Home / Sports / Kyrgyzstan Dispatch: Horseback Wrestling. Bone Tossing. Dead Goat Polo. Let the Nomad Games Begin!

Kyrgyzstan Dispatch: Horseback Wrestling. Bone Tossing. Dead Goat Polo. Let the Nomad Games Begin!

CHOLPON-ATA, Kyrgyzstan — The American team that played a brutal version of polo at the World Nomad Games does not expect the sport to get picked up by the Olympics any time soon.

Why not?

“We use a dead goat,” said Scott A. Zimmerman, a team co-captain.

The game of kok-boru, with its headless goat carcass, was the main attraction at the weeklong international sports competition held this month in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan.

Other highlights included bone tossing, hunting with eagles and 17 types of wrestling, including bare-chested horseback wrestling, where the weaker competitor often clings desperately to the animal’s head as spectators roar in anticipation of him hitting the dirt.

The organizers hope to resurrect nomadic traditions, especially those of Central Asia, whose cultures were pushed toward extinction by decades of Soviet collectivization and then globalization.

The Games started on a modest scale in 2014 when about 600 athletes from 19 countries took part. The third edition of the biannual event attracted 1,976 competitors, representing 74 countries.

The elaborate opening ceremony, with 1,500 dancers and other performers, retold the myth of creation from the nomad perspective. First came primordial earth, then man, horses, yurts and hence nomads — who gave rise to the rest of us. The performance rocked the sold-out 10,000-seat arena.

Team uniforms, on display at the parade of competitors, ran from the professional to the improvised. The Germans wore black sweatsuits with a few pairs of lederhosen thrown in for an ancestral touch, while the Pakistanis sported matching green vests and scarves.

Others teams looked as if they had wandered in from the nearest cafe; the man carrying the flag of Estonia wore jeans and a white T-shirt.

The United States fielded more than 50 participants, many of them Peace Corps volunteers working in Kyrgyzstan. The American kok-boru team, some waving their own cowboy hats, brandished the flag of Wyoming, home to 8 of 10 players.

Any player who manages to wrest the carcass away gallops downfield to fling it into an elevated goal about the size of a kiddie pool.

The United States versus Russia was one of the first kok-boru matches. Given that the Russian players were of Kyrgyz origin, an American victory would have surpassed the upset of the “Miracle on Ice” hockey win at the 1980 Olympics.

The American players, most in their first game ever, struggled, with the announcer bellowing, “Whoooops!” every time one of them dropped the carcass.

At one point an American player, Ladd Howell, recruited because of his experience wrangling rodeo calves, broke away from the massed riders and galloped toward the goal. He threw the beast into the goal with such force that he fell in after it, provoking a roar of laughter from the stands.

While the game disturbs many animal-rights activists, Garret J. Edington, a co-captain of the American side, said the team was not there to challenge local traditions. “It is part of the culture that we are here to experience,” he said, adding that the winning team gets to eat the goat.

The British ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Robin Ord-Smith, was a bit flummoxed about how his country could participate in the Games. “We don’t really do nomads,” he said. Then, an inspiration: Scotsmen!

Oddball sports involving trials of strength, skill and dexterity? Check. Exotic national dress? Check. Tribes? Clans! So he imported four men in kilts for an exhibition display of Highland games including the caber toss, which involves throwing the equivalent of a telephone poll end over end.

Follow Neil MacFarquhar on Twitter: @NeilMacFarquhar

Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A12 of the New York edition with the headline: Cow Bone Tossing. Horseback Wrestling. Let the Games Begin!. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe


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