The Weirdest Game to Be Seen at Expo 2017 in Kazakhstan

The New York Times profiles the city of Astana, Kazakhstan. In the article, we learn about the national sport of the country called kokpar (which is equestrian in nature, but… played with a carcass of a headless goat). Also known as buzkashi:

Recently, on the outskirts of the city at a stadium slick with rain and mud, the first Central Asian championship of kokpar, an equestrian sport, was in full swing.

Mr. Nazarbayev’s capital seemed a world away. Kokpar, known as buzkashi in Afghanistan, is a tough version of that gentlemanly game, polo. Instead of playing from the back of a horse with wooden mallets and a ball, riders use their bare hands and lean to pick up a headless sheep or goat from the ground. They then race to the goal clutching the dead animal.

Instead of goal posts, large caldrons, a bit like inflatable backyard swimming pools, serve as goals. Riders score by heaving the dead animal over the rim of the goal.

Each team plays four riders on horses, and the scrum of horses and riders pushing, colliding and surging around the goal with whips cracking creates a rough and violent contact sport.

Kazakhs in traditional dress at the first Central Asian championship of kokpar, similar to polo, in Astana.

Kazakhs in traditional dress at the first Central Asian championship of kokpar, similar to polo, in Astana.

“It’s a kind of cruel game playing with a dead sheep, but in our country it’s normal,” said Marat Baytugelov, a retired player, who was watching from the stands as the home team routed the players from Tajikistan. (In the old days, villagers would cluster on hilltops to get a better view.) “The most difficult thing is getting the goal. You have to have strong arms, strong stamina, and you must ride the horse well.”

The animal carcass, he added, cannot be just any weight. Heft is mandatory. It must weigh at least 30 kilograms, or 66 pounds.

The Central Asian tournament was organized as a prelude to Expo 2017, when Astana will be the host city. Kokpar is expected to be a star attraction, at least for the Central Asian crowd, and even for fans farther afield.

Wikipedia adds that Kazakhstan had a commission in the 1950s to set the rules of the sport:

  1. There are two teams with 10 participants in each
  2. Only 4 players a team are allowed to play on a field at a given time
  3. Teams are allowed to substitute players or their horses
  4. Game is played on a field of 200 meters long and 80 meters wide
  5. Two kazans – big goals with a diameter of 3.6 meters and 1.5 meter high are placed on opposite sides of a field
  6. A goal is scored each time a kokpar (goat carcass) is placed in an opponent’s kazan.
  7. A kokpar is brought to the field center after scoring a goal

You learn something new every day.

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