Kelly Gneiting is a religious fundamentalist.
The 205-kg bearded giant is also an outspoken member of the ultraconservative Independent American Party, whose social media feeds are filled with inflammatory posts about homosexuality, abortion, politics and vaccinations.
Matthew Davis is a cannabis-promoting, dreadlocked atheist who has the Om symbol and a lotus flower tattooed in the middle of his forehead.
Gneiting and Davis represent opposite poles of modern American society, yet both regularly work together for a common cause.
That cause is sumo.
While the United States as a nation seems increasingly unable to reconcile its political and cultural divisions, the U.S. Sumo Federation (USSF) quietly continues to grow, bringing together people from various backgrounds, and enabling them to work in a culture of respect.
“When people have a common goal they can disagree but still share ideas on how to reach that goal,” according to Trent Sabo, a former bronze medalist at the Sumo World Championships and one of the most dominant American wrestlers of the past 20 years.
“America has always been full of many different people with different ideas, beliefs, and cultures. Unfortunately for many people, I think their views on things they have not personally experienced are based strongly on what they come in contact with through various forms of media,” said Sabo. “When you share a common goal with many people you tend to focus on the good and bad that they do in regards to that goal and make your judgment of them accordingly. Their behavior outside of that goal is secondary.”
Which is not to say that Gneiting, for example, is merely tolerated. When discussing the Idaho native with almost any member of the USSF it’s rare to hear a bad word said. Opinions on him are overwhelmingly positive despite the views he holds.
“While it can certainly be hard to understand some of Kelly’s positions,” according to Sabo, “it’s equally hard to dismiss his contributions to the sport. He has done multiple charity events that have raised close to $1 million for children. He is also excellent at organizing events that usually feature tough competition, large numbers of athletes and an emphasis on supporting said athletes with various sponsorships.
“Lastly Kelly himself is an unbelievable athlete,” Sabo added. “Not just in sumo but all around. It’s hard not to respect a man that has accomplished so much even if you disagree with his personal beliefs. One of the nice things about sport is that it really tends to be merit-based. Everyone tends to respect everyone else based on the hard work that they put in to achieve their goals.”
Gneiting himself thinks that USSF members “do a good job of compartmentalizing sumo away from those other categories,” adding “it’s great to be involved with a bunch of guys that are not only separated geographically, but politically, ethnically, and religiously. We come from all walks of life, but the drive is felt by all of us, which causes us to look beyond our differences. We are united in and around something that we feel is bigger. There’s a mutual respect, despite wins or losses, and despite our own unique family and backgrounds.”
A lot of that respect comes from understanding the obstacles fellow members have to overcome to in order to train and participate in tournaments.
With funding virtually nonexistent, the sheer size of the United States means just traveling to practice requires expending significant amounts of time and money.
Gneiting says he regularly replies to inquiries by telling the sender that their nearest sumo club is a couple of states away.
Sabo himself once spent eight months living in his car in order to be able to travel to training and save enough money to pay for his flight to the World Championships.
For USSF president Helen Delpopolo, the difficulty in getting large numbers of athletes together for regular training is one of the reasons the U.S. hasn’t won more medals at the world level.
Emmanuel Yarbrough’s open weight championship in 1995 remains the country’s sole gold medal, and while the man who once weighed 400 kg also led the U.S. team to silver in the first three editions of the tournament, the country hasn’t reached the podium in that event since 1999.
Sabo and Delpopolo both pointed to the fact that the sports landscape in the U.S. is dominated by the big three of football, baseball and basketball, which makes it hard for minor sports like sumo to get airtime.
Delpopolo, who came to sumo from judo, adds that the organization also doesn’t have enough female members and feels that perhaps a lack of coverage is responsible for the false notion that you need to be enormous to take up the sport.
She is upbeat, though, when discussing the future of sumo in the United States.
“In 20 years I firmly believe sumo will be an Olympic event. I think it’ll gain much more popularity within even the next five years, once we break the stigma of sumo just being for heavyset men,” Delpopolo says. “We need to focus on, when dealing with pictures of athletes, people always wanting the bigger man. I think it’ll attract more people to the sport if we have a mix of everybody especially light weight women and men who are in tiptop physical shape. In the United States sex sells in sports. And I can’t think of a sport you can get any more naked.”
Even if sumo doesn’t see a large increase in participants in the U.S. over the next couple of decades, its value to those who do practice it is clear and obvious.
Who knows? Perhaps if sumo did become mainstream in America, it might actually help heal the country’s divisions.