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The Maasai Olympics: Replacing Hunting for Lions with Hunting for Medals

"This Maasai Olympics has been the greatest celebration of Maasai culture I have ever attended,” - Katoo Ole Metito (Maasai), Minister of Internal Security, Government of Kenya.

Lion Hunting: A Maasai Tradition

Lion hunting is a tradition in Maasai culture. In the past, hunting was used as an event to signify the transition of young men into manhood. Lion hunting was also a symbol of strength, vitality and prowess to attract females. However, over the years, the tradition of lion hunting has had a significant negative impact on the number of lions, rapidly decimating their population in Africa. Realizing the impact Maasai traditions were having on the lion population, they decided to change their culture for the better in 2012. WATCH: The Hunt for Medals, not Lions : The First Maasai Olympics. Source: The Big Life Foundation

Replacing Hunting for Lions with Hunting for Medals 

Rather than focusing their efforts on hunting lions, the Maasai people made the transition to focusing on sport competitions, creating the Maasai Olympics in 2012. The Maasai Olympics is an organised Maasai sports competition based upon traditional warrior skills.

It allows young men to compete for recognition, express their bravery, help identify future leaders, and to impress women. It was first held in 2012, was a raging success, and the event has continued to grow over the past few years. “In truth, this program is very successful, and we are now doing something honourable. We used to celebrate lion hunting, but this program has shown us a better celebration,” says Iltuati, Maasai Warrior, Amboseli-Tsavo Ecosystem. 

 Here are the highlights from the first event:

  • It was first held on December 22, 2012
  • It was first held in southern Kenya
  • 25 athletes from 4 warrior villages in the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem participated
  • The event is supported by the African Wildlife Foundation and local sponsors

The Events

There are six core events held as part of the Maasai Olympics. They are a combination of traditional running and throwing skill events, all skills that were previously used to hunt lions (running, herding, throwing). Events include:
  • Rungu throwing for accuracy
  • 200 meter sprint
  • Spear throwing for distance
  • 800 meter sprint
  • 5 kilometer run
  • High jump

Even though girls were not traditionally participants in lion hunting traditions, because of their role in the conservation of African lions and their support of warriors, competitions are now held for women on Olympics day.

Three Levels of Competition

While the Maasai Olympics takes place on a single day each year, it is actually a three phase event that plays out over the course of the year. Here are the three levels of competition

1. Local level competition: Warriors receives training in the events and compete to be selected to one of the four teams across the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem. As outlined on maasaiolympics.com, “Each will represent a warrior manyatta (village) that will host in aggregate 4000+ young men during their 12 to 15 years of warriorhood.”

2. Regional level competition: Teams compete against the other three manyattas of the ecosystem.

3. Olympics Day: This is the official Maasai Olympics event day. The events receive national coverage, and the event is attended by government, media, tourists and family. The four teams compete in six events for medals and prizes. The overall winners receive a trophy and prized bull.

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