International Sporting Events: The Intersection of Culture, and Politics

Author: Holden Cherepov

International sporting events are not just athletic competitions but also ideological competitions between the athletes’ nations’ cultural, political, and social beliefs. The best example is the 1980 Lake Placid Olympic Games where the Soviet Union took on the United States in the Semi-Final Ice Hockey Match; this game would decide who competed for the Gold Medal. The match also represented the ideological clash between communism and capitalism.

The prestige associated with hosting international sporting events allows the hosting governments to display their cultural, political, and social beliefs to a global audience.

This paper will show how Central Asian Nations are using international sporting events to showcase their unique cultural identities in the post-Soviet context while using the socio- economic prestige associated with hosting international sporting events to convey their importance to the international community. Central Asia has hosted 3 World Championships, 5 World Junior Championships, 24 Regional Championships, and 5 Other Annual International Events.

Firstly, I discuss Central Asia’s different regional hat styles, worn by the performers in each Opening Ceremonies. I will then focus on Saparmurat Turkmenbashy Olympic Stadium in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, and how the government uses the toponymical prestige of the Olympic Games to create the allure of socio-economic progress. Secondly, I examine the 2017 Universiade in Almaty, Kazakhstan and the use of symbols to promote the unique cultural identity of Kazakhstan to a global audience by drawing on the ancient history of Central Asia nomadic people and the future economic prosperity of Kazakhstan. Lastly, I will look at the World Nomad Games. The World Nomad Games are a unique sporting event hosted in Cholpon- Ata, Kyrgyzstan, designed to promote the nomadic lifestyle, culture and tradition of the various nomadic people of Central Asia to a global audience.

Traditional Hats

During the Opening Ceremonies, the performers wore a variety of traditional clothing styles of Central Asia.1 However, the most distinctive part of the clothing was the numerous different types of hats. The clothes and hats showcase unique color schemes, and embroidery patterns, each of the colors and patterns is specific to a different group of nomadic people from Central Asia. The first hat styles are worn by women; the first type of hat is a headscarf. A headscarf is worn by women for cultural reasons in various styles and colours, although sometimes worn for religious reasons, hijab, head covering worn by some Muslim women.2 The second hat featured was the Shokul, worn during wedding ceremonies.3 The Shokulo is a tall conical hat made of fur and felt decorated with feathers and evil eyes to ward off evil spirits

– in comparison, the Shokulo for wealthier families includes jewels in addition to feathers and evil eyes.4 Finally, the Elechek combines the conical hat and the headscarf.5 The style and amount of fabric used to showcase the family's class.[^vi] Upon passing, the fabric used in the Elechek is turned into a funeral shroud.6 The female tribe leader wears the Elechek, mothers who have married all their children, or the bride the first three days following the wedding. The Shokulo is worn during the wedding ceremony and then wrapped in a headscarf by the bride’s mother following the wedding.7

Three different types male hats are ern: the Ak-Kalpak, Turkmen Telpek / Papakha, and Tebeti.8 Men wear the Ak-Kalpak as a demonstration of national pride. The Ak-Kalpak is also a part of the Kyrgyz Olympic Uniform.9 Young men wear an Ak-Kalpak with a straight brim and a front notch, while older men have a folded-up brim with no notch.10 The second hat type is the Turkmen Telpek / Papakha, an important symbol of Turkmen identity.11 The Turkmen Telpek / Papakha is the traditional hat of the Caucasus and Turkmen worn in the winter and made out of sheep-wool. The last hat is the Suusar Tebeti for females or Tebeti for males, worn during the winter.12 The Tebeti is a leather cap with a fur base on the exterior.13 (See Images 1 - 8)

Olympic Complex in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

World Championships have a high level of social prestige for the athlete and host nation; because there is an implied understanding to the international community that hosting these events requires a level of infrastructure only present in countries from certain economic strata.

