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  • Writer's pictureJenny Carless

A New Face of Bravery: The Maasai Olympics

Updated: Mar 21, 2019

Among the Maasai of East Africa, it’s a centuries-old tradition that young warriors kill lions or other dangerous animals as a rite of passage to manhood. The more lions, the more important the warrior. It’s how the young men have proven their bravery, picked their leaders—and gotten the girls.

But life is changing on the savannas of Kenya and Tanzania in many ways—just one of which is that many Maasai communities have come to recognize that lion-killing has got to stop. There simply aren’t enough lions left. (According to Lion Guardians, about half of Africa’s lions have disappeared over the past 50 years or so.)

A video created exclusively for The Maasai Olympics project points out that if every warrior in the Maasailand killed a lion, there would be no more lions in the region. “You’re not living in a world like your fathers,” it tells the young men.

Led by Maasai elders and organized by the Big Life Foundation, The Maasai Olympics offers an alternative—a new rite of passage that will help protect Africa’s wildlife, which represents an important part of Maasai culture and, increasingly, a critical source of income (through tourism). The competition is part of a movement to help warriors understand how they can make their mark on history by taking a new path.

Conservation + Sports

The Maasai Olympics (first held in 2012) is a sports competition based on traditional warrior skills. According to the organizers, the idea came from the menye layiok (“father of the warriors”), who are elders and cultural leaders who teach young Maasai men what it means to be a warrior.

In 2008, the menye layiok of the latest warrior generation asked Maasailand Preservation Trust (now part of Big Life Foundation) to help spearhead a movement to eliminate lion hunting from their culture.

As a result, the organization partnered with the Maasai of Amboseli-Tsavo to conceive, administer and raise the funding for the first-ever Maasai Olympics.

The games take place in three stages: local, regional and Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem-wide, with the winners of the final (ecosystem-wide) games receiving significant prizes and beautiful trophies. For example, the winner of the 800-meter and 1,500-meter races are trained and then run in the New York Marathon, with all expenses paid. The group ranch with the highest number of points wins a breeding bull. Many participants receive cash awards. In 2014, the Mbirikani warrior manyatta (village) won the bull.

The final stage took place on Saturday, 13 December at Kimana Sanctuary in Kajiado, Kenya.

Competitions included:



Running (200 meters, 800 meters, 5000 meters and more)

High jump (jumping from a standing position in traditional Maasai style)

*Having done miserably when given the chance to throw a spear several years ago, I can attest to how hard this one is.

The year-long program also involves conservation education, drawing from an existing Big Life Foundation program. So the final games are the culmination of a year of conservation education blended with the sports training.

You may be wondering: “So, what about the girls?”

They are involved, too: They cheer on the warriors with the rest of the communities, of course—and they participate in the Olympics, too.

“As girls are often the motivators behind warriors wanting to hunt lions, they are also potential conservation advocates. Therefore the inclusion of girls in the education phase—and the inclusion of two competitions for girls on Olympics Day—are considered key components of this conservation project,” the organizers state.

The Maasai Olympics is a fantastic example of creative thinking about how to tackle conservation challenges, and I hope its success continues.

There are many ways to be brave. Facing a lion is one; retiring a centuries-old tradition in favor of a more appropriate one is another.

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