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Sumo: one ring (dohyo), two fighters (rikishi). It is not just a sport that is becoming a way of life, requiring strict discipline and dedication. It is a sport that has the spirit of Japan at its heart.

Sumo is a traditional sport, one of the oldest, first recorded in written sources dating back to the 8th century. Rooted in religious rituals, wrestling was used to please the gods in the name of a good harvest, and over time an annual tradition of sumo competitions developed. By the 17th century, sumo wrestling had become a staple of the townspeople’s entertainment, with the emergence of professional wrestlers. Wrestling was originally quite brutal: boxing elements and rough measures against the opponent were taken for granted, but modern sumo has strictly defined rules. No fists, no kicks to the chest, stomach or below the waist, no grabbing the throat or hair, no breaking fingers, no biting. Victory is achieved by pushing the opponent outside the circular ring or by forcing him to touch the sand-covered ring floor with any part of the body other than the feet (throwing, grappling, grappling, pushing techniques). Although the match takes 5 minutes, the fight itself lasts approximately 30 seconds. The rest of the time is taken up with sprinkling salt on the ring, rinsing the mouth to cleanse the mind and body, and watching the competitor. Traditionally, sumo is categorically a male-only sport. Women are forbidden even to enter the ring, so as not to tarnish its purity, its chastity, let alone compete in a match. This is because sumo is derived from the martial arts of the samurai, and there were no women among the samurai. This attitude – the tradition – has lasted for centuries, and it was considered very disrespectful to change anything, because sumo wrestling is almost sacred to Japan. In 1909, sumo was recognised as the national sport of that country.

However, as late as the 18th century, women’s sumo performances were still held, albeit unofficially, in several parts of Japan. It was not until 1996 that the country established a women’s sumo federation and organised its first tournament in Europe. While Europeans were somewhat sceptical about the sport, Japanese women were very interested in fighting for their rights. Already in 1997, the first international women’s sumo tournament was held in Tokyo, with representatives from 16 countries.

As time went on, the number of female sumo wrestlers continued to grow, numbering in the hundreds. In some countries, girls can even get a sumo scholarship when they go to college. “It’s a good contact sport for women, without violence or brutality,” said Katrina Watts, President of the Australian Sumo Federation. “People of medium build can do any sport, but bigger people don’t have many choices. Sumo wrestling is a great sport, a chance to test strength against strength,” said a sumo student.

In 2000, Japan’s first female governor, Fusae Ohta, was also part of the commission for the annual sumo competition, which had been established in 1950. In the name of equality, and in the hope of ending discrimination against women, the governor hoped to enter the ring and present a prize to the winner of the competition (as all the male governors before her had done). This was opposed and it was suggested that the Governor should hand over the prize at ringside or by proxy. Although the debate was heated and there were supporters on both sides, Mrs Ohta did not win the right to enter the ring with the prize. Despite such nuances, women’s sumo is quite active, with the 11th Women’s Sumo World Championships taking place this year and Japan hoping to include the sport in the 2020 Summer Olympics.

Sayka Matsuo is a 19-year-old Japanese girl who started sumo at the age of just five. She was enrolled by her dad, a professional wrestler. Sumo has remained a hobby for the girl and, although she feels some pressure from her dad, she hopes to win a world championship in the future. Sayka wants to stay in the 65 kg weight category, so she tries to eat a well-balanced diet: “If I gained weight, I would be in the next weight category and would have to fight against opponents weighing hundreds of kilograms,” she says. In addition, she has to compete against boys in training; according to a university coach, this is not a problem because girls grow up earlier and are stronger as a result.

Sharran Alexander, 49, is a wrestler with the British Sumo Federation and was named the world’s heaviest female athlete in the Guinness Book of Records in 2013. She is 1.82 cm tall and weighs 203.2 kg. In 2006, one of Sharran’s three children signed her up for a TV wrestling show and she was successful. After defeating 25 of her competitors, she went to Japan to represent Great Britain and has since competed in international tournaments. Sharron has won 4 gold medals. Swimming, vigorous walking and 5 000 calories a day (mainly rice, pasta, chicken, cornflakes and seafood) helped to build her stamina. She says sumo gave her fresh confidence after her marriage broke up: “I was ashamed of my weight, but when I started sumo I learned to love my body. I love being an athlete. It’s something that many people my age and “size” wouldn’t do.

Natasha Ikejiri is a 24-year-old wrestler, winner of various tournaments and grew up wrestling with her brothers. Who would have thought that this would lead to her success story: a friend saw her wrestling with her brother and pushed them both to sign up for sumo. Natasha, although half-Japanese and having studied the language for a decade, had little knowledge of Japanese culture – including the origins, meaning and importance of sumo. This did not stop her from falling in love with the sport and achieving victories. In 2010, she took part in a tournament held at the China Olympic Stadium with over 10 000 spectators. Natasha recalls: “When I walked into the stadium, I thought “Oh my God!” There were so many people, it was like a sea, I couldn’t make out faces. I just stood there and thought it was crazy”. Unfortunately, the athlete was disqualified in the first bout because she injured her opponent’s elbow. This once again confirms that no violence, however unintentional, is allowed in sumo.

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