Multi-sport games such as the Olympics are familiar to us all. Every four years the eyes of the world focus towards a major city such as London, Rio or Beijing as the finest athletes on the planet pit their skills in a media-frenzied cauldron of sporting excellence. Such formats are not unique to the Olympic movement of course. We in the UK have been enjoying the Commonwealth Games since 1930 and pan-continental games are well-established around the world.

From September 17th – 27th, Turkmenistan played host for the very first time to one of the world’s biggest and most prestigious games, one which eschewed a heavy slant towards the indigenous wrestling styles of Central Asia.

Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games come to Turkmenistan

A recent addition to the international multi-sport games circuit is the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (AIMAG) which hosted its 5th edition in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan in September. 5500 athletes from 64 countries, including for the first time athletes from 19 countries in Oceania plus uniquely an African refugee team, descended upon the Turkmen capital to contest 21 different sports.

The bidding for, preparation and hosting of AIMAG formed part of a Turkmen government initiative led by President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov. This initiative aimed to expand sporting opportunities and inspire excellence within the nation, particularly amongst the youth. Aside from the Games providing genuine inspiration for increased sports participation with all its inherent health and social benefits, the awarding of AIMAG also presented Turkmenistan an opportunity to present its rich culture and hospitality to the world.

AIMAG – Combat Disciplines to the fore

AIMAG is unique amongst multi-sports events in its constituent sports. Whilst offering a selection of familiar Olympic disciplines such as cycling, swimming, equestrian and weightlifting, there is a very strong bias as the name suggests, towards combat sports. Asian countries have performed exceptionally well in combat sports on the world stage but have enjoyed fewer opportunities to showcase their range of prowess at Olympic level where these are limited to just boxing, wrestling, judo and, more recently, taekwondo.

Ashgabat 2017 boasted no less than nine different combat disciplines. Many of the world’s best practitioners of kurash, sambo, sport ju-jitsu, kickboxing, muaythai, taekwondo, olympic wrestling (freestyle and greco-roman), belt wrestling and traditional wrestling entered the mat or ring to contest in excess of 200 sets of medals.

Some of these disciplines may be little known to the average UK citizen but, to summarise, they may be categorised into the purely striking (punching and kicking) activities of kickboxing, muaythai and taekwondo and the grappling sports of kurash, sambo and the other wrestling disciplines.
Straddling the middle is sport ju-jitsu, a hybrid of limited touch-type striking and grappling which originated in Japan. Also leaning more towards centre ground now is sambo which developed in Russia during the Soviet Union era. Sambo is a synthesis of the wrestling and self-defence methods of the constituent republics combined with Japanese judo. Sambo is better known as a purely grappling style, but now offers two separate disciplines, sambo wrestling and combat sambo. Combat sambo contains all the techniques of its wrestling parent plus the addition of full-blooded kicks and punches to the head and body.

Kurash – a global sport

Whilst the striking combat disciplines at AIMAG have their roots in southern and eastern Asia, sambo contains a wealth of techniques derived from Central Asia’s indigenous wrestling styles, in particular Kurash from Uzbekistan.

Kurash, although providing a major contribution to sambo, was able to retain its own identity through the Soviet era, surviving through its traditional appearance at Uzbek weddings and festivals. Since Uzbekistan’s independence in 1991, kurash blossomed into an international sport in its own right. There are now over 100 national federations spread across every continent and kurash was the only grappling sport included in the previous edition of AIMAG held in South Korea.
For UK readers, it is worth noting that while Uzbekistan and Central Asia remain at the epicentre of kurash in terms of quantity and quality of participants, the British Kurash Association was a founder member of the International Kurash Association in 1998. Since then, the BKA has successfully organised nine Islam Karimov International Tournaments plus the World Junior and Cadet Championships at Harewood College, Bournemouth in 2012.

To the uninitiated, kurash appears similar to judo minus the ground fighting. Contestants take hold of each other’s jacket and attempt to throw the opponent onto their back. Kurash allows a very wide choice of gripping options using the jacket, sleeves and belt leading to total emphasis on clean, spectacular and dynamic throws.

