Sports

Sumo’s doors open for college stars but closing for foreign hopefuls


By far the biggest news in sumo this month has been a student at Japan’s most prestigious university entering the pro ranks.

Hotaka Suyama became the first ever ōzumo rikishi to hail from the University of Tokyo when he took the new entrant examination on April 15 and joined Kise stable.

While that particular school may have been unusual in this case, another collegiate wrestler joining the professional ranks is just part of a long-term change that has been taking place in Japan’s national sport over the past half century.

In March 1972, there was a total of three wrestlers with a university background on the banzuke rankings, with two of them in the top-flight makuuchi. Ten years later, that number had grown to eight and three, respectively, and by 1992 it stood at 15 men in total, with six in makuuchi.

Things kicked into high gear around the turn of the millennium.

In the space of a decade, ōzumo saw a threefold increase in the number of wrestlers coming from universities.

Forty-five former collegians were active during the spring meet of 2002, and the intake has steadily continued to rise over the subsequent 20 years.

The total reached 60 a decade ago, and in the just-completed Osaka tournament it stood at 70, with a full 33% of the top division having competed in collegiate sumo before turning pro.

Nihon University dominated in the early years, with over two-thirds of collegians hailing from the traditional powerhouse at one stage.

Canadian Homarenishiki (left) and Mongolian Kiribayama participate in the presentation of new recruits during the Summer Basho at Ryogoku Kokugikan on May 17, 2015. | JOHN GUNNING
Canadian Homarenishiki (left) and Mongolian Kiribayama participate in the presentation of new recruits during the Summer Basho at Ryogoku Kokugikan on May 17, 2015. | JOHN GUNNING

These days, there is a much wider spread of talent, and students from 19 different third-level institutions are currently plying their trade in the professional ranks.

With the college-to-ōzumo route also becoming increasingly popular for foreign hopefuls, the number of wrestlers on the banzuke graduating from the university system in Japan is bound to increase.

It’s clear that for younger generations of wrestlers, the advantages of turning pro — a degree secured, increased maturity to help handle the rigors of ōzumo and several years of seasoning in top-level amateur sumo — outweigh whatever head start comes with entering a stable after junior or senior high school.

But while one major demographic sees increased growth and diversity, another appears to be moving in the opposite direction.

Sumo’s international contingent once came from all corners of the globe. But in recent years, Mongolian hegemony has increased to the point where it’s difficult to imagine any foreign recruit not hailing from the central Asian country getting accepted into a stable.

Even in an outlier case like Kinbozan from Kazakhstan, it was a Mongolian (former yokozuna Asashoryu) that brought him into both Japan and sumo.

Shishi, the 25-year-old Ukrainian whose real name is Sergey Sokolovsky, is arguably the only up-and-coming foreign rikishi in the sport with no links to Mongolia.

Tochinoshin is one of the few remaining non-Mongolian top rankers in ōzumo. | JOHN GUNNING
Tochinoshin is one of the few remaining non-Mongolian top rankers in ōzumo. | JOHN GUNNING

With the few remaining top-level wrestlers of non-Mongolian decent close to retirement, the sport’s higher divisions look very different to how they did a decade ago.

Men from Estonia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Russia, the Czech Republic and Brazil all vied for glory during Hakuho’s heyday.

One of those wrestlers, sekiwake Aoiyama, recently switched to Japanese nationality, which would allow the 35-year-old to stay involved in sumo post-retirement.

Since the Bulgarian native joined sumo in 2009, only one other non-Mongolian foreign recruit — Egyptian Osunaarashi — has made it as far as the sport’s top two divisions.

In addition to Kinbozan and Shishi, hopefuls from Canada, the USA, Indonesia, the Philippines, Bulgaria, Russia and China followed Osunaarashi into sumo, but none so far have made it into the salaried ranks.

Over the same time period, Mongolian recruits have included names like Ichinojo, Hoshoryu, Daishoho and Kiribayama, while Terunofuji joined the sport a few months before the Egyptian.

With a much better hit rate, higher potential ceilings and backgrounds that help them deal with the harshness of sumo life, Mongolian recruits are a far safer investment of time and money for stablemasters looking to fill their one available foreigner slot.

Egyptian Osunaarashi was the most recent non-Mongolian foreigner to reach sumo's paid ranks. | JOHN GUNNING
Egyptian Osunaarashi was the most recent non-Mongolian foreigner to reach sumo’s paid ranks. | JOHN GUNNING

Taking a chance on a wrestler from Ulaanbaatar has become the sumo version of recruiting soccer hopefuls from Brazil or American football players from Texas.

The overall level of talent — coupled with a local culture dominated by a very similar sport — increases the likelihood of finding a potential superstar.

With so many Mongolian rikishi in sumo already, there is also a built-in support system for new wrestlers from that country. Having seniors or rikishi in other stables who have been through everything and can speak your language is a massive advantage. Being able to decompress and vent, as well as spend time in all-Mongolian environments — be they houses or restaurants — is invaluable for helping deal with sumo’s unique brand of mental stress.

Conversely, the isolation felt by young men from other countries — especially when they are as culturally different as Canada, for example — is a contributing factor to the lack of other countries producing sekitori-level rikishi.

Sumo’s explosion in popularity in recent years means that there is now a growing number of amateur wrestlers in nations such as the United States.

That has led to an increase in inquiries about joining the professional ranks from young wrestlers in those locations.

While interest in becoming a rikishi may be up abroad, actual opportunities to do so are down. The dominance of Mongolian wrestlers means that for hopefuls from other countries to get a shot at pro sumo, becoming one of the increasing number of collegians in the sport might be the best course of action.

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