Experience Mongolian Wrestling and other Traditional Sports at the Naadam Festival
Mongolian Wrestling: The Naadam Festival
Mongolians are not big sports fanatics, but the ones they do play, they are very passionate about. The three “manly sports” of Mongolia include: Mongolian Wrestling, archery, and horse racing. These are the three “manly sports” that Genghis Khan considered essential for any Mongol warrior, and are showcased every year at the Naadam Festival.
One of the best ways to enjoy these Mongolian sports is by joining in the celebrations of the Naadam festival which takes place in summer, usually early or mid-July.
Traditional Sports - Mongolian Wrestling:
Wrestling Culture at the Naadam festival
Mongolian wrestling is one of the traditional sports of Mongolia. Mongolian wrestlers will wear a very small, tight-fitting waistcoat, as well as a belt and tight fitting underwear. Mongolian wrestlers will also wear a hat with various ribbons, and the ribbons signify how long they’ve been wrestling for. As well as being practical for fighting, the outfit has its own story.
The story goes that a female wrestler once took part in the Mongolian wrestling at the Naadam festival, without officials knowing, and proceeded to win. This was a big embarrassment once it was found out, and therefore the costume was made so that no woman could ever get away with disguising herself as a man again.
One unique aspect of Mongolian wrestling is the respect between competitors. The object, generally, is to defeat your opponent, not hurt him, not least because the games are held far away from any doctors or hospitals. Wrestlers will generally show respect; it is clear when respect is lost and they go in full whack (literally).
At the end of a match, Mongolian wrestlers show respect to their opponents by giving them a pat on the bum.
Some controversy behind Mongolian wrestling lies in the culture of deliberately losing a match. Many wrestlers will throw a match deliberately in earlier rounds, to give friends or family a chance of winning. This can also happen at events such as the Naadam festival where a Mongolian wrestler will travel to a different town or city to compete. If they fight against a local in the final round, they may throw the match deliberately to let the local person win and avoid hostility.
Indeed, our Mongolia Tour Leader Rich experienced this culture in his first Naadam festival. His first opponent lost, and he was met in the next round by a much larger Mongolian man. Needless to say he lost, but he definitely remembers not being slammed to the floor, but lowered gently (but firmly) so as not to break any bones. The only thing he may have lost was his dignity. Do quiz him on this if you come on a Koryo Tour to Mongolia! And get some pointers for when you have your turn at trying out Mongolian wrestling.
Mongolian Wrestling at the Naadam Festival
Mongolian wrestling is the first sport that kicks off the Naadam festival.
Before the wrestling begins, there will be a ritual amongst the professional wrestlers. Large Mongolian wrestlers do a traditional dance around the Mongolian flag in the centre of the stadium dressed as eagles, which is incredibly impressive to watch from the outside!
Wrestlers will then proceed to fight, working their way up as they win matches against their opponents, eventually reaching the final. The prize up for grabs is a medal, cash and pride.
You too can take part in Mongolian wrestling at the Naadam Festival by attending the festival in a smaller city or village. All you have to do is sign up on the morning, and prepare yourself! Don’t worry if you don’t have the traditional attire, many locals also have a go at Mongolian wrestling just in jeans and a t-shirt. If you start to win a couple of matches and work your way up, you’ll then wear the waistcoat and traditional attire.
Traditional Sports - Archery:
Archery at the Naadam Festival Mongolian archery culture
Mongolians will train for the whole year practicing Mongolian archery for the Naadam festival. If you know where to go, you can see them in towns and cities throughout the country at the various practice grounds.
Archers wear long clothing. The arrows are weighted with a piece of plastic or bone and have eagle feather ends, and bows are hand made with intricate designs. They are similar to an English long-bow, but much tougher. The Mongolian bow is also a lot shorter, making for practical use on horseback. They’re made of a combination of materials: wood, animal bone and sinew, which offers them a huge amount of flexibility.
There is much more to Mongolian archery than you may expect – it’s not simply trying to shoot an arrow at a target. There are various different competition types which are much more technical, with a lot more skills involved than first meets the eye!
Anyone can take part in this event, as long as you have your own bow and arrow gear.
Mongolian archery at the Naadam festival
Archery usually takes place during the wrestling at Naadam. If you are in a smaller town or city in a more rural location, the archery is usually close to the main stadium so you can go to watch whilst having a break from the wrestling.
This isn’t always possible in Ulan Bator, since the main stadium is too far away from the archery location.
There are different competitor groups in the archery competition, and in recent years women have also been able to compete in their own category.
As with the wrestling, a medal, cash and pride are up for grabs.
Traditional Sports - Horse Racing:
Horse Racing at the Naadam Festival Mongolian Horse Racing Culture
In Mongolian horse racing, the jockeys are young children, usually boys.
There are various race horse categories all with specific names depending on the age of the horse. The older the horse, the longer the race. A Mongolian horse race can constitute anything from 10km to 27km. Routes are long and straight, in order to best test the stamina and character of the horses.
It is now law to wear protective clothing whilst racing, but many race without helmets.
During our last visit to Mongolia, Koryo Tours donated helmets to the people in the rural city of Hovd for use at the Naadam Festival, so you may see some Koryo Tours helmets whizzing past you!
Mongolian Horse Racing at the Naadam Festival
Horse racing at the Naadam festival usually takes place just outside the city, and takes one afternoon to complete.
Spectators leave their Gers early in the morning and gather at the finish line with their cars to wait for the horses to race past the finish line. Once the first horse crosses the finish line, spectators will run towards the horse with large wooden sticks in order to catch the sweat from the horse, which they believe is lucky. The last horse through the finish line will also be applauded – there are no losers here (although they don’t get a prize).
After one race is completed, the young jockeys will be loaded into a trailer and taken to the start line once more for their next race, as well as the competing horses. This is repeated several times throughout the afternoon until the end of the races!
Since the races are such a long distance, it can mean a bit of waiting before the winner crosses the finish line. But, don’t fear! You certainly won’t get bored amongst the multiple stalls and vendors selling food and small souvenirs. Plus, you it is a great chance to chill out with the locals and soak in the atmosphere.
Click here for more information on how you too can join in!