Nomadic lifestyle traded in for sporting pleasures

The government of the republic of Bashkortostan is investing millions of dollars to maintain its position as one of Russia’s sports capitals, with ice hockey, horse racing and belt wrestling among the favourites.

An old Bashkir proverb goes: “a fool loves himself, a half-wit his wife, but the wise man – his steed.” This nation of nomads, who once rode on horseback, is now made up of racing fans.

In Soviet times racing and betting were just about tolerated – and now the sport is promoted as a symbol of the new Bashkiria.

In the capital Ufa, Thursday is race day and the region's government has even given the legendary Akbuzat racetrack a $70 million makeover.

Harness racing is king there, with their specially-bred horses famous across Russia.

Horse racing is a very old tradition in Bashkortostan, says horse buggy driver Timur Zaripov.

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The area is an epicenter of winter sports as well. Snowboarders and skiers come to the “pearl of the Urals” from all over the world as local peaks match up well against other mountain ranges in the world. Many famous skiers from Western Europe and America go there to train their stunts and acrobatics and get ready for major international skiing competitions.

Another sport which is quite popular in Ufa is volleyball. ‘Urals’ volleyball club coach Osmankac Nedzad says they have a stadium housing 1,500 people and every time during the game it is full.

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In rural Bashkiria the number one sport is Kurash – belt wrestling. Traditionally at an annual summer festival all the men in a village match up against each other to prove who is strongest.

But it has limited appeal elsewhere, as there is little money available to develop it.

Aslam Hazifov is a farmer in his daily job – and he's also six-times all-Russia Kurash champion.

“All those on my mother's side and my father's side were famous wrestlers – I couldn't choose anything else. In my village there was a man who beat everyone when he was 62. I hope to follow his example,” Aslam says.

While wrestling and racing preserve the heritage of Bashkiria, it is hockey that draws in the spectators. There's rarely a free seat in the capital’s arena.

The Russian media claims that Ufa’s team Salavat Yulaev has a treasure-chest budget of $50 million a year from sponsors and local authorities.

“Having to spend huge sums of money at a loss – that is the reality of our country. But this is the show for the people, and the show must go on,” says Vyacheslav Bykov, head coach for both Salavat Yulaev and Russia’s national ice hockey team.

As long as the people keep coming, and, just as importantly, while their local political leaders see sport as a key part of the region's identity, there will be money and facilities available, economic crisis or not.