The World Nomad Games: ‘If Genghis Khan were alive, he’d be here’

The World Nomad Games were first held in Cholpon-Ata in 2014. From what I have heard, the first games were less elaborate, and this year’s edition was not short in spectacle. With 50 countries participating, the opening ceremonies included dances that recounted Kyrgyzstan’s history and culture, Kyrgyz pop stars on singing on stage, foreign dignitaries in the audience, and of course, Goodwill Ambassador Steven Seagal (yes, that Steven Seagal) who valiantly rode into the stadium on a horse. Not knowing the history of Kyrgyzstan well, I did not understand all the scenes but it was entertaining nonetheless. How could a well-produced light show, fireworks, and riders engulfed in flames not be?

One of the best parts of the games are the openness. Spectators, journalists, and athletes were able to mingle and take pictures together before the ceremonies and during competition. I met competitors from the United States, Russia, Turkmenistan, Benin, Germany, and Mongolia. At the events themselves, locals, foreigners, even the US Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Sheila Gwaltney, sat together and enjoyed the games. I was actually able to meet the ambassador and US State Department employees after they sat behind us in the newly constructed (and very modern) stadium.

Interestingly, the games divided the Russian competitors into teams from different provinces and semi-autonomous republics. For example, Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and Krasnodar were all represented. Whether this was a political statement or a way to make the large Russian team easier to divide is not clear but was a notable peculiarity.

Meant to celebrate Kyrgyzstan’s nomadic history and culture, the games also include wrestling, mangala, a strategy game similar to mancala, and what a game most expats refer to as “dead goat polo.” Known in Kyrgyz as kok-boru, teams fight for the possession of a decapitated goat carcass and try to place it in their opponents’ goal. In all, teams (mostly from Central Asia and Russia) participated in this sport. An American team from Wyoming also competed, and although they did not fare particularly well, many Kyrgyz citizens complimented them (and us) on their willingness to play and their abilities, given that only one member of the team had ever played kok-boru before. One older man even gifted us a bottle of cognac as a token of appreciation.

While the American Kok-Boru team struggled, other American participants (mostly made up of Peace Corps Volunteers) thrived. A women’s mangala team placed in third and, a male Peace Corps Volunteer placed fifth individually. Overall, the World Nomad Games were a well-run and unique event. The Diplomat describes them as "part Olympics, part Burning Man" and CBS Sports writes they are a "crazier, cooler version of the Olympics." While Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev’s speech was full of idealism and a dash of nostalgia for nomadic lifestyle, these traditions are clearly worth preserving and the event has provided an arena in which people from all over the world can compete and connect through friendly competition. In many ways, fulfilling the promises that the Olympics do not always uphold.