Three games of men

The festival Naadam is like the Mongolian equivalent of the Olympics, with just three sports: wrestling, archery, and horse racing.

Zoharby / CC BY-SA

Summer games have a long history in Mongolia. Genghis Khan’s nephew, Yesüngge, reputedly won an archery contest in 1225 CE by hitting a target from 536 metres away and the games are described in the earliest text written in Mongolian script, The Secret History of the Mongols.

Regional Naadans are held across Mongolia, but the biggest Naadam, the national one, takes place in July each year. There’s the usual pageantry, dances and feasts, but the sports are the centrepiece and each one is unique in its own way.

The wrestlers are accompanied by a zasuul, a kind of on-field coach / hype-man who sings the praises of their wrestler. The horse race is long, up to 30km cross country. The archers work in teams and fire not at targets but at stacks of small toilet-roll-shaped cylinders. All of these sports used to be restricted to men – hence the tournament name “eriin gurvan naadam” (three games of men) – but women can now participate in the horse racing and archery.

The winner of each sport gets a special title: the wrestler is the lion (or, if they win multiple years, giant or titan); the jockey is leader of ten thousand; the archer is the national marksman / markswoman. The slowest horse in the competition gets its own title, full stomach, and is encouraged to do better next time, which I think is rather sweet.

Mongolians respect the winners greatly: the most successful modern wrestler (Badmaanyambuugiin Bat-Erdene, who won at the Nadaam eleven times) ran for president in 2013 and received a whopping 42% of the popular vote.

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