Hakuho Sho, a Mongolian and one of the world's top sumo wrestlers, takes down an opponent. Image: Repubblica
Sumo wrestling is going global, and that’s a good thing, says a Harvard researcher.
As part of Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium, held in New York last week, Ethan Zuckerman, a researcher at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, delivered a talk on the growing international popularity of sumo wrestling—long an exclusively Japanese sport. The talk, entitled “Why Fat Guys from around The World Want to Wrestle in Diapers and Why That’s a Good Thing,” lasted around 10 minutes, but he’s posted a slideshow about the talk on his blog for the world outside the conference to see.
It’s a fascinating lecture, full of interesting social, cultural, and historical components about a sport a lot of Westerners comprehend as just two fat guys running into one another.
For as superficially simple as it may seem, sumo wrestling is actually quite complex and requires not just strength (and heft), but a good deal of agility and skill. In a match, two wrestlers—called rikishi—begin by crouching down and putting their fists on the ground. From there, they charge at one another in attempts to either force their opponent outside a straw ring, or force them down. A rikishi loses if any part of his body lands outside the ring, or if any body part but the soles of his feet touch the ground.
The text in the graphic below, taken from Zuckerman’s slideshow, isn’t easy to read, but the drawings illustrate well some of the techniques used for getting and opponent down or outside the ring. Considering some sumo wrestlers weigh over 500 pounds, these moves obviously require enormous, explosive strength.
Sumo wrestling has been around since the days of the samurai, and for most of its history it was exclusively Japanese. Zuckerman, who Motherboard met last year, explains that like baseball or basketball in America, sumo is a fundamentally Japanese sport. But after World War II, the Japanese began opening their sumo competitions to rikishi from other countries. In the 1980s, the sport saw its first massive influx of foreign wrestlers from the Pacific Islands and they were huge.
The average rikishi, Zuckerman says, weighs only about 350 pounds. But some of these Islander guys were pushing 600. They—forgive the pun—crushed the competition.
Then something unexpected started happening. A new cadre of lightweight Mongolians came in and started dominating the heavy guys. Of the top four-ranked sumo wrestlers in the world right now, three are Mongolian.
“The primary reason Mongolians are great at sumo,” Zuckerman writes, “is that Mongolians are fucking awesome.” The Chinese, Russians and Eastern Europeans started figuring that out in the 13th Century when Genghis Khan and his horseback hordes ran roughshod over them, conquering most of Asia and large swaths of Europe. Mongolians today, it seems, are still pretty tough. Wrestling, Zuckerman explains, is a big part of Mongolian culture—along with horseback riding and archery, it’s one of the country’s biggest sports.
One major difference between Mongolian wrestling and sumo wrestling, however, gives the Mongolians a bit of an upper hand: to win, a wrestler must force his opponent down. Forcing him outside a ring isn’t an option. They’re faster and lighter than their heavier counterparts from places like the Pacific islands, and they’re used to taking dudes down.
In the 1990s, the Japanese placed limits on the number of foreign wrestlers who could compete. Without the ban, Zuckerman writes, the Mongolians would probably dominate more than they already do. The ban doesn’t exactly typify cultural open-mindedness, but neither is it surprising. As about a million soccer riots have shown us, sport, culture, and national identity have a complex (and often unsettling) relationship. People often react with hesitation—or worse—when perceived outsiders begin playing a sport formerly closed to them—officially or socially.
One need only think of white America’s reaction to Jackie Robinson in the 1950s, or of Tiger Woods, even (I’ve heard more than one racist Woods joke over the years I’d rather forget).
But, just as Hispanic and Japanese players have helped revitalize American baseball, the globalization of sumo wrestling, Zuckerman argues is a good thing. Scandals and the intense rigors of training have deterred a lot of Japanese kids from signing up, so the influx of foreigners is a shot in sumo's ample, fleshy arm.
There’s a positive economic component to sumo globalization as well. Mongolians aren’t the only ones doing well in sumo. Russians, Estonians, Brazilians, and Georgians are all counted among the world's top 25 wrestlers. None of these countries is overwhelmingly well-to-do. The high salaries earned by wrestlers from poor communities allows them to come back to their home countries and spend money or start businesses.
Another interesting indicator sumo wrestling is globalizing? There are sumo fantasy leagues at websites like Sumo Talk. I’ll trade you Harumafuji Kōhei and a third round draft pick for Hakuho Sho.