The International Sumo Federation is commonly known as The I.F.S. oversees 87 member nations. There is also a European Sumo Union. Men’s sumo started gaining a following internationally in the mid-1980s as part of a campaign by Japan to spread its culture internationally.

Getting sumo into the Olympics has been seen as the main force in making sumo a major international sport. When the International Olympic Committee declared in 1994 that single-sex sports could no longer qualify as candidates for the Games, suddenly there was push to get women’s sumo going. People in the sport say the best chance sumo has of being included in the Olympics is if Japan hosts the 2020 Games.

One thing that sets amateur sumo apart from professional sumo in Japan is the inclusion of gender and weight classes and the removal of the religious ceremonies.

The International Sumo Federation was established in 1991. It sponsors tournaments around the globe for men and women. Men and women from 34 nations participated in the International Sumo Grand Championship held in Hokkaido in October 2001. The world amateur sumo champion in 2000 was won Svetoslav Binev from Bulgaria. Members of the U.S. Sumo Federation practice on a dohyo set in the lawn of one of its member’s house.

“Sumo Bruno” is German-made film about sumo.

Tours by Japanese Sumo Wrestlers

Japanese Sumo wrestlers have wrestled in Israel, Paris, Hawaii and London and conducted a three-day tournament in Las Vegas at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino. The Las Vegas event drew surprisingly large and enthusiastic crowds. No wagering was allowed don the bouts. The dohyo and yakata were shipped from Japan. A special area was made for the wrestler to eat chankonabe prepared by Japanese cooks.

A tour in London in 2009 was canceled it was initially said due to lack of sponsors that in turn was blamed on economic crisis in 2008 and 2009. But later is was revealed that the real reason the tour was canceled was of scandals that had blemished the sport. Some of the bouts were scheduled to take place at Royal Albert Hall. Sumo made a major tour of London in October 1991.

Some foreigners have some interesting ideas and applications for sumo. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said that sumo wrestler would make good offensive linemen. Miami Heat coach Pat Riley mulled over the idea of using some wrestlers to teach Shaqille O’Neal tactics on how to throw their weight around. Riley said, “We’re going to bring them in and have them lean on him and lean on him just back them in. And then he’s going to have to take 100 jump hooks and 100 turnabout jumpers.”

Women’s Sumo

Some promoters have expressed an interest in establishing Sumo wrestling for women. Unlike the men, the women would be amateurs who compete on a plastic mat in weight classes. To discourage "a kind of lowbrow" fan interest, the women will wear a leotard underneath there mawashi belt and be prohibited from slapping each other in the face.

Sumo purists are less than enthusiastic about women wrestlers. The editor of a Sumo magazine told Newsweek, "Pro wrestlers would never allow a woman even to step into the dohyo. They'd rise up in rebellion.” Women wrestlers are not even surprised to enter the dohyo. See Dohyo, Rules

According to the New Sumo Federation there are around 300 female competitors in Japan. There also women competing under their own governing bodies in 17 countries The British-made film “Secret Society” is about female sumo wrestlers.

Getting sumo into the Olympics has been seen as the main force in making women’s sumo a major international sport. In 1994 the International Olympic Committee ruled that single-sex sports could no longer qualify as candidates for the Olympics Games. This was a big push to getting women’s sumo off the ground. Daniel Krieger wrote in the New York Times, “Such a radical change to Japan’s ancient national sport did not come easy, and the initial push came from outside the country. Among those who lobbied the I.F.S., as the sumo federation is commonly known, was Stephen Gadd, the general secretary of the European Sumo Union and president of the Netherlands Sumo Federation.” [Source: Daniel Krieger, New York Times, October 18, 2010]

Women’s Sumo Tournaments

“The first major women’s sumo tournament was the European championships in 1996. After that, organizers have said, it really took off in Europe. Today even though Japanese women make up the greatest number of participants in international competitions, Europeans — especially Eastern Europeans — tend to dominate the podium.

At the world championships in Warsaw in 2010 East Europeans won gold medals in three of four divisions. Sylwia Krzemien of Poland beat Francoise Harteveld of the Netherlands for the gold medal in the heavyweight divison. The only Japanese medalist of the tournament was the lightweight Yukina Iwamoto, who took a silver medal, losing to Alina Boykova of Ukraine in the finals.

