The Rio Olympics might have had Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps and the Copacabana beach, but for fans of stick wrestling and horseback battles over a dead goat the shores of Lake Issyk Kul is the place to be this week, as hosts the second World Nomad Games from 3 to 8 September.
The games, designed to celebrate the nomadic heritage of the Central Asian nations, kicked off with a lavish opening ceremony on Saturday night.
Forty countries are participating, some of which have long nomadic histories. Others are mainly there for the fun of the games. Sports include eagle hunting, bone throwing and mas-wrestling, a mesmerising game involving two competitors attempting to wrest control of a small stick.
The biggest draw and most fiercely contested of the sports is kok-boru, a violent Central Asian form of polo in which two teams battle for control of a decapitated goat carcass. Taking possession of the goat is a tricky manoeuvre in which the rider gallops past the carcass and swoops down to grab a leg and pull it up. There follows an almighty horse melee in which punches are thrown, whips fly and the goat is tugged back and forth, before one horseman emerges in a cloud of dust to gallop towards the goal, shaped like a paddling pool, and dunk the goat in to score.
Kok-boru games are being held at a brand new 10,000-seat hippodrome in Cholpon-Ata on Issyk Kul, a high-altitude lake four hours’ drive from Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek. The hippodrome was also the site of the opening ceremony, which featured hundreds of whirling nomad women, stunt horsemen galloping across the arena with their clothes on fire, and graphics on a vast screen telling the story of the Kyrgyz nation, which has a long and storied history as a rugged nomadic tribe, before Central Asia was conquered by Tsarist Russia and then absorbed into the Soviet Union.
“If Genghis Khan were alive, he’d want to be here,” the announcer’s voice boomed out as the ceremony got underway.
“In the modern world, people are forgetting their history, and there is a threat of extinction for traditional cultures,” Kyrgyz president Almazbek Atambayev said at the opening. “Nomadic civilisation is an example of sustainable development, which is what all of humanity is looking for today.”
As the ceremony drew to a close, shaven-headed security guards frantically cleared a corridor in the media area of the stadium, and with a burst of dramatic music, Steven Seagal entered the arena atop a horse, clad in the armour of an ancient Kyrgyz warrior. After the excitement of the Kyrgyz riders, he looked somewhat incongruous gingerly trotting along, but the crowd enjoyed it.
Seagal was the guest of honour at the games, with no heads of state attending. The actor has made a bizarre habit of popping up at various events in former Soviet territories of late. Adding to a warm friendship with the Russian president, , Seagal was spotted in Belarus last month, being fed carrots by the country’s dictatorial president Alexander Lukashenko. It was unclear why he had top billing at the nomad games.
Nations appear to approach the event with varying levels of seriousness. The Pakistan and Turkmenistan teams arrived in the stadiums in sharp, matching official teamwear, while the Italians looked dressed for a summer garden party. The Emiratis entered the stadium together with their hunting falcons, while the Madagascans entertained the crowd with a group dance. There were surprisingly large contingents from India and the United States, and plucky one-man delegations from Botswana, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo (though the latter’s participant looked suspiciously Kyrgyz).
The first kok-boru qualifier came on Sunday morning and pitted the US against Russia, which in many sports might be a major grudge match but in kok-boru was a mere appetiser before Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and featured later in the programme.
Creed Garnick of Wyoming, the US captain, was the only one of the eight-man team to have even played the sport before, having spent two years living in Central Asia.
“It’s going to be quite a challenge but we’re going to enjoy it,” he said the evening before the game, as his team-mates looked on with expressions of mild alarm.
Russia is not exactly a big kok-boru nation either, but the Russian team was entirely made up of ethnic Kyrgyz living in Russia, and it soon became apparent they knew what they were doing.
The Americans struggled to gain possession of the goat at all, so, despite a valiant rearguard movement, it was only a matter of time before they conceded. The first score came after seven minutes, and after a quarter of an hour the Kyrgyz-Russians were already leading by five goats to nil. The Americans received warm applause for effort – a US player broke a finger during the match – but an elderly Kyrgyz man in the stands shook his head reproachfully at the standard of play.
In the women’s heavyweight mas-wrestling, for those weighing 85kg (13 stone) and over, the crowd was disappointed as the local competitor managed only second place on Sunday morning. Some of the contests saw epic struggles for control of the stick, but the eventual winner, Tatiana Grigor, of the Russian Republic of Sakha, swept aside all competition easily, plucking the stick from her opponents’ hands in a matter of seconds. A rogue Icelandic competitor amid the post-Soviet specialists came fourth.
As well as the lakeside hippodrome, a mountain pasture at an altitude of 2,000m hosted other sports, including eagle and dog hunting. Nearly 300 yurts were pitched in the valley and there were performances of traditional drama and music. At a nomad catwalk, burly men in felt gowns, and grannies in embroidered shawls and oversized hats, strutted their stuff to the accompaniment of twangy strings and throaty vocals.
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Much of the encampment had a kitsch vibe, with camel rides, eagle selfies and hand-embroidered portraits of Central Asian luminaries (and Vladimir Putin) for sale. But there were occasional moments, as Kyrgyz horsemen galloped past and the smell of grilling meat wafted across the hillside, that it was possible to imagine a medieval yurt encampment on the spot.
These are Kyrgyzstan’s second nomad games; the first were held two years ago, but were much smaller in scale. Some Kyrgyz critics of the government questioned the huge funds earmarked for the games and wondered whether the impoverished country might have found better use for the cash. But there was no doubt that the full house for the opening ceremony and packed crowds for the events on Sunday were enjoying themselves.
“I feel so proud to see how beautiful they have made everything,” said Kairat, a 44-year-old from Bishkek, who had brought his family to see the games. “Little Kyrgyzstan has put on a show for the whole world to show them our great traditions.”