Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling: Is A Picture Worth A Thousand Words?

Article by: Chip Conley|@ChipConley

Mon July 08, 2013 | 00:00 AM

As seen on AFAR

One mainstream guidebook included the racy heading in describing this 652 year-old tradition: “Enjoy watching groups of grown men dressed in leather and doused in olive oil grappling with each other?” Yes, as is true of so many cultural traditions, it’s easy to mistake what this festival is all about.

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Kirkpinar is all about honor, not “on him.” The 1,000 wrestlers who participate are considered “pehlivans” or brave, honorable warriors who represent what’s best in a healthy society. Yes, they do wear water buffalo-hide long shorts (kisbet), but this is to emulate the costume of the elite band of Ottoman imperial bodyguards. They coat their body in olive oil (more than 500 liters will be used during the three-day tournament), something they learned from the Greeks that makes it harder to get a grip on one’s opponent.

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They are competing for the title of “bas” or the head or top wrestler and there are multiple categories in which to compete, none of which has anything to do with size or weight. While, in the old days, there was no time limit and people, on rare occasion, matched to the death, today there’s 40 minutes to beat your opponent and, if nothing is conclusive, then an additional 7 minutes of overtime for the judges’ scoring. A win comes in one of three forms: pinning your opponent’s shoulders to the ground simultaneously, carrying him above your shoulders three steps, or having your kisbet torn.

Each competitor in the 64-person top category being announced

Each competitor in the 64-person top category being announced

After the competitors are announced, they do this unusual strut with their hands going vertically up and down and slapping their leather shorts, finishing with a short prayer. Again, it makes for great visuals.

And, then, they give each other bear hugs as a show of sportsmanship but also to spread the oil.

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And, the next thing you know, there’s nearly three dozen wrestling matches on the grass that have broken out with lots of referees making sure no one is breaking the rather liberal rules (fingers in the eyes).

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While there may be rules, the most surprising visual that is perfectly permissible is trying to grab inside your opponent’s leather shorts in order to get greater leverage to throw him to the ground.

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Yes, I know this can look misleading, but it is part of the warrior spirit of Kirkpinar. There’s also an announcer who recites poems to motivate and encourage the wrestlers. The same announcer has been doing it for 48 years and he’s retiring next year in case you want to apply. They do love their poetry in Turkey. Between the announcer whipping up the crowd and the spirited folk musicians on the sidelines, it creates a bit of a tribal feeling as the band’s tempo has an effect on what we see on the field.

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A wrestler can be given an “ihtar” (a warning for being too passive) if they have just succumbed to fighting and aren’t providing their competitor a worthy opponent

A wrestler can be given an “ihtar” (a warning for being too passive) if they have just succumbed to fighting and aren’t providing their competitor a worthy opponent

And, there are factions in the stands that are quite partisan cheering on their hometown favorites (maybe 1% of the audience is women). It’s costly to get in for the average Turk, approximately $40 per ticket.

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It seems like there might be lots of injuries, but the most dangerous risk seems to be olive oil in the eyes as that’s what led to a temporary cessation of some matches.

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This tradition starts young in a boy’s life as being a champion oil wrestler is tantamount to being Kobe Bryant who, by the way, is the star of a Turkish Airlines ad campaign. So, there’s a whole part of the tournament dedicated to the youngsters.

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What was interesting about the younger wrestlers was how much more emotional and animated they were as they wrestled.

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There was one particular match that riveted the stadium as it was probably the most energetic match of this particular Saturday (the main day is Sunday when the championships happen).

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And, then there are times when you’ll see both the adults and the kids on the field at the same time.

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All in all, it’s quite a spectacle and sort of in keeping with my Il Palio experience of reconnecting with my medieval manhood.