A New Olympics Just For Nomads
Playing polo with a 100-pound goat carcass to save nomadic culture and build national pride in Kyrgyzstan.
Photo by VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images.com
Early this September, 150 nomadic yurts rose up across the Kyrchyn Jailoo, a vast, grassy nomadic pasture in Kyrgyzstan. Usually a sleepy spot just outside the little resort town of Cholpon-Ata on the pristine Lake Issyk-Kol, the remote expanse had been chosen as the site of a historic gathering. This was not some grand council of roving tribes ripped from local legend, but in a sense it was a modern correlate. Upon the initiative of the Kyrgyzstan government, the Jailoo had become the site of the first World Nomad Games.
The brainchild of Kyrgyzstani President Almazbek Atambayev, the six-day competition (running from September 9 through the 14) brought together almost 400 athletes from at least 18 countries—Afghanistan, Austria, Azerbaijan, Brazil, France, Germany, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Mongolia, Russia, South Korea, Sweden, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, the United States, and Uzbekistan—in front of a crowd of 45,000 (including 4,500 international tourists). Kicking off not with a torch lighting ceremony but with a flaming rider racing across the grounds, this audacious new international event aimed to celebrate the food, folklore, arts, and athletics of the world’s vibrant but vanishing nomadic cultures. The organizers hoped to bring global attention to, and build diplomatic bonds between, the world’s remaining nomadic-heritage peoples.
Photo by Maxim Petrichuk/Shutterstock.com
Although billed as an international event, the games played a special role for host country Kyrgyzstan. President Atambayev first conceived of the games during a 2011 visit to Turkey, and pushed for his country to inaugurate what may become an enduring international tradition. For President Atambayev, the unifying and pro-nomadic message of the games seemed like it could help to unite and invigorate his peoples, as part of his 2014 Year of Strengthening Kyrgyz Statehood.
Since independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has witnessed countless divisive political protests, two forced Presidential abdications, and one major bout of ethnic violence between minorities, a conflict presaged by by Joseph Stalin’s destabilizing, unity-defying border manipulations. All the while, Kyrgyzstanis have suffered endemic poverty so dire that back in 2012 the country’s World War II eternal flame was extinguished because the government reportedly failed to pay three years’ worth of related gas bills, amounting to $9,000.At the same time, they’ve fallen increasingly under the pall of American and Russian interests, and been forced to prioritize the needs of their patron states to the detriment of their united Kyrgyzstani identity.
Many were pleased, then, when the young and fragile nation pulled off a successful and supremely entertaining series of competitions. Between Er Enish (wrestling on horseback), Tyin Enmei (picking a coin off the ground while galloping at full speed), and Salbuurun (hunting with a bow, dog, and eagle), they revived many fading but captivating traditions, plastering the internet with breathtaking horsemanship. The most popular events, Kyz Kumai (the uh, questionably romantic sport of chasing women on horseback) and Kok Boru (quasi-polo using the 100-pound carcass of a whole goat as a ball) inspired fierce competition and a fair amount of video coverage as well. With free admission for locals and copious entertainment throughout, the immediate reception was positive.
Photo by Igor Kovalenko/EPA
The games were not without any hitches. Amidst ongoing energy crises, the Kyrgyzstani public lambasted the event’s $3 million initial budget, forcing it down to $1.5 million and stirring up accusations of graft. Meanwhile, the focus on Kyrgyz traditions and overrepresentation of Kyrgyz medalists (they won 55 medals versus Kazakhstan’s 28-medal second place) had both Kyrgyzstani minorities and international nomads slightly irked.
But by most accounts, the games were a success. Bids at pan-nomadism, often tied to pan-Turkism, often fall flat, never moving beyond platitudes. Even though only one other head of state, President Rustam Minnikhanov of Russia’s Republic of Tatarstan, was in attendance, the event still drew millions of spectators worldwide (and allegedly raised millions in tourist dollars, surprisingly rare for major sporting events). It’s still unclear whether another nation will host the event in the future, but given the success of the first World Nomad Games, and the rise of pan-Turkic events like Turkey’s Turkvision Song Contest (in competition with Eurovision), it seems likely that the flaming horseman will ride again.