Cut back to mid-July: Londoners everywhere were getting excited/worried/generally worked up about the Olympics coming to their home city. The Londoner writing this article, however, was instead experiencing an unusual sporting event elsewhere in the world. Archers, wrestlers, horse jockeys and anklebone throwers (what, you’ve never met one of those?) are the sporting sensations of Naadam, Mongolia’s very own annual Olympic games. During this jubilant festival that derives from ancient times, Mongolians travel the country to spend precious time with their loved ones, while cheering wildly for the competitors of these kooky traditional sports.
Though many Mongolians gravitate towards their nation’s capital, Ulaanbatar, during Nadaam, there is plenty going on for those staying out in the countryside. Just by accident, as we drove through Western Mongolia’s stunning steppes, we were spectators to one of Naadam’s main events- horse racing. Though we were not close enough to see the jockeys’ faces, their tiny size was clear- even compared to the small Mongolian horses. Our guide, Una, quickly informed us that most of these jockeys were children, some as young as eight years old. Find that alarming? There used to be six-year-old jockeys until it was (very recently) banned by the government. Crazy, considering the only thing I was competing over when I was six was how fast my friend and I could run the three-legged race (not that fast, for the record).
Whether you’re sitting in Ulaanbatar’s stadium heckling the dozens of wrestlers, or ambling between the tantalising food stalls outside, the atmosphere at Naadam is truly electric. Here is a little overview of the ‘manly sports’ in all their quirky glory.
Held in the National Stadium, bökh– or Mongolian wrestling- is the only event you have to pay for. Forget about sumo wrestling, this was more like slow-mo wrestling. First, the introduction dance- each wrestler, sporting Speedo’s (shuudag) and sleeves (jodag), dances around the traditionally-clad referee as though he was a may pole. The said referee then removes the competitor’s hat before the latter runs away to a nearby spot, and squats widely while throwing his hands up in the air. Then, the action begins: the two nearly naked Mongolian men stand for a while with their hands on each other’s shoulders- to lull the audience, and each other, into a false sense of security- then without warning, try to slam any part of their opponent’s upper body to the ground. The first man to achieve this wins; there is no time limit. The wrestler’s coach, or zasuul as they are traditionally known, can be seen standing by in red traditional Mongolian costume; we often saw these zasuuls give their competitors a little encouraging slap on the bum- as you do. To pay his respects, the loser must walk under the arm of the man who beat him. With 5-10 of these matches happening at one time, there is certainly no room to get bored; those outfits alone will keep you watching.
We got to experience both men and women’s archery; the latter’s starting line is a little further forward. Both are in shiny, colourful traditional Mongolian outfits…and so were some members of the audience. These archers are not aiming for your average target board; instead the target is a pyramid of cans. The aim of the game is to hit the red cans, rather than the black cans either side…or, preferably, no cans at all. Part archery, part carnival stall, if you will. Some members of the audience had brought a thermos of milky Mongolian tea to accompany their archery experience.
Needless to say, anklebone throwing- or shagai– is probably the strangest Naadam event. A group of Mongolian men, both privileged audience members (not us!) and competitors, sit in a circle, with a little box-stool type contraption taking one place in the circle. At the opposite end, the competitors flick a sheep’s anklebone with a special flicking device, towards an anklebone target hidden within the box-stool. We managed to catch two groups contending simultaneously- while one group of men was deadly quiet, the other group of competitors were yodelling to a deafening degree. Not sure which is the “proper” way to behave while watching this sport…I certainly know which one I prefer! (The yodelling, in case you weren’t sure).
So, there you have it: I may have started 2012 only knowing about one Olympic Games, but I ended the year with the memory of two. Eccentric, eclectic and entertaining, the festival of Nadaam is Mongolia at its best, and truly needs to be seen to be believed.