The Nomad Games is exactly what it sounds like – a totally unique, little bit absurd, extremely fun, celebration of nomadic traditions from Central Asia. It was first held in 2014 with only 10 sports, hosted by Kyrgyzstan, who most would argue is the obvious and natural home for such an event (don’t tell the Kazakhs or the Mongols I said that!). Several new facilities were built in the small town of Cholpon Ata, on the northern side of Issik Kol, where it was then held again in 2016 and 2018, each time the number of sports, athletes, and competing countries, increasing, with 37 sports in 2018.
In 2020 it was scheduled to be held in Iznik, Turkey, much to the outrage of the
outrage of the Kyrgyz, Kazakhs
, and of course us! But it was cancelled anyway, because of COVID. It was then held there in 2022, for the fourth Nomad Games.
Now the fifth edition are scheduled, and much to our delight, it is back in a more appropriate location, in Central Asia. Not quite as good as Cholpon Ata, but still glad to have it back in the region at least. This one will be held in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, and yes,
of course we’ll be going
! This time there will be over 40 sports, with 3,000 athletes from 100 countries taking part.
Well, some of these are pretty obvious and to be expected – Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Afghanistan. Others aren’t really surprising, though not quite as naturally nomadic – Ukraine, Russia, Hungary. And of course, being the only Central Asian country that isn’t traditionally nomadic, an intelligent person wouldn’t expect Uzbekistan to have a team, but in fact they do! And then there’s Norway, Antigua and Barbuda, Germany, South Korea and USA. But that’s not too surprising – I mean, if you were a wrestler, wouldn’t you just slightly change the type of wrestling you do so that you can compete in this super cool event?!
Though, it is relevant to note that most of the “less nomadic” countries mainly enter the more mainstream sports, such as the various martial arts, and less so things like horseback archery and ordo.
What’s Ordo? And what other sports are there?
- Ordo , which means “Khan's headquarters” or “ Khan's Palace ” is a game played by kicking knuckle bones out of a circle drawn on the ground. It represents a military map, and originally the game was used as a training scheme to teach soldiers various strategies to use to defeat their enemies.
- Salbuurun is a sport based on the nomadic hunting routines. They would go on several day long group hunts, for which the best eagles, horses, riders, hunters and dogs would be selected. While returning home, the most nimble horseman would put the body of a wolf that they'd caught across the saddle and would gallop ahead of the group. The others would try to catch up with him and grab the wolf , attempting to display their own strength and agility. In the end the best rider would return home to the village and to show everyone his victory, would throw the wolf’s carcass at the elder’s yurt . And thus, Kok Boru was born.
- The most famous and possibly most novel sport is Kok Boru , known in Afghanistan and Tajikistan as Buzkashi , and sometimes referred to in English as “ Dead Goat Polo ”. “Kok Boru” literally means “ Grey Wolf ” and originates from when Kyrgyz nomads would hunt wolves and play games with them. Nowadays the game involves two teams of men on horseback, each trying to get the decapitated goat or sheep which is the centre of the game, into the other team's goal, which is actually a large pit at the end of the pitch. It's absurdly fast-paced, very rough, and extremely exciting, but the decapitation of the animal at the beginning of the game is definitely not a site for the squeamish. (Don't worry, if you don't want to see the animal actually losing its head and limbs, you can easily not watch this part!)
- Another sport most likely based on military training, though the origins of this one aren't as clear, Er Enish is the wrestling of horsemen . The rules permit a lot of violence, and it's thought that it was used to train horsemen in cruel methods of melee combat to take down their enemies. For example grabbing your opponent's ribs or the muscles in their hands, or turning out their joints, are perfectly acceptable tactics to use.
- There are also horseback archery, other types of archery, various horseback events, tug of war, falconry, taigan hunting , belt wrestling, horseback wrestling, sumo wrestling, and a bunch of other weird and wonderful feats of strength, showmanship, skill, precision and general awesomness.
So who usually wins?
Like any international sporting competition, it’s pretty easy to rank the countries in order of who’s the most likely to win, at least roughly. Kyrgyzstan is basically always going to win in total medal count. Probably by double the score of second place. Which will almost certainly be Kazakhstan. Thereafter it’s not quite as clear cut, but the next contenders include Russia, Turkmenistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan.