Unlike ssireum, sumo refuses to fade awayThe other day I hung out with Kim Sung-tak, known in Japan’s sumo world as “Kasugao.” Kim is by no means the most popular sumo wrestler in Japan. Nor is it likely he’ll achieve one day the rank of Yokozuna, the highest honor in Japanese sumo wrestling. His current record in the Makuuchi Division is 55-77-3, and he is already 28 years old.
The best thing that could happen to him is that he’ll gain the right to operate his own sumo gym, a privilege given to retired sumo wrestlers who achieved greatness during their active days.
“I would have to get Japanese citizenship then,” said Kim, adding that he’ll worry about that when the time comes. Whatever happens, he doesn’t regret entering the sumo world in 1998. Nor should he.
The day I watched him practice at a gym in the Tokyo area, I realized what sumo wrestlers have and Korean ssireum athletes don’t.
In one corner, an apprentice wrestler slammed his open palms repeatedly against a wood pole to develop strength. A dozen others did their leg lifts (more than 400 per day), while others held practice bouts against each other. Eyeing the others from one corner of the gym, Kim occasionally grunted a few words of advice, and those who listened did so with respect, bowing their heads.
He also practiced with the others. Most of them were pushed out of the ring. When he finally did lose, a junior wrestler wiped away the sweat from his body, as well as the sand that clung to his skin during the bout. He was the only one with a water bottle inside the gym. His white belly pad stood out from the rest, who wore black ones. He stood and watched when others wiped the floor clean. That day, in that gym he was the closest thing to god.
When he walks on the street wearing a distinguished traditional dress along with an equally distinctive hair style called oicho, he is instantly recognized as an athlete playing a sport that has a tradition stretching back several hundred years.
True, sumo’s popularity is not what it used to be. Corporate sponsorship, ticket sales and TV ratings are down these days, but it’s hard to imagine that this ancient sport will fade away like ssireum, Korean traditional wrestling, has.
Ssireum claims to be a traditional sport, yet there are few ingredients that project such an image the way that sumo does. I could talk about establishing tradition but it is already too late at this stage.
With the Korea Broadcasting System recently pulling the plug on ssireum, and amateur and professionals now forced to fight together in tournaments in order to have enough wrestlers, it’s time to think seriously about what is left for ssireum.
The sport has passed the point where it can survive on its own. Only two professional teams still exist, and they are not making any money. A long-term government sponsorship (along with a plan) coupled with the Korea Ssireum Association’s own efforts are the only way out of the slump. But most of all, the organization should take Kim’s advice to heart: “I just hope they stop the infighting.”
That’s right. Nobody is going to lift a finger for an organization that is busy feuding while the ship is going down.
by Brian Lee