Mythology and sport are inseparable. The origin and nature of athletic competition ensures that storylines involving heroes and villains, as well as romanticized tales of bygone feats, will continue to be told as long as one human faces off against another.
Although most modern games — with notable exceptions such as Florence’s infamous Calcio Storico — have ditched the all-out violence of their historical antecedents, legends and folklore continue to play an important role in their legitimacy and propagation.
Whether or not William Webb Ellis really invented rugby in 1823 by picking up a ball and running with it during a game of football is irrelevant. The story provides a concrete historical narrative tied to a significant and precise moment in time, in much the same way that Nominosukune’s defeat of Taimanokehaya in 23 B.C. does for sumo.
Incredible tales thrill fans and ensure airtime and column inches for sports. Whether true (NFL player Ronnie Lott amputating his finger rather than miss games waiting for it to heal) or false (a requirement to wear shoes being the reason India declined to participate in the 1950 FIFA World Cup), great stories and legendary feats ensure that the drama of sport and exhilarating lives of those that participate in it remain front and center in the public consciousness.
Tall tales are a staple of the after-dinner speaking circuit as well and provide a means of income for former players willing to ham it up and play along with the exaggeration. Is there a soccer fan on the planet that hasn’t heard several versions of the tale of the hotel employee who, upon discovering George Best drinking champagne in a cash-strewn bed with a naked Miss World, exclaimed, “Oh George, where did it all go wrong?”
For the most part, sporting legends and myths are harmless fun. That’s especially true when the game in question is a global one with hundreds of media outlets covering every detail. In such situations it’s easy enough to access the truth and most people are able to tell the fact from the fiction.
That’s not always the case in sumo, however. The relatively sparse amount of information available in languages other than Japanese means that urban legends and half-truths persist and often have a negative impact on foreign fans’ ability to understand what is really going on.
Unfortunately, those in charge of sumo are at least partially to blame.
Japan’s 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 look hard to find someone involved in sumo willing to perpetuate nonsense like the topknot being a “crash helmet” of sorts for rikishi that fly off the ring and land on their heads, while there are more theories of the origins of tegatana than there are movements in the post-bout gesture itself.
In some cases, myths and misunderstandings about sumo have external origins and come from novels set in Japan or historical accounts of the sport from a time when much of Japan remained a mystery. When Keanu Reeves’ character in “John Wick 2” tries and fails to disable an assassin played by former makuuchi wrestler Yamamotoyama by kicking him in the groin, it’s a continuation of the age-old falsehood that rikishi push their testicles up inside their body to protect them while fighting.
Many similarly absurd claims center around the size of wrestlers. A few quick online searches are all it takes to encounter outlandish claims of rikishi being forced to consume 20,000 calories a day or requiring the assistance of junior stablemates to clean up after using the bathroom. Even normally reputable outlets have been known to run stories containing claims that young kids are taken to special sumo schools and fattened up in preparation for life in the pro ranks.
Myths like these create a false and damaging image of the sport and act as a barrier to wider acceptance. If your image of sumo wrestlers is one of morbidly obese and unathletic men participating in an unhealthy and dangerous lifestyle, then you can’t be blamed for not investigating it further.
Even among sumo fans, some urban myths prove remarkably persistent. The internet has given new life to theories such as Konishiki not being promoted to yokozuna solely on the grounds of being a foreigner. There is no doubt the giant Hawaiian suffered discrimination throughout his career from sources both in and outside the Japan Sumo Association, but his nonpromotion in 1992 is consistent with how other cases were dealt with at the time. Takanohana was the golden boy of sumo in those days, but even he needed to win a seventh title before finally getting the white rope.
Although it’s easy enough to find out that sagari — the cords that hang down in front of a wrestler’s mawashi belt – stand in for the elaborate kesho-mawashi that rikishi wear doing the ring-entrance ceremony, it’s common to see fans online mistakenly claim that they represent shimenawa ropes found at shrines, or demarcate the area opponents aren’t allowed to touch.
Another persistent misconception is that rikishi who are unable to tie a topknot have to retire. Setting aside those veterans who are literally holding on by a few overburdened strands, and the youngsters who haven’t yet grown their hair long enough to make a mage, there is no such sanction in place. Azumazeki stable rikishi Taikomaru suffered from alopecia but spent eight years in ozumo despite being completely bald.
In a 2000-year-old activity that combines sport, religion and entertainment, it can often be hard to sort the fact from the fiction. The challenge and process of doing so though is part of what makes sumo so rewarding for its fans.
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