Heavy weight, high hopes and long traditions

Wrestling counts amongst the oldest forms of human physical exercises and appears in various cultures under different forms. First figures of wrestlers date about 4000 years back, and are visible on ancient Egyptian frescoes. In Greek Antiquity, the activity was particularly popular and an important component of the Olympiad. Centuries later, at the first Games of the modern era in 1896, wrestling with unified rules belonged again to the programme.  

Sumō, Japan’s national sport, is a form of wrestling or, more accurate, grappling. It is said to have originated in contests of strength between gods recorded in the ancient history Kojiki and is similar to the Korean Ssireum and the Mongolian Boke. However, it is distinguished through two main elements: the dohyō, a ring with 4.55 metres in diameter and mawashi, a belt. The ring is not only a circle surrounding the participants, but also a boundary, which’s overstepping results in a loss. Furthermore, it is a symbolic barrier, and women are strictly prohibited to enter. The belt is a source of leverage for the opponent, allowing to apply different throwing techniques. Both of the elements exist in similar forms in other types of wrestling, yet their combination makes the Japanese activity distinctive. Sumō is both a performance and sport and counts many rituals like purification with salt, hand gestures, ring entering ceremonies, bows and feet stomping, most of which find their origins in Shintōism. 

The governing body of professional sumō is the Japan Sumō Association. Since 1958, six honbasho (Grand Sumō Tournament) are held each year. Three in Tōkyō (January, May & September), one respectively in Ōsaka (March), Nagoya (July) and Fukuoka (November). The tournaments run for 15 days, beginning and ending on a Sunday. The rules of sumō as a sport are rather simple: the wrestler who first exits the ring or touches the ground with any other part of his body than the soles of his feet loses. Rikishi (professional wrestlers) are often rather young and have chosen to dedicate their lives since an early age. Each wrestler has one match per day and tournaments start in the morning with the jonokuchi (lowest rank), gradually proceeding to jonidansandanmemakushita, jūryō and makuuchi, category that includes the ōzeki (highest rank) who precede the final bout of the yokozuna (Grand Champion) at around 6pm.

Female sumō is practiced, albeit only accepted as an amateur activity. Notably with the documentary, “Little Miss Sumō,” published in 2018 and since autumn 2019 available on Netflix, the female activity recently receives the more and more attention.

There exists an abundant amount of literature about sumō, and I have hardly even a small knowledge of the activity, its history and its significance in Japanese culture. Naively, I primarily related wrestlers to rather flabby, huge bodies and heavy weight. However, attending for the first time a tournament made me conscious not only about competitors’ dexterity and flexibility but also about their physical and especially their mental strength. Sitting on my zabuton (Japanese cushion) in a traditional 4-people masu seki (box seat in a small square of tatami mat), sipping some tasty beer while chatting and watching wrestlers competing was for sure a very pleasant, yet also a highly instructive experience. 

The fight in-between two wrestlers begins with the so-called niramiai, a prolonged war of nerves in which the combatants size each other up. During this time, they have to maintain their concentration and try to read the opponent’s intent. Many sumō wrestlers and experts believe that one can break the other simply by staring him down at this point. Niramiai lasts often longer than the physical battle that is carried out over few seconds.

The Sumō Association officially recognises 70 moves that fall into four categories: throws, trips, bending and twisting. Almost all moves apply yotsu-zumō and tsukioshi-zumō. Yotsu-zumō entails the use of the mawashi belt to lift and throw an opponent out of the ring whereas tsukioshi-zumō involves pushing and thrusting. The longer a match lasts, the more important yotsu-zumō becomes. There are no weight restrictions or classes, which implies that significant physical disproportions can appear. So, on the fourth day of the 2020’s first tournament, the audience had to witness how the 168cm small and 98kg light Japanese wrestler Enhō Akira got carried away by 191cm tall and 178kg heavy Georgian Tochinoshin Tsuyoshi, whilst kicking his legs like a helpless child. The way how each wrestler uses his body is very different and shows the subtle balance in-between weight and speed. Although starting off well with an adroit move, once Enhō’s adversary succeeded to grab him by his belt, there was strictly nothing he could do. 

Olympic martial arts include boxing, karate, taekwondo, wrestling, jūdō and fencing that will all be figuring in Tōkyō 2020. Karate, which originated in Okinawa during the Ryūkū Dynasty period spread out throughout Japan during the 1920s and over the globe after World War II. Karate’s application to be part of the Olympic programme dates back to the 1970s. Though, it was only in 2016, after the Tōkyō 2020 Organising Committee’s proposal for inclusion that it was approved as part of the Games, but it is not foreseen to be on the list for Paris 2024. 

During the 133rd International Olympic Committee session meeting held in Buenos Aires in October 2018, the International Sumō Federation (IFS) has been granted full recognition. The decision to be officially upgraded from provisional to full recognition was made as a result of significant progress made by IFS in its institutional development in addition to the promotion and progress of the sport of sumō. The Association of IOC Recognised International Sports Federations (ARISF) lists sports that are recognised but not yet part of the Olympic programme. Although it is a first step in order to someday become part of the Games, numerous sports such as bandy, flying disc and netball have been recognised as Olympic sports without ever getting practiced at the event. Sumō had also been among the 26 sports to apply for inclusion on the Tōkyō 2020 programme, though without success. 

Regardless the non-inclusion at the home nation’s Games that may question sumō’s potential position within the Olympics, the sold out 11’098 capacity Ryōgoku Kokugikan arena last week left no doubt for me about the persistence of the archipelago’s long-lasting tradition in future.

I wish to express my deep gratitude for having been given the opportunity to make the above-mentioned experience. 

Sumō wrestlers forming a circle around the gyōji (referee) in the dohyō-iri (ring-entering ceremony) 15/01/2020 © Louise Claire Wagner

Sumō wrestlers forming a circle around the gyōji (referee) in the dohyō-iri (ring-entering ceremony) 15/01/2020 © Louise Claire Wagner

Sold out 11’098 capacity Ryōgoku Kokugikan arena 15/01/2020 © Louise Claire Wagner

Throwing salt, Tochinoshin Tsuyoshi (L) & Enhō Akira (R) 15/01/2020 © Louise Claire Wagner

Getting prepared, Tochinoshin Tsuyoshi (L) & Enhō Akira (R) 15/01/2020 © Louise Claire Wagner

Approaching each other, Tochinoshin Tsuyoshi (L) & Enhō Akira (R) 15/01/2020 © Louise Claire Wagner

Grabbing the belt, Tochinoshin Tsuyoshi (R) & Enhō Akira (L) 15/01/2020 © Louise Claire Wagner

Carried away… 15/01/2020 © Louise Claire Wagner

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