Korea’s seen sumo... What about ssireum?Japanese sumo wrestlers are currently touring Korea, with well-attended exhibition matches in Jangchung Stadium over the weekend ― the first ever held on the peninsula ― and more scheduled in Busan. Meanwhile, Korean traditional wrestling, ssireum, is trying to stay alive.
Devoted fans of the sport, which formed its first professional league in 1983, have left messages at the Korea Ssireum Association’s home page (www.ssirum.or.kr) voicing frustration over the sumo exhibition. “I don’t know what our ssireum officials are doing,” one fan wrote. “With the increasing cultural exchange, there will be more of this to come. What are we doing to save our sport?”
Some fans were angry that Japanese and Korean politicians had helped promote the events. “This is a plot to make money by Japanese sumo officials who have seen the popularity of their own sport waning in recent years,” one wrote.
Clearly, however, sumo is thriving in comparison to ssireum. Sumo has about 800 registered wrestlers, who are carefully divided into different leagues and ranked based on a complex system that grants various titles. Ssireum has just over 40 registered professional athletes, who are spread out among three teams. (At the sport’s height, there were eight professional teams.)
While sumo has four exclusive stadiums in cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, building an exclusive stadium for ssireum is a far-fetched dream at this point. “We have been dreaming about it for a long time. We are still hoping that one day it will happen, but things don’t look too good right now,” admits Min Byeong-kwan, a Korea Ssireum Association official.
According to the official, the association made a serious effort in 1996 to build a stadium. Architectural plans were drawn up, and a site south of Seoul was selected. But the cost of the project, estimated at 10 billion won, was too steep for a stadium dedicated to a sport that many companies thought didn’t have enough earning potential.
When the Asian economic crisis struck the following year, the plans were scrapped, and more years passed. All in all, the association has made four attempts to build a stadium, all in vain.
Currently, the association is still searching for a title sponsor for this year’s championships. Ceragem, a medical instruments manufacturer, abruptly cancelled its sponsorship in December, citing financial difficulties.
While there are many issues to be addressed, critiques of ssireum have pointed out that if the sport wants to be consistent with its own promotions, which tout it as a Korean tradition, the sport needs to do a better job of projecting a traditional image.
Currently, ssireum wrestlers wear spandex shorts, usually bearing the logos of their sponsors. Mr. Min says efforts have been made to make ssireum look more traditional, but have met with resistance from the players.
“Based on historical research, we came up with linen-type short pants in 1995, but the players complained that they were uncomfortable and risked exposure of their genital areas,” Mr. Min said. The experiment lasted less than a year before it was called off.
Lee Man-ki, a now-retired ssireum legend, says that without a drastic change in attitude on the part of association as well as the government, ssireum’s hard times will only get worse.
“Right now there is no plan, and there is no support of any kind from the government to do something about the situation,” Mr. Lee said. “Everybody is just complacent with the status quo.”
The sumo exhibitions in Korea, Mr. Lee said, might be the catalyst to spark needed changes.
“I haven’t seen them playing here this time yet,” he said. “But personally, I really think there is something we could learn as far the marketing of the sport goes and how they have succeeded in embedding it into society.”
by Brian Lee