The Naadam festival is the biggest festival of the year for Mongolians. Usually occurring in July, it runs for three days in all parts of the country and highlights the greatest athletes in horse racing, archery, and wrestling: Mongolia’s most popular sports. Women participate in all but the wrestling category. The word Naadam means game or competition in Mongolian. Competitions take place on the first two days, and merry-making is reserved for the third.
This festival has been held for centuries as a form of memorial celebration, as an annual sacrificial ritual honoring various mountain gods or to celebrate a community endeavor.
The festivities kick off with a colorful parade of athletes, monks, soldiers marching in perfect uniformity, musicians performing powerful military tunes, and Mongolians dressed in Chinggis-style warrior uniforms.
Mongolians have a high regard for horses, which they have relied on for centuries for transport, sustenance, and companionship. During the races, up to 1,000 horses can be chosen to compete. The horse races are broken down into six categories based on the age of the horses. For example, two-year-old horses race for 10 miles and seven-year-olds for 17 miles. The race is conducted on the open grasslands with no set track or course. Children from the ages of 5 to 13 are chosen as jockeys, because this guarantees that the race tests the horses’ skill and not the riders.
The small size of the jockeys also increases the horses’ endurance. Even still, jockeys train for months before Naadam, and the horses are given a special diet. The winning jockey is praised with the title tumny ekh or “leader of ten thousand” and the five winning horses are talked about and revered in poetry and music. The losing two-year-old horse is also alloted special attention by being serenaded with a song. Music is very important before the race too, as the audience sings traditional songs and the the jockeys sing a pre-race song called a gingo.
Eating and drinking is the other “sport” during the Naadam festival. The horse races are held in the steppes, behind people who stop to drink tea and airag, fermented mares’ milk, cold meat pancakes, and other popular festival foods.
The wrestling competitions begin around noon on the first day of the festival and end on the second day. They are quite unlike American wrestling matches in form, and they have two other important differences. First, there are no weight divisions. A small wrestler can be pitted against someone two times his weight. This can lead to some very interesting matches. Second, there are no time limits.
The loser of a match is the wrestler who falls first. A fall is when any part of a wrestler’s body, except his hands or feet, touches the ground.
Titles are given to winners of a number of rounds: Falcon to those winning five rounds, Elephant for seven rounds, and Lion to the one winning the whole tournament.
One elite wrestler was once given the title “Eye-Pleasing Nationally Famous Mighty and Invincible Giant.” Wrestlers honor the judges and their attendants with a dance called devekh, or eagle dance. The winner also performs the eagle dance after the loser of the bout takes off his jacket and walks under the winner’s arm. Wrestlers wear small, over-the-shoulder vests called zodog, and snug shorts called shuudag. The heavy, traditional Mongolian boots are called gutuls.
The sport of archery originated around the 11th century. Contestants dress in traditional costumes and use a bent bow constructed of horn, bark, and wood. The arrows, made from willow branches and vulture feathers are shot at round, leather targets with grey, yellow or red rings. Men must stand 75 meters and women 60 meters from the target. Judges, standing near the targets, assess each shot with a cry, called a uukhai, and a raised hand. The winning archer, or mergen, is the one who hits the targets the most times. As close as the judges stand to the targets, none of them appears to ever be hit by an arrow.
Incidentally one of the advantages the Mongols had during their conquests is that their double-curved bows were made of many components and different materials and could launch an arrow farther (500 yards), faster and more powerfully (can penetrate steel armor) than the famous single-curved, English longbow (350 yards) used by other cultures. This meant they could decimate their enemies without risking a response. The Mongol bow is harder to draw, so men had to develop upper-body strength from boyhood. They also learned how to shoot from a horse in any direction, even facing backwards.