“Foreign players like the Russians and Ukrainians have more passion for sumo than we do and train harder,” Japanese wrestler Sayumi Sasaki told the New York Times. “It’s too difficult to beat them.”

Women’s Sumo in Japan

Daniel Krieger wrote in the New York Times, “While European women, especially those familiar with combat sports, felt no qualms about giving sumo a go, Japanese women had more to contend with than just the bigger Europeans. Their biggest hurdle came from a stigma that can be traced to the 18th century, when, as entertainment for men, topless women sumo-wrestled blind men. Though this lewd variety eventually faded away in the mid-20th century after being banned repeatedly, a ceremonial form has continued in regional festivals so far out on the fringe of society that it remains virtually unknown.” “In the professional sumo world,” one sumo organizer told the New York Times, “women in sumo is as unthinkable as a rabbi sponsoring a pork farm.”[Source: Daniel Krieger, New York Times, October 18, 2010]

“So when the Women’s Sumo Federation was set up in Japan in 1996, Japanese women were hardly clamoring to get involved, given the common belief that women just do not do sumo. After all, they had always been kept out of legitimate competition because of the sport’s cardinal rule: women cannot touch or enter the sacred wrestling ring, the dohyo, lest they contaminate it with their “impurity.”

But along with the rise of amateur sumo abroad, women’s sumo in Japan has been making strides. “A growing number of women are involved, certainly in the hundreds,” Katrina Watts, president of the Australian Sumo Federation and a stadium announcer for sumo events, told the New York Times, “I’d say it’s a good sport for women because it’s a body contact sport without being violent.”

Nowadays, girls can even go to high school or college on a sumo scholarship, Kreiger wrote. “And there are women-only tournaments, like the All-Japan Women’s Sumo Championships, which took place in 2010 in Osaka and attracted 40 of the top sumotori in the country. Shinsaku Takeuchi, the event’s organizer and head of the Women’s Sumo Federation, told the New York Times that in recent years women had been getting better and tougher. “Women’s sumo is becoming even more vicious than the men’s,” he said.

Women’s Sumo Wrestlers in Japan

An 18-year-old high school senior from Tottori, Yuka Ueta, was the strongest wrestler of the tournament in Osaka. “At 275 pounds, she plowed her way through five matches in the open weight class,” Krieger wrote, “dispatching each opponent within moments to earn her first gold medal in the senior group. In August, competing among the world’s top sumo wrestlers, she won a bronze medal at the Sportaccord Combat Games in Beijing, her best showing yet. But at the world championships last weekend in Warsaw, she did not fare as well, placing fifth in the open weight class.” [Source: Daniel Krieger, New York Times, October 18, 2010]

Ueta got into sumo at age 10 when she was encouraged to give it a try. “Normal-size people can do any sports they like, but someone who is heavy doesn’t have many options,” she said. “Sumo is perfect for this kind of woman. And if she has a complex about her body, that will change with sumo.”

“Another powerhouse, Sayumi Sasaki, from Aomori, took her fourth All-Japan gold medal in the 143-pound-and-over class. But at 21, she has decided to hang up her loincloth after the Warsaw games, where she was knocked out in the first round by the Russian winner of the heavyweight gold medal, Anna Zhigalova.” “I want to quit while my record is still strong,” Sasaki said.

Crying Sumo and Robot Sumo

In Japan, sumo wrestling tournaments for robots have been sponsored. At one region tournament in Hokkaido, 175 robots were entered, with the finalists competing for a $10,000 first prize at the All-Japan Robot Sumo Tournament in Tokyo.

The robots can weigh no more than 3 kilograms and be no more than 20 centimeters long or wide. They compete in a 1.5 meter "dohyo" under similar circumstances to that of real sumo, with the robot that falls down or gets pushed out the ring losing.

“Crying sumo” refers to a tournament in which two infants are held aloft by relatives or sumo wrestlers and the baby that cries first or loudest wins. The event is held at Chokoji temple in Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture to promote healthy growth of babies. At the event in June 2009, 250 infants between 5 months and 18 months took part. Some see the event as cruel.

In the late 2000s, beach sumo has been promoted as recreational activity for children and promotional device like beach volleyball.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, Daily Yomiuri, Japan Times, Mainichi Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2011

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