Thu, Mar 07, 2013 - Page 19 News List

Sumo wrestlers grapple with challenges

AFP, TOKYO

“The only joy I have is the feeling that I’m coming close to my dream” of being yokozuna, the 21-year-old said, the first professional sumo wrestler from either Africa or the Arab world.

With the ring name of “Osunaarashi” (Great Sandstorm), Shaalan — 1.89m and 145kg — has lost only five of his 35 regular matches since his debut in March last year.

After their morning workout, the wrestlers bathe and eat their first meal of the day. As in many areas of Japanese life, the younger wrestlers must wait for the older ones.

The men, aged between 19 and 32, with careers ranging from less than 12 months to 17 years, are served a heavy stew, called chankonabe, as they sit on the floor around a small table in the dining room kitchen.

On the day spent with the stable, the stew was a calorie-packed mix of chicken, vegetables and deep-fried tofu.

“We have been using more chicken since Osunaarashi joined,” the caretaker said, laughing. As a Muslim, Shaalan avoids pork and alcohol.

After lunch, wrestlers not assigned to cook or clean — each person in the stable must take his turn to do chores — are permitted to nap. Shaalan uses the time to pray.

Otake says the life of a sumo wrestler is necessarily one of austerity, all the more so after a turbulent few years that saw one young wrestler — at a different stable — die in a hazing incident.

The stable was established in 1974 when Taiho retired from the ring. He served as stablemaster until retirement in 2004, when he entrusted it to a former high-ranking wrestler who married one of his daughters.

Five of the men who passed through the stable made it into the top division, the last of which, a Russian wrestler, quit the sport in disgrace in 2008 after testing positive for marijuana.

Two years later, the then-stable master was discharged after becoming embroiled in a vast scandal involving illegal betting, which snared dozens of sumo wrestlers and elders.

Otake, one of Taiho’s disciples, became the stable’s third master.

“I have traveled across the country to apologize for the misconduct of the past,” he said.

He knows he is carrying a torch for a sport that some say has lost its way.

However, Otake says, sumo has the power to overcome these challenges because it is more than just a sport; it is a way of life.

“Wrestlers used to train themselves just to become strong, but I am telling them to become examples to people as well,” Otake said.

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