The Proto-Olympics: Mongolia’s Weird, Inspiring “Three Games Of Men”

Strange sports are worth celebrating, and not (just) because they’re funny.

PETER PARKS / Getty Images

Strange sports are usually very hard to find these days: the ratings indicate that we, collectively, would rather hear someone talk about the NFL than watch, say, a lumberjacking contest or Australian-rules football. But every four years one particular set of strange sports gets its moment at the Olympics, and over the weekend we’ve already seen numerous fencers and archers and table-tennis champions charm the country, their uncontrived excitement and anonymously-honed excellence breaking through NBC’s primary coverage, which tends to ignore anyone who has not already been in a Gatorade ad. But for those of us who celebrate the marginal competitions of the world, whose very strangeness renders them immune from corporate and bureaucratic defilement, there is a level of weirdness beyond fencing, beyond even lumberjackery: Mongolia’s just-concluded Naadam festival, which makes even the most obscure ESPN2 competitions look about as authentic and spontaneous as a Super Bowl halftime show.

The name Naadam is short for Eriin Gurvan Naadam, which translates to “The Three Games of Men,” and is a sort of miniature — miniature only in that it’s comprised of three events — olympiad. Like the Olympics, Naadam features an elaborate opening ceremony. But while London’s featured the usual derp-o theme songs, this year’s just-concluded Naadam in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar opened with a (possibly geopolitically significant) two-song set from the Chinese rock band Banana Monkey. An iconic image defines the games, but Naadam’s answer to the Olympic rings are nine totems driven into the earth. They’re called the Nine Yak Tails, and Naadam wrestlers perform an arm-waving eagle dance around the Yak Tails before every bout. You are maybe starting to see how this is different from the Olympics.

There is an equestrian aspect to Naadam, but Naadam’s involves kids ranging in age from kindergartner to tween tear-assing around the Mongolian steppe on the backs of horses, for 20 kilometers. Archery is a part of Naadam, although Naadam’s archers — men and women alike — don traditional Mongolian garb for the event; that’s about the only difference, really, archery being archery. (Despite the “of Men” in Naadam’s name, women are in fact allowed to compete in both horse racing and archery.) And, most of all, there is wrestling in Naadam. There’s wrestling in London, too, with the difference being that Naadam’s hilariously ponderous wrestling matches are held between men wearing bikini-style underpants, knee-high boots and long-sleeved vestlets that would, in the world of women’s fashion, be called shrugs.

“Matches generally feature a few seconds in which wrestlers circle in a slow-motion scrum, punctuated by endless breaks for conferences with coaches,” the Wall Street Journal’s Ron Gluckman wrote back in 2003. “One semi-final match lasts two hours, with perhaps 10 minutes of activity. ‘A great battle,’ proclaims one excited Mongolian, adding that past matches have lasted four hours.” YouTube confirms all this, while demonstrating that any number of these lengthy, brief-clad grapple-and-strategize sessions are held simultaneously, on an open soccer field. Advance past a given round and you earn the right to a given animal title: falcon, elephant, garuda (a bird-like Hindu deity). There is also a great deal of traditional dancing and singing involved, and that too is unlike anything most Naadam non-attendees have ever seen.

“It’s a fantastic journey back in time,” says Patricia Sexton, a Mongolian news anchor — it’s a long story — who covered Naadam back in 2006, when it doubled as an 800th-anniversary celebration, Genghis Khan having founded the Mongol Empire in 1206. “The three manly sports date back centuries, and you can experience this in everything from the sports themselves to the food, drink, and carnival atmosphere: mutton prepared with fire and milk tins, fermented mare’s milk, and ancient knucklebone fortune-telling.” For a people who’ve spent many centuries being controlled to varying degrees by Russia and China (many ethnic Mongols still live to the south in the Chinese-governed Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region), the desire to protect and celebrate this kind of unmistakable Mongolian-ness makes a lot of sense.

Watching underpants-clad men struggle through a ritualized hugging contest is sort of definitionally not-for-everyone; throw in the fact that it takes many hours, is held outdoors in the world’s coldest capital city, and involves concessions heavy on the horse milk and it’s arguably the most not-for-everyone sporting event imaginable. And yet its jarring foreignness and slack pace and disconcerting costumes are actually reassuringly suggestive of the environment that our own more familiar sports probably evolved/devolved from, and of the odd, mostly un-televisable space that our current weird sports inhabit. (Naadam is, actually, on television — in Mongolia, where that doesn’t mean all that much.) It’s meant to be experienced live, and slowly, and that’s how most Mongolians do it. “My understanding is that every Mongolian attends Naadam,” Sexton says. “Most who are out in the countryside and don’t have the means to travel to the capital will party like it’s 1206 in the comfort of their hometown,” which is possible thanks to regional mini-Naadams.

Naadam isn’t alone, either: Scotland’s Highland Games — a national contest that’s predictably heavy on the bagpipes and the throwing-heavy-things-for-height-and-distance — and Argentina’s pato (a soccer/basketball amalgam that’s played on horseback) are more proof that indigenous sport weirdness is still alive and well. And, of course, lumberjacks are still spinning and splashing and suchlike somewhere in the upper Midwest. What looks like a bar brawl is, somewhere, being interrupted by a gesticulating man in a feathered hat and thus being revealed as an Australian-rules football game.

It’s a bummer that most of us will almost certainly never see Nadaam. In the unforced way it defines and unites a sporting culture — and does so in the most flagrantly and defiantly Naadam-y way possible — Mongolia’s goofy festival offers a counterpoint to the Olympics, whose appeal is often buried by excessive branding and storylines that start out fun but are quickly beaten to death by overzealous producers. This isn’t to say it’s better, exactly: Ryan Lochte versus Michael Phelps is admittedly a more viscerally exciting athletic matchup than two portly dudes in briefs and mini-sweaters grappling sluggishly. (And in the age of a thousand cable channels and Internet streaming, it’s a lot easier to get an unmediated Olympic experience that it used to be.) Still, in a sports scene that’s now been defined for a good two-plus decades by brand-friendly surfaces and meticulously on-message athletes, weird sports like Naadam — gnarled by odd traditions, entirely too strange to make major-league profits — are reassuringly and, perhaps because of their deep weirdness, welcomingly, wonderfully human.

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