Sunday, July 17, 2005

Manly Games, Childish Journalists

Five years old and a fearless horseman.

Naadam, one of the world's oldest games festivals, recently ended for this year. One western journalist, Oliver August of The Times (London), finds something to complain about. The children jockeys don't wear helmets. Here's a bit from his article, "It's the world's longest race, and child welfare is last - as always" (um, by the way, why is this artcle called "news"; shouldn't it be "opinion"):
When the punishing cold on the Siberian border briefly lets up, the nomad population celebrates the world’s second oldest “Olympics”. Since the days of Genghis Khan more than 800 years ago, they have come together to compete in the “three manly sports” — archery, wrestling and the all-important horse race.

Families arrive from across a country the size of Western Europe to enjoy more than 300 contests with the atmosphere of a medieval carnival. For most nomads, these are the only social events of the year. The other eleven and a half months, they are camped on the endless, frozen grasslands. The biggest contest, or naadam takes place near the capital, Ulan Bator in a vast green valley lined with 100,000 spectators, some of which have spent a week on horseback getting there. This week more than 2,300 mares and stallions raced down the 20-mile-long valley lined with food stalls and carpet sellers in white felt yurts known as gers.

Clouds of dust on the horizon announce the racers’ arrival well before they are visible. As they approach, hooves make the ground tremble and whips and bridles lash the air. At the finish line, the horses are tackled and halted by men in striped robes so that the horses do not carry on into the next valley.

“Some horses arrive riderless. They have been trained not to stop when the rider falls off. To win, only the horse has to cross the finish line,” says Ganbaatar, a 40-year-old catcher.

Inexperience is the main reason so many jockeys fall off. The oldest are only 11 or 12, after which they are deemed too heavy to ride. “Of course, they can’t control the beasts as well as older riders,” Ganbaatar concedes.

About 5 per cent of Mongolia’s thousands of child jockeys fall off each year, some sustaining lifelong injuries. Unicef, the international children’s agency, has now called on the Mongolian Government to make helmets mandatory. “We have strong reservations with regards to the racing because it poses a threat to the health of the children,” a spokesman said.

There's a lot I could say. But has this guy ever been on a horse? Does he know that nomad kids start riding before they can walk? They're practically born on horses. But Oliver August knows better than they. And so do does UNICEF. They want helmets for the racers. This is only a 20 miles race and lasts only a few minutes--but a infinitesimal fraction of the time and miles that the kids have and will spend on horseback as part of the family livelihood. Does UNICEF want kids to wear helmets when they're herding the family sheep, too? When they're riding out on the steppe to visit friends? What about the kids who ride camels? They might fall further, no? Should they have to wear a safety harness, too?

If folks want to start wearing helmets, they will do it themselves. In fact, the story indicates that this is happening:
For the first time this year, some jockeys at the main Naadam near Ulan Bator wore helmets, knee and elbow pads. But elsewhere races remain unchanged from centuries past. On the banks of the Orkhon in central Mongolia, nomads barely know what a helmet is. “I saw one in a shop in Ulan Bator once,” said the father of a six-year-old girl jockey. “It looked very uncomfortable. We have sun hats instead.”
This is the way it should be. The Mongolians just recently got out from under a system in which people's lives were controled down to what you did, what you read, what you thought, how long you lived. It was a system called communism. It's over now, and now the Mongolians are living freely and easily as they did since time out of memory. If this horse-mounted culture wants to start wearing helmets, it's up to them. It's their country.

The story ends with what must be a sad ending for the medling "child welfare" people, but it's a beautiful ending for the proud Mongolians and freedom loving people everywhere:
The thought of government intervention is anathema to most nomads. Property rights are unknown on the grasslands, as are fences or signs on the few roads. The Government is absent from their lives and always has been.
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Blogger Michael said...

Having just returned from my first visit to Mongolia, I'd have to say a much bigger danger to children is being in a car in Ulaanbaatar. A little fender bender and a kid might hit the windshield.

7/18/2005 11:54 AM  
Anonymous guile said...

nice, comfy place you got here :)..

7/19/2005 3:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting post. Here in Australia, its compulsory for everyone to wear helmets when they ride a bicycle. Most people don't view it as protection for their children and themsleves, they view it as an unecccessry imposition, and an infringement of their rights. I wonder what sort of practical measures the author envisaged, other than their own practical paycheque and rise on the holier-than-thou-ladder, when they wrote this article?

7/20/2005 8:13 AM  
Blogger samraat said...

4/04/2010 10:40 PM  

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