Sport on Television: When push comes to shove, they graduate sumo cum laude

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The Independent Online

There was a time when Strictly Lady Sumo (Channel 4, Tuesday) might have been the preserve of Grandstand, that venerable but fading sports showcase that died a barely perceptible death on the BBC last Sunday afternoon after 48 years of public service. What more could you ask for after watching Big Daddy grapple with Giant Haystacks on ITV on a Saturday afternoon than to switch over for a bit of ladies' wrestling while you await the sacred announcement of the football results by James Alexander Gordon? Eddie Waring could have done the commentary, and Frank Bough could have thrown in a delicate quip or two in the style of Auntie Beeb in a dinner suit.

Where once such a minority sport might have been championed by the national broadcasters, who at least had the capacity to do so if they wished, now it seems that the outer reaches are increasingly confined to one-off documentaries with an "angle". Channel 4 were, no doubt, attracted to the idea of big women pushing each other around for at least some of the wrong reasons. But what they produced was a triumph of sporting spectacle and human interest.

Steve "Sumo" Pateman, the former world bronze medallist, posted an advert for candidates to take part in the women's World Sumo Championships in Osaka, Japan. Twenty-five showed up at his back-street gym in Derby, with characters as diverse as Adele Jones, a prop forward for Lichfield RFC ladies' team and education welfare officer for Derby City Council, and Sharran Alexander, a 28-stone single mum in her forties traipsing up from London while struggling with childcare problems.

Then there was "Big Jackie" Bates - they specialise in fabulous nicknames in this pursuit - a 20st grandma in her fifties who is still a fitness instructor and is the only one who has ever been in a sumo ring before. She had trained with "Sumo" himself for six years, and there was the whiff of a special relationship in the air. It might just happen after all that pressing of the flesh.

Jackie didn't make the team for Osaka, which came as something of a surprise, especially as Sharran did, after landing with full force on top of several unlucky opponents. Adele was accompanied by a young rugby team-mate, late arrival Rebecca Williams, known only as "Pink". Katie Hathaway, a teacher and Oxford graduate, completed the unlikely quartet.

They did their utmost but, unsurprisingly, three of them were undone by technical flaws. However, Adele and Pink were a revelation. These were strong, fit, focused sportswomen, and Adele brilliantly manoeuvred herself into the final. There she came up against a gigantic Russian who picked her up and chucked her out of the ring in less than a second, but her achievement in reaching that stage was exceptional.

So if you are watching the Super Bowl this evening and you are a frustrated lineman who can't find 50 team-mates to play with and 50 more to play against, or can't afford all the gear, grab yourself a reasonably sized towel, take your clothes off and get eating.