Olympic dreams in Mongolia
By Kieran Doherty
While working on assignment in Mongolia’s capital Ulan Batar, I happened to find myself in a wrestling gymnasium. Wrestling is considered the most important of the Mongolian culture’s historic triumvirate of ‘manly’ skills, the other two being horsemanship and archery. It is said that Genghis Khan considered wrestling to be the best way to keep his army in top physical and combat ready condition.
Mongolia’s freestyle 60kg wrestler Ganzorig Mandakhnaran is now taking this most important of skills into the Olympic arena where he will be one of a very small number of select athletes representing, relative to size, the most sparsely populated country on earth. You might think that in a country of Mongolia’s size, and only boasting 2.8 million inhabitants, space would not be at a premium. However almost half of Mongolia’s population live in the capital city Ulaan Baatar.
The gymnasium reminded me of the sort of gym boxer Balboa used in the movie Rocky. It was old and tired with paint peeling from the walls, and practice mats that had seen better days, but the utter charm that it exuded was tangible. Light flooded in from glass bricks along the top edge of one wall and bounced off all the others. Children played on the ancient free weight machines, climbed up gym ropes and rolled around on the floor mimicking their wrestling hero Olympian Ganzorig Mandakhnaran.
The atmosphere was intoxicating. Mandakhnaran led his fellow wrestlers through warm-up routines before loosening his shoulders on the rings, almost pulling off a perfect crucifix. The children looked on and then decided to commandeer the far end of the gym to play basketball while Mandakhnaran wrestled with sparring partners under the watchful eye of his coach. Where else would you see an Olympic athlete sharing facilities with kids playing basketball? Where else would children get the opportunity to jump around enjoying themselves while an Olympian trained on the same mat? I tried to imagine the same scenario with a British athlete. It would never happen. Did Mandakhnaran mind? Certainly not. Ten years earlier he would have been one of those very children, sharing the mats with one of his heroes. Long may it continue.
For a wider selection of images from the gym click here.