Every year in July Mongolians mark Nadaam, the national festival featuring what locals call “eriin gurvan nadaam,” or the “three manly sports” of wrestling, horseracing and archery.
The festival dates back to the times of Genghis Khan, who supposedly introduced the competition as a means to keep his soldiers in fighting form during times of peace. This year’s national Nadaam festival was dedicated to what Mongolians claim as the 2,222nd year of Mongolia’s statehood.
Provinces and small towns across the country host their own Nadaam games throughout the month. The nationwide festival takes place in the capital Ulaanbaatar. The games are officially declared open after nine ceremonial white banners representing the nine tribes of Mongolia are brought from the government house and hoisted in the national stadium.
Wrestling and horseracing still draw the biggest crowds, but participation in archery remains strong. In 2001, a fourth traditional sport of knucklebone shooting or “shagai” was included in the Nadaam games. Shagai contestants compete to strike small targets made from goat or sheep anklebones with a striker made from polished knucklebones and flicked with the fingers through air from a distance of about five meters.
Women participate only in archery, and young girls can be jockeys in the horseraces but are not allowed in wrestling or shagai.
While the games have changed little over the years, the prize money keeps growing, along with the number of corporate sponsors. The winner of the national wrestling champion, for example, walked away with a Mercedes Benz G500 SUV, keys to a two-bedroom apartment in Ulaanbaatar’s posh residential district of Zaisan and a cash prize of 15 million tugriks (about $10,000).
Pearly Jacob is a freelance journalist based in Ulaanbaatar.