Mongolian wrestling crowns new 'National Lion'

Mongolian wrestling crowns new 'National Lion'
Mongolian wrestler Enkhtuvshingiin Oyunbold performing the eagle dance during the National Naadam Festival at the Central Stadium in Ulan Bator.
PHOTO: AFP

ULAN BATOR - Victory at Mongolia's top wrestling contest brought Enkhtuvshingiin Oyunbold a Toyota Land Cruiser, and something far more valuable: the title of "National Lion".

At 22, Oyunbold is the youngest ever champion of the Mongolian National Naadam Wrestling Tournament, after he made it through nine rounds undefeated.

The importance of traditional wrestling - or "bokh" - in Mongolia cannot be overstated, and it is of one the country's "three manly skills", along with archery and horsemanship.

For Mongolians throughout the vast steppe nation known as the land of the "Eternal Blue Sky", wrestling is sport, entertainment, and a key topic of conversation and aspiration.

The pinnacle comes during the annual summer festival of Naadam, which Mongolians have celebrated for eight centuries.

Most Mongolian parents hope their baby boys will grow up to wrestle, believing the sport makes their men strong, patient and tolerant.

Most who participate also train in other varieties of grappling sports such as judo, freestyle wrestling and Japanese sumo.

More than 70 percent of Mongolian Olympic medallists are wrestlers, and all three current holders of the highest rank in Japanese sumo, yokozuna or grand champion, are Mongolian.

Navaanii Khureltogoo, a 60-year-old woman who watched the final two rounds of Naadam wrestling at Ulan Bator's central stadium, welcomed the rise of new young wrestlers such as Oyunbold.

"They go through years of tough physical and mental training," she told AFP.

The tournament, at which 512 contestants fought over two days, "shows our men's character, splendour, power and resilience", she added.

Wrestlers practise outdoors under the watchful eyes of their trainers.

"It is extremely difficult to tell who will win because everybody did well during training," said contestant Khadbaatar Munkhbaatar, now 35, who became a National Lion in 2007.

"Mongolians say that the most fortunate man will win," he added at his "gal", or training camp.

Three days before Naadam, he and other wrestlers went up to the mountain peaks, seeking inspiration from the Naadam Tenger, a kind of Naadam god.

The spiritual side of the sport most colourfully manifests itself when grapplers perform a pre- and post-match "eagle" dance, flapping their arms in symbolic flight.

"Some wrestlers are very fortunate in Naadam wrestling," said M. Oyuntogtokh, a 40-year-old wrestling fan.

"I believe there must be a Naadam Tenger who blesses those who will win."

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