The pro-Soviet puppet regime that ruled Mongolia between 1921 and 1990 turned Naadam into a celebration of the socialist revolution, which is why it starts on July 11, the anniversary of the revolution. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of an independent Mongolia, the games have become more of a celebration of Genghis Khan’s “Great Mongolian Empire.”
Genghis Khan’s skills as an anklebone tosser are shrouded in the mists of time. But the accuracy of today’s champions is startling.
Dressed traditionally in square felt caps with a decorative spike, richly decorated robes and calf-high riding boots, they sit impassively on low stools, deep in concentration, and use their middle finger to flick a small, wedge shaped piece of animal anklebone from a polished wooden launchpad at two other pieces of bone – scarcely larger than dice – sitting on a platform five paces away.
Competitors send the target bones skittering away with extraordinary regularity.
Archers, too, display astonishing precision as they shoot at tin can-like cylinders of woven leather lined up on the ground, recalling the unmatched skill of Ghengis Khan’s cavalrymen at shooting from the back of their galloping horses.
The most popular sport is wrestling; two days of knockout competition – one fall and you’ve lost – whittle 512 starting wrestlers down to a single victor who instantly becomes a national hero to those who have packed the stadium and to everyone else in the country who has been glued to TV coverage.
The rules are simple but the procedures of the nine-round competition are complex, and Mongolian passions are easily stoked by the sight of two elephantine men leaning into each other head to head, waiting for the right moment to push, pull, lift, or trip their opponent in a sudden burst of activity.
When victory comes, the winner celebrates with a slow-motion lumbering lope, holding his arms outstretched, in the “eagle dance,” and his opponent must lower his head to pass beneath the victor’s arm.
The sport most symbolic of Mongolians’ nomadic past and present, though, is horse racing.