The sumo champion(橫綱), the sickie and the story that shook Japan
Mongolian-born Asashoryu has always cut a controversial figure in his adopted country. So the sight of him playing football when he was on sick leave, and rumours that he wants to retire, have caused uproar.
By David McNeill
Published: 07 August 2007
They thought he was indestructible. But now Japanese sumo fans are not so sure after it emerged that the national champion is seeing a psychiatrist to help him deal with the worst crisis of his career. Asashoryu, the Mongolian-born firebrand, is reportedly in such a fragile mental state that he wants to quit Japan and go home. Many fear he will not return, abruptly ending the controversial reign of sumo's greatest modern champion and throwing the sport he dominates into a tailspin.
Just one month ago, it all looked very different. Asashoryu swatted aside the sport's 14 best wrestlers to take his 21st title, putting him firmly in the pantheon of sumo greats. And he did it in style, battling through media accusations of match-fixing and a catalogue of painful battle scars that included a fractured lower back and nerve damage. "I was tired mentally and physically, so I'm happy to win the yokozuna (grand champion) told his fans before handing sumo's ruling body a medical certificate claiming that his injuries would force him to sit out the autumn tournament.
A few days later, goggle-eyed Japanese viewers watched as TV pictures showed the invalided star in a Wayne Rooney T-shirt hurtling around a football field in his native Mongolia. Mugging happily for the cameras that would eventually betray him, the 26-year-old looked as fit as any 150kg, top-knotted yokozuna as he executed a lethal-looking series of dives and tackles. The pictures of the charity match were relayed home and all hell broke loose. By the time a glum-faced Asashoryu was ordered back in Japan last week, his already scandal-tainted career was about to take a turn for the worse.
(break loose Escape from restraint, as in The boat broke loose from its moorings, or He finally broke loose from the school of abstract expressionism. This expression also appears in all hell breaks loose, which indicates a state of fury or chaos, as in When Dad finds out you broke his watch, all hell will break loose, or When the children saw the dead pigeon in the hall, all hell broke loose. [Early 1400s] )
Amid accusations that he had faked his injuries, the Japan Sumo Association (JSA) handed Asashoryu the toughest punishment in the history of the professional sport, suspending him from two forthcoming tournaments and slashing his 2.8-million-yen monthly salary by 30 per cent. The suspension - the first for an active yokozuna - stunned many sumo watchers because the JSA was effectively cutting its own throat by benching its top draw.
But the ruling body was in no mood for compromise. "It was such careless conduct," said JSA board member Isenoumi. "He deserves the punishment because as a yokozuna he is supposed to be the people's role model."* As sumo's rebellious poster-boy, Asahoryu would probably laugh at the idea of being anyone's role model. But like it or not, as the grand champion his beefy legs support a sport marinated in a millennium of tradition and culture. Those who grunt their way to the top are showered with money, fame and the sort of adulation doled out to rock stars. In return, they must strive to live up to the sport's exalted standards of decorum and dignity, collectively known as hinkaku, overseen by the arch-traditionalists in the JSA. Asashoryu, in the eyes of many hardcore followers, has failed the hinkaku test.*The term Role model was introduced by Robert K. Merton . Merton says that individuals compare themselves with "reference groups" of people who occupy the social role to which the individual aspires. . The term has passed into general use to mean any person who is an example to others.
Throughout his career, the champion has been dogged by criticism and tabloid allegations, starting with an early claim that he liked to trawl clubs and once tried to buy the services of a young hostess with his sumo winnings. Some have alleged that he delights in playing rough with his sparring partners and has hurt several - not always in the ring: One story said he fired air gun pellets at the buttocks of young trainees and attacked an opponent in the dressing room after they had an argument. Since early this year, he has persistently denied magazine stories that he is guilty of yaocho - rigging fights for bribes.
But many of his transgressions can seem petty to the non-initiated. Traditionalists sniffed last week at the sight of the sport's top athlete in a football T-shirt, just as they once condemned him for swapping a kimono for a Western suit. Many Sumo fans grimace at the clenched-fist "guts pose" that Asashory sometimes adopts over his fallen opponents, a betrayal in their eyes of the Bushido tradition of mercy for a defeated enemy. The wrestler, whose real name is Dolgorsuren Dagvadorjban, has noticeably toned down such displays since his early career, blaming them on a failure to control his emotions.
"In Mongolia, having a fiery temper is considered manly," says Mark Schilling, a Sumo commentator for state broadcaster NHK. "You're not expected to hide your feelings like you are in Japan. But here, stuff like that will get him in trouble."
In one of his most famous sins against the sport, the Mongolian tugged an opponent to the ground by grabbing his mage (top knot), earning him instant disqualification and the lasting animosity of many fans. Just as serious was a fight early in his career when he angrily disputed a decision by a head judge, an outrageous insult to the Sumo code. Worst of all, he has refused to take Japanese nationality.
