Mongolians dream of Olympic triumph

 
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Mongolians dream of Olympic triumph

Erdenet (Mongolia): Eight hundred years after Genghis Khan's marauding hordes conquered armies from Beijing to Budapest, Mongolians are seeking once again to prove their martial prowess - this time in the Olympic arena.

This barren nation of desert and grassland is aiming for its first Olympic gold medal at this year's Sydney Games to reclaim its pugilistic pedigree and pep up a nation demoralised by wrenching economic reforms and a devastating winter disaster.

Whether wrestling, boxing or grappling on the judo mat, when it comes to fighting, Mongolians punch well above their weight. The former Soviet satellite won five silver medals and nine bronzes in the eight summer Olympics it has entered since 1964 - not bad for one of the world's poorest countries with a population of just 2.4 million.

Eight medals were in wrestling - a national obsession encouraged by Genghis to keep his troops in shape as they swept across much of China, Central Asia, Russia and Eastern Europe.

"We are experienced in fighting sports because of our long traditions and because Mongolian-style wrestling is our national sport," said national coach Ganbold, an enormous former wrestler and Olympic judoka.

"It is in these sports that our people expect a lot from us and have placed great hopes in us," said Ganbold, fending off a cloud of mosquitoes during a workout at Mongolia's Olympic training camp - a cluster of log cabins in a forest near Erdenet, about 800 km (500 miles) north of Ulan Bator.

Olympian funding feat

In a country where a third of the population live on less than $ 10 a month, finding the funds to send a national squad to Sydney is an Olympian feat in itself.

Mongolia's economy, fighting to shake off seven decades of central planning under Soviet patronage, has just emerged from the worst winter in 30 years, which killed millions of livestock.

Companies privatised under economic reforms begun in 1990 are struggling to stay afloat and the government is under pressure from international lending bodies to cut its budget deficit.

"The changes in our society and the recent switch to the market economy has meant there isn't much funding for sports," said Ganbold. "In the last four years we've had insufficient resources for training, facilities and equipment, as well as participating in competitions."

Yet thousands of fiercely proud Mongolians have bought tickets for a "Sydney Our Hope" lottery to help fund the Olympic mission. Local firms such as Gobi Cashmere and the national air carrier MIAT have poured 100 million togrogs ($ 93,000) into refurbishing sports facilities.

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