Breaking the myths: sumo grapples with lingering urban legends

Mythology and sport are inseparable. The origin and nature of athletic competition ensures that storylines involving heroes and villains, as well as fictionalized tales of past exploits, will continue to be told as long as one human faces off against another.

Although most modern games – with a few exceptions like Florence’s infamous Calcio Storico – have abandoned the utter violence of their historical antecedents, legends and folklore continue to play an important role in their legitimacy and spread.

It doesn’t matter whether William Webb Ellis really invented rugby in 1823 by picking up a ball and running with it during a football match. The story provides a concrete historical narrative tied to a significant and specific point in time in much the same way that Nominosukune’s defeat of Taimanokehaya in 23 BC does for sumo.

Incredible stories delight fans and guarantee airtime and columns for sports. Whether true (NFL player Ronnie Lott amputates his finger rather than missing games while waiting for him to heal) or false (the requirement to wear shoes being the reason India refused to participate at the 1950 FIFA World Cup), great stories and legendary feats ensure that the drama of the sport and the exhilarating lives of those who participate in it remain at the center of public consciousness.

Big Tales are also a staple of the after-dinner lecture circuit and provide an income stream for former gamers keen to play with the hype. Is there a football fan on the planet who hasn’t heard multiple versions of the story of the hotel clerk who, upon discovering George Best drinking champagne in a silver-strewn bed with a naked Miss World, exclaimed, “Oh George, where is everything going wrong?”

For the most part, sports legends and myths are harmless fun. This is especially true when the game in question is global with hundreds of media covering every detail. In such situations, it is quite easy to get to the truth, and most people are able to distinguish fact from fiction.

This is not always the case in sumo, however. The relatively scarce amount of information available in languages ​​other than Japanese means that urban legends and half-truths persist and often negatively impact the ability of overseas fans to understand what’s really going on.

Unfortunately, sumo officials are at least partially responsible.

The reasons behind the old ozeki Konishiki’s failure to gain promotion in yokozuna continues to be hotly debated by sumo fans. | REUTERS

Japanese national sport loves nothing more than to mythologize its own history and retroactively ensure continuity in various aspects of the sport. You don’t have to search hard to find someone involved in sumo willing to perpetuate nonsense like the topknot being a kind of “hard hat”. rikishi who fly out of the ring and land on their heads, while there are more theories about the origins of tegatana that there are movements in the post-fight gesture itself.

In some cases, myths and misconceptions about sumo have external origins and stem from novels set in Japan or historical accounts of the sport from a time when much of Japan remained a mystery. When the character of Keanu Reeves in “John Wick 2” tries and fails to deactivate an assassin played by the elder makuuchi wrestler Yamamotoyama by kicking him in the groin, it is a continuation of the age-old lie that rikishi push their testicles inside their bodies to protect them during fights.

Many equally absurd claims revolve around wrestlers’ waists. A few quick searches online are enough to come across some wacky claims that rikishi are forced to consume 20,000 calories a day or need the help of stable young mates to clean up after using the bathroom. Even normally reputable outlets are known to publish stories containing claims that young children are taken to special sumo schools and fattened for life in the professional ranks.

Myths like these create a false and damaging image of sport and act as a barrier to wider acceptance. If your image of sumo wrestlers is that of morbidly obese, non-athletic men participating in an unhealthy and dangerous lifestyle, you cannot be blamed for not investigating further.

Even among sumo enthusiasts, some urban myths prove remarkably persistent. The internet has given new life to theories like Konishiki not being promoted yokozuna solely on the grounds of being a foreigner. There is no doubt that the Hawaiian giant has faced discrimination throughout his career from sources both inside and outside the Japan Sumo Association, but his non-promotion in 1992 is consistent with the way other cases were handled at the time. Takanohana was sumo’s golden boy at the time, but even he needed to win a seventh title before he finally landed the white rope.

Although it is quite easy to find out Sagari – the ropes that hang in front of a wrestler mawashi belt – replace the elaborate kesho-mawashi that the rikishi wear during the ring entrance ceremony, it’s common to see fans online mistakenly claiming that they represent Shimenawa the ropes found in shrines or demarcate the area that opponents are not allowed to touch.

Another lingering misconception is that rikishi who are unable to tie a knot should withdraw. Leaving aside those veterans who literally hold on to a few overloaded strands, and the youngsters who haven’t yet grown their hair long enough to make a mage, no such sanction is in place. Azumazeki stable rikishi Taikomaru suffered from alopecia but spent eight years in Ozumo despite being completely bald.

In a 2,000-year-old business that combines sport, religion and entertainment, it can often be difficult to tell fact from fiction. The challenge and the process of doing it is part of what makes sumo so rewarding for its fans.

In a time of both disinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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