Turkish oil wrestling (also known as grease wrestling) is the English name for the traditional Turkish martial art, yaglı güres. It is a Turkish folk sport, steeped in ritual and tradition, and the Turkish national sport. The wrestlers, called pehlivan (from Persian pahlavan, meaning “champion” or “hero”), cover themselves with olive oil mixed with water and wear only kispets (leather short britches) when they wrestle.
Controversy has surrounded yaglı güres due to increasing interest in the sport from Gay men, both in Turkey and internationally. Much of it stems from pictures on the internet of shirtless, muscular wrestlers reaching into each other’s kispets in order to get a better grip on their opponents.
With roots in Turkish military legend, yaglı güres is closely tied to nationalism and ideals of manhood. Organizations that sponsor the sport insist there are no homoerotic elements, and officials seek to prevent an openly-Gay male presence at matches. Elimination of anything suggesting homoeroticism, however, does not erase what is intimate, often transgressive, and sometimes affectionate physical contact between men that is part of the tradition.
Such contact subverts standard heteronormal borders marking the difference between publicly acceptable masculine competition and camaraderie on one hand, and homoerotic performance on the other, for both wrestlers and audience. As such, yaglı güres represents a tradition that highlights homosocial competition, man-to-man affection, and homophobia within a growing debate concerning what may publicly be defined as homoerotic.
Yaglı güres is done by males placed in categories according to age and weight who strip down to their kispet, a pair of short leather britches that go from waist to knee. The name of the wrestler is written in metal studs over the top of his rear end. The men wrestle barefoot in a field of grass.
The competition is steeped in ritual. There is a mehter band that plays traditional music favored by the Janissary warriors from Turkey’s military past. Opponents will walk together, hands joined, to show their good intentions toward each other.
They will also move together in the peshrev, an exercise/dance with martial and spiritual significance. The contestants rub olive oil mixed with water all over their bodies in a ritually prescribed manner. After applying it to themselves, they put it on each other.
When fighting, wrestlers reach deep inside each other’s pants (a maneuver called paça kazik) as they get a grip on each other. Rules dictate that all contact with the penis, testicles, and anus must be gentle. For this reason, great care is taken to seal off any possible entryways into the kispet by tying it tightly at the waist. If a wrestler’s trousers fall, he loses the match.
Between matches, wrestlers will lie exhausted together in the grass, often with their bodies touching, completely at ease with each other.
The biggest competition for yaglı güres is the Kirkpinar Games, a three-day tournament held in early summer to determine the Turkey’s baspehlivan (chief champion). According to legend, a group of forty soldiers stopped for the night, and some started wrestling for sport. Two brothers wrestled until midnight with neither of them winning, and they continued until both of them died. After burying the two soldiers under a fig tree, their comrades marched to battle and were victorious. They returned to the fig tree and found a spring where the graves had been. They named the spot Kirkpinar (“Forty Sources”).
Tradition says that the historical Kirkpinar Wrestling Contests have been held in this field since 1362, thus making it the site of the world’s oldest continuous sports competition.
Men’s sports that are tied to nationalism and martial prowess, such as American football, are often framed as necessarily heteronormal. Yaglı güres has only recently been framed openly as homoerotic after the Western interest in the sport increased. Gay tourists started to frequent the Kirkpinar Wrestling Contest, including a group called the Turkish Bears (Bears are Gay men who favor facial hair and body hair, and are not concerned about extra body fat).
This has caused controversy since the sport is avowedly heteronormal, regardless of how homoerotically suggestive it is. The Turkish Bears, however, have been vocal in demanding the right to attend Kirkpinar, openly and without censure.
Crowther, Nigel B. Sport in Ancient Times. Westport, CN: Praeger, 1977.
Di Folco, Phillipe. Fight. San Francisco: Fitway, 2007.