CHESHIRE, ENGLAND — Recent photos have captured the intense summits between French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Observers wondered: Were they plotting another way to challenge the Americans over Iraq? Were they seeking to become the next joint superpower?
Last week, however, it was revealed that the two leaders were likely focused on something else entirely.
"The French president is an expert on sumo," Mr. Schröder's wife told a talk show. "The two of them always talk about it when they meet."
Mr. Chirac is such a buff that he's caught several tournaments in Japan and follows the results on the Internet. Commentators are fond of weaving the allusion into their pieces, such as earlier this year, when one warned the French leader not "to ignore one key sumo lesson: Never to get too close to the rim of the ring, where one risks being thrown out."
Schröder is another story. Apparently, he became a fan of the ancient Japanese sport last summer when he had to cancel his vacation in Italy, after Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi compared a German member of the European Parliament to a concentration camp guard. Alone in Hanover in front of the television, he began watching sumo wrestling and apparently, like Chirac, he's now hooked on the sport.
In sumo wrestling, the object is to force your opponent to either touch the ground with something other than the sole of his foot or leave the ring. Matches rarely take more than a few seconds and the best wrestlers tend to tip the scales at 400 pounds or more.
It would be highly impolitic to suggest that anyone who spends a lifetime feasting on German food sooner or later comes to resemble a sumo wrestler. Yet political leaders are constantly confusing the world of sports with the real world. In such an environment, it's not out of line to suggest that the sporting predilections of world leaders can reveal a lot about them.
Mr. Berlusconi, for example, rode his ownership of the soccer club AC Milan to political glory, using constant soccer imagery in his campaign and even naming his right-wing party after a soccer chant (Forza Italia).
Vladimir Putin may have learned a thing or two about how to handle his Russian enemies in acquiring a black belt in judo.
Closer to home, when Richard Nixon wasn't tending to the Vietnam war in the early '70s, he was diagramming plays for Washington Redskins coach George Allen. Unfortunately, the plays he created for Allen were about as successful as his Vietnamization policy.
Even the current US president made his initial public splash as the owner of a sports team. Though too much can be made of sports as a political harbinger, baseball seems to embody conservatism far more than other sports. It is a pastoral game, played professionally most often by the kind of country or suburban boys who make up the base of the Republican vote. (Basketball's current urban roots on the other hand, lie closer to the heart of the Democratic Party.)
As for sumo, insiders know that the sport gives the German and French leaders a lot to discuss. Take the issue of cultural hegemony, always a hot topic in these two nations. It was reported earlier this year that grand champion Takanohana was retiring, leaving the once all-Japanese sport increasingly dominated by foreign wrestlers.
The two have probably already discussed the abject lessons to be learned when American influence comes to the fore. Akebono, aka Chris Rowan, the sumo champion born in Hawaii who retired in 2001, is now joining something as undignified as a kickboxing league. "My zeal for combative sport never cooled down," the 500-pound athlete said.
At least he didn't do what US native Konishiki did and really try to Americanize the sport's image by hosting a Japanese talk show and recording a rap CD with titles such as "Sumo Gangsta" and "Big Big Love." (He also sang the national anthem when the NBA's Clippers played the Supersonics in Tokyo in October.)
In fact, some might unfairly suggest that the appeal of sumo to these two leaders is that the sport is in about the same shape as their nations' economies. A bunch of outmoded practices are condemning both to second-class status. No one can figure out how to come to terms with a bunch of new immigrant outsiders. The young don't have the same commitment to the system as the older generation once did.
As sumo goes, so go France and Germany. It doesn't have the same ring as "The battle was won on the playing fields of Eton," or even "Soccer is life." But in these troubled times, it will have to do.
• Steven Stark is a frequent commentator on sports and popular culture.