One of the oldest sports events in Turkey, Kırkpınar, which pits oil wrestlers from all around the country against each other, began on Friday in the northwestern province of Edirne. This year’s 661st edition of the event has already broken records in terms of audience and wrestlers. A record 2,475 wrestlers signed up for the competition while organizers expect the highest spectator turnout since 2014, with 7,000 tickets already sold.
The competition, which started with a juniors’ bout on Friday, will end with finals between senior wrestlers who will seek to grab the coveted “golden belt” on Sunday. The event is broken up into 14 different categories based on the wrestlers' weights and ages.
This is also the first time the event will be held without restrictions introduced amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which limited attendance to the country's most popular oil wrestling tournament.
A total of 54 “başpehlivans” (chief wrestlers who won titles in earlier tournaments) will compete for the golden belt this year. Ali Gürbüz, who won the top title last year and in 2019 is viewed as the favorite to win this year’s event as well. The event was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic. According to the rules, he will become the permanent holder of the belt, made of some 1.1 kilograms (2.4 pounds) of gold, if he wins a third consecutive competition.
Ahead of the start of the competition, hundreds of people filled the areas surrounding Sarayiçi, the historic grass arena where the event is held, camping out on Thursday in tents. Hotels were already fully booked in Edirne, a province already popular with visitors from Balkan countries as it shares a border with Bulgaria and Greece.
On Sunday, a 40-minute final will pit the top wrestlers coming out victorious from Saturday’s events against each other. If neither side manages to dominate the other by pinning their rival's back on the ground, a “golden point” stage will determine the winner. Similar to a golden goal in football, golden points award the belt to the first wrestler who performs several successful moves to score points. Introduced a few years ago, the golden point system has been criticized for spoiling the bouts as wrestlers often hold back for 40 minutes to save their energy for the golden point stage.
Along with golden belt, wrestlers will be awarded monetary prizes by Edirne Municipality, $4,488 (TL 75,000) for first place, $2,872 (TL 48,000) for second place and $1,495 (TL 25,000) for third place.
Apart from Ali Gürbüz, Ismail Balaban is a top contender for the golden belt. With a record of wins in 2013 and 2017, Balaban, more popular nowadays for his victory in the Turkish version of the popular TV show "Survivor," will return to Kırkpınar after a two-year hiatus. Like Gürbüz and many other top wrestlers, Balaban hails from the Mediterranean province of Antalya, known for its tradition of raising the country’s champion wrestlers. Though his "Survivor" stint in 2021 and the pandemic changed his plans, Balaban says he is “well prepared” for this year’s competition after putting himself through tough training in his hometown. “I am good, I am ready. I want to win the golden belt for my fans,” he told Anadolu Agency (AA) ahead of the competition.
Serhat Gökmen, who lost to Ali Gürbüz in last year’s quarterfinals, has his eyes on the belt as well after attending a training camp accompanied by former chief wrestler Fatih Atlı. “The pandemic was a time of inaction for us but we tried to do our best by training hard,” he told AA.
Kırkpınar traces its history to the 14th century and legend has it that 40 soldiers deployed for the conquest of the modern-day Trakya region where Edirne is located often engaged in oil wrestling to train and pass time. According to legend, two brothers among the soldiers were so fixated on defeating each other that they wrestled for hours and eventually died on the spot. 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.