In Mongolia, the national sports festival is called Naadam - the most famous celebration of the traditional way. Wrestling, archery and horse-racing are the Three Main Games of Men which are rooted in the mists of antiquity and continue to be very popular among the Mongols today.
In 12th-13th century, military festivals were widespread, at which men tried their strength and their steeds' agility. From the 17th century onwards, Naadam contests were held regularly during religious holidays. Since 1922, they have been held on the anniversary of the people's revolution.
In the barren plains of Mongolia where food is scarce and the winter harsh, daily survival in itself is a test of mettle. However, every year in summer, Mongolians celebrate the Naadam Festival.
Hordes flock to the city of Ulaanbaatar for the games proper. The word Naadam means "three manly sports" -- horse racing, archery and wrestling. But it is quite a misnomer as the horse racing is done by children, archery by both men and women, and only wrestling is solely for the men.
The opening of the Naadam Festival has, through the years, retained its pomp. Early risers can watch a parade of bands and red-and-black toy soldiers marching in split precision. In a tribute to Genghis Khan, restored to national hero status after 70 years of subjugation under the Soviets, an entire brigade of Mongol warriors perform the march past, brandishing old swords and banners.
The festival changes the harsh, barren steppes into a sea of bright orange, magenta and blue -- horse riders wrapped in embroidered robes; ordinary felt hats are replaced by traditional pointed-topped caps or priest-like headgear; and colourful ceremonial clothing. The festival is also held on a smaller scale all over the country, usually between July 11-13, the anniversary of the 1921 Mongolian Revolution.
Archery - Ample information about archery can be found in literary and historical documents of the 13th century and even before. It is an ancient sport of the Mongols which can be traced back to as early as 300--200 BC. According to historians, archery contests began in the 1lth century.
The Mongols use a compound bow, built up of layers of horn, sinew, bark and wood. When unstrung it is not straight, but curved. Archery is more archaic and ritualistic than other sports. All archers adopt the same stance and posture.
The target consists of a row several meters across, of small woven leather rings, some painted red, which are laid out laterally on the ground. The openings face upwards, providing a challenging exercise in trajectory for the archers. In olden times, women did not participate in the contest, but in the last few decades they have started to do so. The distance is about 75m for men and 60m for women. Men shoot about 40 arrows and must score not less than 15 points and women shoot 20 arrows and must score at least 13 points using the same bow as the men.
When the arrow hits the target, a group of people standing near the target, acting as judges, raise the cry "Puukhai! " and make signs with their hands to indicate the result. The one who scores the most points is the
winner and the title of Mergen (or Supermarksman) is bestowed on him or her.
Wrestling is the most national and popular of all Mongol sports. It is the highlight of the Three Games of Men. Historians claim that Mongol-style wrestling originated some seven thousand years ago. The technique and ritual of Mongolian wrestling is distinctly national. There are no weight categories or age limits in Mongolian national wrestling. The wrestlers wear heavy boots, a very small tight-fitting loincloth, a pair of sleeves which meet across the back of the shoulders, resembling a tiny vestige of a jacket, and a pointed cap of velvet. The contestants come out on the field leaping and dancing, flapping their arms in imitation of an eagle. Each wrestler has his attendant herald. The aim of the sport is to knock your opponent off balance and throw him down, making him touch the ground with his elbow and knee. The loser walks under the raised arms of the winner in a sign of respect, and unties his vest, after which the victor, again leaping and dancing, takes a turn round the flag in the center of the field. The victor is awarded symbolic prizes - biscuits and aaruul, or dried curds; once he has tasted these, he offers them to his seconds and to spectators.
Traditionally, either one thousand and twenty-four or five hundred and twelve wrestlers participate in the contest. Today the latter number usually take pan. At the Republican Naadam, nine rounds are held. Those who lose in one round are eliminated from further rounds.
A wrestler who beats five opponents in a row is awarded the title of "Republican Falcon"; one who wins seven rounds is given the title of "Elephant". A wrestler becomes a champion by winning nine rounds and is given the title of "Lion", and if he wins two years in row, he is called "Giant". If a wrestler becomes a third-time champion at the Naadam, the attribute "Nation-wide" is added to his title, and the fourth time, he is styled "Invincible".
The winners of the tournament receive honorary titles and are also awarded various souvenirs. But for them, the main award is the truly nation-wide popularity and fame that they gain.
Horse-racing is a normal part of the Naadam. This sport is also centuries old, dating back to the Bronze Age.
The horses for the Naadam races are selected a month before the big day. They are then taken to an adequate pasture separate from the herd and trained. Racehorses are divided into several age groups : two, four and five years old; over five years; and stallions. The riders are aged from 5 to 12. Mongolian children of these ages are good riders, as both boys and girls have been riding since infancy. As the popular saying goes, "The nomad is born in the saddle".
Small saddles are made specially for children, but they usually prefer to ride without them. They are not only superb riders, but also skillful tacticians. They know how to hold the horse back so it has enough strength to last the entire distance of the race. Competitions are not held on special race tracks, but right across the steppe, where riders are confronted with various obstacles such as rivers, ravines and hills. The distance varies according to the ages of the horses, between 15 and 35 km. The riders are dressed in bright, colorful and comfortable clothes. On their backs are various symbolic pictures. Symbolic ornaments and designs also embellish the horse-cloth.
The most exciting moments are the start and the finish. Before the beginning of the contest the young horsemen ride round the starting point three times yelling the ancient call, "Giingo!", a kind of war-cry. When all the horses step behind the boundary line, the starting command is given and the riders surge forward, setting in motion the long-awaited race.
The winning riders do a full circuit of the stadium, each accompanied by a herald. The winning horse receives the honorary title "Forehead of Ten Thousand Race Horses" and the five runners-up are awarded with medals. They are popularly called the "Airag Five". In accordance with tradition, the riders on the winning horses do three laps of honor, then ride up to the grandstand, and each child is offered a large bowl of airag - fermented mare's milk - from which he drinks and then pours some on the rump of his horse. The herald in turn, chants in poem-form the virtues of the horse, its rider and owner.
But there is also an interesting tradition in connection with the losers. Honor and praise of the winners of the race is to be expected; but the losers are also rewarded and honored. After the awards ceremony for the victors, the racer who came in last is led up to the main stand with his young rider. The loser's face shows vexation and shame. But the spectators do not make fun of him. Instead they shout encouragement and try to give him confidence in himself. The national story-teller recites a special ode to the loser. The ode encourages him with words expressing faith in his future success.