When an “ordinary Mongolian herdsman” defied a torn ACL to fight for Olympic glory

The people of Mongolia had been waiting a long time for a gold medal-winning hero and, in judoka Tuvshinbayar Naidan, they found a man worthy of every accolade. Four years after “healing his nation” by securing a first-ever Olympic crown, Naidan simply refused to be beaten by serious injury.

Tuvshinbayar Naidan

Nothing and nobody were going to stop judoka Tuvshinbayar Naidan from taking to the tatami at London 2012 for his second successive half-heavyweight men’s Olympic final.

Four men had tried and failed to stand in his way. And then, driven by desperate concern for his long-term well-being, those nearest and dearest to him pleaded with the Mongolian to take the silver in the -100kg event and forfeit the gold-medal match.

Almost all the coaching staff and my family members were against me taking part in the final. They were taking care of my health. Tuvshinbayar Naidan

But the man himself was having none of it. Even if he did have a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee.


At this point it is worth considering the journey Naidan had already been on. Born to a family of nomadic herders on the Great Steppe in central Mongolia, Naidan grew up wrestling and was 18 when he tried judo for the first time, after seeing the Asian Championships on television. He was instantly hooked. Within five years, he was not only competing at International Judo Federation World Cup events; he was climbing onto the podiums.

A year later, he arrived at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 as a fresh-faced, compact, 1.78m-tall judoka full of belief if not experience. First, he faced Athens 2004 heavyweight gold medallist Keiji Suzuki from Japan, most people’s favourite to win the half-heavyweight title in China. A big opponent but no big problem for Naidan, who registered an ippon just one minute and 26 seconds into the bout. In fact, he waltzed through to the final barely touched.

Once there, he faced Kazakhstan’s Askhat Zhitkeyev, and the weight of history. Mongolia joined the Olympic family in 1964 and, in their 10 Summer Games appearances prior to Beijing 2008, the nation’s athletes had claimed 15 medals but no golds. The opportunity was too good for Naidan to miss.

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“It was my great honour and privilege, as the son of an ordinary herdsman, to [claim] the first Olympic [gold] medal for my motherland, a country with a population of three million,” Naidan said. “The whole nation celebrated proudly the first Olympic gold medal on 14 August 2008. The sport-loving Mongolian people had expected it for 44 years since our first [Summer Games] appearance at the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games, and I am extremely happy I could fulfil the golden dreams of the Mongolian people.”

In the delirious aftermath of Naidan’s heroics, the international media made much of the fact that Mongolia’s historic first gold had “healed a nation”. It was, according to Naidan, true.

“Political riots and demonstrations had been disturbing the situation in the Mongolian capital city [Ulaanbaatar] since the parliamentary elections on 1 July 2008. A curfew had even been imposed due to the instability,” explained Naidan, whose barrier-breaking gold medal was followed 10 days later by another, this time for Mongolian bantamweight boxer Enkhbatyn Badar-Uugan.

“But brilliant success and an Olympic gold medal healed the nation and brought true peace, joy and satisfaction, and swept away the black shadow of political turmoil.”

While Mongolia bathed in his success, Naidan had to overcome a serious right-knee injury aggravated by his efforts in Beijing. After surgery, he fought his way slowly back to health. In July 2010, he finally won his first World Cup gold, taking the title in Ulaanbaatar. Two more World Cup wins followed in 2011, and he arrived in London in 2012 with one thought: to defend his longed-for Olympic crown.

But, this time, the stars did not quite align. The right-knee injury had forced Naidan to put more pressure than felt natural on his left leg, using it as a main offensive weapon. Agonisingly, it gave way in his semi-final versus the Republic of Korea’s Hwang Hee-Tae. Even eight years later, Naidan is not overplaying the severity of the injury when he labels it a “terrible moment”.

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The then 28-year-old was heard screaming in pain by those inside London’s ExCel Centre. He had to be carried from the field of play by his coach. The agony was so intense that Naidan reportedly failed to even recognise his father. No one who witnessed any of this was in any doubt: the defending champion would not be back for the final later that day. It was impossible for anyone to conceive. Anyone but the defending champion, of course.

“I took the decision after careful discussion with the President of the Mongolian Judo Federation,” Naidan explained. “I fully understood that I had to overcome only five minutes of the hardest match [possible] to reach the top of the Olympics again and I could forget my injury, whatever it was.

“So, I went to the final bout to fight without any hesitation.”

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There he stood, a man on one leg, facing Russia’s 2011 world champion Tagir Khaibulaev.

“I stood up firmly to win,” Naidan said. “I felt that Tagir was very nervous. My tactic was to be calm and mysterious, with a strong fighting spirit.”

He was all that and much, much more. For two minutes, he defied all convention, but ultimately Khaibulaev had too much and eventually took the Mongolian warrior down by ippon. Naidan’s reign as Olympic champion was over, but not only had he won a worldwide legion of astonished admirers; he had also become the first Mongolian to win two Olympic medals.

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Naidan went on to appear at Rio 2016 and became a world championship bronze medallist in 2017 in the +100kg category. Now 36, he has served as an advisor to Mongolian President Khaltmaagiin Battulga since 2017, is the newly elected President of the Mongolia National Olympic Committee and is seeking a fourth Olympic appearance in Tokyo next year. Do not miss it if he qualifies; it is guaranteed to be box-office.

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