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In Sumo's Push for the Olympics, a Turn Away From Tradition

Yoshikazu Tsuno/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
OSAKA, JAPAN — For years, promoters of sumo have been pushing for the sport’s inclusion in the Olympic Games.

The sumo wrestler Miki Satoyama, right, threw her opponent during the heavyweight class of the Japan women’s sumo championships in Sakai city, in southern Osaka on Oct. 3

To get there, the International Sumo Federation has thrown its weight behind a form of the game that would offend purists and surprise most everyone else: women’s sumo.

When the International Olympic Committee declared in 1994 that single-sex sports could no longer qualify as candidates for the Games, that was enough to turn tradition that featured giant men with topknots shoving each other in a ring on its head. Since then, sumo has been coming into its own internationally as an equal opportunity sport.

Such a radical change to Japan’s ancient national sport did not come easy, and the initial push came from outside the country. Among those who lobbied the I.F.S., as the sumo federation is commonly known, was Stephen Gadd, the general secretary of the European Sumo Union and president of the Netherlands Sumo Federation.

Men’s sumo first started gaining a following internationally in the mid-1980s as part of a campaign by Japan to spread its culture internationally. More than a decade later, women’s sumo started gaining followers as the I.F.S., which oversees 87 member nations, started pushing for a women’s version of the sport.

“We held the very first women’s sumo tournament with the European Championships in 1996,” he said. “After that, it really took off in Europe.”

For Japanese women, their biggest hurdle came from a stigma that can be traced back to the 18th century, when, as entertainment for men, topless women sumo-wrestled blind men. Though this lewd variety eventually faded away in the mid-20th century after being banned repeatedly, a little-known ceremonial form has continued in regional festivals.

So when the Women’s Sumo Federation was set up in Japan in 1996, Japanese women were hardly clamoring to get involved, given the common belief that women just do not do sumo. After all, they had always been kept out of legitimate competition because of the sport’s cardinal rule: Women cannot touch or enter the sacred wrestling ring, the “dohyo,” lest they contaminate it with their “impurity.”

“In the professional sumo world,” said Gadd, “women in sumo is as unthinkable as a rabbi sponsoring a pork farm.”

But along with the rise of amateur sumo abroad, women’s sumo in Japan has been making strides. “A growing number of women are involved, certainly in the hundreds,” said Katrina Watts, president of the Australian Sumo Federation and a stadium announcer for sumo events, including the World Championships. “I’d say it’s a good sport for women because it’s a body contact sport without being violent.”

However, in Japan, Shinsaku Takeuchi, head of the Women’s Sumo Federation, said that in recent years women had been getting better and tougher. “Women’s sumo is becoming even more vicious than the men’s,” he said.

Nowadays, girls can even go to high school or college on a sumo scholarship. There are women-only tournaments, like the All-Japan Women’s Sumo Championships, which took place this month in Osaka. Takeuchi organized the event where 40 of the top sumotori in the country gathered for the 15th edition.

Takeuchi explained that what set amateur sumo apart from professional was the inclusion of gender and weight classes and the removal of the religious ceremonies, which are still very much a part of men’s professional sumo. Amateur sumo has also been spared the recent scandals that have tainted professional sumo in Japan.

Originally performed as a Shinto ritual to entertain the gods so they would bestow a good harvest, the sport dates back well over a thousand years. It is a trial of strength in which 48 techniques may be employed to throw an opponent off balance so he steps out of the ring or falls to the ground. A match begins with a head-on collision, followed by a wild fit of shoving, lifting, throwing, tripping, slapping, yanking or any combination thereof. It is often over in less than 10 seconds but can last a minute or more.

Yuka Ueta, 18, was the strongest wrestler of the tournament. At 125 kilograms, or 275 pounds, she plowed her way through five matches in the open weight class.

In August, competing among the world’s top sumo wrestlers, she won a bronze medal at the Sportaccord Combat Games in Beijing, her best showing yet at an international tournament. But at the World Championships over the weekend in Warsaw, she did not fare as well, placing fifth in the open weight class. Ueta got into sumo at age 10 when she was encouraged to give it a try.

Though Japanese women make up the greatest number of participants, Europeans tend to dominate, which was the case in Warsaw. East Europeans won gold medals in three out of four divisions, and the only Japanese medalist of the tournament was the lightweight Yukina Iwamoto, who took a silver medal, losing to Alina Boykova of Ukraine.

As for the battle to make it into the Olympics, Gadd says the best chance is if Japan hosts the 2020 games. “Getting into the Olympics will give sumo the push it needs to become a major international sport,” he said.

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