Hundreds of oil-soaked men, wearing only leather shorts, grapple in pairs on a field, their hands slipping off slickened bodies.
One, 23-year-old Tahir Borum, locks his arms around his opponent’s waist. Unable to force him down, he reaches in and grabs a leg, throwing him to the ground and winning the match after 35 minutes.
This is wrestling, Turkish-style. Every summer, millions of Turks are glued to their televisions for the oil-wrestling tournament in this western Turkish town.
“Endurance is the key here,” said Borum, standing on the edge of the field during the event earlier this month. “You can be much stronger than your opponent, but if you get tired after half an hour, you will lose.”
The sport has been traced to matches between warriors of the Ottoman Turkish empire on their way to conquer Greek towns in the 14th century. They smeared olive oil on their bodies to make it harder for their opponents, said Ali Gumus, author of several wrestling books.
Regular competitions were organized soon afterward and turned into a display of the power and endurance of Ottoman warriors. “Pehlivan,” the word for oil-wrestler, became an adjective for strength in Turkish.
According to legend, in the first competition, two Ottoman warriors wrestled for two days non-stop and died of exhaustion.
Edirne, once the capital of the Ottomans and before that the Byzantian city of Adrianapolis, has been home to the competition for almost a hundred years.
The tradition has helped make the less-greasy form of the sport a national pastime. Along with weightlifting, wrestling is the only sport Turks dominate internationally.
Last month, they won gold at five of the seven weight classes at the Mediterranean Games. In the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Turks won the super-heavyweight gold and several silvers and bronzes.
Like Japan’s sumo wrestling, oil wrestling is the stuff of tradition.
Drummers and flutists play tunes pumping up the wrestlers. The umpires wear baggy pants and silk scarves around the waist and the announcers evoke the wrestlers’ mighty ancestors.
A victory is possible by forcing an opponent’s shoulders flat on the ground, or picking him up off the ground and walking for three steps.
In 1977, a time limit was added. Now, if neither side wins in 40 minutes, they wrestle for 10 minutes with a scoring system. A modern-day freestyle or Greco-Roman wrestling match is only 5 minutes long.
Under a sweltering sun and in 104-degree heat, spectators from around the nation cheered heartily for their hometown pehlivans.
When Borum was called back onto the field for another round, he bathed himself using a large mug he shoved into a wide barrel of olive oil.
His oily hair shining under the sun, he joined the other wrestlers walking down the green field and slapping their hands on their shorts, a traditional way of asserting superiority over opponents.
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