Sumo: Warriors shaping up for the big shove: British team will be mounting a serious challenge at the World Championships this weekend. Ian Ridley met them

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a nice line but a throwaway one, the wrestlers insist. 'The good thing about this sport is that you don't have to train for it, you just have to eat,' one of Britain's team of three during the inaugural World Championships in Tokyo said.

He was captured memorably on film doing so as part of one of those fly-on-the-dressing-room- wall documentaries that the BBC do so cutely. 'It was hilarious but it didn't do us any favours,' Syd Hoare, the coach and chairman of the British Sumo Association, admits.

Indeed they felt they were made to look a little like British bully beef buffoons abroad, fitting eccentrically into a high Japanese sporting culture. Thus do they want to prove this Sunday at this year's second, 32-nation, championship - or basho as sumo tournaments are appropriately called - how seriously they take a sport with a reverent history, and which treats them, too, with some respect, by illustrating that far from being a joke, the Brits are, surprisingly, actually pretty good at it.

Indeed, Hoare expects at least one of his triad of Bill Etherington, Simon Smith - who given the skimpy apparel of the sport is well aware of references about his amazing dancing bare - and Steve Pateman to make the last eight and the team to reach the last four.

Etherington, a 39-year-old garage service manager from Blackpool, and Smith, a 24-year-old heating engineer from Lancaster, came to sumo from judo, at which Etherington beat Smith in the semi-finals on his way to the British heavyweight title at Crystal Palace last Saturday.

Whereas Etherington was attracted to it by Channel 4's coverage, and Smith took it up nine months ago to help him train, Pateman, a 29-year-old computer consultant from Derby, remembers reading about the mystique of it all as a child. 'It stuck in my mind that sumo wrestlers were supposed to be able to retract their testicles as Japanese warriors could do in combat,' he says. 'I'm not sure it's true though.

'You need the explosive power of a 100-metre runner like Linford Christie and you have to be very strong like Geoff Capes,' he adds of the appeal of the sport for him. 'But you have to be very quick-witted as well.' He had previously tried more conventional wrestling, becoming an English national finalist, and boxing.

All three are just over 19 stones, which seems light compared with some of the professionals seen on C4, but is deemed a reasonable fighting weight. A skilful, manoeuvrable little 'un is likely to beat a lumbering big 'un - the aim being, crudely put, to push the opponent out of the 15-feet circle - and indeed, a 22-stone Japanese beat a 43- stone American in last year's final.

'What matters is balance and will to win,' Etherington says. 'It is all about the first few seconds. Any lack of concentration is punished,' Smith adds. Technique is crucial, Hoare says. 'It's not just big guys crashing into each other. There is plenty of turning and twisting, heaving and pushing.'

Pateman, runner-up to Etherington in the 12-man British Championship, recently won the biggest tourmanent outside Japan, the Swiss Open, while Etherington was awarded the Fighting Spirit prize at a basho in Japan on his first visit three years ago. The British, then, were the first overseas wrestlers to compete there.

'We are part of sumo history, and they made me vice-president of the International Sumo Association,' Hoare, a Japanese speaker, said. 'They want to get the sport into the Olympics and to do that they have to make it international. We were their breakthrough.'

Hoare, who competed for Britain as a middleweight judo player at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo and became interested in sumo during his training there, does not expect this sport for the huge to become a huge sport here, though he says a good few are coming through. 'Fighting in a loin-cloth doesn't really suit the British culture,' he admits.

Perhaps it is that which has given people trouble in taking it seriously. Some flash in Japan might illuminate and change the picture a little.

(Photograph omitted)