling is a former fac- tory worker named Ahmet Tasci. Considered a superman because he continues to win even though his is well over forty, he is an eight-time champion in the heavyweight division. The only man to have defeated him in the last decade is a whippersnapper in his mid-thirties named Cengiz Elbiye. Ideally, the two should face off in the final match; the tournament I saw featured what the man sitting next to me called "an early final" as the two drew each other as rivals in the quarterfinals.
More than 700 contestants participate in the oil wrestling tour- nament, most of them in the free-weight category but also young- sters, some not yet into their teens, who are classed by age. The eyes of every aficionado, however, were on these two as they faced each other. It was the classic confrontation of an aging champion with a rising challenger.
The match had been underway for more than half an hour when suddenly, so fast I am not sure I actually saw it, the veteran Tasci smashed his younger opponent to the ground, pinned his shoulders, and was pronouncecL the winner yet again. He had ef- fectively won his ninth title. Elbiye, his defeated rival, remained on his knees with his face pressed to the ground for several minutes. I couldn't tell if his face was wet from tears or oil. That is certainly how he wanted it.

Stephen Kinzer also contributed "A Dazzling Kaleidoscope" in Part One and "Ye Pipes, Play On" in Part Two.

"Turkish Wrestlemania" By Stephen Kinzer

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