These incidents convinced many conservatives that foreigners will never carry themselves like a Japanese yokozuna. Unfortunately for them, Asashoryu's career trajectory coincides with a crisis in the sport. Young Japanese are no longer willing to endure years of eating rice porridge and grappling with sweaty, fat men in sumo stables, which failed this year to attract a single new recruit. Foreigners, led by Mongolians and Koreans are increasingly rushing in to fill the vacuum. So dominant are foreign wrestlers, the Sumo Federation has limited non-Japanese recruits to one per stable. Several Europeans, including the Bulgarian Kotooshu, have even started to climb the ranks.
Kotooshu is everybody's favorite foreign sumo wrestler. At a shade over two metres tall and with the rippling frame of a bodybuilder and the face of a TV star, he looks about as good as it is possible to get while wearing nothing but a giant nappy. His pin-up looks and impeccable manners have endeared him to fans and earned him the popular media title: "The David Beckham of Sumo." Some believe Kotooshu may help conservative Japanese swallow the idea that this most traditional of sports no longer belongs to them.
But although the Bulgarian may have grasped the mysteries of hinkaku better than most, he will never be as good or as ruthless a wrestler as his swaggering Mongolian counterpart. "There are no stars in wrestling now, that's the problem," says the veteran sumo commentator Mark Schreiber. "At least Asashoryu is a star." Asashoryu's star-power and his phenomenal wrestling abilities have helped him overcome the constant controversy, but there have been recent signs that he is tiring of life in the spotlight. In media appearances this year, where he was peppered with questions about match-fixing, he appeared even more sullen and bad-tempered than usual. He put in one of his worst performances in May, losing to five wrestlers, which he subsequently blamed on injury. Even before his disastrous excursion to Mongolia, many commentators had started to speculate that he might return home permanently. Mongolia would certainly welcome him back. He is a national hero there and the government was quick to defend him when the latest scandal erupted. In a statement to the JSA, the Mongolian embassy apologised for the incident and said they had "half-forced" the wrestler to promise to come as "we wanted children to make contact with the hero Asashoryu. We initially planned to let him go early but instead created the situation in which he was forced to join in the soccer." Unfortunately, even that wasn't enough to save the wrestler from his two-tournament ban or - worse for this proud, temperamental man - public humiliation.
Asashoryu is today reportedly holed up in his Tokyo home, deeply depressed and demanding that he be allowed to return to Mongolia. Japanese press reports say he was visited by a psychiatrist on Sunday who recommended that he go home to "soothe his nerves". But so far, the JSA has denied him permission, insisting that he produce evidence of his condition. "I hear that Asashoryu is suffering from psychological problems but we will not permit him to return to Mongolia so he can settle down", the JSA chairman, Kitanoumi, said over the weekend. The stalemate effectively means that the sport's greatest star is under house arrest.
Will the champion tough it out and come roaring back? In a statement to the press, he said he was taking his punishment "very seriously" and was preparing for his comeback in the winter. But even for someone who made his fortune grappling with some of the biggest men on the planet, the next few months will be the fight of his life.
A sport of extremes
Calling sumo wrestlers big is like saying England is a bit showery - it doesn't do the subject justice. Current champion Asashoryu weighs in at a svelte 305lb, but ex-champion Akebono was 488lb before his knees gave out, and the biggest of them all, Konishiki, was a quivering 624lb. Getting this fat might sound about as difficult as sinking a sixth pint of beer, but it takes hard work. Trainees in about 50 stables around Japan rise at dawn, clean up after the older wrestlers, work like pack horses and stick to a diet centred on a high-calorie stew of seaweed stock, chicken, fish, prawns, tofu and vegetables. If it weren't for the huge quantities consumed, the regime might be healthy, but the fighters also take long naps after meals to slow the metabolism and put on weight. Together with the many gallons of beer they drink, the diet gives wrestlers the characteristic sumo bulk around the belly, buttocks and legs, making them harder to knock down. Weighing in at an average of 350lb, wrestlers are bigger than ever, even as the ring has stayed about 15 feet across, meaning many are landing more heavily and sustaining serious injuries, further reducing the dwindling ranks. That also means they pay later in life with buckled knees, aching backs and perforated livers, with the only comfort being marriage to a Japanese supermodel. The sport has long been tainted with suggestions that wrestlers trade victories and losses for money as a way of "sharing" the considerable riches at stake in the top rankings. In the mid-1990s, two well-known former wrestlers died within hours of each other after going public with lurid details of sumo sex parties, drug taking and match-fixing. Another former wrestler has alleged - to disbelief by outraged fans - that 80 per cent of sumo matches are fixed.
2007.08.01 01:58 am