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West Africa's Traditional Wrestling Takes on Modern Twist - 2004-01-30

West Africa's oldest sport, traditional wrestling, is entering the modern era with more tournaments, professionalism and controversy.

In an arena in Niamey, Niger, a singer, known as a griot, tells the tale of two fighters about to face-off.

Niger held its traditional wrestling national championship earlier this month, with several thousand spectators coming to the arena to watch the week of grabbing and tussling.

One of them was Sports Minister Abdou Labo. Mr. Labo says the government organizes the event because, "it's an opportunity to cement the cohesion and unity of Niger."

The event is also broadcast in its entirety nationwide on state radio and television.

As tradition mandates, the government only organizes the tournament when crops are good. Once during the 1990s, it had to be postponed because of a severe drought.

The sport dates back thousands of years to a time when villages sent their best fighters against each other, to measure each village's power and to provide entertainment. Today, each of Niger's eight regions sends 10 fighters to the national competition, which has team and individual events.

In traditional West African wrestling, two fighters wearing lambskin loincloths compete in a dirt circle 20 meters in diameter. The first to fall, or even touch a knee to the ground, loses the match. Most matches are about 12 minutes long, but if neither man falls, both are charged with a loss. In final rounds, fighting continues until there is a winner. There are few rules, although biting and grabbing the loincloth are prohibited.

Most countries in West Africa hold regional and national tournaments.

Senegal's national tournament winner earns $40,000. In Senegal, fighters are organized in stables, much like sumo wrestlers in Japan, and they tour around the country.

In Nigeria and Ivory Coast, there are year-round professional circuits with even more prize money. These circuits attract fighters from Senegal and Niger, poorer countries whose fighters are often better.

In Niger, the overall winner gets just $4,000 in prize money, plus a silver saber and a horse. He usually also gets advertising opportunities.

During the run-up to the finals, organizers select wrestlers from different regions to face each other.

The crowd cheers when the names of two undefeated fighters are picked.

This is because only undefeated fighters can go on to the final round.

But last year's runner-up, Ali Ali, says because the stakes are higher now, there is more cheating. He says some fighters who have already lost are paid money to lose when they face an undefeated rival, ensuring he will get one step closer to making the finals. This, Ali says, is ruining the sport.

The trend has infuriated the head of Niger's wrestling federation, Aboubacar Ganda, who says new rules have been put in place to prevent the bribery. Wrestlers found guilty of fixing a fight are being fined $400 and thrown out of the sport for a year.

Judges watch videos of fights to determine whether a fighter has cheated.

A referee, Lawan Chetima, says it's all part of the sport's development. Mr. Chetima says techniques are changing, which is frustrating fighters with more brute force but less skill.

One thing which hasn't changed, he says, is the use of amulets, known as gri-gris or jujus, which are said to have magical powers. Mr. Chetima says it's the mystery of Africa. He says fighters who believe in their amulets the most usually end up winning their fights.

Some of the fighters wear them around their ankles, arms and necks. In other sports in Africa, including soccer, the use of amulets is banned during competition, but not in traditional wrestling.

Top fighters often have a coach, a griot who sings their praises and also a shaman, who gives them the special charms.

While the sport holds on to its traditions, it is also rapidly expanding. Niger plans to organize more and more national tournaments, including a President's Cup and a tournament under the auspices of every minister.

The wrestling season will culminate next month when Niger hosts West Africa's regional championship, with the top fighters from each country competing against each other.