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Wednesday, May 26, 1999 Published at 11:06 GMT


World: South Asia

Hawaiian scales sumo heights

Where big is beautiful: Musashimaru is the new star of sumo

By Juliet Hindell in Tokyo

A giant from Hawaii has fought his way up to the highest rank in Japanese sumo wrestling.

Musashimaru is only the second foreigner to achieve the rare honour of being made a yokozuna.

Wearing a formal kimono to the promotion ceremony, Musashimaru knelt before a microphone and bowed low.

But in contrast to his prize-winning performances in the ring, he fluffed his acceptance speech.

Perhaps it wasn't surprising that Musashimaru - known as Fuamalu Penitani in Hawaii - should have an attack of the nerves. This was a big moment for the huge wrestler.

Roots in American football

Born in Hawaii, his sporting career began in American football. He climbed up the ranks in sumo, reaching the second highest title four years ago.

Now 28 years old, he weighs 223kg - making him the heaviest yokozuna the sport has seen.

He said he was very happy to become a yokozuna, but would have to watch his weight so that he wouldn't become too heavy.


[ image: A lack of excitement has led to a decline in popularity]
A lack of excitement has led to a decline in popularity
Sumo is regarded in Japan as both a sport and an art form. Its rituals are linked to the Shinto religion.

Wrestlers repeatedly purify themselves with salt before confronting each other, clad only in loincloths, in the middle of a small ring. The object is to push the opponent down or out of the ring.

There are reports that some members of the Japan Sumo Association didn't approve of Musashimaru's promotion.

Some traditionalists felt he didn't exhibit the true spirit of a sumo wrestler - which probably meant they thought the rank of yokozuna should be the preserve of Japanese wrestlers.

But as he had won two tournaments in a row outright, it would have been difficult not to promote him.

The sumo world is also in need of some new stars. The other Hawaiian yokozuna, Akebono, is rumoured to be considering retirement, while the two Japanese champions, the brothers Takanohana and Wakanohana, have been dogged by injuries and scandals.

The lack of exciting new action and new stars are factors in sumo's declining popularity. Japan's ancient sport is losing fans to baseball and soccer, which feature much slimmer sportsmen in much faster games.



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