Mongolia tries to wrestle record back from China

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia - More than 6,000 fighters are engaged in an epic battle in Mongolia as they try to snatch the world record for the largest ever Mongolian wrestling contest from neighbouring China.

Wrestlers as young as 14 and as old as 80 have descended on the capital Ulan Bator from all over the vast nation to do battle in a nine-day celebration of Mongolia's national sport, with a $12,000 prize for the winner.

But the real goal of the tournament, which began at the weekend, is to restore national pride after China snared the Guinness World record in 2004 with a three-day contest involving 2,048 fighters.

"The tradition of Mongolian wrestling goes back centuries, to the Hunnu period, long before Ghengis Khan was around," said organiser Reegjibuu Nyamdorj, head of the Mongolian National Wrestling Foundation.

The Hunnu were a nomadic tribe living in what is now Mongolia in the fourth century BC and the Great Wall of China was built to stop their frequent raids.

"China has its own unique culture and so does Mongolia. It is our responsibility to show off our culture and holding this tournament is one way to do this," said Nyamdorj.

Mongolia won independence from China in 1921, but the country represents only part of the historical homeland of ethnic Mongolians, more of whom live in China's Inner Mongolia region than in Mongolia itself.

As well as holding the current record for the largest Mongolian wrestling tournament, China has registered Mongolian throat singing - an art form prized as a national treasure - on the Unesco Intangible Heritage list.

Wrestling is the most important of Mongolia's historic "Three Manly Skills", which also include horsemanship and archery.

Fighters wear a uniform of tight-fitting briefs, heavy Mongolian boots, a traditional hat and an open-fronted jacket - originally designed to prevent women from posing as men to fight.

Many of the wrestlers at this week's mega-tournament have come out of retirement for the event.

One of the favorites is Badmaanyambuu Bat-Erdene, a member of parliament and winner of 11 naadams, or national tournaments who holds the rank of "undefeatable giant of the nation".

"This is like a great reunion of Mongolian wrestlers," said 65-year-old competitor Ovoo Serensuren. "I am meeting old friends here that I haven't seen in 40 years."