Living in the clean-cut days of sumo wrestling

Pathikrit Sen Gupta
While the annual spring sumo wrestling tournament is on, Japanese authorities are looking to sanitise the sport following a series of controversies

From a distance, you spot two chubby, bum-baring babies in diapers, locked in affectionate embrace. Move closer and the little ones promptly begin to grow on you, ending up as two 160-kilo mountains of lard crashing down on each other like greased lightning.

The 15-day Spring Grand Sumo Tournament is on in Japan and there's a weight of expectations on the portly participants. The sport has been hit by a barrage of controversies including violence, match-fixing, sexism and even hygiene. Experts also feel that the wrestlers' bodies have reached a critical limit, leading to more injuries.

The typical weight of those in the makuuchi division €" the top among six €" went up from 125 kg at the 1969 New Year tournament to more than 150 kg at the 1991 summer meet. It capped 160 kg at the 2012 autumn tournament. Wrestlers attempt to gain weight in a bid to attain a body mass that cannot be easily tipped over. Kisenosato Yutaka, the only Japanese yokozuna (grand champion) at the time, was hit by a left-arm-and-chest injury in the 2017 spring tournament and subsequently had a string of events he either pulled out of or missed.

Japanese sumo officials last month banned the rikishis, or wrestlers, from growing beards. This is unlikely to have much of a deescalating effect on their weight, but the move €" which also outlawed long nails and tattoos €" is aimed at sanitising the sport. Many superstitious sumo combatants choose not to shave their beards during competition, believing that such a step would bring bad luck.

"Wrestlers must preserve their personal hygiene," Japan Sumo Association elder Oguruma told reporters after a board meeting. "Officials and referees will be on the lookout. The sumo ring is sacred and its important spectators don't see anything unsightly."

Sumo has been around in one form or another since before the dawn of written history in Japan, but many experts and enthusiasts feel the current Heisei Era has perhaps seen more noteworthy change than any other period in the past 2,000 years. The sport has, in that time, anointed its first-ever foreign yokozuna, grappled with major scandals, visited numerous countries and witnessed its popularity abroad rise exponentially.

Since 1958, six Grand Sumo tournaments have been held each year. Women are traditionally considered polluting and barred from entering the dohyo, or ring. Last year, a referee ordered out of the ring several women who had rushed to offer first aid to the local mayor after he collapsed during a speech.

Wrestlers have to follow a strict regimen. They are not normally allowed to eat breakfast and are advised to have a form of siesta after a massive lunch when they are served the traditional meal of chankonabe, which is a hotpot of various fish, meat, and vegetables cooked at the table. It is usually eaten with rice and washed down with beer.

The form of combat transformed gradually into one where the main aim in victory was to throw one's opponent. The model of pushing the rival out of a defined area came later. Bouts comprise a single round and often last just a few seconds, as frequently a rikishi is swiftly ejected from the circle or thrown to the ground. Each match is preceded by an ostentatious ceremonial ritual. There are no weight classes in professional sumo and a participant could be confronted with an opponent twice his weight.

Hawaiian wrestler Akebono's ascension to sumo's highest rank 25 years ago may have been the Heisei Era's most momentous sporting moment. Since the 1900s, the number of foreign-born rikishis has steadily risen and in more recent years they have even come to dominate in the highest ranks.

The sport's lowest point was in 2007. Takashi Saito, a 17-year-old junior sumo wrestler who fought under the shikona (ring name) of Tokitaizan, collapsed and died after a training session at Tokitsukaze stable's lodgings.

His stable master, Jun'ichi Yamamoto, admitted to beating the novice, due to his "disrespect" of the sport. He and three others were arrested and jailed while officials cracked down on hazing, but violence continues to plague sumo.

In 2011, a probe by Japanese authorities into allegations of baseball gambling by sumo wrestlers and officials led to cellphone text messages indicating that matches had been fixed, with over a dozen rikishis and stablemasters involved. Finally, 23 wrestlers were judged guilty of match-fixing and all of them were expelled.

While a clean-up act has been on with scrutinising eyes on the spring tournament, to safeguard its future, sumo needs to embrace change. And evaluate who it wants to allow into the dohyo.

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