When Argentina international Angel Di Maria received a red card during a Champions League match on May 5, TV commentator Jim Beglin attributed the foul that led to the sending-off to the player’s “Latino temperament.”
Beglin rightly received instant condemnation for lazy stereotyping and was forced to issue an apology for his use of “culturally insensitive remarks.”
The former Liverpool player, who was working the game for American broadcaster CBS, learned that not only have times changed in terms of what is acceptable on air, but that contemporary sporting fans around the globe have a greater understanding of the games they follow — and consequently higher expectations of those involved, whether they be players, management or media.
Long gone are the days when American football fans in Europe, soccer lovers in the United States or sumo devotees outside Japan could only indulge in their passion through imported magazines or irregular late-night TV highlights of action that had taken place weeks or months earlier.
Similarly, commentators or panelists with little to no knowledge of a sport outside their own national borders are an increasingly rare sight.
Nowadays, live action of virtually every sport in existence can be followed online through any number of means both legal and otherwise. Digests and highlights are instantly available on countless platforms, while deeper dives, player interviews and in-depth analysis are usually not far behind.
Accessibility has fueled fan growth worldwide and led to soccer teams like Real Madrid and Barcelona having a combined half a billion followers on social media — despite the population of Spain being just 47 million.
Sumo isn’t anywhere near the level of the only truly global sport. What its overseas fans lack in numbers, however, they more than make up for in passion.
Despite most of the main honbasho action taking place in the early hours of the morning for those in the United States, social media platforms hum with activity during live grand tournaments. Pop into any sumo Discord server at 2 a.m. in New York and you’ll see comments fly by.
In pre-pandemic times, many of those fans also spent thousands of dollars just to fly to Japan and support their favorite rikishi. Since lockdowns began and borders shut, they have funneled their money into buying merchandise. Whether it’s trading cards, autographed tegata handprints or banzuke ranking sheets, sumo fans outside Japan are major purchasers of memorabilia.
As is the case with many of this country’s sports, acquiring merchandise from abroad normally involves using third-party vendors, as foreigner-friendly payment and shipping methods are rarely made available by Japanese retailers.
While a lack of foresight when it comes to fully taking advantage of a growing global market might be partly to blame in other sports, when it comes to sumo it is the fact that the Japan Sumo Association is a public interest corporation — whose remit is to carry on and promote the traditions of sumo — that means that foreign fans are, by default, not its target audience.
All of which still doesn’t prevent people living in Moscow, Marseille or Montreal from being emotionally invested in sumo.
The love and dedication displayed by sumo’s foreign fans rivals anything seen inside Japan’s borders. Sumo Reference, the go-to database for everyone involved in the sport, is a German creation. The definitive guide to sumo trading cards was written by an American. In addition to dozens of sites and blogs in English, Spanish and Russian, you can also find amateur athletes across the world traveling six or seven hours by car just to strap on a mawashi and participate in their favorite sport.
When sumo goes through a crisis — like the rash of serious injuries it is currently experiencing — the voices calling loudest for needed change and the protection of rikishi are often those from abroad.
Tired of seeing the rikishi they support put at risk, several have been writing to the JSA and its individual members demanding change. Whether such correspondence — or indeed any of the online campaigns — will have any measurable effect in the short term is doubtful, but there is value in foreign fans making their voices heard.
More concrete action has been taken by one sumo follower abroad. Graham Densham, a former rugby player who has known people who have died or been paralyzed while playing his own sport, “felt compelled to act” after hearing of Hibikiryu’s passing.
Densham, a native of Manchester, England, set up a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the family of the deceased wrestler.
In addition to crowdfunding, Densham has been using a Facebook group to auction off donated sumo memorabilia and intends to add the money raised to the fund.
As of this writing the total stands at somewhere around ¥600,000 ($5,500).
With funerals in Japan costing ¥2.1 million on average, donations are an important part of the process and help ease the burden on the family.
For Densham, however, the amount raised is secondary to its wider significance.
“As a Western sumo fan, it is very easy to feel like your voice is not important. It’s common to hear ‘Oh you’re not Japanese, you shouldn’t have an opinion,'” he said. “The JSA does not seem overly interested in fans outside of Japan. But, taking a collection and trying to coordinate the outraged voices of fans is something I can do, and hope that it makes a difference for those people involved in the sport I love.”
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