Mongolia holds traditional sports festival behind closed doors

Mongolia’s annual Naadam sporting festival kicked off Saturday without a live audience for the first time in its 800-year history as COVID-19 fears gripped the Central Asian country.

At a ranch outside Ulaanbaatar, athletes showed off the “three manly skills” of horsemanship, archery and wrestling, dressed in traditional “zodog shuudag” wrestling suits and “deel” tunics.

But the two-day festival, which usually attracts tens of thousands of onlookers and street vendors, permits only a handful of guests including top politicians this year, with ordinary citizens barred by police from entering the venue under crowd control measures intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Mongolians are instead encouraged to watch the games on live broadcasts.

Mongolia, which borders Russia and China, has so far reported only 227 virus cases and no deaths but continues to enforce a strict border lockdown that has prompted protests by Mongolians stranded overseas.

While no social distancing was enforced and no face masks were worn at this year’s games, child jockeys racing on Mongolian horses had their temperatures taken in a nod to the virus threat.

Erdenebad Badam, a 55-year-old street vendor in Ulaanbaatar, said he had been unable to make any sales with the festival taking place behind closed doors, despite switching from selling tissues and pens to masks and gloves this year.

“The government should hand out cash instead of wasting money for festivals,” he told AFP. “I am struggling to buy food.”

Erdenebayar Nergui, a 27-year-old Ulaanbaatar resident, told AFP he was unhappy that only a select few would get to enjoy this year’s festivities.

“There is nothing to watch. We can’t even go see horse racing but decision makers are there and can enjoy watching on the ground,” he said. 

Mongolia has lifted some coronavirus-related restrictions in recent days, allowing cinemas and nightclubs to reopen with limited hours, although political protests and most sporting events are still banned.

by Khaliun Bayartsogt