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The busy sumo boys of summer

by Mark Buckton

While summer is a time of rest and relaxation for many, the men at the top rungs of the sumo ladder enjoy no such benefits — or at least it would appear.

Since getting a few days of R&R following the Nagoya Basho that ended on July 27, most of the sekitori, their tsukebito (personal assistants) and the oyakata sumo elders have traveled around northern Japan on a tour designed to give fans not living near Japan’s major metropolises a chance to see their sumo idols of today (the rikishi) and yesterday (the oyakata). Sumo lovers in the countryside can watch from up close for a change, as the “men of strength” demonstrate their daily exercises and routine.

Taking in 11 cities in seven prefectures over the course of two weeks, from Hokkaido through most of Tohoku and ending last Sunday in Niigata, the traveling sumo entourage goes all out to entertain the fans. Later, between Aug. 25 and 29, they will perform in Mongolia, the country that has spawned both current yokozuna and around 30 other rikishi in the sport today.

Concerns aside about yokozuna Asashoryu having too much of a business interest in the trip (he apparently owns the facilities being used to host the event), a mid-summer Mongolian trip, tacked on to the back of a lengthy domestic tour and an earlier trip to Los Angeles, is really stretching it if the rikishi are to be in shape for the September Aki Basho back in Tokyo.

While there’s something to be said for the quantity of sumo dished out over the summer, what of the quality of sumo we will see in the Kokugikan from Sept. 14?

Bouts are fought during the various demonstrations and tournaments put on in the cities of Hokkaido and Tohoku, and many of these bouts will be repeated in Mongolia. None, however, are the full-on competitive fights, and the demo-exercises are more about showing the attending fans what sumotori should do to keep themselves in shape, rather than being performed with that goal in mind.

Few of the rikishi will come close to the numbers of shiko squats he would do daily at home base in Tokyo to keep his legs and lower body in shape. None will approach the rigorous one-on-one repeat bouts needed keep a wrestler sharp. As a result, waistlines will expand and muscles will soften, as the Aki Basho draws closer.

It is not surprising that for more conservative fans of sumo the quantity of these meet ‘n’ greet sessions up and down Japan, around Oceania and Asia in recent years, as well as several trips to the States, are only eroding the quality of sumo come tournament time.

How many people, particularly those in the U.S cities that sumo courts, view the sport as anything more than a novelty? There are, of course, U.S.-based fans who know sumo inside and out, but their significance pales when compared to the numbers turning up to view the “fat guys in diapers.”

It could be said that the purpose of tours is to inspire future generations of international sumo, but where are the benefits of visits to Hawaii, Las Vegas and Los Angeles in the past few years? Where are the rikishi of American origin today?

London has been confirmed as a destination for 2009, and it is rumored that Moscow will be used to keep the European fans happy. Of these trips, perhaps only the Euro/Russian trip is justifiable, given the fact that the sumo giants haven’t visited that region in years and that Europeans in sumo are definitely making their mark.

Perhaps it is time keep the boys home a spell – or at least limit their tours to more convenient locations and maybe the occasional jaunt to Europe from time to time – but not every year.

Is R&R something the men in professional sumo miss out on? Perhaps not.