Therefore, the host nations spare no expense to dazzle the audience with the design of the competition venues. Few World Championships are more important or prestigious than the Olympic Games. Every four years, three billion-plus casual and serious sports fans gather to cheer on every upset, comeback, and world record, toponymically immortalized with the host city.14

Turkmenistan hosted the 2017 Asian Indoor Martial Arts Game (AIMAG). Leading up to the event, Turkmenistan built a new multisport athletic complex named after the Olympic Games.15 Naming the multisport athletic complex after the Olympic Games implies, Turkmenistan has reached the same socio-economic importance as other Olympic host countries. At the same time, they are benefitting from the toponymical prestige associated with hosting an Olympic Games.

The Olympic Complex cost approximately five billion dollars and covered 150- hectares.16 The Olympic Complex has the competition facilities for the 2017 AIMAG and 2018 World Weightlifting Championships and numerous unnecessary competition venues like the world’s largest water-sports complex.17 To pay for these unnecessary venues, Turkmen have seen a 15 – 20% drop in their paycheck, reported to western media sources as ‘voluntarily deductions’ for the 2017 AIMAG.18

In watching the Opening Ceremonies, I noticed two national symbols, the Seljuk Star design incorporated into the bleachers and the Akhal-Teke horse.19 The spectator bleachers have different colored seats to create a contrasting image of miniature and large Seljuk Stars when not in use. (See Image 9) The Seljuk Star is a symbol dating back to the Seljuq dynasty, the historical ancestors of the Turkmen.20 The second use was the Akhal-Teke Horse Head adorning Saparmurat Turkmenbashy Olympic Stadium. The Akhal-Teke Horse Head Statue set a new World Record standing 40.05-meters in height (See Image 10).[^xxii] The Akhal-Teke was the preferred breed of horse used by the nomadic ancestors of the Turkmen because of their incredible speed and endurance.[^xxiii] The use of these symbols during the Opening Ceremonies showcases Turkmenistan’s depoliticized and dehistoricized identity.21

2017 Universiade in Almaty, Kazakhstan

Most Opening Ceremonies follow a traditional format of small opening performances followed by the entrance of the dignitaries and presentation of the host nation’s flag. Following the flag presentation, the theatrical performance begins. Following the first performance is the parade of nations followed by the President, Sporting Official, Athletes and Judges opening remarks. Then the cultural and historical performances resume, concluding with the Nations Leader officially opening the competition.

Like Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan used the 2017 Universiade to raise the socio-economic importance of their country through hosting international sporting events. Although Turkmenistan remains optimistic, they will host the Olympic Games; after naming their newly constructed multisport athletic complex after the Olympic Games, Kazakhstan has taken a different approach. After two unsuccessful bids to host the 2014 and 2022 Winter Olympics, Kazakhstan used the 2017 Universiade to showcase their competition facilities, and management can handle the Olympic calibre competition.22

The 2017 Universiade opens with a group of Kazakh Women playing Zhetygen, a seven- string instrument and Daulpaz, a traditional drum, standing on a leaf-shaped stage surrounded by apple trees.23 (See Image 11) On the ice beside the stage are yurts, the traditional homes of the Kazakh.24 As the performance continues, Teutonic Warriors on horseback enter the stadium with performers dressed in traditional clothing.25 Following the performers are stud horses, which are horses that the riders perform stunts.26 Following the opening addresses and the flag presentation, the theatrical performance begins.27 The audience is part of a caravan, the traditional method of transit for nomadic people; the performance starts with the Kazakh interpretation of their surroundings and the creation of their core beliefs shown through the battle between love and evil.28 The next performance was an interpretive bird dance representing the Saka and Huna people showing that Kazakh history goes back to ancient times.29

Skipping over the Soviet Period, the next historical era begins with Nursultan Nazarbayev’s reign.30 The final performance contains four smaller performances. Each of the smaller performances represented a season, starting with spring. The spring performance represented the modern architecture (Baiterek Tower), new technologies (different futuristic clothing designs with new technologies worn by the dancers instead of their traditional attire (See Image 12)), and aspiration for a green economy (windmills).31 The summer performance represents the early development of Kazakhstan’s identity after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with different dances taking place in a yurt representing the unity between the different nationalities who call Kazakhstan home.32 The different styles of dances taking place in the yurt were a symbolic representation of the cultural unity in Kazakhstan.33 Autumn was a representation of Kazakhstan as an emerging center for creative arts globally.34 Finally, winter represents Kazakhstan's recent successes and future ambitions of the younger generation.35

