It is Naadam time in Mongolia –a nomadic festival celebrated at the very least for centuries, and an important time for Mongolian wrestlers and horse-trainers, horse-riders and archers. The naadam tradition is truly ancient in its origins, predating, perhaps by millennia, the rise of Chinggis Khaan (Genghis Khaan) in the early Thirteenth Century. Naadam can be equated to the original Olympic Games of ancient Greece.
During the summer months, local naadams are held all over Mongolia. The biggest of them is the State Naadam held every July in Ulaanbaatar. Only the State Naadam awards national wrestling titles to successful participants. Among all Naadam’s sports, the easiest to understand is archery. And you can easily see how horseraces are run – for kilometers over the open steppe. However, many foreigners are confused by Mongolian wrestling and may find it boring or too long. On the contrary, wrestling is actually the most interesting and entertaining Naadam sport. Every Mongolian understands and follows wrestling with a passion.
Here is how to follow the fun side and the intricacies of Mongolian wrestling.
LOOK AT THEIR HATS FIRST!
When the Naadam opening ceremony ends, and wrestling begins, you’ll see many wrestlers walking out onto the green field making eagle and falcon movements. That means they are about to start their first round of wrestling. In the usual 512-wrestler tournament, there will be nine elimination rounds of wrestling over two days. Or, during big anniversary years, there will be 1024-wrestler tournaments, also over two days.
In each succeeding round the number of wrestlers decreases by half because only the winners of a round go on to the next round. So, why are hats important at the first round?
For one thing, it makes watching the first round of 256 wrestling match-ups easier. Look at the wrestlers’ hats while they dance, walk or bow to the nine-white-horse hair-banners.
Wrestlers’ hats have red strips hanging down. And some of the red strips also have yellow lines on them. Watch those guys! The more yellow lines they have, the higher ranking they are. Try to memorize the guys you want to follow because they leave their hats in the hands of their coaches when the wrestling commences.
When a higher ranking wrestler wins, people appreciate them, but when they fall or get strongly challenged, the real naadam starts!