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 games 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 all over the world.

Now, for the very first time, in September, Turkmenistan plays host to one of the world’s biggest and most prestigious games, one which has a heavy slant towards the indigenous wrestling styles of Central Asia.

Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games come to Turkmenistan

One of the latest additions to the international multi-sport games circuit is the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (AIMAG) which hosts its 5th edition in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan in September. 5500 athletes from 64 countries, including for the first time athletes from 19 countries in Oceania, will descend upon the Turkmen capital to contest medals in 21 different sports.

The bidding for, preparation and hosting of AIMAG forms part of a Turkmen government initiative led by President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov. This initiative aims to increase sporting opportunities and inspire excellence for the nation, particularly amongst its youth. Aside from the Games providing real inspiration for sports participation with all the inherent health and social benefits, the awarding of AIMAG gives Turkmenistan an opportunity to present its rich culture to the world. AIMAG provides Turkmenistan with those first steps toward hosting the Asian Games and, perhaps one day the Olympics. By successfully staging large-scale international meetings, Turkmenistan’s global profile will rise and lead to increased economic and social benefits.

AIMAG – Combat Disciplines to the Fore

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

Ashgabat 2017 boasts no less than nine different combat disciplines amongst its 21 sports. Asia and 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 take to 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 reader but, in a nutshell, they can 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 occupying centre ground 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 best known as a purely grappling style, but now presents two separate disciplines, sambo wrestling and combat sambo. Combat sambo contains all the techniques of its wrestling parent with the addition of full-blooded kicks and punches to the head and body.

Kurash Sets the Pace

Whilst the striking combat disciplines at AIMAG have their roots in south and east 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, very much retained its own identity through the Soviet era surviving through its traditional appearances 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. Kurash was the only wrestling 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. Testament to its international popularity, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and other Central Asian nations at AIMAG may not completely dominate proceedings now that emerging countries such as Iran, Japan, Mongolia and India are snapping hard at their heels.

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 come 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 have established a common rule set for belt wrestling thus providing a shared platform for the numerous Asian belt styles to compete together on an even basis. 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.

As the name suggests, belt wrestlers must 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 which make for some spectacular throws.

Traditional wrestling

Traditional wrestling is a generalised 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 and finally no-belt where wrestlers compete beltless.

In all three of these standardised 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 are Turkmen classic and freestyle “Goresh” (which incidentally can still be seen in its original form at festivals and weddings), Kazakh Kuresi and Pahlavani.

Turkmenistan Athletes Set to Shine on Home Ground

Current form shows that it’s just a matter of time before Turkmenistan achieves its first Olympic champion. Recent international results across a number of sports reveal an increasing level of Turkmen success. Turkmen wrestlers of all disciplines, boxers and kickboxers have medalled in recent world and Asian championships. Indeed Turkmenistan were ranked as the top country at both the 2016 Asian Kickboxing Championships and the Asian Ju-Jitsu Championships. Turkmenistan reigned supreme at the last Asian Belt and Traditional Wrestling Championships winning more medals than their nearest competitors combined! Three bronze medals at the last World Kurash Championships could easily turn to gold at AIMAG. A hatful of medals including several golds at this year’s Asian Championships plus several medals at the last World Championships augur well for the nation’s sambo competitors.

Don’t forget the non-combat sports where Turkmenistan are making solid international progress. Turkmen athletes seem poised for medal success in dance sport, weightlifting, swimming and equestrian events too.

Look for Ashgabat 2017, with its sound investment, home advantage and highly enthusiastic home support, to provide Turkmenistan with its finest fortnight of sport!

WWW.OCAMAGAZINE.COM #26 SUMMER 2017  text by Paul Sawyer, General Secretary British Kurash Association