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Thursday, August 06, 2020

How the Covid pandemic has triggered a debate on the weight of sumo wrestlers

The death of a diabetic sumo wrestler (rikishi) from the virus in May has led to discussions about the diet and lifestyle of Japan's famous heavyweight wrestlers.

By: Explained Desk Written by Nihal Koshie | New Delhi | Updated: July 2, 2020 7:35:35 am
Sumo wrestling, sumo, Japan wrestling, rikishis, Shobushi, Sumo wrestling coronavirus, Sumo wrestlers health risks, Sandanme, Indian Express According to a report in the Japan Times, Shobushi “is thought to be the first person in the 20s to die from the virus in Japan”. He was also the first sumo wrestler to succumb to Covid-19.

Who is the rikishi who passed away?

Shobushi, who was just 28, died on May 13 because of multiple organ failure after he was found to be coronavirus positive . He was not a top professional sumo wrestler but was in the fourth-tier division, the ‘Sandanme’.

It started off as a fever in the first week of April, and Shobushi was admitted to the intensive care unit a fortnight later. Shobushi was one of seven wrestlers who tested positive from the Takadagawa stable. A stable is like an akhara in India, a place where wrestlers train and live.

According to a report in the Japan Times, Shobushi “is thought to be the first person in the 20s to die from the virus in Japan”. He was also the first sumo wrestler to succumb to Covid-19.

But why is there a debate on the diet of the rikishis?

Last week, the heaviest-ever rikishi, Anatoly Mikhakhanov, who weighed 292.2 kg just before he retired, was vocal about the ill-effects of eating to gain kilogrammes in the sport. Asahi Shimbun reported that Shobushi was diabetic and doctors cited “poor health” as one of the reasons for his death after testing positive for Covid-19.

Mikhakhanov is from the Republic of Buryatia near Serbia, and used the name ‘Orora’ when he was a sumo wrestler. After calling it a day in 2018, he returned to his home town and took it upon himself to improve his health. A year after adopting a fitness regimen of walking, having five small meals a day, and not eating after 7 pm, Mikhakhanov lost 100 kg.

“It’s never easy to stay healthy as long as you’re living the life of a sumo wrestler,” Mikhakhanov was quoted as saying by Asahi Shimbun. “You are the only person that can take care of you. Nobody in your sumo stable cares about you. It is true you cannot do training unless you eat. But there is no sense in ending up ill,” Mikhakhanov said.

When he was active, Mikhakhanov would have two huge meals a day, and would gulp down a crate of beer and 200 pieces of sushi before going to bed. He diagnosed with hypertension, and initially found it difficult to walk for short distances without aches and pains after his retirement.

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What is the diet of a rikishi?

Exercising while intermittent fasting is widely prescribed these days by some fitness experts, but the big men from Japan have been doing it for years. Though they start their day at dawn, the first meal they have is around noon. The first half of the day is spent in strenuous training and practice, which means they are very hungry when it is meal time.

The typical meal of a rikishi is the high-protein Chankonabe or Chanko, which is a broth of vegetables, including bok choy, fish, chicken, meat, mushroom, onions, and eggs. They also eat huge amounts of rice. They have large portions of Chanko twice a day and sleep shortly after each of these binge-eating sessions. The average calorie intake of a rikishi is between 7,000 and 10,000 a day (the calorie intake of an average human being is between 2,000 and 2,500).

There are no weight restrictions in sumo wrestling in Japan, and hence the aim is to get heavier as well as stronger and more flexible. Rikishis use their superior body weight and strength to push an opponent out of the ring or force any part of the body, other than the soles of feet, to touch the ring.

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OK, but does the fact that rikishis look obese mean they are prone to health issues?

Reports say Shobushi, who was still competing, was diabetic. However, it is unclear if this was because of his genes or his lifestyle. Previous research shows that a rikishi who is obese may still have excellent health parameters.

One of the studies done on the health of sumo wrestlers provides fascinating insight into the links between obesity and well-being in the sport. The widely quoted study by Yuji Matsuzawa, professor emiritus of Osaka University, ‘The role of fat topology in the risk of disease’, points to sumo wrestlers having less visceral fat (around organs including stomach and pancreas; known to increase risk of heart disease and stroke) as compared to an equally obese person.

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“Sumo wrestlers eat a high-energy diet (7,000 to 10,000 calories) to gain weight but at the same time they perform strenuous physical training daily. Although they show marked obesity and have markedly high waist circumference, the average ratio of visceral-to-subcutaneous fat (just below the skin) is 0.25 in young sumo wrestlers, which is comparable to subcutaneous obesity, and their glucose and lipid levels remain normal,” the study states.

Based on CT scan images of sumo wrestlers, the study states that sumo wrestlers have very little intra-abdominal visceral fat, with developed muscularity.

However, the study, published in the International Journal of Obesity, has warned that in retired wrestlers who don’t do as much physical activity, the chances of diabetes can increase if they continue to have the same high-calorie intake.

Does a rikishi face high stress while at a stable?

The life of a rikishi is hard, like Indian wrestlers who stay in akharas where there is a clear hierarchy between ‘senior’ and ‘junior’, and a guru-shishya tradition. A rikishi belongs to a stable where there is a stablemaster (Oyakata) who is the head. Stables also have a hairdresser (Tokoyama) as a rikishi must always keep his bun (Chonmage) in place.

The average age at which an aspiring rikishi can join a stable is 15. The budding wrestlers are expected to clean, cook and serve and usually get to eat last after the senior professionals (the seniormost is called Sekitori) finish.

A wrestler cannot join another stable, and has to remain with the same one until he retires. Wrestlers in the lower divisions are hardly paid, but once they climb up the ladder, money starts coming in. In the lower divisions, mobile phones cannot be used. There are also certain restrictions on a rikishi staying outside the stable with his wife.

Grand Champions, once they retire, have spoken about relentless beatings while at the stable. The death of a 17-year old sumo wrestler in 2007, according to multiple reports because of beatings at the stable, caused an uproar in Japan.

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