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Sumo wrestlers to give Games a lift

To say that Saturday's opening ceremonies of the 1998 Nagano Winter Games have been bulked up is an understatement.

At center stage in the stadium and in front of an international television audience involving hundreds of millions of viewers: big, burly and almost buck-naked sumo wrestlers, each weighing an average of 150 kilos (330 pounds).And at the forefront will be an American native wrestler, no less, the 6-foot-8, 516-pound Akebono, the world's second-ranked yokozuna (grand champion).

Considered national icons in Japan, the sumo wrestlers are also an ironic presence at the Winter Games. Their sport isn't an Olympic competition (although it recently earned provisional recognition by the IOC), nor is it a wintertime event. Naked from the waist up, the wrestlers wear only sashes and ceremonial aprons despite early February temperatures in Nagano that are expected to dip below freezing.

Nevertheless, sumo is Japan's national sport, with its origins traced to the region's earliest myths. And the two-hour ceremony allows the world a glimpse into Japanese culture and customs.

Sumo wrestlers will play two important roles in the opening ceremonies, the first being a dohyo-iri - or ancient ring-entrance ritual - being performed by a yokozuna, or sumo grand champion, who must possess not only technical prowess and great strength but also dignity.

The Hawaiian-born Akebono will stamp out a traditional sumo ring, where bouts are fought, in a symbolic act to drive away evil spirits and purify the Olympic stadium for athletes. In performing the ritual, which is executed at the beginning of all sumo competitions, the yokozuna lifts his leg high in the air and stamps the ground, in hopes of pacifying and honoring the gods of the earth.

Considering his immense size, there's a lot of Akebono to get cold. "Because I will be practically naked, there's nothing I can do. I'll just have to endure," said the 27-year-old (given name: Chad Rowan) Friday. "It's only 10 minutes, so I'll be OK. I hope the ceremony will be memorable for spectators from around the world."

Sumo wrestlers also will carry the placards announcing the countries during the nation-by-nation entrance of the athletes into the stadium, with the fanfare and parade being one of the traditional highlights of the opening ceremonies.

Several countries, including host Japan, the United States and Greece, have been assigned wrestlers in advance because of the wrestler's sumo rankings and personalities.

Top-ranked Takanohana originally was scheduled to perform the opening ritual and carry the placard for Japan, which as the host country will enter the Olympic stadium last. Besides being replaced by Akebono in the dohyo-iri ceremony, he will likely have a substitute for his team duties. His absence has resulted in some shuffling of placard assignments.

Akebono was selected to represent Greece, the home of the Olympics. Fellow American Musashimaru, also an ozeki (champion,) has been chosen to lead the U.S. delegation into the stadium.

Mitoizumi, whose nickname is "Salt Shaker" and whose irreverent treatment of sumo tradition has resulted in popularity throughout Japan, has been paired with Jamaica. The Caribbean island nation gained international acclaim by breaking into the Winter Games ice with its ballyhooed bobsled team during the 1988 Calgary Olympics.

Other selections of wrestlers and nations were made in a draw by Japanese schoolchildren. Two countries with only a limited winter-sports tradition - Ireland and Israel - were paired with brothers Takanonami and Wakahohana, the two highest-ranked wrestlers available in the draw.

"The Irish ambassador gave me a bottle of Irish whisky at New Year," said Takanomami when asked Friday if he knew much about Ireland. "I drank it during the first sumo tournament this year. Maybe that's why my results weren't so good."

The sumo wrestlers were given VIP treatment in their tours of Olympic facilities Friday. Musashimaru, an admitted Tonya Harding fan, seemed the most playful of the day.

When asked which Olympic sport he would like to enter, he replied, "Snowboarding because I used to go boogie-boarding in Hawaii."

And his strategy to stay warm Saturday? "Drink lots of sake (rice wine.)"

The dohyoi-ri follows an opening onbashira-date or pillar-raising ceremony, a spiritual ritual of Japanese culture in which pillars hewn from trees are planted in the ground to honor the gods believed to dwell in the trees.

Eight pillars will be erected, forming the arena's four gates, with the onbashira transforming the site into "a sacred ground" in preparation for the sumo rite.

Other highlights from the opening ceremony include a performance of "Ode to Joy," the choral arrangement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Featured will be an international select orchestra and chorus - the latter comprised of satellite-linked choirs from throughout the world. Also, in a break from tight-lipped Olympic tradition, the Nagano Organizing Committee has already announced that the Olympic flame will be lit by Midori Ito, Japan's 1992 figure skating silver medalist.