On the sacred dohyo, or raised clay ring, at the Ryogoku Kokugikan stadium, two well-built teenagers are competing in the sixth Junior Sumo World Championships, but El Karim’s job is done; he has just won the bronze medal in the heavyweight division.
“I have only been doing sumo for one year, so I am very pleased with my performance here today,” said El Karim, who is 18 years old but 186cm tall and weighs in at an impressive 142kg.
“Before sumo, I trained in judo for eight years, but my coach told me a year ago that I could become a hero in the sumo world, so I started practising,” he says. When he is not training, El Karim is a student at the faculty of science at Egypt’s Mansoura University.
His route to the bronze medal was not an easy one, pitting him against a 145kg Bulgarian wrestler and a quick-footed Hungarian.
The gold medal was taken by the Japanese competitor, Kou Okuya, in a clean sweep for the host nation of all three weight categories, light, middle and heavyweight.
“It is just wonderful to be given the chance to compete here in Japan, and for that I thank my trainers and my family,” El Karim says. “To be here, in the home of sumo, is just a dream come true.”
More than 50 wrestlers from 18 countries, including Estonia, Tonga, India, Brazil, Hong Kong and Mauritius, were taking part in the championships in early July.
The Kokugikan stadium hosts three basho, or tournaments, for the top wrestlers in sumo, which has ambitions to be included in a future Olympic Games. At present, Mongolian wrestler Asashoryu is the undisputed king of the ring and Japan is struggling to find a domestic contender to stand up to him.
Samer Abd El Karim has been
Egyptian coach Ahmed Mohamed Ibrahim Khalifa believes that challenge could ultimately come from his country.
“It’s good to get medals for the team, and I’m pleased because this is only the second time we have competed in the junior championships,” he said.
“It’s even more special because these boys have only been training in sumo for one year. Before that, they were doing judo or other types of wrestling.”
There are around 5000 sumo wrestlers in Egypt, he says, competing at 30 clubs and in nine zones across the country.
“The sport is becoming more important in Egypt and we are planning for the future”
“The sport is becoming more important in Egypt and we are planning for the future,” says Khalifa.
“We came here to win medals and I’m glad we have been able to do that – although I am a little unhappy that we did not do better because we were unfortunate in one bout. The judge was unable to see a decision that should have gone our way, and that was against the eventual winner.
“We are the only Arabic country to play sumo. Egypt is the strongest team in Africa and I am sure we can build on that,” he added, patting another one of his medal-winners on the back. Hamdy Mohamed Wageh, 17, took bronze, in the lightweight category.
Work to be done
Hidetoshi Tanaka, president of the International Sumo Federation, agrees that the competitors are trying hard, but says they still have a long way to go.
The Egyptian team still has a way
“In comparison with Japanese junior-level wrestlers, the rest of the world still has some way to go, but I have seen some good spirit here today,” he said, adding that he believes an international tournament such as this will help raise the profile of the sport and earn it a place in the Olympics in the near future.
Novice nation Hong Kong was also competing in Tokyo, with the youngest wrestler taking part in the tournament Hong Pak-to, at the tender age of 13.
“It’s a great building and I really feel as if I am in the home of sumo,” says Hong, who weighs in at a hefty 80kg and is 180cm tall. “It’s perfect for sumo and it’s just great to be able to compete here.”
Team-mates Sheung Ka-Ming, 17, and Ng Tsz-Shing, 14, have also been impressed on their first visits to the spiritual home of sumo.
“The stadium is much larger than I expected and even though this year we have not won any medals, I hope to compete again next year as I am sure I have learned from this experience,” says Ng, who took up sumo for a number of reasons, not just his physique.
“I guess one reason was my body size,” says Ng, who stands 168cm tall and weighs 106kg. “But it’s much more than that; I like it because it’s exciting, it’s fast, it’s technical and it’s a sport that forces you to use your mind to overcome an opponent.
“I have to think very hard if I am matched against a taller, heavier opponent if I want to beat him,” he said.
In sumo it takes brains as well as
And even though the Hong Kong team left empty-handed, team manager Samson Mak says he has seen real progress in the nine years since sumo started in Hong Kong.
“We only started the sport in 1991, but now we have more than 300 men, women and children competing in Hong Kong and this is the second time we have competed in the junior championships,” says Mak, who is also chairman of the Hong Kong Sumo Association.
“They train hard at home, but the best way to learn is from competing against other wrestlers from around the world and learning from their experiences,” he said.
“Today, they have all tried very hard, and I’m certain that in the future we will be good enough to win a medal.”
The next junior tournament will be in Estonia, and Hong aims to have improved his technique by then.
“When I get into the ring, in my mind I try to see my opponent as soft as tofu,” he says. “I have to use my mind to overcome him.”
Egyptian wrestler Abd El Karim will not be there, however, as he is soon to make the step up to the men’s competition. And while he has got to grips with Japan’s ancient sport, he has not yet acquired a taste for the food.
“It’s a wonderful country and the people have been very kind to us, but I’m not so sure about the food,” he said. “We have had some problems with what we can eat.”