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Tokyo 2020 Olympics: Lovlina Borgohain chases boxing history at home of sumo wrestling

Lovlina has assured herself of a bronze medal by making it to the semifinals in welterweight. But the 23-year-old has set her sights on gold.

Written by Mihir Vasavda |
Updated: August 4, 2021 8:04:01 am
Lovlina BorgohainLovlina Borgohain will attempt to go where no other Indian boxer has been before. (File)

WHEN SHE strides out of the tunnel at the Kokugikan Arena Wednesday, Lovlina Borgohain will attempt to go where no other Indian boxer has been before.

Street-smart and daring, Lovlina has assured herself of a bronze medal by making it to the semifinals in welterweight. But the 23-year-old has set her sights on gold. And she knows that against Turkey’s Busenaz Surmeneli, her aggressive world champion opponent, it will require a sumo-sized performance — in an arena that is home to Japanese sumo wrestling.

Driving through downtown Tokyo, past the bay area, crisscrossing some of the stadiums that resemble sci-fi movie sets, you reach the old city’s sumo-obsessed neighborhood of Ryogoku.

It is a world unto itself. The sprawling six-lane highway converges into a narrow two-way lane dotted by restaurants, which sell ‘yokozuna burgers’, on one side and sumo stables, similar to akharas across Haryana, on the other. There’s graffiti of sumo wrestlers through the street, museums and shops that sell posters with touts looking to make a quick buck.

Towards the end, a tiny gate opens up to the shrine-like Kokugikan Arena. “This is the home of Japanese sumo wrestling,” says Yoshitaka Tsuchiya, who works with the Nihon Sumo Kyokai, Japan’s sumo association.

Japanese sumo wrestling history has been written and rewritten for decades at this venue, which has been transformed into a boxing arena for the Olympics.

It’s a daunting arena, even though it is largely empty during bouts. Portraits of 32 rikishis (professional sumo wrestlers) hang from the roof, bearing down on the boxers in this bull-ring style arena with bright red interiors.

Somewhere underneath the ring where the boxers spar is the “dohyo”, a pit made of clay and rice straw bales in which the sumos wrestle. A roof similar to that of a Shinto shrine, which is raised during a sumo match, has given way to a giant steel frame.

Tsuchiya says sumo wrestling is more than just brute force and big bellies. “It’s an art, a sport steeped in rich tradition,” he says. “For instance, before entering the pit, the wrestlers throw salt on it. We believe throwing salt brings good fortune. They have been doing this since the Edo dynasty, for 170-180 years.”

During a sumo wrestling tournament, known as “honbashos”, the stadium looks vastly different. Spectators have to remove their shoes, sit on the floor in the giant box seats, and chomp on “yakitori” — similar to a chicken lollipop — along with beer.

“Yakitori is a signature dish on the menu during a honbasho,” Tsuchiya says. “Chicken walks on two legs. And during a sumo wrestling match, if you put your hands on the ground, you lose. You have to be on both your feet at all times. So it is believed that two-legged animals can bring good fortune.”

Outside the arena, the “two-legged” bird is sold everywhere. Not in the form of “yakitori” but as a stew that Tsuchiya says is called “chankonabe”. It forms the main part of a sumo wrestler’s diet. Their training begins on empty stomachs, followed by a midday meal consisting of up to 10 bowls of rice, beer, and “chankonabe”. The wrestlers are encouraged to sleep after lunch, and another big meal is offered at night.

The official sumo tournament takes place every year. In fact, professional wrestling matches took place just before the Olympics as well and were attended by “thousands of fans”.

Kokugigan hosts three or four “honbashos” every year and the portrait of the winner goes up on the walls of the stadium.

“For the rest of the year, the arena is used for a lot of different purposes,” Tsuchiya says. “The most interesting event recently was a Paul McCartney concert and before that, a fashion show. The venue also hosts pro wrestling and boxing matches, basketball games, and gymnastics and table tennis events.”

For Lovlina then, the jab at history will come inside an arena steeped in it.

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