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  Wednesday, 29 January, 2003, 13:16 GMT
Sumo in crisis?
Asashoryu is Sumo's third grand champion
Asashoryu is Sumo's third foreign grand champion

Sumo, the traditional sport of the Japanese, is as synonymous with Japan as baseball is with America.

But the ancient sport is suffering something of a crisis in its homeland.

Sumo facts
Basho - a sumo tournament
Dohyo - the ring in which Sumo is performed
Mawashi - the thick belt worn by wrestlers
Rikishi - the name given to all sumo wrestlers
Yokozuna - sumo grand champion

For the first time in history, two foreign-born wrestlers reign at the top of sumo.

On Wednesday, Dolgorsuren Dagvadorj, better known as Asashoryu or Morning Blue Dragon, became the first Mongolian to be promoted to the highest rank of the sport.

The 22-year-old's ascent to Yokozuna, or grand champion, is his reward for winning two successive tournaments.

Asashoryu joins Hawaiian wrestler Musashimaru as the only practising grand champions, following the retirement of Japanese Yokozuna Takanohana last week.

Their recent successes have highlighted the growing influence of foreign-born wrestlers in sumo, a development that has sparked great debate.

In Japan, few honours can compete with being named a grand champion of sumo.

Sumo originated in Japan over 2,000 years ago when it was a ceremonial means of divining the will of the gods, performed in shrine precincts.

But in recent years an increasing number of foreign wrestlers have donned traditional loincloths, their hair in samurai-like topknots, and battled it out in the circular ring.

From now on I will put even more effort in training than before and do my utmost as Yokozuna for the growth of sumo

Asashoryu, on receiving the title of grand champion

The pioneer was American Jesse Kuhaulua, who entered the sumo world in 1964 under the name of Takamiyama, opening the way for fellow Hawaiians in the first big foreign invasion in the 1980s.

American-born Konishiki is perhaps the best known foreign wrestler after winning three Grand Sumo tournaments, although he never made the rank of grand champion.

Mongolians have since replaced the Americans as the leading foreign presence with 31 wrestlers.

In all there are now 51 foreigners competing in the ancient sport, including four Russians and three each from the United States and Brazil.

The influx of foreign stars has not been welcomed by many traditionalists, who fear that the sport is in decline.

No Japanese wrestler has been promoted to Yokozuna since 1998 and attendance has dropped in recent years as the sport's most celebrated stars have retired through age or injury.

But many sumo supporters have welcomed the internationalization of the sport as they push to get it into the Olympics.

One supporter is Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who was enthusiastic about Asashoryu's achievement.

"It's splendid," Koizumi told reporters.

"His country is different, his language is different, his customs are different and his food is different, but he endured the training and leapt to the top.

"I want him to maintain that spirit and wrestle like a Yokozuna."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Asashoryu's acceptance speech
"I would like to humbly accept"
See also:

04 May 01 | Funny Old Game
22 Jan 01 | Other Sports
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