Fri, Jul 11, 2003 - Page 22 News List

Olive oil wrestling champ slips

AP , EDIRNE, TURKEY

For more than 40 minutes, Hasan Tuna grabbed and tugged at his opponent's sweaty, oil-slicked body.

Suddenly, he was on his back, looking up at the sun in a field of uncut grass: Last year's Turkish olive oil wrestling champion was pinned.

"He slipped. There was no way he won," Tuna protested, fist raised in the air.

The crowd roared at the quarterfinal upset by a newcomer, who staggered off the field, dripping with oil, exhausted and barely able to speak.

Every summer, hundreds of men like Tuna don nothing but intricately decorated, long leather shorts and generously pour olive oil over each other's backs, arms, and legs. Organizers say some 2 tons of oil were used at this year's contest, held late last month.

"Just like the United States has American football and Spain bullfighting, we have oil-wrestling," said Kadir Birlik, an official from the Turkish Wrestling Federation.

The wrestlers -- known as pehlivan, a word associated with strength in Turkish -- emerge, slapping their thighs as an Ottoman band plays traditional drums and flutes. The pehlivans stomp across the field, pausing briefly to grab their competitors and gauge their strength.

The contest in Edirne, a city in northwestern Turkey near the Greek border, is hardly just a show. To win, the pehlivan must bring his competitor's shoulders to the ground or pick him up and take three steps. For generations, there was no time limit and some matches lasted hours or -- according to legend -- days.

Today, if the wrestlers don't win after 40 minutes, the competition enters a 10-minute scored period -- making the three-day tournament a bit friendlier for spectators.

"It's a tough sport. It's 40 degrees Celsius outside. Everything is slick and after a while, it's hard to move," said Tuna, who won last year's championship after the winner tested positive for doping.

Tuna's competitor this year, Saban Yilmaz, made it to the finals but was defeated by Kenan Simsek, who took a silver medal in freestyle wrestling at the 1992 Olympics.

Turks trace the contests back more than six centuries to when Ottoman warriors swept across Anatolia and moved toward Greece. Edirne, formerly known as Adrianapolis, was the Ottoman capital before the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople, today's Istanbul, in 1453.

"It's our tradition. It's Turks' ancestral sport," Tuna said at the open-air arena built for the competition.

The event has also become a gathering for Turkish nationalists.

Announcers read poems invoking the greatness of the pehlivan, the strength of the Ottoman warriors and praising Turkey.

But the sport is not without controversy.

Turkish pro-Islamic circles say the sport violates Islamic principles and that one move -- in which a wrestler puts his hand down the other's pants in an effort to flip him over -- is obscene.

There's also the issue of the sport's origin.

It is practiced across the border in northern Greece and there is mention of wrestling with oil at the ancient Greek Olympic games.

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