November 3, 2005

Blonds Enter the Sumo Ring

In a nation where outsiders are still regarded with unease, the stream of foreigners invading the most Japanese of sports -- sumo, and one whose rituals are strongly tied to the domestic Shinto religion -- has generated both controversy and backlash. Critics contend that the new European stars have longer arms and legs and allege that this gives them an unfair advantage. The huge growth in foreign-born pros led officials in 2002 to impose a limit of only one foreign wrestler per sumo stable. Some stables, all of which are permitted to be owned and operated only by Japanese citizens, maintain private policies barring foreigners.

That, however, has turned out to be the stable owners' loss. Like boxing managers, they get a percentage of their wrestlers' purses, and those stables that court foreigners have done extremely well financially. Many others now are actively scouting international talent -- including Baruto, who was spotted by a visiting Japanese stable owner while wrestling at a local sumo club in Estonia.

Baruto's meteoric rise to the upper echelons of sumo has caused a stir. He is poised this year to become the first blond to pass into the higher ranks, meaning he must wear a traditional hairstyle binding his straw-colored locks in a topknot shaped like a ginkgo tree leaf. Some sumo officials have demanded that he now dye his hair black in deference to the essentially Japanese nature of the sport.

That is one fight, at least, that Baruto might be willing to concede.

"I am in Japan and I know things are done differently here," he said, lifting hands the size of hams in a shrug. "I don't care what the color of my hair is. I just care about winning."

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