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T he Rio Olympics might have had Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps and the Copacabana beach, but for fans of stick wrestling and horseback battles over a dead goat the shores of Lake Issyk Kul is the place to be this week, as Kyrgyzstan hosts the second World Nomad Games from 3 to 8 September. The games, designed to celebrate the nomadic heritage of the Central Asian nations, kicked off with a lavish opening ceremony on Saturday night.
Forty countries are participating, some of which have long nomadic histories. Others are mainly there for the fun of the games. Sports include eagle hunting, bone throwing and mas-wrestling, a mesmerising game involving two competitors attempting to wrest control of a small stick. The biggest draw and most fiercely contested of the sports is kok-boru, a violent Central Asian form of polo in which two teams battle for control of a decapitated goat carcass.
Taking possession of the goat is a tricky manoeuvre in which the rider gallops past the carcass and swoops down to grab a leg and pull it up. There follows an almighty horse melee in which punches are thrown, whips fly and the goat is tugged back and forth, before one horseman emerges in a cloud of dust to gallop towards the goal, shaped like a paddling pool, and dunk the goat in to score.
The hippodrome was also the site of the opening ceremony, which featured hundreds of whirling nomad women, stunt horsemen galloping across the arena with their clothes on fire, and graphics on a vast screen telling the story of the Kyrgyz nation, which has a long and storied history as a rugged nomadic tribe, before Central Asia was conquered by Tsarist Russia and then absorbed into the Soviet Union.
As the ceremony drew to a close, shaven-headed security guards frantically cleared a corridor in the media area of the stadium, and with a burst of dramatic music, Steven Seagal entered the arena atop a horse, clad in the armour of an ancient Kyrgyz warrior. After the excitement of the Kyrgyz riders, he looked somewhat incongruous gingerly trotting along, but the crowd enjoyed it. Seagal was the guest of honour at the games, with no heads of state attending. The actor has made a bizarre habit of popping up at various events in former Soviet territories of late.