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Sumo wrestling coming -- sort of -- to the Tokyo Olympics

February 4, 2020 GMT
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\In this Jan. 9, 2018, file, photo, Sumo grand champion Hakuho of Mongolia performs his ring entry form at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi,File)
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\In this Jan. 9, 2018, file, photo, Sumo grand champion Hakuho of Mongolia performs his ring entry form at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi,File)

TOKYO (AP) — Hakuho is a “yokozuna,” a grand champion in sumo wrestling, and one of the best the traditional Japanese sport has ever seen.

He’s also a Mongolian, and on Tuesday he dropped a hint why he’s so dominating.

His late-father, who went by the given name of Monkhbat, was an Olympic silver medalist in 1968. He also competed in at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

“I would like to watch Olympic wrestling matches because 56 years ago my father was a representative of my country in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in wrestling and took seventh,” Hakuho said, speaking in Japanese. “Four years later in the 1968 Mexico Olympics, he took a silver medal.”

Hakukho and fellow Mongolian Kakuryu, who is also a yokozuna, spoke at the Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo arena in east Tokyo — the spiritual home of the sport — to promote a sumo tournament that will be held on Aug. 12-13, days after this year’s Tokyo Olympics end on Aug. 9.

Called Grand Sumo, the tournament is a chance for the traditional Japanese sport to get exposure with Olympic guests in town. Officials are promising commentary in English to explain to newcomers what’s going on. They’re also saying the wrestlers will mingle with fans — unheard of contact.

Kakuryu said he’ll be concentrating on Olympic basketball, particularly the Americans.

“I would like to watch basketball games, because I used to play basketball when I was a boy and I have been watching the sport,” he said, speaking in Japanese. “I believe the Team USA will be here and it will be a rare opportunity that I can see all-star players together at the same time and watch their games live.”

Kakuryu also addressed reporters briefly in English, another rarity in the cloistered and traditional Japanese sport.

“We are really looking forward to receiving people from all over the world,” he said.

Amid promoting the sumo tournament, a vice president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee also spoke of the difficult road ahead with the outbreak of a fast-spreading virus in China.

“In Japan, we are facing all sorts of problems, including coronavirus infections, cyber security and transportation systems, but the IOC is satisfied with our preparations,” Toshiaki Endo said, speaking in Japanese. “Of course, the Olympic and Paralympic Games are one of the biggest sporting events in the world, so it will be good opportunities to introduce Japanese culture and cutting-edge technology.”

The roots of sumo date back to the Shinto ritual for a good harvest in the 8th century. It later was used as martial arts training for samurais before becoming entertainment for ordinary people during the Edo period — 1603 to 1868.

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The Edo period brought the introduction of stylized rules, including the art of entering the ring, the use of loin cloths, topknots and kimonos, as well as fighting regulations.

Unlike other athletes, sumo wrestlers are considered living performers of a cultural tradition and are expected to be role models. This is especially true of the yokozuna.

Only men can become professional sumo wrestlers. Under sumo’s Shinto tradition, women are considered unclean and are not allowed to enter the ring.

In 2018 a sumo referee blocked women who went up to the fighting ring to provide first aid for a mayor who collapsed in the ring while making a speech at a sumo event in Kyoto. It triggered criticism that sumo officials were prioritizing their gender-biased tradition over someone’s life.

Based on Shinto belief, the elevated dirt ring, or “dohyo,” is considered sacred. Before every tournament, Shinto priests perform rituals to pacify the gods by pouring rice, sake and other offerings into a little hole in the center of the ring.

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Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi contributed to this report.

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