During the 2008 Beijing Olympics Mongolia won two gold medals. The first gold was Mongolia’s first ever, coming in the heavyweight division of Judo, a very respectable sport and division for a country’s first gold. The medal came a few weeks after the infamous parliamentary elections that spurred on a riot that left 5 people dead and the ruling MPRP headquarters and parts of the Cultural Palace smoldering.

I was living in Ulaanbaatar at the time, and the weeks between the riot and the gold medal were the most depressing I have experienced here. I think everyone was in a dark place, and the riot raised a lot of troubling questions about where Mongolia was heading. Mongolians, like Americans, are generally blindly, incurably, and, dare I say it, endearingly proud of every aspect of their country, and the riot cast doubt on whether that pride would be justified going forward.

The gold medal was a shot in the arm. An elixir. A grand national event that reminded everyone that being Mongolian was actually still pretty awesome. The image that sticks in my mind from that time was seeing Prime Minister Bayar and then Member of Parliament Elbegdorj (now president) standing on the steps of the parliament building in front of thousands of cheering people waving Mongolian flags. Both were very clearly intoxicated and ecstatic to be Mongolian, along with everyone on Sukhbaatar square. The image sticks in my mind because just weeks earlier they were both on national television leveling recriminations against each other as a riot raged. I am not Mongolian, but I could appreciate the significance of the gold medal bringing two political rivals together to celebrate what everyone could agree on that night: Mongolia is back, baby! It was a gigantic catharsis the entire country needed.

As an American, I also unfortunately got to hear some of the cynicism from other non-Mongolians who thought the celebration of the medal was a bit extreme. I took each time a random person on the street walked up to me and did the “we’re number one” index finger gesture in my face in stride and actually kind of enjoyed being an unofficial representative of the rest of the world in the course of the celebrations. Others were just annoyed by it. I remember one American colleague saying something like “big deal, our country has hundreds of gold medals.” This comment made me sad to hear, because it kind of missed the immediate point that Mongolia was finally beginning to heal. This was something that anyone living in Mongolia should have been happy to witness. It also missed the bigger point that winning medals is actually a pretty rare thing for most countries, and winning gold medals is even rarer.

I felt pretty lucky to get to be a part of that moment in Mongolian history. In terms of national emotional importance, I think it ranks with the US hockey team defeating the USSR at Lake Placid in 1984. For the US the victory meant a lot more than just the competition itself. It was a defining moment in the national history that produced justifiable bursts of pride. Mongolia’s first gold medal was much the same.