The first-ever World Nomad Games, a planned annual showcase of nomadic athletic culture, was held in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan’s famous lakeside resort town on the northern shore of the Issyk-Kul. Over the course of six days (8th – 14th September), sportsmen from throughout the former Soviet Union and Mongolia competed against each other and performed before an audience estimated to number in the thousands.
A number of Turkic, Siberian, and Mongolian sports were represented, particularly kurosh (belt wrestling). Mongolia was represented by its current champion, the terrifying Suparjargal Boldpurev. Weighing in at 90 kilograms, the enormous yet shy Boldpurev crushed several of his opponents with surprising grace and sportive courtesy.
Nevertheless, ultimate victory in kurosh went to Kyrgyzstan’s Nurbek Kozhobekov, who achieved the top spot after facing down Kazakhstan’s Bekzat Ahmetbekov. The Kyrgyz dominate in this sport and the final medal tally was an impressive 34 medals, including 10 gold, 13 silver and 11 bronze.
Kyrgyzstan claimed another unique prize: the world record for the fastest erection of a traditional yurt. This reporter directly witnessed the event, which occurred on 10th September in the Semenovsk National Park’s Kyrchyn gorge during a musical performance by a small orchestra and traditional Kyrgyz akyn (lyricist). Mongolia had previously held the record at one hour and 12 minutes; Kyrgyzstan accomplished the feat in an incredible 16 minutes and 14 seconds.
There is great similarity between the various nomadic sports, with sometimes the only substantive differences being in very specific rules or the terms of victory. Naturally, Kyrgyzstan and its version of these sports took centre stage throughout the Games. For instance, kök-börü (meaning “blue-wolf”) is the Kyrgyz version of the more well-known buzkashi, in which two teams of 12 horse riders vie in a mounted Rugby-style battle to slam dunk a headless goat body into the opposing side’s goal cauldron.
The Games began with an elaborate opening show celebrating the contribution of nomadic culture to global civilisation. Kyrgyz singer Gulzada Ryskulova, who combines traditional motifs with modern pop music, and dancer Atai Omurzakov, famous for his robotic style of movement, performed alongside enormous set pieces depicting the cycle of war and peace.
The opening show was capped by an enormous procession of flags from around the world as well as various representatives of foreign nations currently in Kyrgyzstan. This procession culminated in a speech given by Kyrgyz president, Almaz Atambayev, that proclaimed, “the power of nomadic civilisation to be in harmony between nature and an ever-changing [human] world”.
Noting that the ancient origin of nomadic sports lies in warfare, Atambayev nonetheless stressed the capacity of sporting to “be a force that unites people”.
Indeed, calls for “unity” or “harmony” (yntymak) and “wholeness” (bütün) between peoples has been a recurring theme throughout Atambayev’s presidency, increasingly so as his country prepares to enter the Eurasian Economic Union with Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia. At the moment, Union membership is controversial in Kyrgyzstan, with many here seeing it as a dangerous but necessary gamble that could either improve the country’s economic conditions or devastate it with hyperinflation.
The president’s speech addressed one of several delicate issues associated with the Games. Controversy exploded in Russian and Kyrgyz online forums when it was learned that the organisers had destroyed a forest to make way for a parking lot, an action which many felt was inconsistent with the ecologically reverent philosophy of nomadism.
The newspaper Bishkek Vecherniy also reported several cases of alleged biased refereeing in the kurosh competition, particularly in bouts with the Kazakh team. At least one incident compelled Boldpurev to concede a finals qualifying match to a kazakh opponent. Nevertheless, the newspaper reports that the championship match between Ahmetbekov and Kozhobekov was considered fairly refereed.
The Games were organised by World Ethno Games, a Turkish-Kyrgyz non-profit organization aspiring to establish a new sporting brand. This reporter, for one, hopes
that in future rounds the Games invite nomadic and nomadic-heritage peoples and sports from further afield, such as the Native Americans and First Nations of North America and the Bedouins of the Middle East. If this happened, then Kyrgyzstan will have ccomplished creating more than a brand, but a Nomadic Olympics.
by Christopher Schwartz