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The Super Bowl of Senegal

There is no Senegalese National Football League.  The closest thing Senegal has to MLB is the Nov-Feb embassy run softball league at Ebbett’s field.  And despite the SEED Academy churning out quality high-school basketball players, there’s no Senegalese NBA either.  

And yet, I find the Senegalese to be obsessed with sports.  The streets are always lined with joggers, people doing pushups, crunches, leg lifts… any form of physical effort to make themselves stronger.  Beaches are routinely packed with similar exercise-minded crowds.  Further, most Senegalese will have a favorite Premiere League team, which they follow religiously.  People hearing my last name often say, “Steven Gerrard!!”

But no sport captures the national attention in Senegal like the Lutte. Lutte, French for wrestle, is a traditional African sport highlighting strength and agility.  The object is simply to take down your opponent through a combination of hits, pulls and trips.  It is typically done on a sand court.

Last week, Ronit and I had the pleasure of attending one of the most anticipated matches of recent Lutte history, a matchup between two well-liked heavy weights, Eumeu Sène and Modou Lô.  Sène, the reigning champ, had not lost a match in the last 7 years. His challenger, Lô, had only ever lost once in his four-year career.  While both wrestlers have many fans, it seemed the challenger was the crowd favorite, though the champ seemed likely to win (this according to our colleague who helped arrange the tickets).  This match was originally scheduled for last June, but after one of the wrestlers was injured a week before the competition, it was postponed almost eight months.

The afternoon was filled with six undercard matches as well as the pomp and circumstance of pre-match rituals.  The wrestlers each have an entourage of drummers, dancers and spiritual guides to help them prepare.  Much of the ceremony is there to ward off evil spirits or curses that may come from the opponent’s team, and is a strong indication of the undercurrent of mystical animism that still runs freely in this predominantly Muslim country.  Before entering the ring, the wrestlers are doused with various magic potions, which seem to be best carried in 1.5 liter plastic water bottles.  The potions are a mix of various liquids, oils, leaves and powders, and range in color from clear to black and range in consistency from watery to chunky. Despite the cool Dakar January temperatures (low 60s for those keeping score at home), and the lack of clothing on the athletes, they were continuously doused with bottle after bottle of Juju. 

In addition to the liquid assistance, they all have well-choreographed routines, where the entire entourage dances to the beat of live drummers.  I’m not sure if they teach all the wrestlers in their entourage how to dance, or if they just hire dancers to be in the entourage, but either way these guys would give the Laker Girls a run for their money.

The wrestlers themselves are huge.  While I have no medical proof to support this, I imagine their urine is dirtier than an A-Rod-Armstrong cocktail. Our group picked their favorites, mostly based on their pre-match dancing ability and their god-like physique. Then we’d watch as the wrestlers deftly worked to turn their opponents. 

Most of the undercard matches were over quickly.  The officials did not waste much time.  If a knee hit the ground, the match was over and the winner moved on, while the looser feigned injury. But the finals were epic.  Not wanting a riot to break out, the refs waited until there was a clear winner with a decisive take down.  After much pawing, some powerful exchange of blows and what amounted to an in-ring continuation of their pre-match dance routines, the real wrestling began.  Twice the champ Eumeu Sène had control of Modou Lô’s leg.  One of those times he lifted him clear off the sand.  But Lô, with impeccable balance, managed to wriggle free without going down.  The battle lasted well over 30 minutes, with many breaks to check injuries, get water and just keep the already tense crowd strung with more anticipation.  Finally, in a burst of speed the challenger Modou Lô swung his weight around Sène and flung him over an outstretched leg for a definitive take down.  The champ had been unseated and the crowd went berserk!   

For more photos, check out my Lutte Picasa Album.

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