Sports

The Beautiful, Bizarre, And Tradition-Saving Nomadic Olympics

From horseback wrestling to goat-carcass polo, the World Nomad Games feature the wildest sports you’ve never imagined by Mark Hay

September 8, 2016

The sport of er enish is essentially a battle between two shirtless wrestlers permitted to use of all kinds of dangerous moves—short of a few things, like whipping, kicking, and ear-, finger-, or hair-pulling. Er enish also features two horses, on which the wrestlers happen to be riding. Welcome to the World Nomad Games (WNG), which highlight the traditional sports of Central Asia’s nomadic peoples to a largely unknowing global audience.

Thousands of individuals from around the world, some decked out in Dothraki-esque garb, have descended upon Cholpon-Ata—an idyllic mountain town beside Kyrgyzstan’s Lake Issyk-Kul—this week for the second-ever iteration of the games, with a reported 10,000 attending the opening ceremony. Athletes from 53 nations are vying for more than 300 medals in 23 sports—some comprehensible to the wider world, like horse racing, and some utterly beyond a westerner’s point of reference, like kok-boru, in which two teams of men on horseback try to lean down and hoist up a headless goat carcass, weighing dozens of pounds, and carry it to the goal on their opponent’s side of the field.

The first installment of the games in 2014, also at Cholpon-Ata, attracted breathless international coverage, typically highlighting the seemingly romantic brutality of nomadic games like kok-boru. CNN opened a story on those games with three clipped sentence fragments summing up the almost heavy metal, blood-and-guts frenzy they inspired in some Western viewers: “Headless goats. Soaring eagles. Men trying to drag each other off of horses.”

But the event represents much more than machismo and, to an outsider, absurd badassery. It’s about striving to protect and highlight something vanishing from the world.

Unexpected Origins

Although the games have attracted a significant amount of global attention—quintupling in number of participants between their first to second iterations—the concept for the games originated in Kyrgyzstan, a tiny Central Asian republic that has gone through two revolutions in its quarter-century history and an economic slump for about as long.

A perhaps unlikely nation to invent a global sporting event, Kyrgyzstan has long had a surplus of two things: nomads and national pride. Nomadic culture—in which people who have no fixed residence move from place to place, usually seasonally and within a well-defined territory, in search of food or fresh pasture—plays a prominent role in Kyrgyzstan and nearby nations, as the semi-nomadic Kyrgyz make up over 70 percent of the Kyrgyzstan’s population of 6 million. And these nomads—like many others in the region—have deep traditions of sport.

Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev seemed eager to seize upon this when he officially proposed the Nomad Games idea during a 2012 summit of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States held in the Kyrgyzstani capital of Bishkek.

The event represents much more than sensationalized brutality. It’s about striving to protect and highlight something vanishing from the world.

Though one might have expected a little resistance to an event so ambitious in scope and strange in conception, it took little convincing: All of the Council’s other member states—Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkey—immediately hopped on board, forming a committee for the games and creating a center for the study of nomadic civilizations near Issyk-Kul.

Though most of these states already took part in regional sporting events like the Central Asian Games (last held in 2011), these competitions feature mostly Western sports—the sort of stuff you see in the Olympics or European Games. The WNG were attractive to Turkic nations because they were billed as a means of preserving and shoring up pride in nomadic pasts and presents, an antidote to the homogenizing forces of globalization.

“When we initiated this competition, we had only one [concern],” Maskat Chakiyev, the advisor to the WNG’s chairman, recently told a local Kyrgyzstani press outlet. “Why our traditional games cannot be the same kinds of sports as football, basketball, tennis, hockey, etc.”

After two years of planning, the international committee behind the WNG hosted the first games in September 2014, also at Cholpon-Ata. The event featured about 400 athletes from 10 nations—some you’d expect, like Mongolia, and some you wouldn’t, like France or Sweden—competing in 10 sports.

Global Appeal

Beyond the Turkic states that originated them, the games also had abstract appeal for global athletes because, as officials intoned in the lead-up to the first games, all humans were originally nomads. The events were intended to underscore the value of a range of traditions and raw skills that had been mostly lost to time and the Westernization of global sporting culture, but could serve as a valuable, instructive link to the past.

Yet for all the excitement the first games garnered, some countries complained that the event was more a celebration of Kyrgyz sporting history than a pan-nomadic event. Many of the events, like er enish or tyin-enmei (picking a coin up off the ground while riding a horse), had a distinctly local flavor. Add to this the fact that Kyrgyzstan fielded two teams per sport (while other countries could only field one) and swept the majority of the events, and you can understand why there was grumbling.

When we initiated this competition, we had only one [concern]: Why our traditional games cannot be the same kinds of sports as football, basketball, tennis, hockey, etc.

With these second games also taking place in Kyrgyzstan—again turbo-loading their focus on Kyrgyz heritage and culture—and once again coinciding with Kyrgyzstani government projects to bolster national image and unity, it’s clear why some worry the WNG will be a short-lived prestige project by a small and poor nation, quickly abandoned by the rest of the world.

“The games were the first event in Kyrgyz history that brought the whole nation together,” Danir Imanaliev, the deputy head of the Issyk-Kul region, told EurasiaNet in 2014, underscoring how some local actors viewed the games as a clearly nationalistic and only incidentally global project.

But Turkic Council project director Assan Mazhitov says it had long been agreed that the host nation “has the right to focus more on its national sports,” and that the games focus on Turkic traditions, and not wider global traditions, because they were originally conceived as the “National Games of the Turkic People.” The Council later realized how similar many Turkic nomadic traditions were to global nomadic traditions. Although the sports have different names, nations from the U.S. to Hungary to Japan all have their own traditions in horse-mounted archery, which is a new WNG event this year. And games like toguz korgool have near-equivalents as far afield as Antigua and Barbuda or Cameroon, with only minor tweaks to the rules.

Olympic-Sized Ambitions

“The [goal] was surpassing the initial expectations of the experts by attracting contestants and participants from different parts of the world," Mazhitov says. Accordingly, they renamed the event the “World Nomad Games” and settled on a biannual rather than annual schedule to allow for more time to embrace a global focus.

Case-in-point: While this year’s events still focus heavily on, say, Turkic wrestling and (now) hunting traditions—including hunting contests involving birds of prey launched off a man’s arm to swoop animals—organizers also have made efforts to recruit athletes from around the world into competitions they think would be a good fit, such as bow-and-arrow shooting for Native Americans.

Whether the games can succeed in encompassing and uniting a vast diversity of nomadic traditions, much less grow to become an Olympics equivalent in scale and prestige (as some hope it will), is entirely up in the air.

But the world’s nomadic peoples and peoples of nomadic heritage clearly have responded to the message of elevation, traditional preservation, and soft protestation against globalization’s athletic whitewashing of the world. To jump from 400 athletes from 10 countries to up to 2,000 athletes from 53 countries—some as far geographically and as distant from Turkic nomadic traditions as Guatemala, Iceland, and Madagascar—in the space of two years is no small feat.

And the press has indicated that the spectacle of these games—the mind-bending athleticism of folks doing gymnastics on horseback or the madness of a free-for-all mass wrestling pit—is attractive to international viewers. In 2014, well over 100 media outlets attended the games, but this year Kyrgyzstan accredited over 500 press representatives, including large-scale international broadcasters like Japan’s national NHK television channel.

And it is worth a watch, in part to show solidarity with the effort to elevate non-Western traditions, and in part because it’s incredibly cool to see a man stand with each foot on a different galloping horse.

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