Traditional wrestling styles unite

Whilst kurash exists with an independent, International Olympic Committee recognised international governing body, many other wrestling styles with more localised followings now exist under the umbrella of United World Wrestling. UWW (formerly FILA) is the IOC recognised governing body for the Olympic wrestling styles of freestyle and greco-roman. UWW has broadened in recent years to encompass many of the traditional belt, backhold and uniform-gripping variations found around the globe.

Belt wrestling

UWW has established a common rule set for belt wrestling thus providing a shared platform for the numerous Asian belt wrestling variants to compete under a common ruleset. Interest has extended beyond Asia into Europe and the USA in the last 10 years as belt wrestling, at which Turkmenistan are the world’s leading nation, increases in popularity around the world.

Belt wrestlers maintain a grip on the opponent’s cloth belt in an effort to bring their opponent to the ground. Bouts consist of a set of usually short and explosive rounds making for spectacular throws.

Traditional wrestling

Traditional wrestling is a general term covering virtually every other global style under the sun. International traditional wrestling under the auspices of UWW loosely splits into three forms. Fixed belt is where wrestlers maintain a belt grip throughout, free belt allows the wrestler the option to grip the belt or not according to choice and finally no-belt where wrestlers compete beltless.

In all three of these traditional forms, to achieve absolute victory a wrestler must pin both his opponent’s shoulders to the floor. A point is also awarded for taking the opponent to the ground from a standing position or forcing them out of the competition area.

In AIMAG the three traditional styles featured were Turkmen classic and freestyle “Goresh” (which, like kurash, can also still be seen in its original form at festivals and weddings), Kazakh Kuresi and Pahlavani.


Turkmenistan win 89 gold medals!

AIMAG proved to be a huge success for the hosts. A spectacular and colourful opening ceremony, as good if not better than any previous Olympic ceremony, paved the way for two weeks of unprecedented medal success and national celebration for Turkmenistan.

The home country won no less than 245 medals including 89 golds! Traditional sporting superpower China (97 medals, 42 golds) finished way behind in second place in the medals table.

Turkmen martial artists lead the way

It was the martial arts where the vast majority of the home medals were won. As expected, Turkmenistan reigned supreme in traditional wrestling (23 gold medals from a possible 25) and belt wrestling (39 golds from a possible 48). Founder nations Uzbekistan (9 golds from 15) and Thailand (7 golds from 14) dominated kurash and muaythai respectively. However, Iran upset the established order in taekwondo with 7 golds compared to Korea’s 4.

Iran were also impressive winners in kickboxing too as well as dominating in olympic wrestling where they have consistently been in the top two or three world nations for many years.

Turkmenistan’s other martial arts successes saw them head the medal table in sambo and sport ju-jitsu as well as place second in kickboxing and kurash.
Even in the non-combat sports, where most pre-event favourites came from the other competing nations, Turkmenistan demonstrated their ascendancy by taking a healthy sprinkling of medals to add to the combat haul.

Olympic success beckons

In his closing address, Olympic Council of Asia President HE Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah congratulated President Berdimuhamedov and the Turkmen people for hosting “the best ever Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games”, promising to return to Ashgabat for future multinational sports competitions.

Thus AIMAG proved Turkmenistan possesses the ability and infrastructure to organise events on a global scale. Hosting the Asian Games is now a realistic possibility and, longer term, maybe the Olympics. By successfully staging these large-scale international meetings, Turkmenistan’s global profile will continue to rise thus leading to increased economic and social benefits for the nation.

Ashgabat 2017, produced Turkmenistan’s finest fortnight of sport and proof that they are a rising force ahead of Tokyo 2020. It is surely just a matter of time before Turkmenistan achieves its first Olympic champion!


By Paul Sawyer is former British champion and international competitor in kurash, sambo and judo and is currently General Secretary of the British Kurash Association
For a detailed results and photographs check out the
official Games website www.ashgabat2017.gov.tm

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