Almanac Mongolian Life: Four minutes which changed a nation

 

(Xinhua Photo)

 

It’s the 29th of June 2008, the year of an election. Mongolia is gripped in political deadlock, as its two main political parties engage in a bitter dispute concerning the recent parliamentary elections.  The ruling Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MRPR) won in a landslide. But they now face allegations of corruption from the Democratic Party (DP) involving double voter registration (enrolling someone twice to get more votes). Therefore, the DP refuse to concede defeat, believing foul play was involved.

 

It’s 2008, the year of the Beijing Summer Olympic Games. It’s been 44 years since Mongolia first entered the Olympics, and the country is yet to win a gold medal. At this time, it is the most successful country ever to have not won a gold medal; a source of constant frustration for this proud and fearless nation.

 

In 2008, 430 kilometres away from capital Ulaanbaatar in the small village of Saikhan, Naidan Tuvshinbayar, a 24-year-old Mongolian judoka, jogs around the hills near his training centre. He’s preparing for the Olympics in Beijing, where he will compete in the – 100kg division. Despite his squat stature and powerful frame, he throws yet another of his compatriots to the floor of his judo studio with relative ease.

 

Two days later, a peaceful protest gathers in Ulaanbaatar’s central Sukhbaatar Square, a place remembered as the symbol of Mongolia’s non-violent democratic revolution. The crowd become increasingly unruly. Violent chants emerge from young men throwing rocks at the MPRP headquarters. As police respond with tear gas, rioters become destructive; resisting authorities, setting fire to buildings and overturning vehicles. The Central Cultural Palace building erupts into flames, destroying more than 1,000 pieces of artwork. The city burns.

 

Unaware of the chaos, Naidan quietly continues his preparations, jogging around his training centre and grinning as he throws his compatriots onto the floor.

 

On the same day, Mongolian President Nambaryn Enkhbayar declares a state of emergency, enforcing military law in Ulaanbaatar’s streets. The DP refuse to attend the opening of the new parliament, boycotting all future sittings indefinitely.

 

The country is in gridlock.

 

Fast-forward a month. Beijing welcomes the Olympics. In the glow of the Beijing Science and Technology University Gymnasium, Naidan shocks the previous Olympic champion in his first-round match. He starts to build momentum, slowly and shakily, winning two fights in sudden death, including his semi-final.

 

The final awaits. Facing plucky Kazakh fighter Ashkat Zhitkeyev, Naidan starts slow. Locking arms with Zhitkeyev, he moves with lightning fast agility and sudden strength to flip the Kazakh onto his back, somersaulting to pin him down. This telling move enables him to win Mongolia’s first ever Olympic gold medal.

 

To see his gold-medal winning fight, click here. [This will take you to the YouTube site]

 

Ulaanbaatar is again set alight, but this time in celebration as fireworks dominate the skyline and car-horns echo into the night. A day later, the two parties’ leaders lock arms at the square in front of the statute of another national hero, Chinggis Khan. They sing the national anthem in a unique display of patriotic pride, whilst Naidan is granted the honour of being a Mongolian Labour Hero.

 

Two weeks later, DP representatives reverse their decision and allow themselves to be sworn into the new parliament.

 

The sports fanatic that I am, I’m fascinated whilst visiting foreign countries about the role sport plays in their culture and national psyche. From this perspective, Mongolia perplexes me. It’s a small country with a significant active nomadic population. It is in a sporting limbo, similar to the nation’s social state when painfully transitioning from a Soviet to a modern society. Trying to balance both traditional and modern sports in a society where many live below the poverty line is no small feat.

 

Coming from Australia, where modern sporting heroes and achievements are etched into national folklore, Mongolia places a far higher value on its traditional sports. The Nadaam Festival and its three traditional “manly sports” is the most anticipated festival in the country, with hundreds of competitors competing in archery, wrestling and horse riding. This links with their nomadic lifestyle, as these sports were an essential part of survival before urbanisation. However, as the motorbike replaces the horse as the herder of choice, modern sports are starting to encroach on the previous stranglehold of traditional activities. Basketball courts reside under crumbling apartment blocks. Recently installed synthetic football pitches allow for year-round play; this is not to mention traditionally strong Mongolian sports of judo, wrestling and shooting, which have maintained their popularity. Although its sporting infrastructure is significantly underdeveloped, its growth emphasizes both Mongolia’s transition to a more modern society and its efforts to integrate into the international community.

 

A couple of lessons can be learnt from Naidan’s triumph. Firstly, that Mongolians take immense pride in the success of their countrymen and women, expressing  a belief that they can compete with their international rivals in both a sporting and geopolitical sense. This does not necessarily translate into success, as seen with its economic difficulties, exploitation from foreign countries and growing wealth inequality. For me, it highlights not only the power of sport to overcome a seemingly unconquerable political divide, but the power of sport as a tool for future generations of Mongolians to combat current adversity and gain confidence as a nation.

 

After all, isn’t democracy the greatest sport of them all?

 

 

Further reading on Naidan Tuvshinbayar’s historic 2008 gold medal:

Judo “wrestler” mining for more gold for Mongolia

Naidan gets Mongolia its first gold medal – August 14, 2008

Recipient of Chinggis Khaan Order named

The Inside Story on Mongolian Judo’s trailblazers

 

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

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