Mongolia: How the Sparsely Populated Land of Genghis Khan Succeeds at the Olympics

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Andy Wong / AP

A Mongolian woman discharges an arrow from a bow at an archery competition during the Naadam Festival in Ulan Bator, Mongolia Wednesday, July 11, 2012. Mongolians celebrate the anniversary of Genghis Khan's march to world conquest on July 11 with the annual sports festival featuring traditional Mongolian events including wrestling, archery, and horse racing.

When their most famous native son is a 13th century conqueror who amassed the largest land empire in history, it’s not surprising that Mongolians have evolved into a rather sporty bunch. The land of Genghis Khan is populated today by fewer than 3 million people. Yet in Beijing 2008, Mongolia’s athletes brought home four medals, two gold (judo and boxing) and two silver (shooting and boxing). In London, 29 Mongolians will be competing, and the team expects to at least equal its Beijing medal haul. “Come watch us in London,” said Mongolian National Olympic Committee Secretary-General Jugder Otgontsagaan, as he slurped down a bowl of lamb-bone soup in the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator. “You won’t be disappointed. I promise.”

Like Jamaica and Australia, Mongolia punches well above its weight at the Olympics. The reasons for its success are simple. Mongolia is a country where one-third of citizens still roam the steppe and semi-desert as nomads. It’s a harsh life that develops muscle and fortitude. “When you get up at dawn to milk the camels or grab the cattle by their horns, it builds natural fitness,” said Otgontsagaan. “Mongolians, I think we’re tougher than anybody else.”

Case in point is Bundmaa Mukhbaatar, Mongolia’s medal contender in the 52 kg women’s judo event. Born near the ancient Mongolian capital of Karakorum, Bundmaa grew up wrestling—and beating—her three older brothers. At 12, she discovered judo and pleaded with her parents to allow her to train in Ulan Bator. Since then, she’s racked up a slew of world cup and grand prix titles. “Sports is in Mongolian genes,” said the 26 year old. “Nature is harsh, and its breeds endurance in us.”

The country’s athleticism has been further honed by the legacy of a Soviet-style system that provides ample state funding for promising young athletes like Bundmaa. Each summer, Mongolia celebrates Naadam, a sporting festival of epic proportions. Three so-called “manly sports” are contested nationwide: wrestling, horseback riding and archery. The whole country stops for days to watch the games. No surprise, then, that Mongolian athletes excel in pugilistic Olympic sports like freestyle wrestling, boxing and judo. Mongolia also regularly sends archers to the Olympics. The one exception to the Naadam rule is equestrian, in which the thundering of hooves across Mongolian steppes just can’t be tamed into an Olympic dressage or jumping competition.

Even though Mongolia is one of the sparsest populated countries on earth, its citizens love to get together to watch sports. Satellite television often reaches the most remote ger, as the Mongolian circular felt tent is known. While in the Gobi, the forbidding semi-desert in the country’s south, I met several nomads who had a working knowledge of the NBA and the NHL. Sumo is a popular sport, since Mongolian wrestlers have risen to the top ranks of the Japanese sport.  After the 2008 Olympics, judo outfits and boxing gloves sold out in Ulan Bator. And curiously, Tiger Woods appears to have a strong fan base in Mongolia.

Mongolia’s Olympic success contrasts with countries like India and Indonesia, which fare poorly when population figures are factored into medal counts. A nation of more than 1 billion people, India only won its first individual Olympic gold in 2008 when Abhinav Bindra shot his way to glory in the 10 m air rifle. (A field hockey powerhouse, India has won the men’s team gold multiple times, most recently in 1980.) Even China, when its 51 gold medals in 2008 were divided by its 1 billion-plus population, ended up ranking 47th out of 55 nations in a tally compiled by Australian researcher Simon Forsyth. That put the People’s Republic between Uzbekistan and Argentina, not nearly as impressive as the absolute figure in which China topped the gold-medal charts ahead of the United States.

According to Forsyth’s calculations, Mongolia ranks sixth when its gold medal haul is factored together with its population. Further brightening the country’s prospects is the fact that Mongolian gold has been used to make the London medals. Last year, Mongolia’s economy was one of the fastest growing in the world due to a mining boom. “Gold is where our heart is,” said Otgontsagaan. “Both at home and at the Olympics.”