Sumo an Olympic sport? Sport’s future looks bright after Tokyo Games

    corrections and clarifications: an earlier version of this story misidentified the state of hakuho sho. he is an active fighter.

    In July, two of sumo wrestling’s best competitors went head to head in the final of the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament: Hakuho Sho took on Terunofuji Haruo.

    Reading: Is sumo wrestling in the olympics

    ask justin kizzart, member from the united states. sumo federation, about the match and will tell you that it was a battle between the michael jordan of sumo and the ultimate underdog story in terunofuji, who spent two years recovering from knee injuries. both entered the championship with perfect 14-0 records, but in the end, it was the veteran hakuho who emerged victorious, capturing his 45th Emperor’s Cup.

    From the moment the two first made contact in the middle of the canvas until Hakuho threw Terunofuji to the ground, only about 20 seconds had passed. but in sumo wrestling, that can seem like an eternity.

    hakuho was supposed to have one last hurrah after the olympic games closing ceremony, but the post-olympic tournament was cancelled. competing in the games has been a lifelong dream for hakuho, after watching his father fight for mongolia at the 1964 tokyo games, but this is the closest he will ever come to competing in the olympics.

    Yokozuna-ranked, or grand champion, sumo wrestler Hakuho (front L) receives the championship trophy at the awards ceremony after beating ozeki-ranked wrestler Terunofuji, both originally from Mongolia, to finish with a perfect 15-0 record for his 45th career tournament championship.

    In 2018, sumo wrestling was recognized as a sport by the International Olympic Committee, but it is not yet an event at the Games. It’s not for lack of trying: the uniquely Japanese sport has spread beyond the country’s borders, and two of its top wrestlers listed above are actually Mongolian.

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    sumo is now popular in places like ukraine, russia and egypt. It is also slowly finding its place in the United States, where an American style of sumo has developed. For Kizzart and his USSF teammate Joshua Clements, it was love at first sight when they were introduced to the sport and it’s because of what they saw, coming from a martial arts background.

    “sumo can be extremely technical, but it is more technical in a primitive style than in a game of chess,” said clements. “It’s not chess. they’re not even ladies. you’re trying to use strength, speed, and strategy combined. it’s different in its sophistication, but it’s not different at first glance, which makes it a spectator-friendly sport.”

    Sumo wrestlers train at the Musashigawa Sumo Stable at Beppu, western Japan on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019. Sumo wrestling is a traditional Japanese sport.

    Clements has seen firsthand how much the sport can draw people in. Each year, his hometown of Atlanta hosts a Japan Festival, which draws in thousands of attendees. He said the last time they did a sumo demonstration it was in front of a packed crowd.

    so, as far as sumo wrestling becoming an olympic event is concerned, clements thinks it’s possible because of the presence of the fans. He knows the sport has fans, but he’s not sure about the financials or if there are enough international competitors to make a place in the Olympic lineup viable.

    sumo, or at least the Japanese arena for this sport, will be part of the olympic games. kokugikan stadium, the spiritual home of japan’s national sport, will host the boxing events of the tokyo games.

    in the united states, at most a dozen competitors from a handful of states, such as florida, texas, and california, will meet in tournaments. growing sumo is difficult, especially when there are still stereotypes about what athletes look like and the nature of the sport.

    “Here in America, we’re just trying to get people to get rid of the stigma of being just fat guys wrestling,” Kizzart said. “Yes, this sport is in more than 32 countries. yes this sport has men and women and yes this sport has different weight classes. Those are the three things we try to break the stigma of.”

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    ed suczewski, president of ussf, feels differently. He admits that he is usually on the lighter side of the sport, but he also appreciates the importance of athletes who fit that stereotype.

    “A lot of the sport is about big guys in mawashi [sumo loincloths] going up against each other, and I think that’s okay,” Suczewski said. “I never felt like I needed to say ‘oh well, there are lightweights’ to somehow legitimize the sport. But a lot of people might think they have to be big to compete.

    “anyone who says it’s just fat guys pushing each other, yeah they’re just watching the sport. but that’s like saying chess is just moving pieces around a board. there’s a lot more going on below the surface “.

    Pictures of famous sumo wrestlers hang from the rafters of Kokugikan Arena, mainly used for sumo wrestling tournaments but where boxing will take place during the Tokyo Olympics.

    Regardless, changing those views of sumo and growing the sport in the United States could start as early as next summer, when the World Games are hosted in Birmingham, Alabama. Kizzart said the World Games are like the Olympics for every athlete whose sport isn’t in the Olympics. That could be the next step toward growing sumo wrestling in the States.

    “I want the sport to be taken as seriously as football, baseball or wrestling,” Kizzart said. “I just wouldn’t like us to be behind the curve. a backward generation, because some of us are getting older.”

    clements echoed his friend’s sentiment, “we’re not doing this for a lot of money or whatever. we’re just doing this because we enjoy it. we love it, and we just want other people to see it and grow the sport ”.

    contact alyssa hertel at [email protected] or on twitter @alyssahertel.

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