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Sumo - Japan's ancient sport threatened in 'age of convenience'

A sumo wrestler stretches during a summer camp at a freshly rebuilt stable in Soma, in Fukushima prefecture, northern Japan August 6, 2011.
A sumo wrestler stretches during a summer camp at a freshly rebuilt stable in Soma, in Fukushima prefecture, northern Japan August 6, 2011.

By Alastair Himmer

TOKYO (Reuters) - Aspiring sumo wrestler Mainoumi once convinced doctors to inject silicone into his scalp to meet height requirements for the ancient Japanese sport. Such sacrifice is a rarity now in a sport beset by scandals and with popularity at an all-time low.

With a history spanning centuries, sumo once graced the Imperial courts of Japan and wrestlers were held in the highest regard. Sponsors lavished gifts on the hulking giants and to join the ranks of the sumo was considered a worthy occupation.

Those days are long gone, however.

Tarnished by scandals involving drug use, bout-fixing, violence and alleged links to Japanese organized crime, sumo struggles to fill stadiums and attract new fans.

Such is its decline that last month only one person applied to take the sport's entrance exam.

This brought the total number of applicants for the year to just 56, the lowest since the current system of staging six major tournaments a year was introduced in 1958.

That compares to a peak of 223 in 1992 when muscle-bound Japanese brothers Takanohana and Wakanohana fired up the sport with their dynamic fighting styles.

"We should be wracking our brains to find solutions," said Shoji Kagamiyama, head of a sumo training gym.

"At this rate there will be more wrestlers quitting sumo than coming in. If that trend continues there will be none left. New wrestlers are our most precious commodity."

Last year sumo racked up debts of almost $50 million following a match-fixing sting and widespread arrests which led to a television black-out and a government ticking off.

The sport also drew outrage across Japan when a former gym boss was sentenced to six years in prison after a 17-year-old wrestler was beaten to death.

Last year, a gym chief was given a severe dressing down for beating three young wrestlers with a golf club for breaking curfew and not wearing traditional kimono outside.

"We don't know the reason why the numbers are dropping," a Japan Sumo Association (JSA) official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

"You would have to ask (applicants) why, or if the problems have had anything to do with their decision."

The situation is the latest manifestation of a long, slow decline. Public interest in the once-packed tournaments has been falling steadily over the past decade, with both crowds and television viewing figures down.

LOSING TO BASEBALL

Even without the scandals, sumo's popularity has been eaten away by 'cooler' sports. Sumo's Spartan lifestyle and warrior code appears lost on a modern Japan obsessed with glitz and celebrity.

While baseball continues to rule the roost, there is a growing challenge from soccer, whose 'cool factor' has rocketed since the 2002 World Cup co-hosted by Japan and South Korea, stealing still further fans.

Sumo also lacks home-grown heroes such as baseball's Ichiro Suzuki, who has broken Major League Baseball records for fun over the past 12 years, or soccer's Shinji Kagawa, who sealed a big-money transfer to Manchester United earlier this year.

"There's no question that sumo is at a turning point," said Eiji Takase, editor-in-chief of "Sumo" magazine.

"Compared to many professional sports the pay is relatively low and children think other athletes, like soccer players, are much cooler."

Newly promoted yokozuna (grand champion) Harumafuji, the third successive Mongolian to reach the elite rank, suggested that sumo may be too hardcore for today's pampered youth.

"Sumo is a strict sport," he told reporters. "Of course there are people who feel there is no need to put themselves through such hardship in an age of convenience."

In the late 1980s, wrestler Mainoumi talked doctors into injecting silicone into his head after he failed to make the height requirement of 1.73 meters.

He made his professional debut in 1990 and went on to become wildly popular for his incredible upset wins over wrestlers often twice his size.

"Being a wrestler is no longer an attractive job," sumo journalist Taro Arai said. "There used to be many patrons who sponsored gyms.

"They used to buy wrestlers watches, expensive meals, kimonos or give them money.

"Those kinds of sponsors no longer exist. That has made the life of a wrestler less attractive. Practice is hard and painful and it takes a long time to get promoted and paid."

LOCAL HEROES

The JSA has loosened its height and weight requirements in a bid to lure more applicants, but it could be too little, too late unless they can unearth some local role models.

Some observers feel that many of the problems relating to sumo's image can be traced back to Asashoryu's rise to top dog in 2003.

The Mongolian firebrand's brawls with rivals in bathhouses were out of place with the sport's warrior code, and he tested the JSA's patience further when he was caught playing soccer in a Wayne Rooney shirt after handing in a sick note for a back injury.

Asashoryu's fist-pumping, scowling and growling in the ring were also deemed a serious breach of protocol.

But criticism of Asashoryu ignored the fact he kept sumo afloat almost single-handedly in terms of publicity and ticket sales.

"It's hard to imagine Japanese kids jumping into sumo following foreign wrestlers," said Arai, alluding to the fact that there hasn't been a native Japanese yokozuna since 2003.

"Sumo needs a Japanese star."

Takase agrees that this would help, but also advocates taking pride in the cultural rituals unique to the sport and even returning to basics.

"For example, wrestlers don't need to be so heavy - thinner is better. This makes for faster wrestlers and more interesting bouts, like with Mainoumi," he said.

"If they abandon the rituals and just fight and go home, all it becomes is a fight. It's because it has this spirit that it's sumo - it needs to go back to that."

(Additional reporting by Ami Miyazaki and Elaine Lies; Editing by Peter Rutherford and Ossian Shine)

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