From the boundless steppes of Mongolia, young Tuvshinbayar Naidan achieved victory over a series of heavily favored adversaries to become his country’s first Olympic gold medalist at this summer’s Beijing games. Last week, he was in Niagara Falls, seeing the sights, sampling the Italian cuisine and acclimating himself to life as an international celebrity.
“In my country we look to America,” he said. “My people value their freedom, and America is the land of the free.” Naidan’s family are traditional, nomadic people who follow their herds of horses and sheep across the vast steppes as they have since the days of Genghis Khan. In American terms, he grew up living the life of a cowboy, working alongside his father from the age of 6 and developing the phenomenal strength that served him so well in Beijing.
To condition himself, Naidan often ran up to the summit of Saikan Uul, a mile-high promontory near his home village. It was on the mountain, he said, that he began to find the inner strength that is the hallmark of a champion in any sport.
He became an expert in Mongolian-style wrestling, a martial art little known outside his country. His proficiency drew the attention of Minister Khaltmaa Battulga, president of the Mongolian Judo Federation, and he began his formal judo training. Under the tutelage of Minister Battulga and Dr. Bira Pagva, judo master and general director of educational affairs for the Mongolian Judo Federation, Naidan quickly became proficient in both the art and philosophy of judo.
“It is expected that judo is promoted to instill within its participants courage, persistence, modesty and respect toward other people,” Pagva told the Reporter. “It is also anticipated that judo teaches to resolve all conflicts with intelligence and without the application of violence.”
In the Far East and Europe, he noted, many heads of state and other dignitaries are members of their own country’s judo federations, which are overseen by an international governing body.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia currently holds the title of honorary president of the International Judo Federation and recently addressed representatives from throughout Europe, Asia and the Americas on the sport’s emphasis on perseverance, dedication and loyalty.
Going into the summer games, Naidan was ranked 12th in the world, and made his way into the finals with a stunning upset victory over two-time world champion Kenji Suzuki of Japan.
He then beat two more heavily favored opponents, Benjamin Behria of Germany and South Korea’s Jang Sung-ho, who took the silver medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
By the time he reached the final, Naidan was battered and bruised, having suffered injuries to both knees that would have sidelined a lesser man.
Still, he soundly defeated Askhat Zhitkeyev of Kazakhstan to become his country’s first gold medalist in the 44 years since Mongolia entered into Olympic competition.
“Mongolian-style wrestling does have something in common with judo, so I took this for an advantage and used some of those moves in the match,” Naidan said. “Everyone in Mongolia is celebrating for my gold medal.”
The Mongolian press hailed the shy 24-year-old as a national hero, and in the aftermath of his victory, the Associated Press reported thousands of Mongolians hit the streets of the capital to celebrate, offering vodka toasts, blaring their car horns and waving the nation’s flag from the city’s tallest buildings.
Naidan, known by the affectionate nickname of Tuvshee by his countrymen, became an instant icon in his homeland.
“We are proud descendants of the great Genghis Khan, and Tuvshee proved the strength of Mongolians in the Olympics,” said Boldoo, a 24-year-old student. “Me and several of my friends have bought Mongolian vodka to celebrate this wonderful news. It is going to be a very exciting night.”
In America, Naidan is hoping to open an international judo training facility in conjunction with a university-level athletic program that will rival similar schools in the east.
While the United States is currently dominant in competitions such as the Pan American Games, our country has never fared particularly well against competition from outside the hemisphere.
Carmen Cabell, consul to the Mongolian embassy in Washington, D.C., said the Niagara Frontier is an attractive region for such a facility.
“Like Mongolia itself, the Niagara region represents a gateway where the international community has been historically important to the local economy,” he said. “It’s a place that ties many parts of the world together, and as such, the Mongolians look on it as almost a sister region.”
Indeed, Naidan isn’t the first Mongolian citizen to visit Niagara Falls and likely won’t be the last.
In 2006, a delegation of the country’s top political leaders spent time in the Falls with the idea of building a major North American trade and cultural center here. Considering that Mongolia is larger than France, Germany and Spain combined, its people and culture remain surprisingly unknown to most Americans, as does its often turbulent history. At various times, Mongolia’s closest neighbors — Russia and China — have played dominant roles in the country’s internal affairs, and it is only in the past decade that Mongolia has moved to broaden its international horizons.
The 2006 delegation was especially intrigued by the possibilities existing at the Niagara Falls International Airport, perhaps the most underutilized facility in the country, capable of landing the huge Antonov AN-225 cargo plane, which can take off from the Mongolian national airport at Ulan Bator and fly non-stop to Niagara Falls carrying more than one million pounds of cargo.
“The ability to handle that kind of traffic, and to return with goods made and bought in Western New York is something they’ve been talking about since they left two years ago,” Cabell told the Reporter. “There’s the potential for tremendous opportunity for both sides.”
With his Olympic triumph behind him, Naidan has become something of an unofficial ambassador for his country and its people.
The good-natured Mongolian cowboy said he hopes to do what he can to promote good relations between his country and ours.
“We share much with the United States, most of all the value of freedom,” he said. “There is a lot we can learn from each other.”