Sumo: A Japanese passion catches on in Europe
A world away from Tokyo, sumo is alive, well and winning popularity. In a large gymnasium at a sports centre in the Polish capital Warsaw, workers create a dohyo, or Sumo arena, using 26 tons of clay.
Meanwhile in an adjoining room, young boys with blond and chestnut hair practice the sumo moves of their hefty heroes, dragging their feet towards their coach, legs apart, knees bent and hands clasped in front.
Hundreds of young Poles are now learning sumo, as the ancient Japanese form of wrestling wins popularity in eastern Europe. Warsaw even recently hosted the world amateur sumo championships.
"My brother encouraged me and I'm glad he did," says Aleksander, a round-faced, blue-eyed, nine-year-old towhead weighing in at 29 kilograms (63 pounds).
"Certainly, one can just break loose and push the other competitor, but I thought it was a good idea for me because I can reflect, use my head, imagine a strategy," he says with a serious gaze.
In essence, sumo is a simple struggle between two rikishi (wrestlers) dressed only in mawashi, or a special type of cloth belt.
The winning contender is the one able to push their rival out of a ring that is 4.55 meters (15 feet) in diameter. The battles often last only a few seconds.
The six professional tournaments held each year in the Japanese archipelago are wildly popular here.
"But now sumo is not only for the Japanese," said Japanese ambassador to Poland Yuichi Kusumoto at the recent amateur competition.
In Europe, sumo is most popular in Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Russia and Ukraine, says Ukrainian Sergii Korobko, president of the European Sumo Federation. Ukraine itself has 5,000 amateur sumo competitors.
The sport also has a strong following in Bulgaria and countries farther afield like Azerbaijan.
"This sport is magic because it's fast and requires a dynamic and exceptional ability to think," says Polish sumo coach Arkadiusz Adamczyk, 45. "You can lose a match in a split second."
"In Poland, sumo is growing rapidly," says Bartlomiej Struss, who at 18, 2.02 meters (6.6 feet) and 154 kilograms (339 pounds) is one of Poland's great sumo hopes.
The Polish federation, founded in 2003, has more than 1,000 members in 60 clubs spread across the country.
"It is a sport for everyone, it's very safe because it's very simple," says Andrzej Wojda, the "father" of Polish sumo and the first non-Japanese person to have been accepted as a sumo gyoji (referee).
"I fell in love with sumo at first sight," Ukrainian Viktor Serdyukov, President of the Sumo Federation of Crimea, told AFP. For him, the sport is all about mastering oneself.
Unlike the traditional 2,000 year-old sport associated with Japanese Shinto religion, amateur sumo does not require competitors to increase their body weight but, instead, has several weight classes.
Another major difference in amateur sumo: it accepts women. Traditional sumo bans females from entering the dohyo as this traditionally was deemed a violation of the purity of the ring.
While female sumo may not be viewed as authentic in Japan, this has not deterred competitor Natalia Kolinierzak. "I train for four hours a week but often we go on training weekends where we spend hours on the mat each day," says the 16-year-old Polish hair-dressing apprentice who has been wrestling for a year.
More than 20 countries out of some 80 in the federation participated in the amateur championships in the Polish capital, where Takahiro Ono, Secretary General of the International Sumo Federation, vowed recently to "strive to make sumo an Olympic sport."
The Japanese won the majority of medals but Poland as host country also boasted seven, including three gold.