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Oil Wrestling Practiced with Devotion in Greece

by Giannis Papanikos and Costas Kantouris
Tuesday Jul 3, 2018
A wrestler adjusts a type of leather trousers known as a kiouspeti, which can weigh up to 10 kilograms (22 pounds), before taking part in an annual traditional oil wrestling competition in the northern Greek village of Sochos.
A wrestler adjusts a type of leather trousers known as a kiouspeti, which can weigh up to 10 kilograms (22 pounds), before taking part in an annual traditional oil wrestling competition in the northern Greek village of Sochos.  (Source:AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)

Massive men with olive oil-slathered torsos saunter around a grass sports field that becomes a wrestling ring with religious overtones during an annual festival in northern Greece blending traditions both ancient and modern.

Many of the strutting athletes on display compete in regular tournaments. But every year on June 30, fighters assemble in the field in Sochos, a small town about 60 kilometers northeast of Thessaloniki, for a different kind of match.

Here, the competitors wear knee-length leather trousers known as a "kiouspeti," which can weigh up to 10 kilograms (22 pounds). The oil covering their upper bodies has the dual purpose of minimizing injuries from holds and making it harder to throw a rival back-down on the ground, the goal of the game.

The practice of wrestling clad in leather trousers and oil dates to the Ottoman Empire, and the largest event these days takes place in northwest Turkey. In Sochos, where matches are held on the Orthodox Christian saint's day dedicated to the Apostles, the contenders prepare for bouts by seeking blessings at icons of Christ's disciples.

Parading in front of thousands of spectators and then coating themselves with olive oil is another tradition observed by the Sohos wrestlers. The matches begin simultaneously and opponents wrestle in pairs side-by-side for 20 minutes.

If a match does not produce a winner in that time, referees grant extensions. Defeated fighters leave the field until only one remains: the winner.

Traditional wind instruments and drums provide a soundtrack for the action, the music rising and falling according to the intensity as the fights unfold.

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Kantouris reported from Thessaloniki, Greece.

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