For the women’s basketball team of Mongolia three against three, two defeats but a track traced
It reflects how popular three-on-three basketball has become in the Central Asian country of 3 million people, which has a long tradition of producing Olympians in individual sports such as wrestling, boxing and judo. Onolbaatar represents progress for women in Mongolia who want to thrive in team sports – she was the first female flag bearer in her country’s Olympic history at Friday night’s opening ceremonies – and hopes that playing in Tokyo will allow more girls to play.
“I just try to be a role model for them. Representing female athletes and Mongolian women in general on the biggest stage possible is simply breathtaking,” she said in an interview earlier in the week. “Basketball has exploded in the last five years. . . . Nowadays, three-on-three in our country is like a national sport. Everyone plays it. Everyone watches it on TV. This is really a big problem for us in Mongolia.
Making its debut on Saturday, three-on-three basketball offered something the Olympics had never seen: a brand of pickup of the sport with hip-hop beats playing in the background. The yard is smaller. The game is more physical than five against five, with fewer fouls called. This style of play attracts Onolbaatar and so many other Mongolian children to play the sport, she said.
“We are naturally made to be more resilient,” she said. “To be physically tough. Because our culture is nomadic, we would be ready to adapt to all possible situations. I think that helps us really well.
The craze for three-a-side basketball in Mongolia dates back to the early 2000s when children started playing in events held there, according to Myagmarjav Luvsandash, president of the Mongolian three-a-side basketball association. country. The continued interest over the past decade underscores FIBA’s desire to popularize the sport in remote locations. Other coaches have taken notice, including Kara Lawson, who took a U.S. national team to a three-on-three competition in Mongolia in 2019.
“We played right in the heart of Chinggis Khan Square [in the capital, Ulaanbaatar]. He was sold out every game. It was very loud,” Lawson said. “They really, really put a lot into the three-on-three in their country.”
This surge over the past decade has helped establish a popular men’s national team, which did not qualify for Tokyo but are considered one of the best in Asia. About 20,000 children play three-a-side in Mongolia, according to Luvsandash, who estimates half are girls.
“In the last 30 years since we became a democratic country, there are not so many sports for girls to practice, learn and play but, of course, in the streets, basketball”, Luvsandash said. “If you go to Mongolia and walk down the street, you see hoops everywhere. The children are playing.
Onolbaatar started the sport at the age of 18 after being inspired by her brother, national men’s team member Enkhbaatar Onolbaatar, but she wasn’t quite sure where to start.
She watched tutorials on YouTube and tried to model her game on that of her favorite NBA player, Stephen Curry. She joined her university’s three-on-three team and later the national team. She moved in with her teammates. They ran up the stairs of their building and trained on outdoor courts in the brutal winter cold. They sometimes trained in the steep mountains surrounding Ulaanbaatar, believing the elevation would help their stamina when playing against other teams.
There have been difficult times in the international game: Mongolia made their World Cup debut in 2019 but lost all four games in Amsterdam. The Mongols had more success in the 2019 Asian Cup, finishing fourth, and qualified for the Olympics through the world rankings. It was a watershed moment for women’s sport in the country and made the team instant stars.
“Young kids grow up and play basketball, and they watch it,” Luvsandash said. “These girls are now stars in Mongolia. [Onolbaatar’s] jersey sells online in Mongolia. It’s selling very well. Children buy it.
On the pitch, Mongolia lost their opening match in Tokyo in heartbreaking fashion. Facing a bigger Italian team, the Mongols missed a shot in the dying seconds and fell 15-14.
Against the United States, Onolbaatar attempted to follow Kelsey Plum, a WNBA star who has played basketball most of his life. With his team trailing 11-1 at the start, Onolbaatar, who is 5-foot-11, led the lane and tried to fight his way to the hoop. American center Stefanie Dolson, who is 6-5, met her at the edge and violently blocked the shot, and Onolbaatar dropped his shoulder and fouled Dolson in frustration.
When it was over, Onolbaatar finally flashed a smile as he walked out of the stadium, pausing in front of a TV to watch a replay. She pointed and mumbled something to her teammates. They all looked like they had won. Earlier in the week, Onolbaatar said she hopes girls from her country will watch the team play in Tokyo and feel inspired.
“I think I’m going to be a role model for them,” she said. “If I can train hard, believe in myself and reach this level, they have an opportunity too.”