21 October 2012

Mongolia's Olympian Spirit

Friday August 17th 2012. The Granville Restaurant and Bar. Downtown Ulaan Baatar. The Olympics had finished with the Closing Ceremony on August 12th and we were having our own 'closing ceremony' of our 3-week Untamed Mongolia adventure.

During the Untamed Mongolia itinerary, Suzanne from Australia did a truly superb job of keeping us all up to date with the Olympic results with the help of the recharging unit of the Furgon van, her IPhone and then her sister still at home in Australia. Whenever we had signal she would be bombarded with requests - has ______  won any of the heats, how many medals does _____ now have, when does the _____ take place.

At the end of the tour during our farewell dinner, one of our clients asked Turuu, the lead driver for Eternal Landscapes, about the Mongolian medal tally of 5 - their best ever result yet but still with gold remaining elusive. He replied, in his own self-taught version of the English language, (helped in confidence by a couple of large draft Chinggis beers) 'we are very happy. We are a country of about 3 million people and 5 medals is good. The colour is not important - it's being in the Olympics' (it's not the exact quote but then I had also had a couple of large (and delicious) draft Chinggis beers).
Team Mongolia! (www.mongolianartlondon.wordpress.com)
Although the country of Mongolia is superbly vast with a minimal population it was easy to feel the Olympic spirit in Mongolia this summer (and no I don't mean the vodka). Pierre de Courbertin revived the Olympics - he formed the IOC (the International Olympic Committee) in 1894 and Athens hosted the first modern Olympic games in 1896. De Courbertin believed that 'the important thing in life is not to triumph, but to compete' - the Olympic motto is 'Citius, Altius, Fortius' - 'Faster, Higher, Stronger' challenging each competitor into being the best they can be and to me that is certainly the attitude with which the Mongolian team attacked the 2012 London Olympics. Mongolia is developing a reputation as a country that punches above its weight at the Olympics - a team of 29 competed in 7 sports with the medals being won in  judo, wrestling and boxing.

Maybe its their heritage, following in the footsteps of Chinggis Khan and the Mongol tribes and the influence of their nomadic culture (that locals say still runs in the veins of most - even some of the city-based) that leads to their strength, endurance and competitive spirit. Judoka Tuvshinbayar Naidan became the first Mongolian athlete to win two medals in Mongolian Olympic history with his 2012 silver. The 2008 gold medal winner competed in the London 2012 100kg men's judo final even though he suffered a tear to his anterior cruciate ligament in the semi-final (and although I don't know much about these things, it sounds most certainly painful).

There was certainly a sense of pride in the Mongolian athletes representing their country - however remote the chance of winning a medal. Oyungerel Gantumur competed in the women's 100m breaststroke and although she didn't make it past the heats its pretty damn impressive for a landlocked country where the number of swimming pools can be counted on one hand (with a few fingers left over) and any fresh water lake is frozen hard for at least a third if not more of the year.

Tuvshinbayar Naidan celebrating his semi-final victory (FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images)
Now, the Mongolian athletes have returned home with the province of Bulgan (the home province of Tuvshinbayar Naidan) holding a Naadam Festival in his honour to celebrate his return and in a country where a glass of vodka is often given in honour, that's a pretty big honour to receive!

Although I'm from the UK I couldn't be in London to experience the Olympics. But Mongolia is my second home and it certainly made a good second  to experience the Olympics from - it was thrilling, it was heart-warming, there was brilliant sportsmanship and yes, at Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur I did find myself in the family ger shouting my head off for someone whose name I had much difficultly in pronouncing but who I really wanted to win in a sport that I had previously no knowledge of  - it was just brilliant.