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Sumo has avoided the vices of modern sports: No Shoes, Please

"That guy has boobs!" my son observed, whereas my daughter had only one, incredulous question: "Who fixes their hair?"

We were watching sumo wrestling highlights on television, and clearly my children were missing the finer aspects of the sport. However, they were also sharing what I considered to be quality time with their visiting grandmother, for whom I had ordered "TV Japan" on cable so she could watch Japanese language programming during her stay.

For the uninitiated, let me offer a brief explanation. Sumo is an ancient sport - possibly Japan's first - dating back to the seventh century. Two grossly obese men - with hair in a traditional topknot and wearing nothing but a silk girdle to protect the groin area - throw a handful of salt in the air for purification purposes, then enter a small ring to duel. The object is to push the opponent outside the boundaries of the ring or to maneuver him such that any part of his body (other than the soles of his feet) touches the ground. Each bout averages five or 10 seconds, and if you didn't know any better, you would presume that MTV had designed the sport for the attention spans of its principal audience.

The girdles are a cross between those back-support belts that Home Depot employees wear and a Victoria's Secret thong. The fabric is gorgeous and vibrantly colored. The waistband is thick, the front piece adequate, but beyond that, the wrestler himself is completely exposed. We're talking butt cheeks, cellulite and, as my son noted, breasts.

Even the referee dons an ancient-style kimono, but for me this is all part of the appeal of sumo: a sport that has reached the modern age without technological advancement. No hyper-reactive timing mechanism to clock races more accurately; no gear or clothing using nanotechnology to enhance speed and power. Just big, fat men whose training regimen includes sleeping immediately after consuming meals and pushing each other around.

I also suspect that none of these guys take performance-enhancing drugs - most probably for fear of dishonoring the sport, or possibly because, carrying that bulk, they would go straight into cardiac arrest with the majority of chemical substances. Either way, I am glad. I tend to be suspicious and cranky when it comes to this issue. (Even before his vitamin supplement controversy hit the headlines, for example, I had just assumed that Barry Bonds took steroids because I couldn't think of another reasonable explanation for the strength he had acquired at his age, and because the sport of baseball is so pitifully negligent about addressing steroid use among its players.)

In Japan, sumo champions are respected and admired by men and women alike. Many are idolized, and this despite the fact that they are overweight and virtually naked, coifed in hairdos from another century. Compare that to our own national obsession with thinness and the pursuit of six-pack abs, and you can understand why I find sumo to be a wonderful anomaly of sport: fiercely traditional and ritualistic, yet competitive and a bit wacky, too. For me, the wrestler himself is a refreshing contrast to our own cookie-cutter sensibilities about beauty and the human body.

Quite frankly, I rarely see a 250-pound person in this country carry himself with so much dignity, poise and, well, weight.

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