Guest Post: Naadam 2022 – International Participants and Backroom Deals

By Zorigtkhuu Bat-Erdene

What is Naadam?

“Naadam” is a traditional festival that is the most widely celebrated and watched in Mongolia and elsewhere among Mongolians, Inner Mongolians and Tuva Republic. The Naadam festival is celebrated during midsummer and officially takes place between the 10th – 13th of July. It is locally named “Eriin Gurvan Naadam” (Эрийн Гурван Наадам – The Three Manly Sports.) The three sports are Mongolian wrestling, horse racing and archery. Women can participate in archery and girls in horse racing, but not wrestling. The naadam festival is believed to have existed for centuries, and the games have been recorded in the thirteenth-century book called “The secret history of the Mongols” (Монголын Нууц Товчоо).

This year’s naadam wrestling

This year’s festival was exceptional because no naadam festivals were organized for the previous two years due to covid restrictions; hence the government postponed the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the people’s revolution of 1921, which was planned to be celebrated last year, in 2021. Instead, the government decided to integrate the celebration of the 100th and 101st anniversary this year.

Since it is a special year, 1024 wrestlers, including most of the top-ranked state and aimag (province) titled wrestlers, as well as wrestlers from Tuva (Russia), Kalmykia (Russia) and Buryatia (Russia) participated in the wrestling competition. In addition to the foreign wrestlers above, some inner Mongolian (China) wrestlers also planned to participate. However, they could not participate due to the covid restrictions in China. Before the 2022 year’s naadam festival, no foreign wrestlers were allowed to participate; this year’s naadam was the first time for them to participate. Although all the foreign wrestlers were defeated by third round, they were widely cheered and supported by the audience.

As a fan of Mongolian wrestling, I think the main reason that they did not succeed is that they were not allowed to use any title they held from their countries unless their titles had been given in Mongolia according to the relevant laws and rules. The title is an essential factor in a wrestler’s success; if someone does not hold any title, he is considered a “young wrestler” (Залуу бөх) who can be challenged by any higher ranked and titled wrestler. If someone holds the higher title, he has an opportunity to select the opponent.

There were ten rounds as 1024 wrestlers participated this year. As a result of the 10th round, O. Khangai won round 10 and was awarded the highest state title of “Champion ” (Аварга), while B. Orkhonbayar, who won round 9, was awarded the second-highest state title of “Arslan” (Арслан) as per the Pres Khurelsukh’s decree. Most Mongolians are delighted with the result of the tournament this year: the final two wrestlers qualified for the final round for the first time and both previously held the same state title of “Khartsaga.”

Over the past few years, many high-ranked state-titled wrestlers got involved in doping-related issues, and some of them have been restricted from participating in wrestling tournaments for a certain period. At the same time, others also have had their state titles rescinded due to positive doping test results. For this year, Mongolians believe and pray for the wrestlers who qualified for the final few rounds, hoping they did not use any prohibited substances by both Mongolian and international doping regulations.

As I emphasized in my 2018 blog post, military ranks are given (as a bonus) to a wrestler who is awarded any state title if he belongs to one of the sports clubs run by any law enforcement authority. However, today, there was no talks about any military ranks that will be given to a wrestler who has been awarded a new state title. Hopefully, no military ranks will be given to the wrestlers anymore because it is unfair to those who trained, worked and served in the military for a long time.

Backroom dealings for the state title (Начны найраа)

Seventeen new wrestlers were awarded the lowest state title of “Nachin” (Начин) after the 5th round, but it was clear that many of them got their titles through backroom dealing. Luckily, all the audience witnessed those who got the “Nachin” title with their true strength and skill while also seeing the ones who unfairly got the “Nachin” (Начин) title.

The backroom dealings for the state titles have been criticised widely and strongly over the past two decades, it has become one of the headaches of Mongolians who love their tradition and culture. The low-ranked wrestlers who are pursuing the state titles obviously do not buy or pay for the state titles directly. All they have to do is to pretend that they wrestle seriously because the rest is already organized. Their homeland associations usually organize the backroom dealing for them. The homeland association is a formation of politicians and business people. Their goal is to have new state-titled wrestlers because they want to be seen that they support the wrestlers from the their aimag (province), in turn, they can get the public support within their aimags (provinces). Fortunately, the audience is smart enough to distinguish who are the cheaters and who are not.

This year, N. Jargalbayar, who currently holds the state title of “Zaan,” (Заан) whose conversation over the phone was recorded and released publically. The Deputy Governor of Umnugobi province, N. Enkhbat, phoned Jargalbayar just before the 5th round (round of lowest state title, Nachin), asking/ordering Jargalbayar to wrestle with Nyamaa who is from Umnugobi province, who later got the “Nachin” title as a result of the 5th round after defeating Jargalbayar. Fortunately, this case is being investigated by the anti-corruption agency of Mongolia. Many people were talking about Jargalbayar as one of the top wrestlers who could win this special year’s wrestling competition; unfortunately, he disappointed all his supporters. Believe it or not, there is gossip that Jargalbayar was defeated because he was offered 1 billion Mongolian tugrug ( around 316 000 USD). Hopefully, he did not lose all his fans.

Generally, those who bought the state title get no respect from the audience. However, they still want to get the state title somehow with the political and financial support of the politicians and business people from their aimag. It has been a headache for Mongolians who love national wrestling and who want to see genuine wrestling, no conspiracy.

Unexpectedly luxurious event during times of crisis

Another surprising and most criticized event during naadam was the fancy and luxurious party that was held at the Ikh Tenger complex (Их Тэнгэр Цогцолбор), where over two thousand wealthy people, including celebrities, politicians and business people were invited. The public condemned Pres Khurelsukh for some fair reasons. Firstly, he walks on the red carpet like a king; secondly, why did he and his office organize such a luxurious reception when the citizens could barely make ends meet during the economic crisis. Thirdly, there is a law of state budget efficiency (Төрийн хэмнэлтйин тухай хууль). The goal of this law is to save unnecessary expenses of every state organizations during the economic difficulty.

Even though there were some criticisms regarding the opening ceremony, luxurious party and the backroom dealings for the state titles, it was charming to watch the Naadam festival online after two years. Everyone is happy with the result of the wrestling tournament.

We are looking forward to the next year’s naadam.

About Zorigtkhuu

Bat-Erdene ZORIGTKHUU currently lives in Vancouver, Canada. He holds a Master of Applied Science degree in Mining Engineering from the University of British Columbia. Zorig’s research focused on Mining Local Procurement (Local Content) in Mongolia.

Previous to his academic endeavour, Zorigtkhuu worked for the biggest coal mining company (Mongolian Mining Corporation) in Mongolia and an “International Medical Center (Intermed Hospital)” project that was jointly commissioned by the MCS group in Mongolia.


About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He toots and tweets @jdierkes
This entry was posted in Buryatia, Inner Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, Kalmykia, Mongolian Diaspora, Naadam, Sports, Tuva, Wrestling, Zorigtkhuu Bat-Erdene. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *