Kyrgyzstan's national game, kok-boru, continues to attract new fans around the world

Kazakstan's and Russia's national kok-boru teams competing against each other at the 2018 World Nomad Games in Kyrgyzstan. Screenshot from Kara and Nate YouTube channel. Fair use.

From August 13 to 20, Kyrgyzstan hosted the first ever World Cup among kok-boru clubs from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, the USA, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan. The tournament brought together over 20 teams and took place on the shores of the picturesque Issyk Kul lake located in the country’s northwest. Kyrgyzstan’s “Yntymak” beat Kazakhstan’s “Astana” in the final with a score of 10:1 and won the KGS 2 million (approximately USD 22,700) prize money.

Here is a YouTube video with the highlights from the tournament.

Here is an Instagram post about the American team's experience at the tournament.

Kok-boru, also known as kokpar (in Kazakh) and buzkashi (in Persian), is a traditional game played on horseback primarily in Central Asia. It is best described as a symbiosis of polo, wrestling, and horse riding. The physical toll of and danger associated with playing kok-boru make it one of the roughest sports in the world. Its name, which translates as gray wolf, originates from legends according to which ancient Turkic warriors, ancestors of the current day Kyrgyz people, used to tie wolves’ mouths shut, chase them on horseback, and toss them to each other in the process. For them and the horses it was an exercise in the agility, horsemanship, and bravery needed in battle.

Over time, players switched to using a headless goat carcass, birthing another name for kok-boru: ulak tartysh (goat pulling). In 1996, kok-boru made its first step towards becoming a recognizable sport, when the famous Kyrgyz movie director Bolot Shamshiyev introduced rules for it. Since then, each team must have 12 players and 12 horses. Matches are played between two teams, with four players in each team on a field 200 meters long and 60–70 meters wide.

Each game consists of three 20-minute periods with 10-minute breaks between each period. Shamshiyev also introduced a special goal called tai-kazan in the shape of large cauldrons placed at the two ends of the field. To score, players must throw a goat carcass into opponents’ tai-kazan; there are two tai-kazans on the field. One throw earns one point. Whichever team tallies up more throws wins.

In 1998, Kyrgyzstan established the first ever national kok-boru federation to promote and develop its heritage. Three years later, the international kok-boru federation was formed. More national kok-boru federations in the neighboring countries followed. The turning point for kok-boru’s popularity beyond Central Asia came with the first World Nomad Games (WNG), an Olympics-style sports competition, hosted by Kyrgyzstan in 2014.

Here is the promotional video of the 2016 World Nomad Games.

The Kyrgyz government came up with the WNG to promote the cultural heritage of nomadic nations and attract foreign tourists. Since 2014, four WNGs have been held in Kyrgyzstan and Turkey, attracting participants from over one hundred countries. It is at these games where the outside world learned about kok-boru, the most popular competition of the whole event. The world paid attention. In 2017, kok-boru was added to UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. On the back of this success, in 2018, Kyrgyzstan’s leading film director Ruslan Akun released a popular movie called Kok-Boru filled with action and drama.

Here is the trailer of the Kok-Boru movie.

Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors took notice of this growing popularity. In 2017, Kazakhstan hosted the first ever kokpar world championship under a different rule set. Uzbekistan’s plans to host the first ever kok-boru championship in 2020 were thwarted by the pandemic. The interest in kok-boru appeared among global media production companies as well. In 2020, kok-boru was featured on Netflix’s Home Game documentary series about unique and dangerous traditional sports around the world.

Here is the trailer of the Home Game series.

The future of kok-boru looks bright, but its international popularity is currently under risk due to ongoing controversy around rules among members of the international kok-boru federation. The use of a moulage, a fake headless goat carcass weighing 32–35 kilos, instead of a real dead animal is no longer a contested issue. Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have locked horns over rule changes, with Kazakhstan advocating for the shortening match time and the removal of tai-kazans, allegedly due to safety concerns.

Kyrgyzstan, the most important and leading nation behind kok-boru’s popularity, is vehemently against these changes, arguing that they will rob the game of its essence and entertainment aspect. The sides are at a deadlock, but a compromise is necessary for kok-boru to continue growing in popularity in other parts of the world.

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