Horseback Wrestling. Bone Tossing. Dead Goat Polo. Let the Nomad Games Begin!



CHOLPON-ATA, Kyrgyzstan — The American team that played a brutal version of polo at the World Nomad Games does not expect the sport to get picked up by the Olympics any time soon.

Why not?

“We use a dead goat,” said Scott A. Zimmerman, a team co-captain.

The game of kok-boru, with its headless goat carcass, was the main attraction at the weeklong international sports competition held this month in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan.

Other highlights included bone tossing, hunting with eagles and 17 types of wrestling, including bare-chested horseback wrestling, where the weaker competitor often clings desperately to the animal’s head as spectators roar in anticipation of him hitting the dirt.

The organizers hope to resurrect nomadic traditions, especially those of Central Asia, whose cultures were pushed toward extinction by decades of Soviet collectivization and then globalization.

While many top-flight athletes competed, qualifying for an event was easy: Basically anybody who signed up online could play. The bulk of the Czech Republic delegation, for example, was a group of male friends who fished around for an easy sport.

They discovered ordo, or bone tossing, which involves eight players using a chunk of cow bone to dislodge two-inch pieces of sheep bone from a large dirt circle. (It’s a lot harder than it sounds.) They could not, however, find the right bone bits in the Czech Republic with which to practice.

So how did they learn to play? They just thought about it, mostly, admitted the Czechs, who went home without any medals.

The outdoor events took place in two stunning venues — a hippodrome built for the Games on a high-altitude saline lake surrounded by the jagged peaks of the Tian Shan mountain range, and the vast meadows of a sweeping mountain gorge, where some 1,000 yurts were erected.

With archers clopping by on horses, and the smokey aroma of grilling meat, the meadow site evoked a nomadic encampment from a bygone era.

After 72 years spent under Communist domination — and more than two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union — Kyrgyzstan and its neighbors are still trying to define themselves.

“We want to revive our historical identity,” said Kanat Amankulov, Kyrgyzstan’s minister for youth and sports.

The Games also seek to create a kind of Brand Kyrgyzstan, attracting tourists to an impoverished, landlocked, predominantly Muslim nation of about six million people.

The emphasis on nomadic traditions casts Kyrgyzstan as part of a grander Turkic civilization, and perhaps equally important, helps counter the growing strength here of the intolerant Wahhabi strain of Islam imported by clerics educated in Saudi Arabia.

The Games started on a modest scale in 2014 when about 600 athletes from 19 countries took part. The third edition of the biannual event attracted 1,976 competitors, representing 74 countries.

The elaborate opening ceremony, with 1,500 dancers and other performers, retold the myth of creation from the nomad perspective. First came primordial earth, then man, horses, yurts and hence nomads — who gave rise to the rest of us. The performance rocked the sold-out 10,000-seat arena.

Team uniforms, on display at the parade of competitors, ran from the professional to the improvised. The Germans wore black sweatsuits with a few pairs of lederhosen thrown in for an ancestral touch, while the Pakistanis sported matching green vests and scarves.

Others teams looked as if they had wandered in from the nearest cafe; the man carrying the flag of Estonia wore jeans and a white T-shirt.

The United States fielded more than 50 participants, many of them Peace Corps volunteers working in Kyrgyzstan. The American kok-boru team, some waving their own cowboy hats, brandished the flag of Wyoming, home to 8 of 10 players.

The Games are somewhat controversial in Kyrgyzstan. Critics argue the money to produce them would be better spent on much-needed development like schools. Yet local participants reveled in the events.

As a circus performer, Aida Akmatova, 32, developed her signature trick of shooting a bow and arrow with her feet. At the Games, she competed in horseback archery.

“This is not just another performance, but a key event in my life,” she said. “I can help pass down our culture, our traditions.”

The rest of the world has been catching on to the appeal of the competition.

In 2016, the lone guest of honor was Steven Seagal, the former Hollywood action star. This year high-profile guests included President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary.

“Our origins are from here, so we want to make the relations stronger and stronger,” said Vermes Balazs, 28, a Hungarian farrier dressed in leather armor he had tooled himself. About a dozen such horsemen escorted Mr. Orban to his seat of honor at the Games.

While the number of Western visitors remains relatively small, the Games attracted Kyrgyz from around the country, including Ulan Subanov, 27, an accountant, from Bishkek, the capital, who came to watch the kok-boru contests, ultimately won by his homeland.

“This is the most dangerous game in the whole world, you have to be fearless to play it,” Mr. Subanov said. “It is much more dangerous than American football.”

The rough, physically demanding game once served as the Kyrgyz equivalent of West Point, training warriors for the battlefield.

All eight players try to scoop up an 80-pound goat carcass off the dirt. Every effort provokes a hellacious, rugby-like scrum on horseback, with whips cracking and hooves pounding.

Any player who manages to wrest the carcass away gallops downfield to fling it into an elevated goal about the size of a kiddie pool.

The United States versus Russia was one of the first kok-boru matches. Given that the Russian players were of Kyrgyz origin, an American victory would have surpassed the upset of the “Miracle on Ice” hockey win at the 1980 Olympics.

The American players, most in their first game ever, struggled, with the announcer bellowing, “Whoooops!” every time one of them dropped the carcass.

At one point an American player, Ladd Howell, recruited because of his experience wrangling rodeo calves, broke away from the massed riders and galloped toward the goal. He threw the beast into the goal with such force that he fell in after it, provoking a roar of laughter from the stands.

While the game disturbs many animal-rights activists, Garret J. Edington, a co-captain of the American side, said the team was not there to challenge local traditions. “It is part of the culture that we are here to experience,” he said, adding that the winning team gets to eat the goat.

The British ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Robin Ord-Smith, was a bit flummoxed about how his country could participate in the Games. “We don’t really do nomads,” he said. Then, an inspiration: Scotsmen!

Oddball sports involving trials of strength, skill and dexterity? Check. Exotic national dress? Check. Tribes? Clans! So he imported four men in kilts for an exhibition display of Highland games including the caber toss, which involves throwing the equivalent of a telephone poll end over end.

While there’s no sign the caber toss will join the roster of official sports any time soon, the Games are expanding beyond Kyrgyzstan’s borders. Turkey will host the 2020 version.

“In a globalized world, people forget their cultures, what sets them apart,” said Mr. Subanov, the visiting accountant. “It is more interesting to live in a world with different nations, different cultures. It would not be good for the whole world to become New York.”

Follow Neil MacFarquhar on Twitter: @NeilMacFarquhar

Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting.



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