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Still throwing their weight around

Despite sumo’s fall from grace among many Japanese,there are still fanatics who live and die by the matches

Published: February 8, 2009 11:04:50 am

Despite sumo’s fall from grace among many Japanese,there are still fanatics who live and die by the matches
Call it the red carpet treatment for lumbering men 300 pounds and up. Dressed in bright robes and slippers,hair gathered back in tight,elegant buns,the giant ones arrive—glaring at the average-sized humans around them with a withering smirk that says: “Out of my way. And don’t even think about asking for my autograph.”

They’re sumo wrestlers,who converged recently at a fabled Tokyo sports arena for one of the biggest body-tossing pageants of the season,the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament.

Despite sumo’s fall from grace among many Japanese—internal scandals,a lack of homegrown heroes and competition from sports imports including soccer—there are still fanatics who live and die by the matches.

Inside the arena,it still costs more than $100 a ticket. But out here,on the street,a glimpse or even a photo can be had for free. “The best spot is over there,” Hiroshi Miyata,70,said,jealously eyeing a place out of reach behind some pylons. “You can see them coming and going from there.”

The biggest luminaries arrive in limousines,out of public view,of course. They include Asashoryu,the sport’s bad boy and one of just two wrestlers bestowed with the top rank,“yokozuna”,who is defying his critics and unexpectedly leading this tournament. But the up-and-coming stars and a few former top-flight wrestlers arrive by taxi,private car,or take the short stroll in their slippers and colourful “yukatas” from the nearby subway.
Each is greeted with oohs and aahs by an adoring crowd that views these blubbery-looking men as modern-day samurai. Their bulk can disguise incredible swiftness. Sumo is a combustible mix of power and speed,marshalled for the explosive collisions in which wrestlers try to force each other out of the ring or bring any part of their opponent’s body other than their feet in contact with the ground.

Sumo is as much art form as sport,but its reputation has taken a battering in recent years. There have been allegations of pot smoking and match fixing. Sumo’s brutal disciplinary customs took a tragic turn two years ago when a young wrestler was beaten to death by several teammates after trying to quit the sport.
There also is some muttering about foreign wrestlers. Foreigners have won all but one tournament since 2003,and both Asashoryu and the other current yokozuna,Hakuho,are Mongolian.
Ikeya Yoshiko,65,said she sees the big wrestlers as overgrown boys who are polite to older women like her. While the heaviest can weigh nearly 600 pounds,they are nonetheless gentle souls,she said. “I wouldn’t be afraid of meeting one of them in a dark alley,” she said.
_ John M. Glionna,LATWP

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