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Buzkashi: Sport in Afghanistan - 2002-03-17

Different countries around the world have different national sports, rugby, soccer, baseball. Afghanistan, too, has its own national pastime.

Hello from the Kolop-i-Askary, or Soldier's Field, here in Kabul. I'm Gary Thomas. It's a clear, warm day here in the Afghan capital perfect for a buzkashi match.

While we wait for the game to start, let's explain a little bit about it.

Teams on horseback, each ranging in number from five to 20, try to grab the carcass of a dead calf, ride once around the field, and place it in a designated circle. That gains one point. Opposition players try to stop them and take it away.

The game comes from northern Afghanistan, and Afghan tradition holds that the game is very, very old, dating back to the time when Sikandar of Macedonia, Alexander the Great came through this part of the world.

Ah, here's referee Haji Mohmammad Naiz of Panjshir to explain the rules, such as they are. Pretty much anything goes. He tells us you cannot whip another man or try to hold on to his horse. But in the madness of the crush of horses and men, there is no real enforcement.

The teams are taking to the field now. We have four teams competing today, all at the same time: Arya, Panjshir, Pamir and Kabul, about 40 players in all. Many are dressed in colorful red tunics, they look like they might be the Panshiris, and are wearing fur hats. Their mounts have hard wooden saddles covered with what look like small woven carpets.

The calf is picked up, and the game is under way!

The players are rounding the far side of the field. Here they come down to our end.

The players whip and flail the horses and each other as they try to grab the calf. It's anarchy on horseback as the players and their horses crash into each other with reckless abandon. It's hard to see right now through the cloud of dust. But the fans here love it, and they get close to the action, sometimes too close. The horses come at a mad gallop and often go up into the stands. they come. But not to worry. These are hardcore buzkashi fans, and they know what to do. Besides springing out of the way, they wave their arms and shout at the horses to get them to go back on the field.

Okay, they are now galloping back towards the other end of the field. This is fierce defensive battle today. Some games can be very high scoring, up to 20 points, but we are nearly up to the halfway point, and there is no score. Here they come again...

Wait...someone has the calf...there's a fierce tug for it...but the Arya player has done it. Score! He wins a prize of a million Afghanis, about $30, for making the first score.

Okay, there's now a break. Let's talk to this elderly gentleman on horseback. He has a distinguished gray beard, a broad smile, and bright, friendly eyes, and welcomes us to Afghanistan. And he says his name is Khawja Mohammad Azim Zarbasht. He is not playing today, he tells us, because he has gotten a bit old for the game. He says he's 82.

Thomas: How long have you been playing buzkashi?
Zarbasht: Long time, because this time I become a little old and my horse not ready. Yeah, yeah, yeah, long time, maybe 50 or 60 years.

We are now into the second half, and wait there's a time out. Let's get a ruling from referee Naiz yes, it's a calf change. The first calf has become a little mangy, to put it mildly, so he has called for a new one to be brought from the trunk of his car.

Well, darkness is now falling and the game is called. Arya has won in a fiercely fought defensive contest. Exhausted horses and riders are leaving, and fans stream for the exits. So that's it for this exciting buzkashi match.