When Politics and War Interfere

The first thing I want to say here is that the following is commentary. This represents my (Andy’s) thoughts and no one else’s. It doesn’t even represent my opinion because, well, I’m still working that out. The situation in Ukraine is evolving by the day and unfortunately looks to get worse before it gets better. Hat tip to the folks at Grand Sumo Breakdown for posting the unfortunate news that Russian and Belarusian athletes will not be allowed to participate at the amateur sumo championships being held in Alabama.

My topless Putin jokes aside, this is very unfortunate for the athletes. I hope the war ends and the decision can be reversed in time for the event in July (7-17). However, in the past 24 hours it looks like fighting is escalating.

For the past couple of years I’ve been eager for COVID to end because there’s so much international sumo to explore. Russia has definitely been one of the hot spots for the growth of the sport, along with Brazil, even places as far away as Iran seem to be catching the sumo bug. I’ve enjoyed watching the videos on social media.

This whole war, and the way it’s been handled, is completely antithetical to the values of the sport of sumo. I know that sumo wrestlers are supposed to be bushi, and that sumo is a martial art (although Wikipedia doesn’t seem to list it). But to me that means sumo takes the evolution of fighting to its logical end, to rather minimal violence. One does not seek the submission or destruction of the opponent but to simply tip him over or push him out of the ring. Why destroy each other? After all, you’d have another match tomorrow.

But getting beyond the simple rules of the sport, the sumo wrestler respects the humanity of his opponent. He comes to battle, unarmed. If he uses illegal tactics, he loses. When he loses, he bows and walks away. When he wins, the fighter accepts his prize and walks away to get ready for tomorrow. It’s a sensibility that I’ve hoped would carry over into politics, domestically and internationally, but sadly it hasn’t yet.

I’m still looking forward to being able to enjoy watching sumo at these far-flung places. It just seems like Russia may not be for a while which is a bit of a gut-shot. I took Russian in college, before eventually switching to Japanese, because I’d always been fascinated by Russian culture and the language. I’m sure it’s partly from growing up at the tail end of the Cold War but this goth always had an affinity for Russian 19th Century literature and the food and vodka are great…except for beets. (I can’t freaking stand beets.)

Anyway, I guess you could say I’ve been following Russian politics for a while and I’ve had a beef with Putin as his grasp on the country has turned more and more authoritarian and there is no sense of an exit plan or transition, particularly after his brief stint as “Prime Minister.” The developments of the past few decades has erased a lot of the optimism I’d had back in the Yeltsin days, particularly with the growing aggression toward independent neighbors like Georgia and Ukraine and his shocking “extracurriculars” which have included international assassinations, including the polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko.

International Reaction

Why would this war be any different than Putin’s involvement in Syria? Saudi war in Yemen? The Tigray War and crisis in Ethiopia? Why would this conflict bring such a massive negative reaction to punish their athletes in international competition? Well, I imagine Europe does not welcome war there, especially with a Global superpower as a belligerent. But Putin’s (calculated?) decision to bring up the nuclear threat the other day, and then escalating the assault during ceasefire talks, is probably sparking a lot of these punitive reactions.

This decision by many international sporting organizations to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes and teams from competition doesn’t feel right. But neither does ignoring the rapidly worsening crisis and assuming that Roga (Russian) and Shishi (Ukrainian) don’t have lives and families outside the dohyo. It’s more than just uncomfortable, it’s tragic. Many people seek out sport as a respite from the dramas of life, and particularly politics. And we need to be very wary here of shifting from accommodating and caring for the people in Ukraine and their families abroad, and discrimination or punishing innocent people. If it’s done to foment hatred or just to send a message to a leader who doesn’t seem to give a rat’s ass about anything but strength and power, I doubt it will work as intended.

I mean, I’d love to challenge Putin to our own private winner-take-all basho, where I’d face the supposed judo expert and settle things the way civilized men do — and give him the thumping he’s always wanted. And after delivering the most spectacular henka ever seen as I defeat El Presidente 15-0, he immediately resigns to go live in a shack in the Urals. But idealism and silly fantasy is rather pointless because for the real athletes, it’s not a joke. I worry about Orora, and Amuru, and it can’t be easy. War sucks. It should not be glorified. It sucks.

20 thoughts on “When Politics and War Interfere

  1. This is a really difficult topic and I appreciate the way you have treated it sensitively. And also invoked that one of the things that we love about sumo is the fact that whether you win or lose, you treat your opponent with respect and dignity. The world could learn a lot from sumo.

