As a controversy-plagued Olympics drew to a close over the weekend, Japan found itself battling a fifth COVID-19 wave with active case numbers twice as high as at any other time during the pandemic.
How much the Games contributed to those numbers is hard to quantify, but pushing through on hosting a major international tournament in the middle of a global emergency certainly undermined efforts to convey the seriousness of the situation to the general public, or to prevent people gathering and socializing.
It wasn’t all bad news, of course, as the Games provided numerous moments of excitement over the course of a fortnight. For anyone hoping to see a sumo connection, however, there was only disappointment.
Even in scaled down and rejigged opening and closing ceremonies, the fact that Japan’s national sport played no role whatsoever has to be seen as a major missed opportunity.
Viewing figures for the opening ceremony in the United States may have been the lowest in 33 years, but with 17 million Americans tuned in it was a once in a lifetime chance for sumo to change the narrative and undo decades of negative or mendacious coverage of the sport in the Western press.
Hakuho performing a yokozuna ring entering ceremony (as many had expected) would have been an invaluable opportunity to teach international audiences — whose domestic media outlets normally only cover the sport during times of crisis or scandal — about the history and culture of sumo.
The Mongolian-born veteran would have been a perfect addition to the Games for reasons both personal and national.
The Olympic Games have long held a special and personal significance for Hakuho. His father, Jigjidiin Monkhbat, was a freestyle wrestler and part of the first ever Mongolian delegation at the Olympics, at the 1964 Tokyo Games. Four years later, at the Mexico City Olympics, Monkhbat, dressed in traditional wrestling attire, was the Mongolian flag bearer during the opening ceremony and took silver in the middleweight competition.
It’s no secret that Hakuho idolized his father and has often sought to connect their respective careers. The latter’s Undefeatable Giant rank in Mongolian Bokh wrestling is comparable to dai-yokozuna in sumo, while Hakuho felt that his father’s six championships in the yearly Naadam tournament (second most in the modern era) were equivalent to 36 titles in sumo terms, and a major reason that he kept going after passing Taiho’s record of 32 Emperor’s Cups.
Had Hakuho taken part in the opening ceremony it wouldn’t have been the first time for a yokozuna to do so, as Akebono performed a ring-entering ceremony at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano. That ceremony was held under very different conditions, with the then-emperor and thousands of fans in attendance to watch sumo’s entire top division take part in the festivities.
Had Hakuho followed in his footsteps in the much larger Summer Games, the fact that grand champions originally hailing from Hawaii and Mongolia were the men representing sumo on the world stage would have been significant.
Japan’s national sport is closely tied to its history and culture. The first ever sumo bout, said to have taken place in 23 B.C., is mentioned in the country’s second oldest book, the “Nihon Shoki,” and two millennia later the modern version of the sport still retains the trappings of various Japanese historical eras.
Sumo is intrinsically Japanese, but what that adjective means in the 21st century is changing. Once closed off entirely to the outside world, modern Japan is a much more cosmopolitan place than it was even in 1998 when Akebono took the stage in Nagano.
Over the past two decades, international marriages as well as births where one parent held foreign nationality have increased to roughly 2% of the total. While not a large number in absolute terms, it is a notable change in a country long known for homogeneity.
The result has been most visible in sport. The national rugby team that thrilled the nation during a historic run to the semifinals of the 2019 Rugby World Cup included players with backgrounds from 10 different counties, while Rui Hachimura and Naomi Osaka have redefined what it means to be Japanese in the minds of many.
The difficulties many of those athletes have faced both domestically and internationally are reminders that acceptance of diversity is still a long way from being complete, but their increased profiles and the support shown by the vast majority of fans are important steps toward that goal.
Hakuho and other foreign-born yokozuna have similarly had to deal with criticism containing clear racial overtones throughout their careers. That the rank of grand champion makes a rikishi the living embodiment of sumo (and its oftentimes vague and contradictory rules and mores) has only intensified the vitriol in many cases.
Yet Hakuho has persevered through all the slings and arrows to become not only a legendary yokozuna, but arguably the greatest wrestler in the 2,000-yearlong history of the sport.
Hakuho led sumo through one of its darkest periods just over a decade ago when the killing of a teenage recruit and a several major scandals hit the sport’s popularity hard. The yokozuna was the steadfast and acceptable face of sumo during its recovery.
Although not immune from criticism and still dressed down by various panels and councils, Hakuho arguably represents sumo and modern Japan better than almost anyone else alive.
His absence from both Olympic ceremonies was keenly felt.
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