Thursday 3 September 2020

Let's address the elephant in the sumo ring

A retired pair of Russian wrestlers, who forged very different paths in professional sumo, have recently found themselves in the news for strikingly similar reasons.

Anatoly Mikhakhanov (ring name Orora) and Nikolai Ivanov (Amuru) made headlines both nationally and globally over the past few months, and have become part of a growing debate about weight and health in Japan’s national sport.

Mikhakhanov, who won roughly half of his 750 bouts in a 19-year career, was mostly known for being the heaviest wrestler in sumo history. After two nondescript decades in the sport’s lower divisions, he retired in 2018, moved back to his hometown in Siberia and has since built a sizeable social media following, documenting life in the Russian Far East.

Ivanov, who joined sumo two years after his countryman, was the polar opposite in terms of body composition. Despite being almost exactly the same height as Mikhakhanov, it took the Lesozavodsk native half a decade in the sport to reach triple figures on the scale, and even at his peak weight he barely came close to half of the 294 kg that Orora recorded in 2018.

That lack of size held Ivanov back for almost ten years, but in his late 20s the Onomatsu stable man started to pack on the pounds and progress up the rankings. Injury took a toll in the latter part of his career but Amuru eventually made it to the top division and was even the 20th-ranked rikishi in sumo at one point in 2015.

Since retiring, both men have spent a lot time focused on training, exercise and health.

Russian sumo wrestler Amuru (right) trains at Onomatsu stable on Dec. 25, 2016. | JOHN GUNNING

Ivanov is a personal trainer in a gym in Chiba Prefecture, and the 37-year-old, who has lost over 35 kg since 2018, also conducts online classes in Russian and Japanese based around traditional sumo movements.

Mikhakhanov’s transformation is even more dramatic.

Since returning to Russia, the man who used to think nothing of eating 200 pieces of sushi in a single sitting has completely transformed his diet and taken up an exercise routine that has seen him lose an incredible 100 kg so far.

As commendable as such efforts are, it does beg the question as to just how a professional athlete was so badly out of shape that he needed an oxygen tank even for simple tasks like taking a short walk, or why Mikhakhanov waited until retirement before putting in the work needed.

In an interview with a Japanese newspaper in June, the former Kitanoumi stable veteran laid the blame for that squarely at the feet of sumo culture, saying, “It’s never easy to stay healthy as long as you’re living the life of a sumo wrestler. You are the only person that can take care of you. Nobody in your sumo stable cares about you.”

Whether a lack of support or simple laziness was to blame for the Russian abdicating his professional responsibilities while active, a quick look around the sumo world is all it takes to see that he is far from the only one.

For every world class athlete, training diligently and putting themselves through the ringer in order to succeed, there are numerous (smaller) versions of the former Orora.

Virtually every stable has rikishi that have been in sumo for years yet display no aptitude for the sport or indeed any kind of athletic endeavor.

That’s mostly a result of an open-door policy, where pretty much any Japanese male under the age of 23 who wants to become a rikishi can do so.

As long as a rikishi can perform all his various chores and tasks, as well as assist the stablemaster and higher-ranked wrestlers, he is of value in a sumo stable.

As Mikhakhanov pointed out, responsibility for health and training falls largely on each individual rikishi. Many wrestlers, upon realizing they will likely never make the salaried divisions, begin to coast. While sumo practice sessions are intense, it doesn’t take long to become accustomed to them, and though the lifestyle is restrictive it isn’t overly taxing — at least for veterans.

That has resulted in a large number of obese wrestlers whose ability to fight or train vigorously in short bursts often belies serious health issues like diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

It’s an issue that was brought into sharp focus with the death of Shobushi in April from COVID-19, as underlying weight-related health problems had made the 28-year-old susceptible to the coronavirus’s more serious effects.

Even in non-pandemic times, however, retired sumo wrestlers tend to live much shorter lives on average than the general population.

38-year-old retired rikishi Maeta, who had weighed over 200 kg for most of his sumo career despite standing just 180 cm tall, became the latest casualty on Aug. 26, when he collapsed and died after suffering a heart attack while teaching sumo to schoolchildren.

The Japan Sumo Association has begun to recognize that it needs to take steps toward creating a healthier environment in the sport, but as with most issues in the sport it will be up to those in charge of the individual heya to implement real change.

The hope is that the younger generation of oyakata will better understand the need for a culture change when it comes to diet and health in their stables, and that the young men who put their bodies on the line for our entertainment, will be able to live long and healthy lives once they hang up the mawashi.

(Source: JT)

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