Naadam: The Olympics of Mongolia

Naadam is the festival that takes place in July of each year in Mongolia. This has taken place for over 700 years in one form or another and probably began as a festival within each of the different Mongolian tribes.

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Naadam In The Beginning

The games have three parts, archery, wrestling, and horse racing. These are the three things that were an integral part of the Mongolian lifestyle and survival. In the beginning, the best men with the bow became the archers in the Mongolian Army. The best riders became the cavalry and the best wrestlers were the elite in hand to hand combat.

Naadam now, in its present form, the Mongolian Olympics if you will. It is carried on in every part of Mongolia. The greatest wrestlers, fastest horses, and best archers are invited to attend the games in UB. It is from the smaller festivals that the best of each category is chosen, so the smaller festivals are also very important for each area.

UNESCO added the games to its List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010.

More people watch the festival than any other event in Mongolia. The festival in UB is held from the 11th to the 13th of July each year. It now is used to commemorate the 1921 revolution where Mongolia gained its independence from China.

Naadam Ceremony in Ulaanbataar

It is a huge honor for the members of the three sports, that are the best that Mongolia has in each category, to make it to the games. These athletes and horses that were invited to attend, are all part of an opening ceremony parade. The parade also has both men and women wearing the traditional clothing of the Mongolians and there are Dancers also. Then, the games begin.

We chose to attend one of the provincial games where we would be able to see and photograph the contests. In UB these are held in huge stadiums, while in the country you are only a few feet away from the action.

Naadam Wrestling


The wrestlers wear traditional costumes and each does a historical routine before the contest which mimics the flight of the falcon. They have two elders to officiate the match. One is the judge and the other is an encourager trying to give each of the contestants the energy and drive to persevere and win the match. A win occurs when any of the contestants’ body, other than feet or hands touch the ground. There are no weight classes and you may see a person who is outweighed by 50 or more pounds combating this much larger opponent. The outcome can be surprising since technique sometimes is more important than size.

Naadam Horse Racing

The second part of the games is the horse racing, unlike western horse racesthese are either 15 or 30-kilometer races. They are designed not only to test the speed but the endurance of the Mongolian horses. The jockeys are young men usually less than 14 years old and each of the races is broken down by the age of the horses. The top 5 finishers are given medals and awards and are the highlight of the games. For Mongolians, their horses are their past, present, and future of their nation. They have been an integral part of their lifestyle since the time of the great Khans and before.

Naadam Archery

The last part of the games is the archery competition. In this competition men and women are allowed to compete. There are teams of ten people and each is given four shots to hit a target that is 75 meters away. They put up three targets stacked on top of each other and if you can hit and knock the center target out of a stack you gain extra points. When a target is hit the judge yells uuhai which means “hooray”. The target is replaced and the next archer is allowed to shoot.

Mongolian Heritage

These games are the high point of each year for the Mongolian nomad families. They work and practice for an entire year to win a place in the UB festival. Each of these was a cornerstone of the life if a nomad for over 1000 years and the families will go home and begin training, shooting and wrestling the day the games are over to be ready for Naadam the following July.