Another reason to visit Turkey: The Wrestling.
Flickr photo by Available Light
As a small boy in Canada in the mid 1980s’ my knowledge of Turkey was limited to the fact they won plenty of medals in wrestling at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. At this point I should really fact-check that as my memory grows poorer every year and that may be false but it’s the impression I was under anyway so… At times I imagined a country where everyone walked around in red wrestling suits ready to Greco-roman at the drop of a hat.
Turkey existed surrounded by the Soviet Bloc and I assumed that secretly it must be communist as well; which of course a significant chunk of Turks and Kurds at the time wished was true. I also figured they had more moustaches per capita than anywhere else and only ate kebabs but these impressions may have been added later on.
Not much change occurred in my thinking until my early 30s’ when I entered the Republic of Turkey for the first time as the chef on our Orient Express Bicycle Tour. At the border the first new impression was the picture of Ataturk on the wall of the immigration office. Like most people outside Turkey of my age (or if not my age then of a similar level of ignorance) I had no idea who this was and why as it would turn out his picture was spread across picture frames in every shop, restaurant, pharmacy, government office, and teahouse in the country. Like Chairman Mao, Ho Chi Minh or even Thomas Jefferson, Ataturk, which literally translates as “Father of the Turks”, is seen as the creator of the Nation, without whom the country would not exist as it now does. You can check out a bit of his story here… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mustafa_Kemal_Atatürk it may not mention it but I’m pretty sure he could wrestle with the best of them. He died in 1938 but his image stands strong. For how much longer it’s hard to say, as Turkey is a country changing quickly: culturally, economically and politically.
To go back to the wrestling stereotype: on our entry into Turkey that year with the Orient Express Tour we were allowed to camp in the middle of the town of Kirklarelli. It was a very curious arrangement where at once we felt extremely welcome and at the same time like we were part of a bizarre cultural exhibit for the local children. The person from Kirklarelli who arranged the camping place was… a champion wrestler from the 80s’ and now a highly respected wrestling coach and municipal leader. He wasn’t wearing a red wrestling suit but it did make me feel my childhood associations with Turkey weren’t completely false.
Since that time I’ve had the opportunity to live a few years in Turkey off and on. I have met a few more wrestlers, and not the Greco-roman style but the mountain festival style where people lather themselves in olive oil and then struggle against each other to win the honor of top wrestler in the village (or even all the surrounding villages if it’s a particularly well organized festival) You can read more here… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkish_wrestling These guys are tough and of course hold day jobs; butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, you name it.
Our upcoming Spotlight on Turkey Tour is not specifically designed around meeting Turkish wrestlers but there is a very good chance we will meet a few and hopefully see them in action! My guess is our best chance would be in the Taurus Mountains between Konya and the Mediterranean Sea. It’s difficult to explain the sense of peace you have when after a tough day of cycling you can sit back in a rickety lawn chair with a hot donair sandwich in one hand and a beer in the other and with hundreds of locals watch people wrestle each other in the dirt under a picturesque mountain, the sounds of sheep and cows in the distance. All you can really say is; “This is living!”