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.
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.