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Israeli sumo by: Itamar Eichner,

Sumo champs in Israel
Sumo champs in Israel

When Zionist leader Max Nordau coined the phrase “a Judaism of muscles”, he probably wasn’t thinking about an Israeli sumo champion. Nevertheless, Oleg Smolensky recently broke an Israeli record in the traditional Japanese martial art; he placed seventh in the World Championships in Sakai, Japan.

Smolensky, 36, looks nothing like the huge Japanese champions, who gorge themselves from a young age in order to reach weights of at least 250 kilograms (over 550 pounds).

Smolensky clocks in at a svelte 110 kilograms (about 240 pounds). But at the World Championships, the wrestlers are divided into weight categories; for the past three years, the Israeli champion has competed in the under-115-kilogram division.

Smolensky, a former club bouncer, overpowered opponents from Malaysia and Kazakhstan, before losing to a Ukrainian wrestler. The defeat cost Smolensky a place in the semifinals, where he had been pretty much assured of a medal.

“I didn’t anticipate anything, other than to participate in the competition,” Smolensky insisted in the wake of the Championships. “I was fairly pleased with myself. I wouldn’t say that I was surprised by the results, but it wasn’t a foregone conclusion. This is the first time that Israel is competing in a sumo contest abroad.”

Itai Nir, 26, was the only other member of the tiny Israeli delegation. Weighing in at a mere 75 kilograms (about 165 pounds), Nir, a karate instructor and a veteran sumo wrestler, competed in the under-85-kilogram weight category and was crushed by a Kazakh.

Shmulik Bass, diplomatic and cultural attaché to the Israeli embassy in Japan, notes that since this was the first time that Israel appeared in the competition, no one expected much of the untested team. Nevertheless, the Israeli wrestlers racked up impressive victories.

The Israeli delegation garnered a good deal of attention in Sakai. Bass reports that the president of the International Sumo Federation was delighted that Israel participated in the competition. In addition, Bass continues, the Federation’s president was very excited to meet a representative of the Israeli embassy.

“Oleg was excellent, but he lacked governmental and local backup and support,” bemoans Eldad Ben Chorin, chairman of the Israeli Sumo Association and team coach, “That’s what prevented him from doing better.

"I have no doubt that he would’ve reached first or second place. He was better than most of the competitors. A little funding and Oleg would’ve reached the finals. Without a budget, our training capability is very limited. Each of our victories exceeded expectations. We never imagined that we would achieve this much.”

According to Ben Chorin, Smolensky proved that he could compete on an Olympic level. Sumo wrestling is scheduled to debut at the London Olympics in 2012. However, Ben Chorin warns that, despite the sport’s rosy outlook, Israeli sumo will not last without institutional support.

Ben Chorin estimates that thousands of Israelis are involved in sumo wrestling. At the Israeli Sumo Association’s annual national competition in Modiin, the number of competitors and spectators grows from year to year. This past year, for example, over 350 athletes, ranging in age from ten to 30, participated.
“If there was a governmental budget, we could’ve set ourselves up in a respectable manner and brought greater honor to the state,” Smolensky says. “I was embarrassed to see that even Bulgaria, Mongolia, and Thailand invest more money in their sumo teams. We didn’t even have robes in the colors of the flag, like other competitors did.

“I brought honor mainly to myself, to my family, and to the members of the club where I worked as a guard. I didn’t really bring honor to the state. I held the Israeli flag only because this is the World Championships.”

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