There were three reoccurring symbols throughout the performances used to promote Kazakh identity: apples, horses, and birds of prey. When the performance began, the commentators mention the leaf-shaped stage; I believe the leaf chosen for the stage design was an apple leaf, although I could not confirm.36 In addition to the stage design, the performers also used apple trees and apples throughout their performances. Apples are an important symbol in Kazakh culture as they are one of the most widely cultivated and eaten fruits in the world, native to the host city Almaty.37 At various points in the Opening Ceremonies, the performances incorporated horses. Horses are native to Central Asia and a central part of nomadic culture.38 Birds of prey were more a thematic element at the games captured through the motto of the Universiade: Spread Your Wings. Other symbolic representations were the mascot, a white bird, and a bird-based interpretive dance.39 However, I did spot one bird of prey on the arm of a performer, although it was brief. The inclusion of birds of prey in Universiade showcase the importance of Salbuurun, the traditional hunting style of Central Asia, in Kazakhstan Culture.40 The final performance, which comprises four smaller performances, showcases a post-Soviet, modern and Western-friendly Kazakhstan. The invention, use, and investments of Kazakhstan into new and green technologies. Kazakhstan's ambitions to be an emerging center for the creative arts and, lastly, Kazakhstan’s bright and ambitious future. The final performance showcases Kazakh modern western friendly identity and ambitions to a global audience.

In “The Art of the Impossible: Political Symbolism, and the Creation of National Identity and Collective Memory in Post-Soviet Turkmenistan” and “The monumental and the miniature: imagining ‘modernity’ in Astana” the authors discuss the depoliticized and dehistoricized nature of Turkmen and Kazakhstan identity. The Opening Ceremonies of the 2017 AIMAG and 2017 Universiade continue this theme. Neither Turkmenistan nor Kazakhstan’s Opening Ceremony’s

make references to the Soviet Era. The 2017 AIMAG Opening Ceremony focused on the ethnic Turkmen cheering sections, while the performances had no explanation for the historical events shown.41 In the 2017 Universiade, despite having Russian translators, and translations Kazakhstan only references pre-Soviet and post-Soviet history in their performances. I have two possible reasons why the Soviet Period was not part of the performance. Firstly, by showcasing the Soviet era, it only re-ingrains Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan as part of the Soviet Union into the audience’s mind. Secondly, it is an extension of Gurbanguly and Nazarbayev's domestic efforts to create a depoliticized and dehistoricized national identity relying on the politicization of national symbols.42

2018 World Nomad Games in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan

The World Nomad Games were a way to “revive our historical identity,” said Kanat Amankulov, Kyrgyzstan’s minister for youth and sports.43 Through the construction of a hippodrome and the ability to plan, develop, and successfully host an entirely new type of international competition, Kyrgyzstan showed their revived national identity and socio-economic importance to a global audience. The World Nomad Games are a multisport athletic competition comprising 37 traditional ethnosports. The primary focus of the World Nomad Games is showcasing the nomadic culture of Central Asia to a global audience through various physical and intellectual competitions of different indigenous cultures primarily from Central Asia and the ongoing Ethno-Cultural Festival.

The festival’s goal was to preserve the ethnocultural heritage and promote nomadic people's traditions.[^xlvii] The Ethno-Cultural Festival allows spectators to watch folk music, folk dance, and listen to various epics and legends of the nomadic people through oral storytelling.[^xlviii] The attendees can also stroll through multiple exhibits showcasing the clothing styles, carpets, jewelry, traditional housing, et cetera of the nomadic people of Central Asia.[^xlix]

Although not an official part of the Ethno-Cultural Festival, numerous nations sold different traditional meals throughout the festival grounds.[^l]

The World Nomad Games held their Opening Ceremonies in a hippodrome, open-air horse racing track.44 The open-air environment gave the World Nomad Games an additional element of a traditional nomadic feel. The following day the stage for the ceremony was gone, and the hippodrome became part of the competition grounds.

