The Sumo Scene / More Undersized Prospects Get Chance with Relaxation of Physical Standards

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A prospect runs the 50-meter dash as part of the “second-stage” test of athleticism for undersized new recruits held April 19 at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan.

In a form of wrestling without weight classes, there is little doubt that a sumo wrestler with a superior physique has a decided advantage in the ring. And as such, it gets fans juiced up to see an undersized competitor standing up to a larger foe.

The Japan Sumo Association, facing a steady decrease in the number of those seeking a career in the sport, has relaxed its physical standards for prospective recruits, no longer relying solely on minimum height and weight requirements.

If a recruit does not meet the set criteria in terms of physical size, the path is no longer closed, as he can be accepted by passing a newly established test of athleticism.

Under the new system put in place in April, the athleticism test is conducted as the “second stage” in the process, and one new recruit has already taken advantage of the additional chance. A 15-year-old scouted by stablemaster Hidenoyama (former ozeki Kotoshogiku) who stands just 160 centimeters passed with flying colors.

“Becoming a pro sumo wrestler has been my dream since I was a child,” the happy youth said of taking his first steps into the sumo world. “It was before the new system was put in place, and I would drink a liter of milk every day in hopes of growing even a little taller.”

Actually, there was a similar test for athletic ability in the past that was applied to those who failed to meet the height requirement. Used from 2001 to 2012 and called the “second test,” it set a lower standard for body size than in the normal screening.

It did not eliminate restrictions, as the recent change does, but did result in the emergence of a large number of popular wrestlers.

One who particularly stands out from among that group is former sekiwake Toyonoshima, who has since left sumo to make his way in the entertainment world. With a frame of just under 170 centimeters, he would put his head down at the jump-off like a battering ram and either force out his opponent or set up a throw.

It worked well enough to make him a 10-time winner of one of the three post-tournament awards during his career, which established him as among the top sekiwake of all time. He came close to winning the title at the 2010 Kyushu Tournament, but lost in a championship playoff with legendary yokozuna Hakuho.

As I watched the new recruits go through this year’s physical exam, I was reminded of what Toyonoshima said once: “I want to be the goal for kids of small stature to shoot for.”

The new system has widened the door to the sumo world, and maybe we will see a second, or even a third, Toyonoshima pass through. And they all will arrive with big dreams.

— Kamimura is a sumo expert.