Africa

At the Maasai Olympics, the hunt is for medals, not lions

Updated 5:33 AM ET, Mon December 8, 2014
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For centuries, the Maasai tribes of southern Kenya have hunted lions.

This age-old tradition has a powerful and historic significance, representing the rite of passage from adolescence into manhood for young men within the tribes.

Lion hunting is also carried out for the practical purpose of protecting valuable livestock.

But with a sharp drop in the lion population and an increasing number of people living in the area -- which is also a popular and economically important Safari destination -- something had to be done to preserve the big cats as well as the customs of the Maasai people.

One of the solutions cobbled together by a collective of conservation and local elder groups is the Maasai Olympics.

Having made a successful debut in 2012, the second installment will take place in Sidai Oleng Wildlife Sanctuary, at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, on December 13, 2014.

By Eoghan Macguire, for CNN.
According to Samar Ntalamia, head of programs at East African conservation group the Big Life Foundation, the Maasai Olympics is part educational program, part cultural necessity.

"This series of events is intended to provide young men with an outlet for demonstrating physical prowess and leadership, where previously this was achieved through killing lions," Ntalamia said.

"It also provides a forum to engage and educate these young men and their communities around conservation issues."
Courtesy Big Life Foundation/Beverly Joubert
Competitors sprint towards the finish line at the 2012 Maasai Olympics.

"The most popular events for athletes and spectators are the high jump, the 200 meters and 800 meters races and the javelin," Ntalamia said.
Courtesy Big Life Foundation
A Maasai tribesman throws a rungu club at a target as part of the rungu throwing event. Courtesy Big Life Foundation
The first Maasai Olympics took place in 2012 and featured tribes from the Amboseli and Tsavo regions, which account for in excess of 100,000 people.

Educational films "There Will Always Be Lions" and "We Kill lions No More" were widely shown in communities in the run-up to and at the event itself.

According to Ntalamia, the lion population has increased in the two years since the Maasai Olympics was first held. However, this may not be just down to the effectiveness of the games' message.

Conservation schemes that encourage pastoralists not to kill lions when they attack their livestock by offering them financial compensation instead also have to be factored in, Ntalamia said.

This compensation program works in tandem with a participatory monitoring project called Lion Guardians.
Courtesy Big Life Foundation
The event itself features a total of six competitions which are primarily based on traditional Maasai warrior skills.

Track events for male competitors include the 200 meter, 800 meter and 5,000 meter run while field events consist of throwing a spear (javelin) for distance, throwing the rungu (a round-headed wooden Maasai club) for accuracy and the legendary warrior style Maasai vertical jump from a standing position (pictured).
Courtesy Big Life Foundation/Jeremy Goss
There are competitions for female competitors too, consisting of the 100 meters and 1,500 meters. Courtesy Big Life Foundation
"The Maasai women been very positively receptive and happily support the whole idea of the Maasai Olympics," Ntalamia explained.

"(It) has provided an opportunity for their sons (warriors) to not only escape lion injury and at times death when hunting lions, but this program has also provided an opportunity for their sons to play a role in the conservation of one of the key community resources -- wildlife.

"The program also presents opportunities for their sons to gain economically through winning of prizes, as well as opportunities for fame through sports," he added.
Courtesy Jeremy Goss/Big Life Foundation
Four warrior manyattas (warrior villages) from around the Amboseli ecosystem take part in the competitions.

The Ilkisonko sub-tribe of the Maasai is the predominant group in Amboseli and Tsavo, with numerous clans and sub clans. All take part in the competitions, Ntalamia said.
Courtesy Big Life Foundation
As well as the backing of local elder tribes, the Maasai Olympics also has the endorsement of popular local and national celebrities.

Here, Kenyan 800 meters gold medal winner at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, David Rudisha (himself a member of the Maasai ethnic group and patron of the Maasai Olympics) meets competitors.
Courest Big Life Foundation
"The role of a sports icon like David Rudisha in his capacity as patron is key to the message of an alternative to lion hunting in the Maasai culture," Ntalamia said.

Yet despite the high-profile backing, lion hunting still takes place the Amboseli ecosystem that straddles Kenya and Tanzania, he adds.

"When a lion kills a cow the warriors still reach for their spears, even though they might not follow through," Ntalamia explained. "Seeing your cow killed by a lion arouses great anger among the warriors who guard the cows. But we want them to disregard killing as an option."
Courtesy Big Life Foundation
Prizes on offer for successful competitors include medals as well as a cash purse. Courtesy Big Life Foundation/Nikki Best
The winner of the 5,000 meter event in 2012, meanwhile, was invited on an all-expenses paid trip to New York to compete in the city's 2013 Marathon.

A similar prize is on offer this year for the top athlete in the 5,000 meter and 800 meter events.
CourtesyBig Life Foundation/Beverly Joubert
On a more practical note, the most successful team will receive a prize breeding bull.

This may seem like an odd reward to those outside the Maasai community but Ntalamia said such a prize will provide a variety of benefits to the triumphant local community.
Courtesy Big Life Foundation
While December 13 marks the grand finale of the 2014 Maasai Olympics, the event has actually been underway since early August when local trials and qualifying began.

The message of an "alternative to lion hunting ... (has been relayed to) all the Maasai tribe in Kenya and Tanzania on whose land most of East Africa's wildlife parks and conservation areas are located" over the course of this time, Ntalamia said.
Courtesy Big Life Foundation/ Jeremy Goss
Mbirikani manyatta, the tribe that had the best cumulative results across all events in 2012 will be looking to defend their warriors crown come December 13. Courtesy Big Life Foundation