by Oliver Corff

(July 1992)

The period of Naadam is maybe the happiest and most easy-going time of the Mongolian calendar for most of the Mongol citizens, but for some of them it means hard work, lots of sweat on the skin and dust in the eyes. These very few, the wrestlers, bring joy and despair, victory and loss to large crowds of excited wrestling fans. Mongolian wrestling is as much a national event as a soccer game in Italy or Germany with wrestlers enjoying an enormous popularity throughout the whole country. The wrestlers have a very intriguing way of fighting - they lose the fight as soon as they touch ground with a knee, an elbow or the back. Therefore it os not only brute force that counts (jugding by weight, most of the wrestlers are impressive enough!) but far more tactics, patience, the gift of spotting the opponent's weak points and the capacity to launch surprise attacks forcing the opponent to lose balance.

Actually, wrestling is but one of the three sports that make up Naadam, or "The Three Manly Games" as the full name runs in translation. The other two sporting events are horse races and archery. These three sports are the fields where a true man can show his ability - at least in theory since in reality women and children participate in archery and horse races. All three sports have their roots in history and the warrior tradition of Mongolia. Wrestling, archery and riding are arts more than skills, a point emphasized by the time-honoured simplicity of all mechanical necessities involved. Also there are many rites around the competitions which are held in solemn formality. Wrestlers are accompanied by special assistents or seconds whose task it is to take minute care of every detail during a tournament. During the actual fight, they will stand next to the ring and hold their master's hat. With all the dances (wrestlers dance a falcon dance before the tournament and after winning), the festive costumes and rules without a time limit the Mongolian style wrestling looks pretty similar to its Japanese counterpart sumo , itself a holy national sport.

Wrestlers must fight their way through a crowd of 512 competitors to win a title, but since every wrestler only fights one meet with his opponent in order to fight the next one immediately after he wins this enormous number is reduced to 9 rounds. As the system changed frequently in history, so did the number of participants. The year 1925 saw 640 wrestlers, in 1927 there were 960, in 1929 there were 1000, in 1933 there were 880, a year later 1024, in 1937 there were 896, in 1955 there were 256, and since then there are usually the above-mentioned 512 wrestlers. Only the wrestlers winning in district and aimag (Mongolia's largest administrative unit) contests qualify for participation in the finals, the Naadam on the National Holiday on 10th and 11th of July. Wrestlers can become Falcons, Elephants, Lions and Giants. If they keep winning, they can only collect new epithets. Certainly the most famous wrestler of all, Khorloogiin Bayanmunkh, born in 1944, has a collection of titles which runs as following: Pleasure of The Leader, The Bright Remarkable, Chief of The Naadam, The Perfect among Ten Thousand, The Great Flame, The Glory of All, The Clear and Beautiful, The Firm and Loyal, The Everlasting Pleasure, The Outstanding Notable, The Invincibly Powerful, The Really Outstanding, The Truly Faithful, The Happiness of Many, The Famous throughout Country and Sea, The Holy Titan, World Champion of Wrestling, Honoured Master of Mongolian and Soviet Sports, Mongolian Hero of Labour.

Other then wrestling which does not know any weight or age classes, horse races are held in about six categories with horses being two, three, four and six years old. Distances vary according to age, the shortest is 15 km, the longest goes over 30 km, the ancient distance between two postal relay stations. Probably the most amusing races take place in the 2-years group. The horses are young and unexperienced, so are the riders, usually aged between four and seven. Before the start of the race, they are lead by their parents or elder brothers to the start line after three rounds of honour around a post with the national flag, then they shoot off for the race. Sometimes the horses fail to get the idea what a race is, sometimes the children riding without saddle have a hard time to speed up their horses or keeping the direction. In such a case, they are usually guided back to the track by some helpful hand.

The older horses and riders are much more serious and cover longer distances. That's why they are accompanied by a red cross ambulance for both horse and rider during the whole race. Only the leader of the pack approaching the finish has free sight, all the others gallop in clouds of brown dust seeing little more than their immediate neighbour and competitor. Since it is the horse and not the rider who wins, horses are trained to keep running even if they lose their rider.

A day at the races is very much a feast. If no race is held, riders and horses will ride through the camp, showing off their harnesses and saddles decorated with silver. The children on horseback all sing a song the tune of which reverberates through the valleys and over the steppe. People wait at the track for the next race to begin, sitting and chatting with their friends. If it is a Naadam in the countryside, people will usually enjoy quantities of fresh white cheese, tea with milk and salt, sometimes accompanied by various kinds of doughnuts. The winning horses get their share, too. They are decorated and sprinkled with koumyss, a kind of fermented mare's milk, while the very last horse gets to hear a song wishing more luck in the following year.

The training of horses takes several months. A key to endurance are an empty stomach and the capacity to dissipate heat. For the first, horses are kept on a sophisticated diet while for the latter they have to gallop miles up-hill covered with woolen blankets etc.

Archery, the final of the Three Manly Games, enjoys a somehow less favourite position. It is certainly the quietest of all three sports. On the other hand, age counts positively since it is not force but experience and eyesight that make winners. It is no wonder, then, that many participants are men in their 40s and 50s. Bows and arrows have remained much the same over centuries, are made of natural materials and do not have any of the technical features now popular among marksmen in western countries. Despite its lack of sensation, the archery contest, however, is an event of highest political level since it is the only competition where Mongolia's statesmen participate personally, so Prime Minister Byambasuren in this year's tournament.

Since 1921 the Ulsyn Naadam or State Naadam is held in coincidence with the National Holiday or Day of People's Revolution on July 10th/11th marking the events that led to Mongolia's independence. Frequently other events are celebrated at this time, e. g. in 1990 when the 750th anniversary of The "Secret History of the Mongols", the first record of Mongolian history, was observed. This year saw the celebration of Chingis Khan's 830th birthday. The opening ceremony included a military parade in traditional costumes with banners, arms and signs being true copies of models of the Mongol Empire 700 years ago. National pride and glory are helpful in times of hardship. With the economic crisis deepening, many citizens also took for the central stadium to do some holiday shopping as canned fruit and lemonade were on sale, products that have disappeared from the shelves downtown months ago.