The Opening Ceremony follows a theatrical performance of the Epic of Manas, an epic poem that provides the historical linkage between the Kyrgyz and their land.45 According to some scholars, the poem dates back to at least the 15 or 16th century, although the Kyrgyz believe it to be much older.46 The Epic is an important symbol of perseverance for the Kyrgyz as it was banned in schools during the Soviet Era because it promoted expressions of backwardness, tribalism and traditionalism.47 Despite the ban, the Epic survived through the oral storytelling of the shepherds and hunters living in the rural regions of Kyrgyzstan out of reach of Soviet Influence.48 The Epic of Manas is a trilogy about Manas and his descendants, Smetey and his grandson Seytek, feats of heroism and unity.49 (See Annex for Summary of the Epic Poem) During the Opening Ceremonies, the theatrical performances of the Epic of Manas used stud horses and birds of prey to further showing the historical interconnectedness of the nomadic people, Salbuurun, traditional hunting style of the nomadic people, and horses. ^lvii]

There were 37 traditional ethnosports competed in by 2000 athletes from 77 different countries.[^lviii] The athletes competed in their traditional clothing in eight different disciplines: Archery using Traditional Bows; Traditional Hunting, Salbuurun; Traditional types of Wrestling; Traditional types of Martial Arts; Horse Games; Horse Racing; Traditional Games; and Traditional Intellectual Games.[^lix] (See Table 1) These athletic disciplines best showcase how the

World Nomad Games promote nomadic culture to a global audience; I will further explain Salbuurun and the horse-related disciplines.[^lx]

Salbuurun is the traditional style of long group hunting. Hunting parties consisted of the tribe's most talented riders. The hunters carried bows and arrows along with the best falcons, golden eagles, and hunting dogs.[^lxi] At the World Nomad Game, Salbuurun is competed in three different disciplines: Burkut Saluu, Dalba, and Taigan Zharysh. Burkut Saluu is a two-part competition for hunting with eagles.[^lxii] The first part is Undok which is a 200-meter distance race.[^lxiii] The bird sits on a perch 200 meters away from the master, who holds a piece of bait.[^lxiv] The master has 2 minutes to call the eagle from the perch; the score is calculated based on the time it takes for the bird to arrive.[^lxv] The second part is Chyrga; this requires the master’s eagle to catch a fox dummy dragged behind a horse; the eagle's time and speed to attack the dummy is the second part of the score.[^lxvi] Dalba is a three-minute competition that requires the master to launch their falcon to hunt a lure made of bird feathers.[^lxvii] The average speed and the number of attacks on the lure over the three minutes is the winner. Taigan Zharysh is the competition for dog hunting.[^lxviii] A horse pulls a fox or hare dummy while three dogs try to catch the dummy.[^lxix] The winner is the fastest dog over 350 meters.[^lxx]

Horses compete in two different disciplines: games and traditional racing plus horse archery. There are two different types of horse games played at the World Nomad Games Er- Enish and Kok-Boru. Er-Enish is horseback belt wrestling. The objective of Er-Enish is to be the first person to pull their opponent off their horse and have their opponent touch the ground.[^lxxi]

Er-Enish developed from the hand-to-hand combat experience of the nomadic people and later intergraded into Kyrgyz Calvary’s training regiment.[^lxxii] The first mention of Er-Enish is in the Epic of Manas.[^lxxiii]

Kok-Boru, translated as Grey Wolf, has multiple different origins tales.[^lxxiv] The first comes from the traditional hunting practices of Salbuurun, where after a successful hunter would grab the carcass, they would begin racing home, the rest of the hunting party would chase the carcass carrying hunter try to steal the carcass off the back of their horse.[^lxxv] The second origin tales of Kok-Boru comes from the nomadic hunters who were furious that wolves attacked their flock upon returning to camp after a hunting expedition.[^lxxvi] So the hunters would take off on horseback, catching up with the pack of wolves; once they caught up with the pack of wolves, one of the bravest hunters’ would grab a wolf and playfully throw it to each other.[^lxxvii] The last origin tale comes from the celebration of toy (great holiday). During toy, the nomadic people would set a wolf loose in front of a group of men who would race to capture the wolf. Once the wolf was caught, they would attempt to steal the wolf from each other to be the first person to deliver the wolf to the elder’s yurt.[^lxxviii] Once the competition was over, the winner would receive blessings and a baige (prize).[^lxxix] The modern game uses a headless goat instead of the traditional wolf carcass. The goats’ death is part of a huge celebration filled with prayers the night before the competition.50 A Kok-Boru match consists of two teams of ten players on horseback; the objective is to get the goat carcass into the hole in the opponents' end; the winner is the team with the most points at the matchs’ end.51

