The 658th edition of Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling, one of the oldest sports events in Turkey, kicks off on Friday. Wrestling fans and tourists from around the world will flock to the northwestern city of Edirne to see the major event that traces its roots to the early times of the Ottoman Empire.
Doused in olive oil and donning tight leather pants known as kıspet, shirtless wrestlers will try to take down their opponents on a grass arena where Ottoman troops are once believed to have trained.
For three days, wrestlers of all ages and weights will compete for the ultimate prize: a golden belt. This year's event will be more challenging as organizers, determined to revive the spirit of old-school oil wrestling, a sports widely popular in most cities of Anatolia, changed the rules for more action. More than 2,000 wrestlers hailing from all around Turkey will compete in a 40-minute, non-stop bout instead of a bout of 30 minutes that used to be extended 10 minutes more with a five-minute break if there was no winner. A win requires one wrestler to put his rival's back on the ground but it is a tricky affair as both men are covered in olive oil, making it almost impossible to get a good grip on the rival. Under new rules, the winner of a bout will be chosen by "golden points" handed out by referees if the 40-minute bout ends with both wrestlers still standing firm.
Although oil wrestling events are traditionally held in Turkey's other regions, particularly in Mediterranean cities, Kırkpınar is a major occasion and a popular tourist attraction that opens with a traditional parade in Edirne, a city bordering Greece and a former capital of the Ottoman Empire. From teens as young as 15 to veterans over 30, wrestlers vie for the most coveted title of wrestling tournaments of Turkey: head wrestler. The winner will be recipient of TL 51,000 in prize money provided by the local municipality, while the runner-up will be given TL 31,000. Last year's winner Orhan Okulu, a famed wrestler from Antalya where oil wrestling is wildly popular, especially in its rural regions, is among the top names pundits predict to win again. The defending champion already made history with six consecutive wins in Elmalı, another historic oil wrestling event and was Kırkpınar's head wrestler in 2015 too. Ali Gürbüz is another tough competitor who is expected to challenge Okulu in the final. Like Okulu, 31-year-old Gürbüz hails from Antalya and managed to reach the semifinals last year, before losing to Şaban Yılmaz. Gürbüz boasts two consecutive titles in 2011 and 2012. İsmail Balaban, who lost to Gürbüz last year, is making a comeback in Friday's event after winning titles in the Kızıklı and Çalı oil wrestling competitions this year. Balaban won top Kırkpınar titles in 2013 and 2017.
Şaban Yılmaz, a fan favorite with his lengthy "peşrev," a ceremonial introduction to the bout involving the wrestler circling his opponent, will return for another head wrestler title after his last victory in 2005. The 42-year-old who hails from the Black Sea city of Samsun, lost to Okulu last year with a point gap.
Kırkpınar traces its history to the 14th century and legend has it that 40 soldiers deployed for conquest of the modern-day Trakya region where Edirne is located often engaged in oil wrestling for training and a pastime activity. Two brothers among the soldiers were so fixated on defeating each other, they wrestled for hours and died on the spot, the legend says. Their burial site is where the present-day contest is held. During the reign of Ottoman Sultan Murat I, a wrestling school was established in Edirne and since then, an annual wrestling event has been held in the city. It was scrapped during the last days of the Ottoman Empire but was introduced again as a regular event in the early years of the Republic of Turkey.