Iam in Kazakhstan. I can guarantee that none of you knows anything about the sporting life of this country apart from the fact that they played England at football in 2008 and, according to Borat, have an annual "Running of the Jews" competition.
Well, as is usual on my travels I can now bring you some top sporting facts about the country for your delectation. They might be useful the next time Borat is brought up in conversation. You can laugh half-heartedly before condescendingly correcting the speaker's view of the glorious nation of Kazakhstan. Rally driving is not that popular here but, judging by my drive from the airport to the hotel, it should be. My driver, Valeriy, was a man possessed. I had to turn round and look out of the rear window several times just to check that there wasn't a group of armed bandits chasing us.
The weather is cold and Valeriy was very keen to show me his hand-brake turning skills ... on the dual-carriageway. I arrived at my hotel in an extraordinary state that completely rid me of any jet lag from the long flight over. After a couple of swift vodkas in the bar I commenced my research into just what sports turn this nation on. It was immediately clear that, like most of the ex-Soviet bloc, football and basketball lead the way. There are, however, several other contenders that were a little more surprising.
I bumped into the captain of the Kazakh rugby team along with the national coach. This hurt quite a lot as they are very big men ... boom boom. I was very surprised to find out that rugby was played here. It turns out that foreign students at Russian universities brought the game over in the 1930s. The game became very popular in the Soviet army and so the word spread. Kazakhstan first started to compete on the international scene in 1991 when they played and beat Korea. In 2007 they became Asian champions at a tournament held in Sri Lanka. They now take part in the Asian Five Nations which also involves Hong Kong, Japan, Korea and a floating fifth nation (currently the Arabian Gulf). Timur, the captain, had just been over to the UK to watch England play Ireland, his first proper international. He was amazed at the atmosphere, the size of the crowd and the fact that Irish and English fans could sit together drinking without killing each other.
This is a local form of rugby but played on horseback and using the decapitated body of a dead goat as the ball. It is unlikely that this will catch on in the UK anytime soon. Nevertheless, it's a phenomenally exciting game to watch as riders jostle and barge their way through each other to hurl the goat across the opposition's goal-line. Weaker contestants are permitted to wear a padded helmet to attempt to shield themselves from blows from both horse and opponent. The wearing of the helmet, however, is frowned upon. This is thought by some to be the origin of the rumour spread by Borat that homosexuals in his homeland were forced to wear blue hats.
3. The Kyz-Kuu
This is essentially kiss chase on horseback. A woman sets off on a horse at a gallop. After a small delay, a group of men, also on horseback gallop after her. The aim of the game is to catch the girl and kiss her while both are still at full gallop. Any man that does not manage to catch and kiss the girl is then whipped by her all the way back to the starting line. I know you think I'm making this up ... but I'm not. The game has its origins in the nomadic traditions of raiding another party of nomads and stealing their women. I fully expect to see this sport on television very soon. I would make it a celebrity format and the girl being chased would be a heavily disguised Keith Chegwin.
The horse plays a huge part in the national life of Kazakhstan and so it is perhaps understandable that two of the country's most popular sports involve them. There are supposed to be at least 50 words for horse in the Kazakh language. While spending a day skiing in the mountains outside Almaty (Kazakhstan were the only central Asian country to get a medal in Vancouver – silver in the women's 15km biathlon) I found myself confronted with the less than appetising "Horsemeat Dainties". I had some out of politeness but, to be honest, I'm more of a fondue man...
The hunter hunted
Hunting with eagles is very popular here. Fortunately for me, it is not really the season so I did not have to give this a go. With a huge eagle perched on your arm, its talons inches from your face, it's never exactly clear who is the prey...