Sumo saga grips Japan as humbled champ heads home

TOKYO Wed Aug 29, 2007 3:02am EDT

1 of 2. Sumo grand champion Asashoryu Akinori departs for Mongolia from Narita International Airport in Narita, east of Tokyo August 29, 2007, a day after officials of the ancient Japanese sport gave the go-ahead for the 150 kg (330 lb) Asashoryu to travel, ending weeks of wrangling that had received blow-by-blow coverage by the media.

Credit: Reuters/Yuriko Nakao

TOKYO (Reuters) - A young foreign wrestler at the pinnacle of Japan's ancient sport of sumo thumbs his nose at conservative elders in a highly public indiscretion, then falls into melancholy and begs to go home after being punished.

The summer saga of grand champion Asashoryu has gripped Japan's media ever since he was caught on video last month dashing around a soccer pitch back home in Mongolia despite having begged off a sumo tour in Japan due to back injuries.

On Wednesday, hordes of TV cameras covered the kimono-clad giant as he strode slowly, unshaven and eyes downcast, into the airport to catch a flight home, where officials of the Japan Sumo Association have finally agreed he could return for treatment.

"Does he look thinner? Is his top-knot done up properly?" queried one TV announcer.

"It's hard to say if he's thinner, because he is so big anyway," replied a female reporter on the scene.

"But he looks pale. He doesn't look like a grand champion."

Asashoryu's departure for Ulan Bator, where media say he will stay in a resort spa, topped the midday news on public broadcaster NHK.

One TV channel showed live the departure of the plane carrying the 26-year-old Mongolian and his stable elder.

Outraged at Asashoryu's appearance in the charity soccer event, the sumo association had banned him from two tournaments, pressed him to apologize publicly and told him to stay in Tokyo even after a doctor diagnosed him as mildly depressed.

This week they relented, letting him go home for treatment of what another doctor termed a "disassociative disorder".

NEVER SAYING SORRY

Japanese media predicted, however, that another misstep would almost certainly end the 150-kg (330 lb) wrestler's sumo career.

Promoted to the highest rank of "yokozuna" in 2003, Asashoryu, whose real name is Dolgorsuren Dagvadorj, has been hailed as one of the greatest wrestlers of his generation.

But his short temper and breaches of protocol have sparked criticism in the conservative world of sumo, where ritual plays almost as big a role as the nearly naked giants who tussle in a rope-lined ring.

Further denting Asashoryu's image, media said this week he had failed to declare over $859,000 in income to tax authorities years ago, although he later set his records straight.

"If he goes out drinking, he'll have to retire," blared a headline in one sports newspaper, adding that the mammoth wrestler would be under 24-hour surveillance during his stay in Mongolia, which might last through the end of September.

Even the staid Nikkei business daily got into the act, criticizing the baby-faced wrestler in a sports commentary.

"Doctors have given various diagnoses. But doesn't the public wonder coldly whether Asashoryu is truly ill?" the paper said.

"Far from apologizing, Asashoryu gave no explanation and sulked in his room. One can't deny feeling it pays to make trouble."

The unprecedently harsh punishment and flood of criticism has prompted some to suspect a dash of xenophobia.

Fewer young Japanese men have shown interest in becoming sumo wrestlers in recent years. The lifestyle is tough both physically and mentally and the chances of hitting the big time are slim.

That has opened up the field to wrestlers from as far afield as Mongolia, Russia and South America, but some Japanese are dissatisfied with the lack of native-born champions.

Sumo has not had a Japanese grand champion since the wildly popular Takanohana retired in 2003 and the only other yokozuna now is another Mongolian, Hakuho, a soft-spoken 22-year-old who fans hope can live up to the sport's strict code.

Others argued it was Asashoryu's refusal to repent in public that was his greatest offence in a culture where executives, politicians and athletes typically apologize for misdeeds by bowing deeply and weeping as TV cameras roll.

"In Japan, tears are so important," said Mark Buckton, editor-in-chief of Sumo Fan Magazine.

"Asashoryu will never truly be forgiven. If from day one, he had bowed his head and apologized, he'd be on the road, not only to personal recovery, but recovery of his reputation."

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