Tokyo — The crowd is hushed. An official resembling a figure more out of Gilbert and Sullivan's ''Mikado'' than a sports referee enters the ring. He is clad in a kimono, Japanese split-toe socks, straw sandals, and a black court hat of gauze.
With the drop of his tasseled fan he commences one of the most enthralling contests in Japanese sports: sumo wrestling.
Two giant wrestlers, invariably potbellied with legs the size of tree trunks and weighing 300 pounds or more, suddenly leap at each other with the ferocity and speed of runaway trucks.
A quick shove or throw and the contest can be over in seconds because victory is obtained the moment any contestant has fallen to the floor or been nudged out of the ring.
On this humid night in Tokyo, scene of the Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament, the muscular Chiyonofuji easily overbalanced his giant but immensely popular foe Takamiyama.
The big question now is not so much whether Takamiyama, who weighs a monumental 440 pounds, will be defeated but whether he will continue his successful career. At 38 he is easily the oldest sumo wrestler still in business.
His aim, astonishing by sumo wrestling standards, is to continue wrestling until he is 40.
Just after he suffers a string of defeats, the Hawaiian-born wrestler turns the tables and vindicates himself. If you're a sumo fan, his special techniques are: Push-out, thrust-out, frontal force-out, elbow clamp free-down, and slap-down.
Takamiyama, whose given name is Jesse, has now become a Japanese citizen, Daidoro Watanabe.
Takamiyama is only a sumo name. All the wrestlers - yokozunas (grand champions) Wakanohana and Kitanoumi and ozekis (champions) Kotokaze and Takanosato - are called by their sumo names.
Wakanohana means ''flower of youth'' and Kitanoumi ''lake of the north.'' Frequently, sumo chosen names end in -yama (mountain), -gawa (river), and -umi (sea).
But for all the poetic names, there is nothing genteel about this sport that dates back 1,500 years and is one of the world's oldest, most traditional sports.
Before the contestants lunge at each other in the ring they indulge in psychological warfare.
First a handful of salt is scattered to purify the ring. Then they raise their legs sideways and stamp on the ground before they squat and face each other in the center of the ring.
As they crouch and lean forward, they drop their fists to the ground and glare defiantly at each other, sometimes hissing, attempting to psych the opponent out. The process may be repeated many times before the contest gets under way.
Sumo wrestling consists of 48 classical throws, most of which are achieved by maneuvering with a grip on the opponent's mawashi - the heavy silken loin cloth that is the only garment worn by sumo wrestlers.