AP PHOTOS: Oil wrestlers battle for the title in a more than 600-year-old competition in Turkey

EDIRNE, Turkey — After nearly an hour of grappling with his opponent under the blazing sun, Turkey’s “Tireless Wrestler” was crowned the winner of the 663rd Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling Championships.

Yusuf Can Zeybek, from the Mediterranean province of Antalya, retained the title he won last year in a contest said to date back to the 14th century. The 30-year-old, who takes his moniker from the endurance he shows in matches, was among 40 wrestlers, or pehlivans, taking part on the final day of the competition Sunday.

The bouts, which are staged on a grass arena in Turkey’s northwestern Edirne province, were held under temperatures of 36 Celsius (98 Fahrenheit), causing one contestant to faint and require medical attention.

Zeybek triumphed in the 56th minute of his match against Mustafa Tas, the 2022 champion, winning the golden belt and 550,000 liras (about $16,800) in prize money.

In the sport, which is on UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list, wrestlers cover themselves in olive oil, making it more difficult for opponents to grab them. The winner is the wrestler who makes his opponent’s back touch the ground.

It is said to have begun in the 1360s when the second Ottoman sultan, Sultan Orhan, wanted to keep his soldiers fit and ready for battle. But oil wrestling has been practiced across the region for thousands of years.

The wrestlers are chosen from men who demonstrate moral character and must be invited by the Kirkpinar master. The invitation is delivered by sending a red-based candle to the nominated pehlivans at the beginning of March.

The wrestlers, wearing leather trousers called kispet, are covered in oil poured from a copper jug before the wrestling begins, and they engage in a highly ritualized procession to begin their bout. In the early stages of the tournament, dozens of wrestlers fight on a large grass arena.

Opening day Saturday saw 40 competitors flashing the ultra-nationalist “Gray Wolf” salute that previously caused a diplomatic row between Turkey and Germany.

The salute — holding the thumb and two middle fingers to form a snout while the outside fingers are raised as ears — led to a two-match ban for one of Turkey’s soccer players when he gave it at a match, a move condemned in Germany, the host of the European Championships. Turkish authorities have defended the sign as an expression of Turkish pride. Critics say it glorifies a right-wing group known for racism and violence against minorities.

Congratulating Zeybek, Sports Minister Osman Askin Bak said, “I would also like to thank all our wrestlers who competed in the historic Kirkpinar field of competition for their contributions to keeping our historic heritage alive.”


Wilks reported from Istanbul.

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