Lastly, there are various types of horse racing based on the age and breed of the horses covering various distances and terrains. Horse racing was a part of cultural celebrations and a method of conflict resolution between tribes. Horse racing has been a highly social and political part of nomadic culture, with mentions of horse racing in the Epic of Manas.52


These Opening Ceremonies show how Central Asian Countries have used the intersectionality of politics, culture and international sporting events to showcase their unique

cultural identities while raising their socio-economic status in the international community. The first way the Former Soviet Republic expressed their unique cultural identity was through the traditional hats worn by the performers at the opening ceremonies. The most popular style worn by the female performers was the Shokulo, while the most popular style worn by the male performers was the Turkmen Telpek / Papakha.

The second way international sporting events help boost the socio-economic status of the Former Soviet Republics is by providing them with the opportunity to become the location of sports-based collective memories, which toponymically immortalize the host city. For example, Turkmenistan’s Saparmurat Turkmenbashy Olympic Complex was constructed for the 2017 AIMAG and 2018 World Weight Lifting Championships held in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. By naming the athletic venue the ‘Olympic Complex,’ Turkmenistan implies they hosted or will the Olympic Games, artificially raising the socio-economic importance of Turkmenistan to the international community.

The third way is through symbols. Kazakhstan used the journey of a caravan, the traditional method of transit for nomadic cultures, to take the audience through a journey of Kazakh history and into their ambitions for the future. Kazakhstan showcased their cultural identity to the global community through apples, horses, and birds of prey, which are important symbols of Kazakhstan and Central Asia.

The last and most unique way international sporting events promote socio-economic progress in Central Asia is the World Nomad Games. The World Nomad Games began with the theatrical performance of the Epic of Manas; the Epic is important for two reasons. First, it provides the historical linkage between the Kyrgyz and their land and symbolizes perseverance against the Soviet Union’s attempts to suppress ethnic tradition in Central Asia. Secondly, the

World Nomad Games consisted of 37 traditional ethnosports divided into eight disciplines. I chose to elaborate further on the origins of salbuurun and the horse-related disciplines to show how the nomadic lifestyle is intertwined with horses and Salbuurun. I also choose these disciplines as all of the Opening Ceremonies have used salbuurun and horses to showcase the linkages between their pre and post-Soviet identities to a global audience.


vi (Jahnke, 2017)

(Horse Canada, 2020)

^lxxxiii]]: (Hays, 2016)


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Annex 1 – Summary of the Epic of Manas^lxxxiii]

The legends and folk stories are set in the period when the Kyrgyz were exiled from their native lands in the Lake Baikal area of present-day Russia by Chinese warriors and moved to the Altai territory, where present-day Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China all come together. It was here that Manas was born. From an early age he displayed extraordinary abilities and feats of strength and got himself into various scrapes due to his propensity to mischief and generosity. His fame spread far beyond the Altai. When the Chinese emperor heard about Manas’s strengths sent an army of warriors to kill him, Manas managed not only to smash the Chinese, he united the Kyrgyz and regained their native lands. Thus, for the Kyrgyz people Manas is the legendary hero who united all Kyrgyz tribes to win back their motherland.

Manas’s son Semetey was a great warrior too. After Manas death, his wife Kanykei and with her son moved back with her parents. Semetey grew up not knowing that he was a son of a legendary hero. Once he realized the truth about his origin, Semetey decided to regain Kyrgyz lands and avenge the death of his father. Semetey and his friends performed many acts of bravery. But his enemies conspired against him and eventually prevailed. The second part of Kyrgyz Epic Trilogy ends with Semetey’s disappearance.

