American football is still a whole new sport to most of Mongolia even though it was first played in the USA in 1869. It is hard for a new sport to take off in Mongolia, since most young people are preoccupied with basketball and football. This interview opened up a representative of few people trying to introduce and develop American football and flag football in Mongolia, Manager of the Mongolian American Football Association Ts.Tsedev-Ochir. He recently organized the Independence Bowl IV, the one and only American football tournament that is held annually in Mongolia.
Where did you spend your childhood and how did you become interested in American football?
I spent five years of my childhood in Finland. At the time I went to secondary school for children from foreign countries. My American friend introduced me to the sport and I immediately became a huge fan of the Philadelphia Eagles. I first initiated American football when I was in sixth grade and fell in love with it. Finland has a professional league, other minor leagues and even junior leagues. The Finnish people like to play and watch American football. Some American players play in the major league of Finland.
When was American football introduced to Mongolia?
As I heard, in around 1990, Mongolians were starting to become familiar with the sport, but somehow, were mistaking it for baseball since both sports were from the USA. People now know the sport pretty well by its oval shaped ball and extraordinary equipment, like helmet and big shoulder pads. Super Bowl, the annual championship game of the National Football League (NFL), is quite familiar to Mongolians as well. The Mongolian American Football Association has held an annual meeting for about 150 American football fans to watch Super Bowl together since it was established.
Tell us more about Independence Bowl.
The Independence Bowl was first held in 2011 and took a long break. From 2018, it became an annual tournament, and on August 16, 2020, we successfully held Independence Bowl IV. The amateur American flag football tournament included 50 athletes and six of them were female. People of all ages, female and male, are welcome to join our community. Statistically, most of the players were 18 to 25 years old, including two foreign players from the USA and Turkey. These two regularly attend the tournament. The youngest player was 14 and oldest was 34. Five teams competed in this year’s Independence Bowl and Songinokhairkhan Mustangs became the champions over Baganuur Tigers, Murun Elks, Bayanzurkh Snow Leopards and Bayangol Hawks. B.Otgonpurev was named as Best Offensive Player and I.Stearns as Best Defensive Player, while O.Byambajargal was named as Best Female Player. The founders of the association invests in the tournament to develop the sport based on their love for it, and we also collect some money from players as entrance fee.
For you, what is the attraction of the sport?
The newness of the sport is attracting Mongolians, I think. The way the players look and the motion of the game is very attractive. A lot of Mongolians watch NBA and that gives them a glimpse of American sports culture. According to that, people are getting interested in other American sports and one of them is American football. Some 15 percent of Independence Bowl athletes used to live abroad and was introduced to American football, while the other 85 percent were recently introduced and are coming over from another sport. We have wrestlers, basketball players and a professional football player. I recognized that if someone loves those sports, they will certainly love American football, especially flag football.
Is there any chance for Mongolians to compete in the Flag
Football World Championship?
The International Federation of American Football holds the Flag Football World Championship every two years. Yes, Mongolia has a chance to be a part of the championship and we can immediately form a national team and practice. However, the problem is money. As I mentioned before, the association lacks financial support and it’s almost fully funded by the founders. We will need a certain amount of money to efficiently represent our country in the World Championship or other international tournaments. I think we can be good contenders on the world stage.
What is the Mongolian American Football Association currently doing for the development of the sport?
We were planned a lot of works before the COVID-19 outbreak locked everything. We were contacting secondary schools to introduce American flag football as part of their physical education program. Works like holding a practice on Saturdays for students to showcase and make them try the sport was planned, but the pandemic hit.
I assume that the association didn’t give up on the plan and will make it work when schools restart, right?
Yes, indeed. We will never give up. Introducing the sport among teenagers and youth is very important for its development. Adults can’t fully dedicate their time to it. On the other hand, youth have a lot of time and there aren’t many ways to spend their free time productively or healthily, and flag football can be one of the best options. It gives players a chance to overcome their physical limits and improves their reflexes and reaction. Also, it will teach them teamwork abilities since it is the most important thing of the sport. The quarterback becomes the head of the team and receivers become arms and legs. People can meet new people and make friends by joining our trainings and the tournament. Our community is like a family to each other. Flag football is always considered as top contender to join the Olympic Games, however, it lacks attendance and audience. Rugby sevens became part of the Summer Olympics in 2016, so I hope that in the near future, flag football will become an Olympic sport and the government and authorities will start to recognize that we need to support it.
How popular is flag football?
It is barely known to Mongolians. People know regular American football and they see it as an intense sport that requires a lot of physical contact. Almost every parent and our family were worried about us, thinking that we might get injured because they don’t know what exactly flag football is. The biggest problem for recruiting younger players is convincing parents that flag football doesn’t require physical contact like American football. Actually, according to statistics, injury rate of the American football is surprisingly low comparing to basketball and football, even though it is based on contact thank to the
Tell us more about the future plans of your association?
We are currently planning to hold a junior tournament for players under 18 to demonstrate and promote flag football for younger communities. Also, tournaments for people under 25 and over 30 will be held next year and it will be an interesting experience for us. Touch football (with half-contact) tournament is also planned. American national, player and certified coach Ian Stearns is contacting his American friends to hold a regular American football tournament in Mongolia next summer, after border lockdowns are lifted. Ian and his friends are discussing to provide equipment like helmets and shoulder pads for players. In October, some players will attend online classes for referees and coaches, held by the International Federation of American Football and USA Football NPO. These organizations are very eager to come to Mongolia and hold training camps for us and contacts our association every year. However, again, we don’t have enough finance to
host the training camp. Coach Ian Stearns announced that he is launching Mongolia’s First Tackle Football Program and newly recruiting national wrestlers and rugby players to it, and many flag football players are joining the program. The program also provides class for certified coaches and referees.
Is there any organization that supports your association’sactivity?
The Embassy of the USA in Mongolia supports us by promoting the tournament. Actually, this year two
teams from the embassy were supposed to join the tournament, but couldn’t make it due to business matters.
The US ambassador sometimes visits and joins our training at the National Garden Park. Also, American School of Ulaanbaatar provides their football field for us in summer and Independence Bowl IV was supposed to be held there, however, we decided to hold it at Khairkhan Development Center near Chingeltei Mountain for various reasons.
How can people contact you or join the training?
There is a Facebook page named “Mongolian American Football Association” and we regularly post schedules and date for trainings. People of every age, male and female are welcome to join the training. We play American football every Sunday, currently at American School of Ulaanbaatar. Everyone reading this article is invited to the training.