Mongolia’s Asashoryu was promoted Wednesday to the highest rank in Japan’s ancient sport of sumo, becoming the first from his country and only the third foreign-born wrestler ever to achieve that lofty status.

News photoAsashoryu (left) bows with stablemaster Takasago as sumo officials notify the Mongolian wrestler of his promotion to yokozuna.

Dressed in traditional Japanese kimono and wearing his hair in a samurai-style top-knot, Asashoryu bowed deeply before sumo officials to accept the honor in an early morning ceremony at Tokyo’s Kokugikan sumo arena.

In Japan, few honors can compete with being named a grand champion of sumo.

The promotion eclipsed U.S. President George W. Bush’s State of the Union Address on most commercial TV networks’ morning news shows, and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi wasted no time in taking the opportunity to send a congratulatory telegram to his Mongolian counterpart.

“This symbolizes the growth of friendly relations between the two countries in recent years,” he said.

Asashoryu, whose real name is Dolgorsuren Dagvadorj, follows Hawaiian wrestler Akebono and Samoa-born Musashimaru in winning promotion to the yokozuna, or grand champion, rank. Akebono, who has since retired, and Musashimaru now have Japanese citizenship.

He was promoted after winning the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament earlier this month and the previous tournament in December. Sumo wrestlers compete in six 15-day tournaments each year. In both tournaments, the 22-year-old Mongolian wrestler lost just one bout.

“I humbly accept this honor,” the 185-centimeter, 137-kg wrestler said at Wednesday’s ceremony. “I will do my best.”

Asashoryu is the sport’s 68th grand champion. Attesting to his peerless speed and deep repertoire of techniques, his rise was one of the fastest ever — he made his professional debut in January 1999.

His promotion to the top also underscores sumo’s increasingly cosmopolitan makeup.

Mongolia is the dominant foreign presence today, with 31 of the 51 foreigners in the professional ranks. There are also four Russians and three each from the United States and Brazil.

Kasugao, from South Korea, made a promising debut in the top division in the New Year tournament, posting an impressive record of 10-5. The New Year tournament also saw Georgian Kokkai, Mongolian Tokitenku and Bulgarian Kotooshu win in the lower ranks.

The internationalization of the sport is welcomed by supporters who are pushing to get it into the Olympics, much as Japan successfully won a slot for judo, another homegrown martial art.

But Asashoryu’s promotion comes amid something of a crisis for sumo.

No Japanese wrestler has been promoted to yokozuna since 1998 and attendance has dropped in recent years as the sport’s most celebrated stars have quit or been slowed by age and injury — the only remaining Japanese yokozuna announced his retirement this month.

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