This is a blog post was written as part of the ANU’s ‘Modern Mongolia’ field course held in Mongolia in July 2019.
Mongolian wrestling relates to judo and sumo as sports. Image credit: Linh Vien Thai, 2003. CC BY-ND 2.0.
By Maxim Wiggins, ANU.
It’s the 29th of June 2008, the year of a Mongolian election. The country is gripped in political deadlock, as its two main political parties engage in a bitter dispute concerning the recent parliamentary elections. Crippling inflation and the misuse of mining wealth dominate debate in this nation of staggering wealth inequality. The ruling Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MRPR) having won in a landslide, face allegations of corruption from the Democratic Party (DP) involving double voter registration. The DP, believing foul play is involved, refuse to concede defeat, despite contradictions from international electoral observers.
It’s the 29th of June 2008, the year of an Olympics. It’s been 44 years since Mongolia first entered the Olympics in 1962, and the country is yet to win a gold medal. At this time, the country has never won a gold medal, a source of constant frustration for the passionate nation.
It’s the 29th June 2008, 430 kilometres away from the capital in the small village of Saikhan, 1400 metres above sea level, Naidan Tuvshinbayar a 24-year-old Mongolian judoka jogs around the verdant, rich hills near his training centre, preparing for his first Olympics in Beijing. With a squat stature and powerful frame, he grapples a fellow compatriot in his training centre.
Two days later, a peaceful protest gathers in Sukhbaatar Square. A place remembered as being the symbol of Mongolia’s non-violent democratic revolution. The crowd become increasingly unruly, violent chants emerge from young men throwing rocks at the MPRP headquarters. As Police respond with tear gas, rioters become destructive, resisting authorities, setting fire to buildings and overturning vehicles. The Central Cultural Palace building erupts into flames, destroying more than 1,000 pieces of artwork.
Unaware of the chaos, Naidan quietly continues his preparations for the games, quietly continues to jog around his training centre and quietly hones his skills.
On the same day, Mongolian President Nambaryn Enkhbayar declares a state of emergency, enforcing military law in Ulaanbaatar’s streets. This is the first time such a declaration had been made in Mongolia’s history. The DP refuse to attend the opening of the new parliament, boycotting all future sittings indefinitely.
The country is in gridlock and its people ashamed at the outbreak of violence.
Mongolia needs a hero.
Fast-forward a month. Beijing welcomes the Olympics. In the glow of the Beijing Science and Technology University Gymnasium, Naidan shocks the previous Olympic champion in his first-round of the judo match. He starts to build momentum, slowly, winning two fights with sudden defeats, including his semi-final. Willed on by a partisan crowd and an entire nation, in four minutes he overcomes Kazakh fighter Ashkat Zhitkeyev to win Mongolia’s first ever Olympic gold medal.
Ulaanbaatar is again set alight, but this time in celebration. Fireworks dominate the skyline and car horns echo into the night. A day later, the two parties’ leaders lock arms at the square in front of the Chinggis Khan statue, singing the national anthem in a unique display of national pride as Naidan is granted the honour of being a Mongolian Labour Hero. Two weeks later, DP representatives reversed their decision of boycotting the parliament and allowed themselves to be sworn into its new session.
The sports fanatic that I am, I am fascinated when visiting foreign countries about the role sport plays in their culture and national psyche. From a sporting perspective, Mongolia perplexes me as a small country with a physically active herding population. Not unlike its painful transition from a soviet to a democratic society, it is in the midst of a sporting transition. Trying to balance both traditional and international sports in a place where many live below the poverty line is no small feat.
Coming from Australia where sporting heroes and achievements are etched into our national folklore, Mongolians place a far higher value on their nomadic sports. The Nadaam Festival and its three traditional “manly sports” is the most anticipated festival in the country, with hundreds of competitors competing in archery, wrestling and horseracing. This links with their nomadic lifestyle, as these skills were an important part of survival in the face of warfare and conflict. However, as the motorbike has started to replace the horse, global sports are starting to encroach on the previously more traditional competitions. Basketball courts reside under dilapidated apartment blocks, recently installed synthetic football pitches allow for all-year round play; this is not to mention the strong Mongolian Olympic sports of judo, wrestling and shooting which have maintained their popularity. Although its sporting infrastructure is significantly in need of funding, its growth emphasizes Mongolia’s transition to greater integration into the international sporting community.
A couple of lessons can be learnt from Naidan’s triumph. Mongolia struggles to have its voice heard between the two immense geopolitical powers of China and Russia. It needs leaders of strength, independence and integrity to navigate its difficult position in the region’s politics. Mongolians take immense pride in the success of their countrymen and women in the sporting arena. It shows them that they can compete with their international rivals in both a sporting sense, giving them hope for this success to translate into other areas. This does not necessarily translate into success, as seen through the exploitation from foreign countries and growing wealth inequality. For me, however, it highlights the power of sport as a tool for future generations of Mongolians to combat current adversities.
Mongolians have always been a strong and resilient people, they now need to learn to believe in themselves as a strong and independent nation.
Mongolia in 2008: From Mongolia to Mine-golia Asian Survey Vol. 49, No. 1 (January/February 2009), pp. 129-134 (6 pages).