    I think it’s a real travesty that the world will not get to compete together at the amateur level in sumo, especially knowing how much that region of the world in particular has contributed to sumo over the years. At the same time, I do struggle with how sports and sporting events are used by “strongmen” to foment naughty nationalist feelings among people and stir up hatred. It’s not cool.

    So I don’t know what the right answer is, just that I agree that it’s terrible and sickening to see what’s happening. One of the most valuable benefits of my involvement in the sumo community has been the ability to meet and share stories with new friends from around the world – I don’t think we should ever want that opportunity to connect with others to be limited by some guy’s mad antics or the horror of war. And I also hope those in the sumo community who are impacted are safe, wherever they may be.

    • Thank you. I’d been tempted to just leave it unsaid and ignore it, but that didn’t feel right.

      • Well first of all it’s your site, but also, on a much broader level, putting all current issues aside… it’s also cool from time to time to look at some of these traditions of sumo and go “what can we learn from the way that sumo works and apply that to make life better?”

        Kawaigari on the other hand…. not so much!!!!!!

  2. This war is different from the others, like in Middle East or Africa, because it is not based on protracted (and to so extent predictable) ethnic or religious resentments, but it is decision of single man, not even a party, who started it arbitrarily to protect his own power slipping out of his hand.

    And more – this war is not going to change into controllable confined protracted conflict, like in Syria or Libya, but has the potential to spread to the whole world.

    For sure the main actor of this spectacle didn’t intend to play at such high stakes. He had thought Ukrainian state would disappear when attacked like the Afghan one last year, but it turned out to be completely opposite. And now he has no place to go back – if he loses the war, he is over. So he won’t, at any cost. Even if it the cost would be a nuclear war. He can only raise the stakes. Anyway for like about recent two years he had no place to run, but forward.

    Whole Poland is with Ukraine and is watching this war with bated breath.

    And regarding sumo – I generally agree with banning athletes, however sumo is unique in that the wrestlers doesn’t represent their countries, but represent Japan and its culture, so they shouldn’t be banned.

    • Your point about, “if he loses, he’s over”, is spot on. And that definitely takes it to another, scarier level.

  3. Russia can behave like a twentieth century imperialistic power, attacking its neighbor, or it can be a twenty-first century nation living peacefully with the rest of the world and promoting its image through sporting prowess. It can’t do both. The sporting bans are the visible recognition of that fact. They feel intuitively right to me. Sometimes people just have to take a stand, even when they know it won’t affect the outcome.

    • Good point. It sucks that sumo gets hit with fallout from what Putin is doing. That said, I wonder if many of the Russian wrestlers themselves feel their nation is under a stranglehold by a madman dictator and would be willing to sacrifice something to see him go. War is a terrible thing. It disrupts every aspect of life.

  4. On an irrelevant point, I suspect that your affinity is with 19th century Russian literature (Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy). 18th century Russian lit is relatively obscure.

  5. Thanks Andy.
    I’m from Urals. It is nice place, far from political bullshit. I’d send Putin to Kamchatka but many people wouldn’t like this either. It is also a beautiful and great place, shouldn’t be destroyed.
    If you remember Russian history, Peter the Great ‘opened a window’ to Europe. For Putin it seems didn’t work and he closes it now.
    There were (still are?) politicians on both sides and they betrayed us. I’d prefer separate sport from political decisions.
    Love and Peace to Everyone!

    • If the relevance of current events to sumo was not apparent to the reader, well, I question whether the post was actually read.

      • I had read and have now re-read but still quite fail to see what the relevance of the actions of the Russians has to do with the next Basho unless following the treatment of Maestro Gergiev by the mayor of Munich that the JSA should – and if he remains silent as did Gergiev – bar Roga.

        • A sumo blog covers sumo, not just what happens in “the next” honbasho.

        • Gergiev does not “remains silent” all his time in Russia. He represents Putin on election and supports his ideas of uniting Russia, Byelorussia and Ukraine and who knows what next. Check his Palmira concert. Yes, he probably needs it to keep his status in Russia, so you can consider him Russian bureaucrat. He is a bad example for your cause.

          It looks like a spiteful vengeance to kick sportsmen out of competitions. It comes out of helplessness. The right way to handle the war is to send an army to help Ukrainians fight with occupants. Are you trying to persuade westerners to make the right choice?

          • Re: Tanya’s “the right choice”, this is a sumo forum, I presume. In my humlöe opinion it should stay like that.
            The situation is far to complex for well meant suggestions from international sumo fans (and US senators).

Comments are closed.