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Afghans love to get their goat in national sport of buzkashi

The sport, in which players on horseback vie for a headless goat carcass to much crowd enthusiasm, is back in force since the Taliban's overthrow. Some dream of it being in the Olympics.

January 03, 2010|By Tony Perry

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — Leaning far off his horse like a polo player, amid a chaotic-looking scrum of other riders doing the same, the rider snatched the decapitated goat by a foreleg and galloped off.

He whipped his heavy-breathing horse for more speed while the others raced in pursuit. As they neared their rival, they whipped him and his horse and tried to grab the goat carcass before the rider could score.

A game of buzkashi, the national sport and passion of Afghanistan, was in full cry, watched by thousands of yelling, picture-taking fans, including hundreds of young men and boys who pushed so close to the field of play that they were repeatedly in danger of being trampled by the surging horses.

Safe from the fray, the local warlord had been given a place of prominence on a flatbed truck.

Lesser warlords, protected by guards with AK-47s, sat in their SUVs.

Banned during the Taliban's reign and resuscitated after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, the ancient, archaic and only lightly regulated sport is bigger than ever, according to officials who organize weekly games in several locations in the capital and 17 outlying provinces.

Friday is buzkashi day in much of Afghanistan. And so far, at least, the resurgent Taliban hasn't been able to thwart buzkashi -- literally, "goat grabbing."

Haji Abdul Rashid, head of the government-sponsored Buzkashi Federation, has large dreams of leagues, corporate sponsorship, television and even acceptance for the Olympic Games.

"A buzkashi rider must be a real man," he said. "Not just in his body, but in his heart and his mind."

American anthropologist G. Whitney Azoy finds buzkashi a suitable metaphor for Afghan life: brutal, chaotic, a continual fight for control (in this case, of a dead goat).

Afghanistan, Azoy notes in his book "Buzkashi: Game and Power in Afghanistan," has been largely bereft of strong institutions that provide security and stability. Instead, leaders are men who can seize control by means foul and fair and then fight off their rivals. The buzkashi rider does the same.

Rashid, a former buzkashi champion, has a slightly different take.

Buzkashi reminds Afghans of their warrior culture, he insists, and the goat symbolizes their vanquished foe. A buzkashi game harks back to the days when warriors would put on a ritual to show their leaders how they had won the most recent battle.

To drive his point home, Rashid invited a veteran buzkashi rider to the interview, even though the latter was still groggy from a fall during a game several days earlier. "He will be ready for Friday," Rashid said.

On the Friday, the male-only crowd assembled hours before the official starting time. Some riders stuffed protective padding in the legs and crotches of their pants. (Headgear is considered unmanly.)

In some matches, there are teams; in others, like this one, it's every man and every horse for himself. Two announcers -- one play-by-play, one color commentator -- used bullhorns to explain the action by the 40 riders. Peanut and candy vendors pushed their carts among the crowd.

There are no official timeouts: If riders or horses were hurt or exhausted, supporters carted them to safety. There were Afghan soldiers in the crowd, but no medical or veterinary personnel. In the scrum, riders yelled insults at their rivals -- buzkashi trash-talking is a fine art.

The goal is to snatch the goat carcass, race around a flag at the far end of the field, and then race back and drop the carcass in a chalk circle.

On this day, the contest continued for several hours, with a handful of scores. Some riders retired in mid-contest and new riders took their place. One rider landed on his head as his horse pushed into a crowd of fans, unable to make a sharp turn to follow the pack. Rider and horse were taken away by supporters.

Although buzkashi is also played in neighboring countries, Afghans like to think of the sport as theirs alone.

As his groggy companion nodded, Rashid declared, "Buzkashi is Afghanistan."

tony.perry@latimes.com Special correspondent Karim Sharifi contributed to this report.

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