for National Geographic News
It's the height of summer in Mongolia, and the nation is set to celebrate Eriin Gurvan Naadam, an annual Olympic-like festival where the so-called three manly sports of wrestling, horse racing, and archery take center stage.
The festival traces its roots to the 12th century, when the Mongols, led by Genghis Khan, established an empire that at its height stretched across nearly all of Eurasia.
Wrestling, horse racing, and archery were necessary skills for success on the battlefield. "Making them into sports trained warriors to be better warriors," said Peter Marsh, director of the American Center for Mongolian Studies in the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar.
Alimaa Jamiyansuren of the Washington, D.C. Area Mongolian Community Association said Naadam traditionally was a time for men who had trained all year "to show off that they have mastered these skills."
Today, the skills used in wrestling, horse racing, and archery are mostly reserved for athletic competition and camaraderie. But the luster and nationalistic pride surrounding Naadam still shines as bright as ever, Marsh said.
Naadam is held annually from July 11 to July 13. The timing coincides with the anniversary of the 1921 Mongolian Revolution, in which the nation gained independence from competing Chinese and Russian forces.
Today, Mongolia's political elite converge on the Naadam Stadium in Ulaanbaatar, where the games are treated with the same pomp that surrounds Fourth of July celebrations in Washington, D.C.
Jamiyansuren said that in big cities, the festival is mostly a spectator event. The athletes are professionals who have risen through the ranks of competition.
"When the wrestlers are on, everyone is glued to the TV," she said, "and when the big [horse] race is on, everybody goes to the racing grounds."
Meanwhile, smaller Naadam festivals held throughout the countryside tend to be more relaxed, personal, and participatory.
The country celebrations attract scattered nomadic herders who gather to take part in friendly competition, to drink a fermented mare's milk called airag, and to feast on a variety of dairy productsstaples in the summer diet.
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