The ancient games of Mongolia
The ancient Greeks held the first marathons, but the first triathlons were likely held in ancient Mongolia. These events, called Naadam or “Games of Man”, are rooted in the mists of antiquity, yet continue to be very popular among Mongolians today. It is the Mongolian’s most important and popular national festival, a highpoint of the year. The opening ceremony of Naadam is very bright and many locals as well as visitors attend. It’s a spectacle of sport and culture like no other.
Naadam competitions emphasize the areas of strength, horsemanship and marksmanship. Instead of swimming, cycling and running, it focuses on wrestling, archery and horseracing. In annual gatherings held across the country, Mongolian’s demonstrate and celebrate their prowess in riding, archery and wrestling, rather than swimming, cycling and running. The competitors range in age and gender from the very young to the very old.
The origins of the modern festival of Naadam lie in Mongolia’s ancient nomadic life on the steppe, thousands of miles of vast, continuous grasslands. Mongolians thrived by mastering horsemanship and archery. Around the 12th-13th century military festivals were established where men tried their strength and their steeds’ agility. From the 17th century onwards, Naadam contests were held regularly at religious holidays, and today they are held annually in early July.
Evidence of early wrestling matches can be seen in the details of this early painting of Naadam match now in the Bogd Khaan Palace.
Today’s wrestlers still wear short jackets and leather boots to emphasize their strong physiques and protect their legs and arms. The boots help keep the feet stable in the grass. Maintaining balance is critical because if the wrestler loses his footing and another part of the body touches the ground, he loses the match and is eliminated from the competition.
The most exhilarating and moving event of the Naadam competition is horseracing. Horses play a central role in all aspects of Mongolian life, indeed there is one horse for every person in this country with a population of 3 million. Mongolian children learn to ride by the age of three or four. It is an old tradition for the Naadam jockeys to be children between the ages of 7 and 13. They dress in bright clothing embroidered with symbols of speed, fame and good luck such as butterflies, birds and stars.
The horse races showcase the speed and character of the animals, and their young riders’ stamina and composure during the long, straight race. Riders and spectators tearfully express their joy and compassion for horses and riders at the end of the race.
Exquisite antique saddles, bridles and other riding equipment are treasured objects in the collections of the National Museum of Mongolia and the Bogd Khaan Palace.
The third main area is archery. The traditional costumes, as seen in this early 20th century photograph is still worn today during the competitions. The competitors range from young men and women to older masters of the art of shooting bow and arrow at distant targets.