19 January 2013

The Great Taiho Koki

I learned this morning of the passing of the legendary Taiho Koki (click here for a story in The Japan Times).    For those not familiar with the sport of sumo, Taiho was as famous and dominant as anyone whoever donned the kesho-mawashi.  Think of a sports name that any non-sports fan knows.  In the US, names like Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, and Michael Jordan (Lance Armstrong, too, but more on him in a later post) are names known to even those who despise sport.  Names like Pele, Diego Maradona, David Beckham, and Lionel Messi are surely omnipresent in the minds of people where soccer rules the land.  In Japan, the name people know is Taiho.

Taiho and sumo are the topics of Chapter 9 of my book.  More than other part of my book, the sumo chapter was the most fun to research and write.  My eyes were opened to a phenomenal talent of whom I had never heard.  Taiho was born 29 May 1940 during a period of great international conflict.  He was the face and name of post-WWII sumo.  A sumo tyro in 1956 at an age when those of us in the US are more concerned about getting a driver's license and what's playing at the local movie theater, Taiho took just five years to rise to the level of yokozuna, the 48th ever so promoted to the highest designation of "great champion."  Not until 1974 would someone younger be able to called himself yokozuna.

The main sumo tournament is called a honbasho, which is held every other month.  Between the Tokyo honbasho in January 1960 and  the Tokyo honbasho in May 1971, there were a total of 69 honbasho.  Taiho won 32 of them, more than 46%.  He had a perfect 15-0 match record in eight of those 32 wins.  Nobody before or since dominated sumo like that.

When I was thinking about my penultimate book chapter, I knew I wanted to write about a sport that was not only unfamiliar to me but one that would easily fit a couple of physics topics I still had on the table, namely energy transfers in the body and linear momentum.  Sumo was a natural fit.  Sumo competitors are referred to as rikishi and one staple of their diet is chanko-nabe, which is a high-carb and high-protein stew.  I had a great deal of fun following energy transfers from the Big Bang all the way to the yummy chanko-nabe and then through the body of a rikishi.  Along the way, I grew a deeper respect for the sport of sumo and an admiration for its most famous name.

The sports world never stops.  American football has a couple of big playoff games on Sunday. Baseball fans in the US will remember the life of great Oriole manager Earl Weaver, who also died today, but they'll also be thinking about spring training starting in less than a month.  Cycling fans will continue to discuss Lance Armstrong following his recent interview with Oprah Winfrey.  Premier League fans will continue to wonder if a club outside Manchester can make it to the top two in the table.  And so on and so on.  If you know nothing about sumo, as I did before I researched it for a book chapter, read something about the great Taiho Koki.  Supreme athletic dominance is rare and fascinating for sports fans.  You will not be disappointed if you spend a few minutes today reading about a legend who is no longer with us.

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