Ancient Kazakh Sport Experiences Revival

ASTANA – Ten thousand fans in Astana and another six million around Kazakhstan, Russia and the other countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States watched Aibek Nugymarov win this year’s finals of the Kazakh Barys competition.

The competition brought together Kazakhstan’s greatest practitioners of the traditional Kazakh form of wrestling known as kuresi. But Nugymarov’s was not the only victory at this year’s event. Having millions of spectator’s witness the three-year-old competition was a victory in itself for those trying to revive the ancient sport that one of its biggest proponents says was, “born with the Kazakh people.”

That proponent is Arman Shurayev, chairman of the board of trustees of the Public Fund for the Development of Kazakh Kuresi and General Director of KTK (Commercial Television Channel). Shurayev says he would like to see Kazakh kuresi achieve the same status as sumo in Japan.

The inspiration to revive the national Kazakh sport struck Shurayev on a trip to Mongolia a few years ago while he was watching the celebrations of a national holiday. “There were about 10,000 people!” he said. “It wasn’t just a regular tournament fight; it was a national, colourful show. I saw how the Mongolians were proud to have this kind of sport. Of course, the celebration inspired me. I thought, after all, Kazakh kuresi deserves to be reborn. Why not organise this project in our country?” he said.

“Our project (the Kazakhstan Barys competition) is a rare chance for young people to succeed in their life. If you want to be rich and famous, you have to work hard and take part in the competitions in order to win!” he said, adding that this year’s Barys competition winner took home $150,000, a gold belt and a new car.

This year’s champion, Nugymarov, comes from east Kazakhstan, a region known for its wrestlers. Greco-Roman 1980 Olympic Gold Medalist Zhaksylyk Ushkempirov and famous Kazakh wrestler Daulet Turlykhanov come from the eastern part of the country, as well as up-and-comer Almat Kebispaev and two-time Kazakhstan Barys medalist Shalkar Jolamanov. But the sport is gaining in popularity around the country and Shurayev wants to make sure the sport is strong everywhere. “The main mission of the Kazakhstan Barysy project is to develop Kazak kuresi in all regions of Kazakhstan,” Shurayev said.

To do this, the fund is working with youth in remote parts of the country. “We used to talk about cities where the sport infrastructure allows (people) to play any kind of sport. But the particularity of our project lies in the fact that we start from the very bottom, from the villages. If there are no sport clubs, we open them. If they are in a bad condition, we make them better,” he said. The outreach seems to be working: “In 2011 we had 68,158 young sportsmen and in 2012 we already had 81,774 wrestlers!” said Shurayev.

There is also the Zhas Barys project, a competition for boys between about 12-18 years old, which is in qualifying rounds now and will hold a championship in Kyzylorda this November.

The Kazakhstan Barys Champtionship, however, isn’t only for trained Kazakh kuresi wrestlers. Kazakh kuresi is fought standing up and has its own distinct rules, but is similar to sambo and judo. And, says Shurayev, wrestlers from those disciplines would have no trouble crossing over. “Not only can active athletes in any type of martial arts compete in Kazakhstan Barys, but non-professionals from the distant countryside also. If you are talented, if you are confident, there is no need to be a titled athlete to take part in our project. With each passing year, the project opens up new names in this sport in Kazakhstan,” Shurayev said.

Shurayev enjoyed Greco-Roman wrestling as a young man, but had to give up the sport after an injury. But the Kazakhstan Barys competition and the project to promote Kazakh kuresi are as much about preserving cultural identity as they are about promoting wrestling. “From the very start, we were pursuing the aim to contribute in national sport promotion on a governmental level, preserving traditional values,” he said.

Shurayev plans to take these traditional values and this traditional sport further afield. There are plans to broadcast the competition in the United States and the European Union next year and to organise a joint tournament with Ukraine this year. “We are also planning to organise a ‘Eurasia Barys’ tournament in 2014,” he said. But the original Kazakhstan Barys tournament will remain a Kazakh-only event, a celebration of sport, culture and identity.

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