An American Sumo Star Is a Huge Hit in Japan

SUMO wrestler Konishiki stood in the ring in Fukuoka's arena and wept tears of joy over his victory. ``This is like a dream,'' he told reporters. The giant Samoan-American from Hawaii thrust himself into the sumo history books Sunday when he became only the second non-Japanese to win a tournament in this ancient and uniquely Japanese sport. The 25-year-old American wrestler surely felt a surge of pride when an official of the United States Embassy, in the highly formal Japanese appropriate for the occasion, stood in the ring and read a message of congratulations from President Bush.

Konishiki's success was front page news here. The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest daily, commented hopefully on Monday that ``the cheerful young man'' had ``become a big bridge for Japan-US friendship.''

The American triumph in sumo marked the close of what sportswriter Robert Whiting calls a ``great weekend'' for Americans in Japanese sport. On Saturday, for the first time ever, American baseball players were selected as the Most Valuable Players (MVPs) of both of the Japanese professional baseball leagues.

Sumo became a professional sport about 300 years ago. Mr. Whiting describes sumo as not only a sport but ``an art form, a religious ceremony, and a spiritual ritual.'' After a series of elaborate rituals, sumo comes down to what resembles a clash between two football linemen, each trying to force his opponent out of a packed clay ring or to make him touch the ground with any part of his body other than his feet.

The stylized combat in the ring has been refined over the centuries, enforced by a hierarchical system of stables of wrestlers bound by a Spartan discipline.

Only one foreigner has previously succeeded in sumo, fellow Hawaiian Jesse Kuhaulua, who fought under the name of Takamiyama. He won the only other foreign tournament victory in 1972, gaining great popularity before his retirement in 1984 to set up his own sumo stable. Takamiyama has become a Japanese citizen.

Whiting recalls that Konishiki's early success in the top ranks of sumo in 1984 was greeted with derision by the sports press. At more than 540 pounds (he has since slimmed down to 488), Konishiki, whose real name is Saelvaa Fuauli Atisanoe, was heavy even by sumo standards. He was criticized for having little technique other than using his bulk. His manner was thought insolent and without ``dignity.''

But as Konishiki has risen in the ranks to the level of ozeki, or champion, one level below the top level of yokozuna, or grand champion, he has gained in skill and popularity. A number of other foreigners, most of them Samoan-Americans, are following him up through sumo's ranks.

Konishiki's win was sealed in a dramatic bout on Friday with sumo's greatest and most popular yokozuna, Chiyonofuji, one of the three best ever in the history of the sport.

Whiting was among a crowd of about 200 who had stopped in front of a large outdoor screen in downtown Tokyo on Friday afternoon to watch the matchup. ``When Konishiki beat Chiyonofuji the people roared with delight,'' he describes.

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