The history of Naadam is rooted in hoary antiquity. Mongols used to give feasts to celebrate the birth of the heir, the onset or successful termination of a military campaign, a wedding etc. Such celebrations were usually accompanied by military parades and sporting competitions including wrestling, archery and horse racing during which warriors demonstrated their skill. The full name of the holiday is Eriyn Gurvan Naadam, or the Three Manly Games.
National wrestling is the pride of Naadam
The best wrestlers from all over country are admitted to the main Naadam competition in the capital city.
The system of picking pairs of wrestlers is original enough. The most celebrated wrestler with the greatest number of victories to his credit and the highest title chooses the opponent himself starting from the third round.
He who first touches the ground with an elbow or back loses the meet. By the eighth round four wrestlers remain. Two of them are destined “to perch on the tip of the pyramid of 510 losers” as they say. The final meet begins with a symbolic gesture, with all the zasuuls lining up behind their wrestler and dropping to the ground in his wake after he makes a step towards the opponent. This signifies that they are giving away all their strength to the wrestler so that he can win the final meet. After the meet, the finalists go up to the stands where the head of government congratulates each wrestler and gives them costly presents. The Naadam wrestling competition continues for two days.
Hitting a Thousand Targets
Needless to say, archery is a very old sport. Practically all nations competed for marksmanship with a bow and arrow. What distinguishes Mongolian archery is that the archers do not aim at one target but a multitude of Surs, small balls of felt the size of a fist tied up with leather straps, of which a whole wall is built.
Women and children also take part in competitions. The archer can only rely on his keen eye, firm hand and experience. Each archer is given four arrows and the objective of a ten–man team is to hit less than 33 surs. In the second round the wall of Surs is smaller and becomes more difficult to hit the target. The wall becomes smaller and smaller with every round until about a dozen Surs remain.
Men shoot from a distance of 70 metres and for women, 60 meters. Each hit or miss is recorded by the judges who stand near the targets, miraculously evading the flying arrows. The judges gesticulate to the archers that they “Fell short”, “Defected” etc. If the target is hit, they raise their hands, chanting “Uukhai” which means “Bulls–eye!”
The winner, like in the case of wrestling, is awarded an honorary title. There is only one title for archers, Mergen, which means “a good shot”. Depending on the number of victories the epithets “Diligent”, "Always neat," etc. are added to it.
Mares milk to the winner, Song to the loser
Naadam horse races are a long–standing tradition mentioned in “The Secret History of the Mongols,” a 13th century literary classic. The same was noted by Marco Polo. Time has not changed the conditions in which the horse races take place. The horses race across the wide smooth steppe. The distance is one urtuu, which is equal to nearly 30 km. This was exactly the distance between two postal stations in olden days. True, in the past the riders were adult men, while today they are replaced by four to seven year-old boys and girls who, as it is justly noted, have learned to ride before they learn to walk. Horses making up seven groups – two , three, four and six year–olds, stallions and amblers - have participated in the Naadam races. The finish is recorded by the morin baria (judges) who determine which horse is the first.
The winning horse is dubbed Tumny Erh, which means the Leader of Ten Thousand, the first five horses are prize winners – Airagiyn tav, or Mares milk–sprinkled. According to tradition during the ceremony of honoring the Naadam winners, a singer wearing the deel sings a song of praise to the horses and sprinkles their croups with mares milk. The little riders are given presents.
It would be of interest to know that at Naadam a song is also sung in honor of the two year–old horse that comes last. It is dubbed Bayan Khodood which means the “Full Stomach,” an allusion that it was too heavy during the race. It is not the horse that is blamed for the failure but its master who did not train it properly. Nor does the song sound offensive to the young rider. The singer chants that the rider was too young while the race track was strewn with stumbling stones and pits and that at the next Naadam the horse’s fame will rise like the sun to glitter like gold.