An ancient sport, fighting change Wrestling: As Mongolia and its people grapple with change, an archaic sport with roots in religion resists the challenge of the present.

Sun Journal

July 03, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia -- It is International Olympic Day in Mongolia, and under a wide, blue sky, traditional wrestlers are practicing their archaic sport. They circle like mythical birds, grappling sometimes for hours on end, finishing their bouts with a sudden heave that leaves one fighter on the grass and the crowd roaring.

Along with archery and horseback riding, wrestling is one of the manly sports that have defined Mongolian life since the 12th century and Genghis Khan. But like many other certainties in Mongolia, the country's wrestling establishment is being challenged as never before.

A few hours after that wrestling match last week, the new look of Mongolian sports was on display: the MBA, or Mongolian Basketball Association.

In the National Sports Palace, the MBA's top team is taking on Russia's Irkutsk All-Stars in a spirited show that attracts more people to the small gym than the wrestlers did to a vast outdoor stadium. The MBA's Business Devils are about 6 inches shorter than their Russian counterparts. But the Business Devils show Mongolian toughness, elbowing and checking the Russians into defeat, 102-98.

"Since 1990, we have more and more information about the world," says Odonjil, the MBA's vice president (who, like most Mongolians, has only one name). "Basketball is one of the consequences of this information revolution.

"As a Mongolian, I hope wrestling can develop highly as well, but it is still run under the old system, by people who don't understand the modern world."

Out of step

If Mongolian wrestling seems out of step with modern sports such as basketball, it is hardly surprising. Mongolia itself has been isolated from most international currents for centuries, spending nearly 200 years as a Chinese colony and then 70 years, until 1990, as a Soviet satellite.

Through it all, wrestling remained as it was for centuries.

Harking back to the sport's religious origins, the rules still call for victorious wrestlers to dance up and down in slow motion, with arms outstretched like the flight of an eagle or the mythical Garuda bird.

Few other rules exist.

Aides follow each wrestler onto the field like seconds in a duel. They hold the wrestler's ceremonial cap during the competition and act as coaches and referees. But there are no weight classes, and matches last for however long it takes for one wrestler to throw the other to the ground.

It is a very gentlemanly sport, with none of the boastfulness on display at the basketball game.

For Odonjil of the MBA, this tradition is quaint but out of place. He points to sumo wrestling in Japan, which has adopted time limits to make matches faster, as an example of the sort of modernization needed in Mongolia.

Even those who prefer the old rules admit that the quality of Mongolian wrestling is not what it once was.

When inexpensive Soviet oil and guaranteed export markets in the Eastern Bloc enabled the country to afford a Soviet-style sports machine, the country's freestyle wrestlers usually brought home at least one Olympic medal. Countries with populations a hundred times that of Mongolia's 2.2 million won the gold medals, but Mongolia fared respectably with a steady stream of silvers and bronzes.

But since the 1980s, almost in lock step with the the economic breakdown of the Eastern Bloc, wrestling medals have seemed out of reach.

"I'm not satisfied with the current situation," says Sereeter, an instructor at the National Institute of Physical Education and a bronze-medal winner in the 1968 Olympic Games.

"Mongolian people are naturally very strong. The body is no problem. We lack proper training and facilities."

When Sereeter competed, money was seldom a problem.

Wrestlers were state employees with access to top-notch facilities. Even middle-ranking wrestlers could count on health benefits, housing, a job as a coach after retirement from the sport and a pension.

Winds of change

But as the Eastern Bloc's economy collapsed in the 1980s, benefits began to evaporate. Now, six years after Mongolia started down the road toward democracy and a market economy, wrestling is an impoverished sport.

Azargal, a 22-year-old who recently graduated from the Mongolian wrestling academy, says wrestlers no longer are employees of the state. And there are few alternate means of support.

Most wrestling clubs are formed around a top wrestler, who pays to keep together what is essentially an entourage.

Commercial sponsorship of wrestling clubs is virtually unknown, except for a few top wrestlers supported by the mining company Erdeni. Competitions take place irregularly.

That leaves Azargal with an income of about $34 a month, plus prize money. The prize money can be the equivalent of 20 cents a fight. With 26 percent of the population earning less than the national poverty level of $100 a year, this is respectable money for the son of a herdsman, but still not enough to live on.

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