Ssireum backers could learn a lot from sumo

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Ssireum backers could learn a lot from sumo

Name the one thing that stinks even more than the fact that Korea has only a handful of ssireum wrestlers trying to survive.
The correct answer would be: seeing Japanese sumo wrestlers come to town.
Not that sumo is bad. No, no. Sumo is great. Seeing those oversized potbellies, powerful ones at that, gives guys hope. Besides, the sport itself is fascinating.
In today’s globalized world, seeing a foreign country’s sport appear at the other end of the world is nothing new. With Japan so close, it should not be a surprise to see sumo events such as the one held in Seoul last weekend.
The only thing that bugs me is that ssireum, Korean traditional wrestling, which needs more help than ever, isn’t getting the sort of support sumo received from the Korean side when the event was scheduled.
Take a look at the sponsors of the event. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the city of Seoul and the Korea National Toursim Organization chipped in to make this thing happen, as part of the Japanese-Korean cultural exchanges that have been picking up speed lately. Lawmaker Kim Jong-pil, head of the Korean and Japanese Lawmakers Club, even visited the Blue House with Japanese sumo officials to chat with President Roh.
When was the last time he showed up at a ssireum match? When was the last time all of the above-mentioned government organizations came together to talk about ssireum?
While sumo has the power and resources to promote itself abroad, ssireum is dying, slowly but surely. From eight professional teams at the height of its popularity in the ’80s, there are now only three left.
People at the Korea Ssireum Organization should be thinking about marketing, and looking at sumo isn’t a bad idea. Sumo has a problem with dwindling TV ratings, but the fundamentals that made it what it is are solid.
Imagewise, sumo is Japan’s national sport. Ssireum is not Korea’s. That honor has fallen to taekwondo, which has enjoyed systematic government support since the late ’60s. Sumo has four exclusive stadiums, in major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka. Ssireum has none. All it has is 40-year- old Jangchung Stadium, which allows matches to be held there. The sumo season is every other month starting from January, with 15 days of play for each month, a total of 90 days. Ssireum has a total of 48 days.
If you take a look at how sumo projects a traditional image, there is much to learn. It starts from the very beginning of each match. Judges are dressed in colorful traditional robes; wrestlers toss salt into the air to ward off bad spirits. Sumo wrestlers go out in public in the same dress; they are instantly recognizable on the street. But they are not allowed to appear in commercials. It keeps their myth intact. It’s a concerted effort that works.
You may know of Choi Hong-man, ssireum’s rising star. His dyed hairstyle and techno dance celebration have earned him a following that ssireum athletes haven’t had in years (not that it is huge). But what I don’t like is the image he projects. Don’t get me wrong. I like this kid, but he and the spandex that ssireum athletes wear just don’t click with “tradition,” the word the association likes to use.
The boat is drifting, with no one taking charge, and all the ssireum officials can offer is the litany, “we are looking into it.” Every time I ask, I get the same answer. Every time, it sounds hollow, and very sad.


by Brian Lee

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