Idle hands are the devil’s tools. Or so it’s said. In Europe to supervise the press run of my upcoming book on Weird Sports (selfless self promo), I had some free time on my, um, hands.
Looking on my calendar, I was happy to see oil wrestling going on in Turkey. A perfect chance to visit a place I’ve always wanted to see, as well as meet up with a fun collection of foto friends.
In Turkey, oil wrestling – also called grease wrestling – is not considered a weird sport. Not at all. It’s tradition. This sports has been going on here forever. The annual Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling Championship will celebrate its 650th year in July. You could stir fry quite a few woks with all that oil.
Originally, my timing was perfect to catch the motherlode of oil wrestling in Kirkpinar. Then, they moved the dates on me. But a lesson I learned a long time ago is that sometimes – often times – Plan B or C works out just as well, if not better.
I discovered that Istanbul had a smaller, afternoon tournament outside of the city during my stay. With the help of my good friend, Ahmet, who now lives is Istanbul, we contacted the organizer to confirm the schedule. And to beware of a tall American photographer crashing the party.
When I pulled up in a taxi with Rock Star Parking, the organizer greeted me immediately, shook hands, exchanged masculine, French bisous, and then escorted me past the barricade. The organizer asked for my business card, and before I realized what was happening, he was on the microphone announcing my arrival on the PA to the folks in the stands. Wow.
I was already starting to feel like a Rock Star, when I then realized that the TV hostess was also talking about me. She turned to me and handed me the microphone.
Everyone was staring, smiling at me. I paused, smiled back and said the only thing I could think to say: “As-Salam Alaikum.”
The crowd roared back: “Aleikum Salam!”
I happened to be standing a couple feet from the live TV camera, which then swung in my direction. Without knowing what I was really doing, I found myself waving to the Turkish television audience. Wonder what folks were thinking while watching this spectacle from their homes.
(Yeah, one of those badass moments that comes with the job.)
Goes without saying, access to this event was spectacular. And despite the harsh midday sun, I felt I had many options to capture various layers, thanks to the ring of trees engulfing the open, straw wrestling area. The trees also made for welcome shade.
After years of photographing high school wrestling in dim, florescent-lit dungeons, I felt liberated shooting outdoors, in a foreign country, with such interesting layers. It also helped that they had many matches happening at the same time. The boys wrestled first (without oil); the men took the stage afterwards (with oil).
Wrestling is pretty macho. And with good reason. But the oil aspect, well, if these were women wrestling in the States, it’d have been some level of sexcapade. And not only do these men wrestle greased up sans shirt, the wrestling techniques also involve sticking your hands inside your opponent’s leather pants for a better grasp. (no joke)
When I later saw Ahmet, he told me that the Kirkpinar tournament is often visited by busloads of gay tourists. I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t. It wasn’t clear to me if these wrestlers realized their foreign fan base.
I was there for barely an hour before I was escorted to the picnic area and wonderfully force-fed. I had the most amazing grilled chicken of my life, so good, along with fried tofu, a soupy corn paste and fresh bread. (I passed on the sour yogurt.) I think Turks are underappreciated as being world class masters of the grill. George Foreman, you’re on notice!
While the largely-male crowd was watching the wrestling, I found the adjacent park PACKED with families. A visual gold mine. I felt a little self-conscious because I stood out so much – easily the only foreigner – stalking the playground with camera gear. But many of the folks had seen my grand arrival and the rest sensed that I was simply there to document the fun.
(I’m still trying to understand the relevance of the goat.)
I’m not sure how to wrap this up other than to say it was one of those days I was thankful to be a photographer. And to be a turkey that loves to travel.