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Imagine the Bishop of Ogdensburg, serving as Bishop for the entire United States, finding himself compelled to leave the stands to help separate frenzied fans from referees and athletes during a wrestling match. So did Pandido Khambo Lama Damba Ayusheyev of all Russia find himself on Wednesday September 7 during the semi-final round of a match sponsored by his Datsan as part of the celebration of the third anniversary of the return of the Most Precious Body of his predecessor, the 12th Khambo Lama, one of the most important religious holidays in Buryatia, a region covering eastern Siberia and parts of Mongolia.
Picture a football-sized playing field, with the slight undulating character of a natural field mowed for the occasion (by cows), surrounded by approximately five thousand people ranging from young children to those well into their nineties sitting on wooded benches and bleachers. The atmosphere a combination tailgate party and bake sale with energy of Ironman all crammed into one small space with nary a corporate banner or logo in sight; or insurance forms, permits or other regulatory requirements considered or signed. Port-O-sans? Try outhouses. Wrestling mats? Try athletes landing on solid earth. Further, the playing field, set in front of the Ivolginsky Datsan, having the feeling of Camelot with banners and flags flying, castle-like buildings framed by tall pines, and, surrounding all, distant mountains not unlike the view from the Loj Road or Craig Wood or Club Golf Courses.
Four events were contested: archery (strelba iz luka), horseracing (skachki), and wrestling (borba), those weighing less than 75 kilos (165 lbs) and those weighing 75 kilos and over (just two weight divisions allowing for some huge weight differences amongst competitors). First prize, in all four divisions was a brand new Russian made Zhiguli Six sedan, the once ultimate Soviet car. The games began with a parade of athletes walking behind flag bearers representing different regions and datsans throughout Buryatia.
Organizing athletic competitions goes back to the late 19th century when Buddhist datsans were the center of community life providing educational training, medical support, cultural events, advice on farming and celebrating the seasons as well as meeting spiritual needs. As part of that they were concerned about the physical, as well as the spiritual and emotional well being of their citizens. Out of these concerns, hosting sporting events developed. Under Communism all datsans were destroyed but one, and that used as a barracks for those working on the Trans-Siberian Railroad and later used as a chicken farm. As part of the Buddhist community's rebuilding efforts, now 75% complete, hosting sporting events has been an important part of their re-growth and commitment to the well being of Buryats.
On Wednesday the grandstand seats were filled with approximately sixty leading lamas, regional, national and some Olympic officials, former champion athletes, and various community leaders rooting for their favorite athletes. The games began with an elimination playoff amongst the under 75 kilo wrestlers winnowing down to the final eight. Spread across the playing field, five matches were held at any one time giving all at least two matches to see clearly. Simultaneously, out on the archery range, men and women, dressed in traditional costumes, shot arrows using traditional bows (compound bows and sighting gear not allowed) at distant near ground height tiny targets, set to mimic the complexities of hunting. A break was called and all fans shifted to a wide track set behind the stands to watch a thundering herd of riders flash by and continue around a winding track, again using traditional clothing, saddles and equipment.
Thirty minutes later, back in the stadium, the under 75-kilo class was completed and the heavy weight division launched. The audience was thrown into a frenzy when not only last years winner, a massive ethnic Russian that towered over all but a few competitors, but two other national champions were knocked off by decidedly smaller athletes not worthy of being called light heavy weights. Excitement was further intensified when, during a break before the quarter finals, an elderly archer knocked of all competitors, one less than half his age - indeed appearing young enough to be his grandson - to claim the third Zhiguli. No mean feat in then graying light.
Now down to the semifinals, a growing cool breeze and flashes of lightning on the horizon signaled a coming storm while in the gathering darkness the fans left the bleachers and moved closer in to watch the final four battle it out. With no stadium lights to flick on, it was race between fading daylight, a coming storm, and the tiring athletes who had been thrashing all comers throughout the afternoon. A shout erupted. Several fans had disagreed with what they perceived to be an unfair call by a referee and charged the field. The grandstand was as quickly emptied as the Khambo Lama, in bright orange robes, lead a phalanx of lamas, some large enough to be the defensive line of the New England Patriots, into the melee to haul people apart, restore order and call for a rematch. In the midst of this, one elderly lady grabbed my arm, as if the ongoing melee were a daily occurrence, and asked me what were the favorite sports in American. Football, baseball and basketball, I said.
Pah, ball sports, she said. Do they have anything like this?
Looking around at what seemed to be the entire community out in the gloom shouting, jumping up and down, waving their arms, hugging each other, while lamas (aka priests) and gaudily robed referees tried to restore order, I said, Not quite. Indeed here was all the passion of the Miracle on Ice with people celebrating some equally outstanding upsets where a grandfather beat out all contestants in archery, several leading heavy weights with reaches to match, were taken down by far smaller men, the tiny Aginsky Region, with just a population of 80,000, capturing half the first prizes awarded, and the pure joy of competition celebrated.
It was a heady moment.
Sunday, following the dedication of a stupa to the First Khambo Lama:
Monday, following the dedication of a stupa to the Twelfth Khambo Lama:
Wednesday (Championships), following the Third Anniversary of the Return of the Twelfth Khambo Lama
2005 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617-1475