On Sept. 4, after years of facing off on the international stage, Russia and the United States stared each other down in a new arena: a 10,000-seat hippodrome near Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-kul lake. There, the Americans and the Russians struggled not over nuclear arms policy or the future norms of international relations, but over a dead goat.
Yes, you read correctly: a dead goat.
The struggle was
kok-boru, an aggressively physical, Central Asian variety of polo in which two
teams of horsemen try to capture the decapitated carcass of a goat and pass it
into each other’s goal. The match was hardly a true showdown between Russia and
the United States: Most of the Russian team's athletes were ethnic Kyrgyz
residing in Russia, while the Americans were largely unschooled in the game
they were playing. Moscow’s victory was stark and decisive. But the the contest
embodied the spirit of internationalism and rowdy fun inherent in the second
World Nomad Games (WNG), held from Sept. 3-8 in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan.
While the concept of a nomadic Olympics might provoke a chuckle among Western sports fans, the event is no joke to Kyrgyzstan or the more than 55 participant nations. The Kyrgyz government spent over 1.6 billion som ($23.2 million) on the games, and over a thousand athletes came to compete in ancient nomadic sports.
“In the modern world,
people are forgetting their history, and there is a threat of extinction for
traditional cultures,” Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev said during the
event’s flashy opening ceremony.
The WNG are intended to
serve as an antidote to that tendency.
Kok-boru — and not just
the U.S.-Russia match — was the main event at the WNG. But other important
events included the women’s mas-wrestling, a traditional ethnosport from
Yakutia in which players attempt capture of a stick from each other’s hands;
several varieties of wrestling (both standing and on horseback); horse racing;
eagle and dog hunting; and a board game known internationally as mancala.
The celebrity guest of
honor was none other than action film star Steven Seagal, who appeared suited
in armor atop a horse during the games’ opening ceremony. The event marked yet
another bizarre appearance for Seagal, who popped up at Belarusian dictator
Alexander Lukashenko’s country residence last month eating fresh carrots on
national television. Two years ago, after Moscow annexed Crimea, the action star
also controversially visited Sevastopol to perform a music concert for
Despite a long list of
attendees hailing from countries as diverse as Germany and the Democratic
Republic of Congo, Uzbekistan was noticeably absent.
Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan
have had particularly strained relations since a border conflict in March 2016,
and border tensions have intensified over the past week. The most decisive
factor behind Uzbekistan’s absence, however, was likely the ill-health and subsequent
death of President Islam Karimov, who was declared dead on Sept. 3.
Politics have also found
their way into the WNG on the Kyrgyz side. Some in Kyrgyzstan criticized the
idea of a poor country hosting and paying for such an extravagant international
sporting event, as the nation struggles to provide for the basic needs of its
citizens. At least one member of parliament, Aida Salyanova, called for the
games to be cancelled after 14 Kyrgyz labor migrants died in a fire at a Moscow
But the World Nomad Games
appear to have been an enormous success. Many of the participants and attendees
say they were impressed by the quality of the events, and the opening
ceremonies have garnered significant coverage in the press and on social media.
For Kyrgyzstan, the games represent one of the country’s first opportunities to
present itself in a positive light to a large international audience.
“Everyone, including me,
is in shock that Kyrgyzstan can put on such cool events,” said Artyom Kolosov,
a Kyrgyz photographer and blogger who is attending the games. “I feel like I’m
Escaping some of the
hostility now present at the Olympics, which a doping scandal has tarnished in
the post-Soviet region, the nomad games have placed a strong emphasis on
sportsmanship and sharing culture. For instance, despite the Russian team’s
crushing victory over the U.S. team in kok-boru, Colleen Wood, an American
Peace Corps volunteer who competed for the U.S. in mancala and watched the
kok-boru match, sensed strong ethos of sportsmanship.
“It was the U.S.’s first
time actually playing using the goat carcass, so the Russian team showed them
how to pick it up and put it in the goal,” she said. “It wasn’t just about
winning the game, but about sharing the beauty of kok-boru and of nomadic culture.”
The challenge of teaching
kok-boru to Americans, however, may have been lost on the WNG announcers, Wood
says, judging by their frequent comment: “These cowboys came from across the
ocean and they’re the best kok-boru players in America!”