Most games and sports are inherently simple. Get the ball through the hoop. Score the most points. Be the first to this line. This simplicity is probably a good reason for the wide popularity of sport across the globe, and indeed a simpler a sport is the wider its reach tends to be. But of course, it is not quite as simple as that. Nearly all sports, basic athletics like the 100 m or shot put aside, have needless, seemingly arbitrary complications. Why do the players line up in a row before the game? Why do players in this sport wear vests, and in this sport wear collars? Why do these referees throw little flags into the air while other blow whistles or brandish cards? Why do for these kicks the ball have to hit the group first, while for other it does not? Once you notice them, these little unnecessary quirks standout everywhere.
No where is this more stark than in Sumo wrestling. Japan’s national sport and highly ritualised form of combat-without-the-killing that dates back around 2000 years. Official tournaments only take place at particular times of year and at certain arenas. Wrestlers above a certain rank make a colourful entrance each wearing their livery on a heavy apron, and conduct a unique dance-ceremony around the ring prior to their bouts starting. Before a bout, a wrestler cleanses themselves with water, and cleanse the ring with the throwing of salt (this can get quite extreme, see this from Asahisho for instance). After the bout has finished (by any of 82 “kimarite” or winning moves) the referee (also dressed in special robes and maybe toe socks and sandals if they rank high enough) indicates the winner, both bow, the winner undertakes a an additional reverential squat, and both bow again towards the ring as they exit. If the bout was sponsored, the winner also receives a think white envelope, which they accept with varying degrees of ceremony (inversely proportionate to the time they have spent in the game I would guess). All in, there is a hell of a lot more to it than two very large men thudding into each other.
So, why do nearly all sports contain these ritualised aspects? Why do some only have a smattering, while others take it very, very far (i.e. sumo)? The study of religion, a phenomenon also practiced by almost all peoples are the globe, has some suggestions that may help us achieve understanding here. For one, rituals serve to mystify an event and its practitioners somewhat, making the participants seem a bit more other-worldly. This has obvious benefits for priests and shamans, placing them nearer the gods and spirits in the eyes of the audience. For any sports player too, a sense of mystery and so mastery serves to enhance their reputation. It makes them, and the whole event, seem that much more special and deserving of attention. But would we really look away if all the ritual were absent? Certainly people are happy to watch Olympic style wrestling with all the sumo-esque ritual stripped away. Its still two people trying to physically dominate each other.
Another possibility is that it helps bind the participants together. Bothering to learn an arbitrary set of rules and act out a complex ritual demonstrates your commitment to the sport. No one serious wants to compete against someone doing a half-arsed job, so a layer of ritual helps thin out those who are not really that interested. The same goes for coming of age ceremonies and other rituals in various cultures: a costly show of commitment demonstrates you truly believe and so can be trusted. This has other consequences besides using up everyone’s time and energy. By imbuing a sporting with a set of complex rituals you make it considerably harder for an outsider to come in an participate. Each ritual is an additional barrier to some athletic but uncultured oik charging in an upsetting the order of things. No where is this more apparent than sumo, where promotion to the highest rank of Yokozuna requires not only an excellent winning record, but also that the wrestler possesses “hinkaku” (something like dignity, grace, or
how one conducts oneself). Yokozuna are the public face of the sport, hence are expected to uphold the sumo’s traditional values. It’s a trip-wire like this that prevented Hawaiian-born Konishiki Yasokichi (born Saleva’a Fuauli Atisano’e) from obtaining the ranking of Yokozuna. Despite winning three the top division on three occasions, it was debated whether he (a foreigner) held the required hinkaku to be honoured with such a position. Poor bloke. And his knick-name was “meat bomb”. No luck.
What does this mean for the less ritualised sports, are they more open to outsiders? Well, the history of football clearly shows hostility towards black players, or foreign managers, or female officials, so it obviously can’t just be about that. But certainly, a simple sport like football has done a very god job of attracting participants and audiences in almost every country, allowing it self to be embraced by the whole world. This is somewhat true of religion as well: no doubt the simple messages of Christianity and Islam have helped them spread around the world from humble beginnings.
So rituals. An integral and inevitable part of any sport, but a slippery slope towards obscurity? Or just some random noise we put up with to get on with the good stuff? Something to discuss in the next cricket tea break, perhaps.