Mongolia’s Naadam Wrestling Embodies the Nation’s Resiliency

Several matches go on at the same time, wrestling on the green, open steppes, under the blue Mongolian skies, as referees stand by to declare a winner.

Centuries Old Competition Almost Defeated by Coronavirus

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In 1206, to celebrate the establishment of the Mongolian nation, Genghis Kahn convened the first Naadam Festival, calling together over a hundred-thousand of his subjects for several days of feasts and games, featuring the three sports of men: horse racing, archery, and wrestling. It was these three skills that had made the Mongolian warriors so ferocious in combat. Above all, they praised wrestling, which represented the Mongol ideal of manliness; strength, courage, and skill. Naadam has been held nearly every year since, taking on a number of meanings, such as commemorating Mongolia’s independence from the Qing Dynasty.

From the 1920’s Mongolia spent nearly seventy years as a Soviet Satellite. During that time, mentions of Genghis Kahn were prohibited. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990 and Mongolia’s peaceful transition to democracy, Genghis Kahn has played an increasing role in the festivities, particularly in 2006, when Mongolia celebrated the 800th anniversary of the Empire. Today, Naadam begins each year with a solemn military procession which carries Genghis Kahn’s white, horse hair standard from the Government Palace to the National Sports Stadium, where the national games are held.

Genghis Kahn’s brothers and half-brother were said to have been champion wrestlers and the Kahn is the inspiration for modern wrestlers. Bilgee, a sixteen-year-old wrestler, explained how the wrestlers feel about the Kahn “Genghis Kahn is Mongolia’s super hero.” There is a saying in Mongolia, “When a boy is born on the steppes, he is a wrestler.” Many boys in Mongolia grow up with the dream of being crowned the Naadam wrestling champion. Wrestling is such an integral part of the culture that bokh, meaning wresting, is a relatively common name for boys.

Wrestlers on the grassland, preparing for Naadam.

This year, Naadam was almost derailed by the coronavirus. Although the country suffered only about 200 imported cases and zero deaths, lockdown measures were strict. In fact, the second most important wrestling competition was cancelled when the government put a moratorium on celebrating Tsagaan Sar, Mongolian New Year, back in February. According to Munkhbaatar Baatar a decorated Mongolian wrestler and academic, from a wrestling family, “People usually say, whoever wins the Tsagaan Sar wrestling has a very good chance of going up the ranks in Naadam. Additionally, it’s the new year, so it is seen as a good start for the year.” Tsagaan Sar being cancelled for the first time in history was a bad omen for the coming year.

In addition to the wrestlers not earning the prize money which many count on to live, the coronavirus lockdowns also meant that wrestlers could not train, as all training halls were closed. During the long winter, when temperatures in the capital can hit -30 F, wrestlers and spectators speculated about whether or not Naadam would happen this year.

Preparing for Mongolian Naadam horse racing.

Mongolian Ingenuity

Modern Mongolians, even those working as bankers and IT specialists in the capital, are the descendants of nomads, who had to be self-reliant problem-solvers in order to survive on the steppes. “In every sector, you can see the Mongolian people always find the trick or the best way to succeed. We’re very logical.” explained Dr. Amarmend Punsang, Principal Researcher, Institute of History and Ethnology, Mongolian Academy of Sciences. The creative solution the government came up with was to take Naadam digital. It was announced that Naadam would go on as planned, in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, but without a crowd. Apart from athletes and officials, everyone else would have to watch the games on TV or via WiFi. This was a step in the right direction, but still a problem for a country where 40% of the population are nomadic herders.

A Mongolian Facebook poll asked how Mongolians in Ulaanbaatar felt about Naadam moving online. Of 64 comment almost all said that it was OK with them because they understood that Mongolia had to protect against an outbreak of coronavirus and many said they would have watched at home anyway. So, for people in the capital, not much had changed. But in the provinces, it was another matter. Some of the sums (provincial subdivision)  in Mongolia are very small, with populations of 2,000 people. The Naadam festivities are the biggest event of the year and nearly the whole town turns out. Fortunately, whether by decree or by convention, in the end, while national Naadam in Ulaanbaatar was virtual, the local Naadams in the 21 provinces and 331 sums were held as usual, with live crowds. And so, in spite of the year getting off to a rough start, the entire country got to enjoy their most important celebration.

Mongolians wrestlers wear blue and red, with blue showing their historical and cultural connection to the big, open sky.

Mongolian Wrestling

The oldest record of Mongolian wrestling is a cave drawing, believed to be 7,000 to 11,000 years-old, of a wrestling match, which was found in Dundgobi province. Mongolian wrestling differs from modern Olympic freestyle wrestling in that practitioners wear briefs, a rope around their waist, and an open-chested shirt, all of which may be grabbed. The wrestlers generally choose to wear red and blue garments, with red symbolizing power and blue, the Mongolian sky. Wrestlers compete for rankings named after animals, from lowest to highest, falcon, hawk, elephant, garuda (mystical bird-like creature), and lion. A wrestle’s ranking is displayed on a badge attached to his hat and lower wrestlers always show respect for the higher ranks.

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There are no weight classes or time limits and matches take place on the grass, rather than a mat. The goal is to cause the opponent to touch the ground with anything other than the souls of his feet. At the start and finish of each match, wrestlers perform the “Eagle Dance”, which derives from their ancient shamanistic rituals. The admiration bestowed upon wresting champions is so extreme that Mongolia’s current president, Khaltmaagiin Battulga was a champion in judo, sambo, and wrestling while several members of the State Great Khural, parliament, were wrestling champions.  

Dr. Amarmend Punsang believes that Mongolian ingenuity which derived from the days of Genghis Kahn is evident in both their wrestling and their success with the virus. He explains that when Genghis Kahn was leading his army, Mongolians were severely outnumbered by the many kingdoms that they conquered and only with clever strategy were they able to prevail. Choijiljav Kh wrestling coach from Mongolian State University of Physical Education (MSUE) and lecturer on Mongolian traditional sports, said that without weight classes many of the wrestlers weigh 264 pounds (120 kg) or even 308 pounds (140 kg), with some weighing in at 352 (160 Kg). And, while the men are very strong, just like the army of Genghis Kahn, strength alone will not win a match. Wrestlers must be clever in their knowledge and application of excellent techniques. Dr. Amarmend Punsang believes that this idea of amplifying one’s power through technique and strategy as demonstrated with the wrestlers, mirrors the country’s handling of the pandemic.

Coach Choijiljav Kh, estimates that including provincial and sum level Naadams, all told, the competition may comprise 20,000 or more wrestlers, with 512 in the national competition in Ulaanbaatar. This makes Mongolian Naadam one of the largest sporting events in the world, which is amazing, given that the entire population of the country is only just over three million.

Writer, Antonio Graceffo, preparing for Naadam wrestling competition.
Antonio Graceffo
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