When people ask about Kazakh sports, the first thing that comes to mind is kokpar. Often described as Central Asian polo, kokpar is a competitive sport on horseback for nomads (Kyrgyz kokboru and Tajik buzkashi are similar: see a great buzkashi film trailer here!).

I haven’t yet seen the game in person, but the piece below is a great representation by a local TV channel:

In discussing his own experiences of the spring Nauryz festival in Kazakhstan, one American volunteer noted several years ago:

“So, which horse sports do the Kazakhs celebrate on Nauryz? There’s a wide variety. There’re horse races, both sprints and marathons. There’re the two boy-girl match-ups, the first with the boy chasing a girl trying to get a kiss, and the return run where the girl tries to horse-whip the boy. There’s also the bare-chested wrestling on horseback, and the horse gymnastics, where men try to grab different objects off the ground at full gallop. ….And then there’s Headless Goat Carcass Polo, or Kokpar, the main event. … The game is played in two halves, and the teams must take the goat carcass into the opposing team’s goal in order to score….”

Michael goes on to describe the goat used as “basically a dusty woolen duffel bag – the body is very tightly sewn up, even though all of the insides have already been pulled out. There’s no blood visible – just a lot of mud.”

If that’s still a bit confusing, check out CNN’s English explanation below:

The National Sport, or A National Sport?

But is kokpar really Kazakhstan’s main sport? While it’s a valuable and ongoing tradition in the south, most Kazakhs don’t watch it and many have never seen a match in person. As with many cultural practices in the world, just because some or all people identify with some activity or object as belonging to their culture, doesn’t mean everyone does it or enjoys it!

So my second answer to the question about the biggest Kazakh sport isn’t kokpar, but futbol. Football (soccer) is a big deal internationally, and it’s often played by average guys here, as well. Beginning with a few kicks by a boy at home…

Many young men go on to play in professional teams, or at least to play a mean game in their backyards.

I considered posting a professional sports team video here, but as a nonspecialist, all football looks the same to me. So please just google “Kazakh football” yourself, or watch any typical video of an online match for as long as you can stand it.

You’ve got the idea. Now, Kazakhs play football as professionally as anyone else, but I think you’ll have more fun watching this satirical video by a Kazakh comedy team:

(What did you see? There’s a lot of cultural humor and light self-mockery here, a trademark of KVN shows.)

Summing up, then, I see sports as both something that divides and something that unites. Kazakhs value kokpar as a tradition and ongoing activity because it sets them apart from other nations. But they value futbol because it connects them to the rest of the world.

And I think it has to be said: it’s a lot easier to buy a futbol than rustle up a team of horses, a group of eager young horsemen, and a furry dead goat!

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About the author

Celia Emmelhainz is from the midwestern US, and studied for a master's in anthropology at Texas A&M before taking up work as an academic librarian in Kazakhstan.