The Manas’ third part “Seytek” deals with Kyrgyz’s struggle against local enemies. It is narrates the struggles and adventures of the Seytek, grandson of Manas and is a continuation of the narrative unveiled in previous parts. The story includes Seytek’s upbringing in the camp of his father’s enemy; his unawareness of his origin; his maturation into a great hero; the discovery of the truth about his origin; the expulsion of his enemies; his return to his people; and the unification of the Kyrgyz and restoration of peace.


Table 1 – Sports in the World Nomad Games 53

Competitions in Archery using Traditional Bows
Archery using a traditional bow at a distance from Hungary.
Archery using a traditional bow from the Kyrgyz Republic;
Archery using a traditional bow from the Republic of Korea;
Archery using a traditional bow from the Republic of Turkey;
Archery using a traditional bow on horseback from the Kyrgyz Republic and the Republic of Turkey;
Competitions in Traditional Hunting, Salbuurun
Burkut Saluu – hunting with golden eagles from the Kyrgyz Republic;
Dalba – hunting with hawks from the Kyrgyz Republic
Taigan Zharysh – hunting with dogs from the Kyrgyz Republic.
Competitions in Traditional types of Wrestling
Alysh – a traditional type of belt wrestling from the Kyrgyz Republic;
Ashyrtmaly Aba Gyureshi – a type of traditional belt wrestling from the Republic of Turkey;
Goresh – a type of traditional belt wrestling from Turkmenistan;
Great Nomad Wrestling – combined freestyle belt wrestling;
Gushtini Milli Kamarbandi – traditional belt wrestling from Tajikistan.
Gushtini Milli Kamarbandi – traditional wrestling from Republic of Tajikistan;
Gyulesh – traditional wrestling from the Republic of Azerbaijan;
Kazakh Kuresi – traditional wrestling from the Republic of Kazakhstan;
Kurash – traditional wrestling from the Republic of Uzbekistan;
Kyrgyz Kurosh – a type of traditional belt wrestling from the Kyrgyz Republic;
Mongol Bokh – traditional wrestling from Mongolia;
Pahlavani – traditional wrestling from the Islamic Republic of Iran;
Sambo – traditional wrestling from the Russian Federation;
Ssireum – traditional belt wrestling from the Republic of Korea;
Sumo – traditional wrestling from Japan;
Competitions in Traditional types of Martial Arts
Armwrestling – a traditional worldwide sport.
Mas-wrestling – traditional competition from the Russian Federation;
Tug of War – a traditional worldwide sport;
Horse Games
Er-enish – a traditional horse game from the Kyrgyz Republic, involving two wrestlers on horseback
Kok-Boru – a traditional horse game in the Kyrgyz Republic











Turkmen Telpek / Papakha




Suusar Tebetei




Saparmurat Turkmenbashy Olympic Stadium




Seljuk Star Spectator


Futuristic Performance


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  2. (Jahnke, 2017) 

  3. (Jahnke, 2017) 

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  13. (Jahnke, 2017) 

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  15. (Tetrault-Farber, 2021) 

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  17. (Turkmen Petroleum, 2017) 

  18. (Najibullah, 2017) 

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  20. (Grousset, 1970, p. 161, 164) xxii]: (Turkmen Petroleum, 2017) xxiii 

  21. (Denison, 2009, p. 1176) 

  22. (FISU, 2017) 

  23. (FISU, 2017, Pretto, 2021) 

  24. (FISU, 2017) 

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  41. (Denison, 2009, p. 1176) 

  42. (Denison, 2009, p. 1176, Imanova & Koch, 2010). 

  43. (Macfarquhar, 2018) 

  44. (AKIpress news, 2018) 

  45. (FEATR, 2018, AKIpress news, 2018) 

  46. (Micallef, 2021) 

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  50. (Pedaling Pictures, 2015) 

  51. (Pedaling Pictures, 2015) 

  52. (Всемирные Игры Кочевников 2018 - World Nomad Games 2018) 

  53. (World Nomad Games 2018

Published July 3, 2021