Heaving bodies, grunts, tight leather trousers and lashings of olive oil... Turkey's national sport verges on the ridiculous - but don't say that to the wrestlers who practise it. Andrew Baker reports on a messy business
Click to follow
YOU WOULD expect a wrestling arena to smell of sweat. But the overpowering aroma in the stadium at the Kirkpinar Festival in the town of Erdine in Turkey is not the sour smell of male perspiration, but something sweeter, fruitier: something you would normally associate with the kitchen rather than the ring. The explanation is simple. The Kirkpinar Festival is the grand championship of Turkey's oldest sport: olive oil wrestling.

Erdine is a historic town in the far north of Turkey, hard by the border with Greece and Bulgaria. It has several claims to fame. It was the capital of the Ottoman Empire for 91 years, and is celebrated both for the beauty of its ancient mosques, caravanserais and bridges, and for the 500-year- old Darulsifa hospital, which many years ago pioneered the use of music therapy. But for one week each June all this takes second place to the festival.

The wrestling is the highlight of the proceedings, which also include carnivals, concerts and feasts, so, for the final three days of the festival, thousands of spectators crowd into the grandstands around the arena, a field of soft, ankle-deep grass about 50 yards square. The place of honour goes to the "Aga", or tournament-master, currently a rotund businessman and former wrestler called Hussein Sulliyen. He is treated with the utmost respect: not surprisingly, for he provides all the prizes, not just money but horses, bulls, and rams.

Before the tournament begins, the wrestlers line up in the centre of the stadium for a prayer. Then, while a clarinet band plays, the wrestlers, clad only in knee-length buffalo-hide shorts and a thick layer of olive oil, perform the "pesrev": they walk three steps forward and three steps back; then they kneel, and with their right hand touch their knee, lips and forehead three times; finally, as one, they leap into the air, yelling: "Haydabre Pehlivain!" ("Come on, wrestler!"). The tournament is on.

There are, according to Robin Tomlinson of the British Amateur Wrestling Federation, more than 200 different types of wrestling in the world. Traditional Turkish wrestling is one of the very oldest. It is also the only variety to use olive oil. "We have our own traditions of wrestling in this country," Mr Tomlinson says. "Cumberland & Westmorland, Cornish and so on. But there's no tradition of using oil or anything like that." At Kirkpinar, by contrast, there is oil everywhere.

The oil is the same moon-flower olive oil that is used for cooking all over Turkey, and is applied by the wrestlers to make themselves difficult to grip. As an oil-wrestling match is won when one fighter picks up the other and carries him for three steps, it is obviously in the wrestlers' interest to make themselves as slippery as possible. They are allowed to call for more oil in mid-bout, and often do, and to that end it is stored in cauldrons around the arena and dispensed by old men with kettles.

The origins of the festival are associated in local folklore with the Ottoman conqueror Suleyman Pasha, who campaigned in the Erdine area in the 14th century. While resting in a meadow between battles, the legend runs, Suleyman's soldiers took to wrestling to pass the time. Two warriors proved particularly well-matched, and fought all day and all night. Neither would admit defeat, and as the sun came up both died from exhaustion. Their comrades buried them where they fell, and were astonished when, the next day, a spring of clear water emerged at the grave-site. The meadow was named "Kirkpinar", which means "40 springs"; wrestling contests have been staged there ever since.

Modern oil-wrestlers are not expected to fight to the death, but they still need tremendous stamina. Bouts typically last for 30 or 40 minutes, and, since many elimination bouts must be held before the final stages of the tournament at Kirkpinar, it is not uncommon for wrestlers to fight several bouts in a single day. Ahmet Tasci has won the Kirkpinar heavyweight title five times, and has the gold belt to prove it. A stocky, moustachioed man of 35 with an unbroken, hawkish nose, he started wrestling 10 years ago. "To be an oil-wrestler you must be very strong," he says. "Strong all over: feet, hands, legs. You have to be clever, too - there are many tactics." Tasci likens his sport to the marathon. "My longest day was in 1992," he recalls. "I was nearly four hours on the field. For training we do weights, cross-country running. You can carry on to the age of 40 if you look after yourself."

Tasci was born on a farm on the coast of the Marmara Sea, but has made so much money from wrestling that nowadays he leaves the cultivation of cherries, plums, apples - and olives - to his father, and devotes himself full-time to his sport. He is paid by his town, Karamursel, to wrestle on their behalf, and from the evidence of his Mercedes, Armani jeans, mobile phone and trophy-crammed lakeside home, he is paid well. Tasci plans to retire in 2000, by which time, he says, "My little boy Emir will begin his wrestling practice, and I'll make him a future champion."

Tasci is proud of the traditions of olive oil wrestling. "This is the sport of our ancestors," he says. "We think it must be the oldest organised sport in the world: our championships have been going on more than 600 years." Doesn't he ever get sick of the smell of olive oil? "No," he insists. "The smell doesn't come into it. There are some people who are allergic to olive oil, but I'm not. I still like to eat food prepared with it." Wrestlers from other regions, he explains, use cheaper substitutes like sunflower oil, although that would never do at Erdine.

Tasci has been beaten only once in the Nineties at the Kirkpinar festival: last year, when he accused his arch-rival, Cengiz Elbiye, of kicking and fighting "rudely". Tasci marched off the wrestling field in high dudgeon and lost by default. So when Tasci defeated Elbiye in the final stages of this year's competition, the crowd was beside itself with excitement. When Tasci went on to fight, and beat, Sezgin Yuksel in the grand final, his delighted supporters carried both Tasci and the mayor of Karamursel shoulder-high on a lap of honour.

The celebrations were just as spectacular in the junior class: 11-year- old Olgay Ince won the event this year and back-flipped all the way to the judges' box. But in defeat the wrestlers are inconsolable: they weep and wail, and temperamental outbursts are common. One competitor this year stormed the grandstand with a knife in pursuit of the judge who announced his defeat.

Away from the field of battle, the combatants are gentler souls. "I thought before I met them that the wrestlers would be just like boxers," says Jimmy Fox, a Paris-based film-maker who has been visiting the Kirkpinar Festival for 15 years. "You know, crazy people with cauliflower ears. But they are not like that. Many of them are essentially timid, not necessarily aggressive at all."

Fox laments the decline of the sport in the face of competition from football and basketball. "Oil-wrestling used to take place in all the little villages, at weddings and festivals and so on, but now it is harder to find," Fox says. "Erdine is the only big centre." There is still money in the sport, however, and Hussein Sulliyen, the Aga of the Kirkpinar Festival, is determined that it should not die. According to Ali Gumus, a journalist who is helping him to promote oil-wrestling, Sulliyen has put 50m Turkish lire (about pounds 600,000) into the sport. "All the time Aga is most popular," Gumus says, and one can understand why. On the final day of the Kirkpinar tournament, a ram is auctioned to the highest bidder, who then becomes the Aga for next year's Festival. Last June, Hussein Sulliyen paid 9m lire - around pounds 100,000 - for the ram. It was a lot of money for a sheep, but the Kirkpinar Festival was safe for another year. !