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By Rebecca Byerly
ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia (CNN) — Standing slightly more than 4 feet tall, 9-year-old Tuguldur proudly stated the greatest challenge he faced in a horse race across the Mongolian plains in the country’s annual Naadam Festival was serenading his horse.
“The hardest part of the race was singing to my horse while riding,” said Tuguldur, wiping perspiration from the July sun off his face.
The long-distance horse race is exclusively for children, ranging in ages from 6 to 12. Riding up to 30 kilometers (19 miles), these children maneuver their galloping steeds on a thin saddle pad that often does not have stirrups.
“Mongolians believe they can communicate with their horses through singing, and their horse will go faster,” said Tamir, a senior at Mongolian University. “This is why the kids must keep singing during the race.”
Singing to racing horses is just one part of Mongolia’s Naadam Festival, an annual event believed to have existed for centuries, and rivaling the Olympics as the premier sporting event in the central Asian nation.
“For us Mongolians, the Naadam Festival is what we look forward to all year,” said Dashtsogtsol Erdenetuya, who has competed in the Naadam Festival for the past 22 years. “It is our tradition and a reminder of an ancient way of life. Getting gold in this festival brings as much honor as any Olympic medal.”
Held every July, the Naadam Festival was possibly founded as long ago as 800 years ago by Genghis Khan. The festival is believed to have started as a way for Mongols to train for military and hunting expeditions. Today, if formally commemorates the 1921 revolution when Mongolia declared itself a free country.
Many of Naadam’s customs, which include wearing traditional clothes and singing hymns once sung in battle, are still followed, a sign of the importance of the festival.
“In the Naadam Festival, everyone knows who you are; many companies will sponsor you, and if you win, you can become the face of the country,” said Nasanbat Oyunbat, director of the Mongolian Olympic National Team. “The Olympics are only now becoming popular in Mongolia and were televised for the first time in the 2004 Games in Athens.”
“The horses in the Naadam Festival have higher endurance than the horses that will compete in the Olympic Equestrian events in August,” bragged Edward Rochette, an American lawyer who married a Mongolian woman and is living in Ulaanbaatar. “Most thoroughbreds would die if you ran them for 30 km. The Mongolian horses have been running across these plains for hundreds of years and have developed the correct body type for this kind of sport.”
Rochette’s wife’s family lives in a yurt (round animal skin tent), owns more than 1,500 and entered 20 horses in the three-day race competition this year, which was visited by thousands of tourists.
“I was overwhelmed watching the clouds of dust rise across the prairie as the horses galloped to the finish line,” explained Miep Thulijls, a tourist from Holland. “I could not believe these tiny kids could ride for so long and was terrified when I saw one of the children fall off his horse like a rag doll.”
The age limit was raised from 4 to 6 after a child was killed in a race a few years ago. Only small children are allowed to compete in this event because they are particularly light. The kids are generally rewarded with warm mare’s milk and candy while the horse owners get money and sometimes even cars.
Wrestling without weight limits
Mongolian wrestling has no weight divisions; a time limit was only introduced after a match went on for more than four hours. Wrestlers compete in single elimination events and are weeded down from 512 participants during nine rounds of competition.
“It is more difficult to wrestle the little guys because they are so quick,” complained Gantogtokh, who at 130 kilos (286 pounds) is an eighth-generation wrestler. His father placed second in Judo in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico.
Dressed in tight blue shorts and a half shirt, which is usually red or blue, the wrestlers dance around the judges in slow graceful sways and then pay homage to the nine flags dating back to Genghis Khan before and after each match.
It is rumored that the dress code, which requires wrestlers to compete without shirts was imposed after a female participated in the event disguised as a man. Many of the male athletes who compete in the free style wrestling and judo events in the Olympic Games were once Naadam Festival winners. But, the Olympic gold medal hopeful this year is a female Judo wrestler.
“Each generation of wrestlers gets stronger as they have more opportunities to work out,” Gantogtokh said. “I hope this year we will bring home a gold in Judo and wrestling. But, the competition is going to be tough.”
Arrows to anklebones
Other athletes participated in archery and anklebone shooting. “This has always been my dream,” beamed Dashtsogtsol Erdenetuya, 36, who has competed in the Naadam Festival for the past 22 years. “I placed second the past three years and finally came in first this time. My mother was a champion in 1969 and 1975 and taught me everything I know about archery.”
Archery is usually the only event in which women compete. Men shoot from 75 meters and women from 65 meters. Mongolians sing to the archers and stand on either side of the targets. The singers, dressed in elaborate decor, sing three different types of songs, including an invitational song and songs that recognize a good or bad shot.
Famous for his ability to shoot backward on horseback, Genghis Khan created the sport of anklebone shooting to strengthen the middle finger of his soldiers, so they would be better skilled in archery.
Anklebone shooting is the newest event in the Naadam Festival, only becoming an official sport in 2000.
“The game is becoming more modern now,” explained Khatanbator, 56, an anklebone participant.” Competitors now use pieces of deer antler instead of anklebones. It is easier on the wrist to flick than anklebones. But, everyone still refers to the sport as anklebone shooting because it has been this way for hundreds of years.”
The competitors are divided into teams of eight who compete against each other. The first to knock all the deer chips down wins.
“People cheer for the other competitor like fans would in a soccer game,” explained Berkfat Tumenjin, a Mongolian tour guide. “While the singing in other events is used to encourage competitors, the singing in this event is used to distract them.”