Winter Olympics: Akebono to lead sumo's debut on Olympic stage

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The Independent Online
Akebono has been chosen to lead the Olympic debut of Japan's ancient national sport, performing an ancient purification rite almost naked in the Nagano Winter Olympics' opening ceremony.

Akebono, a naturalised Japanese citizen born in Hawaii, holds the sport's highest rank of yokozuna, grand champion. The 6ft 7in, 32st mammoth is the first non-native Japanese to attain that coveted rank.

Organisers had originally hoped the other grand champion, Takanohana, would conduct the ritual. Takanohana is a native Japanese and has won more tournaments than Akebono. But Takanohana is in the hospital with a high fever, and Olympic organisers and officials of the Japan Sumo Association decided Akebono would have to replace him.

During the "dohyo-iri" (ring-entering) ritual, Akebono will wear little more than the wrestler's traditional loincloth and the ornate belt that only grand champions are allowed to use. In keeping with tradition, he will raise his legs several times and stamp his feet to symbolise the crushing of evil spirits.

"We all wish Takanohana a full and speedy recovery," said Ko Yamaguchi, the spokesman for the Nagano Organising Committee. "We are sure grand champion Akebono will perform a spectacular dohyo-iri ceremony."

Sumo wrestling, one of the most popular sports in Japan, has its origins in ancient rituals associated with Japan's indigenous Shinto religion. Many Shinto shrines still have sumo rings, which are considered sacred ground, on their precincts.

There are six, 15-day professional sumo tournaments each year. Japan's national television network broadcasts hours of sumo action live each day during tournaments, and the leading exponents of the sport, like Akebono, are among the highest paid athletes in the country.

Supporters of the amateur ranks of sumo have been trying for years to build up enough of a following worldwide to get the sport in the Olympics, possibly within the next decade. They have initiated a yearly World Championships, and boast 78 national sumo associations around the world.

They have also found a sympathy for their cause in Nagano, which they hope will be the perfect opportunity to showcase their cause. "I think that from the standpoint of internationalising sumo, this is a very significant event," Yamaguchi said.

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