If the phrase “sumo wrestler” calls to mind a hefty Asian man in a loincloth, Valeria and Diana Dall’Olio, a mother-daughter sumo wrestling team from Brazil, have a message: think again.
The Dall’Olios are used to people saying they are too small, too fragile or too female to practice a sport typically associated with hulking Japanese men.
But they say that is just fuel for their fighting spirit when they get in the “dojo,” or ring.
“There’s a lot of prejudice. When you say you practice sumo, some people think you have to be fat,” Valeria, 39, tells AFP, as she prepares for a competition at a public gym in Sao Paulo.
“Women are always under a microscope in the martial arts, because they’re sports that have generally been restricted to male fighters.”
She got into martial arts as a girl, studying judo and jiu-jitsu.
In 2016, she fell in love with sumo, which was brought to Brazil by Japanese immigrants in the early 20th century.
Soon, she was winning bouts — all the way up to the Brazilian national title, which she won three times (2018, 2019 and 2021) in the middleweight category (65 to 73 kilograms, 143 to 161 pounds).
She added the South American championship to her trophy case in 2021.
– ‘More fighting spirit’ –
“I try to balance my different lives: homemaker, mother of two. I don’t have much free time,” Valeria says.
Women are banned from professional sumo in Japan.
In its birthplace, the highly ritualized sport has been linked for more than 1,500 years to the Shinto religion, whose believers have traditionally seen women as impure or bad luck for sumo.
In the past, women were banned from attending bouts or even touching sumo wrestlers.
But an international amateur women’s sumo championship has been held since 2001. Organizers hope to one day turn it into an Olympic sport.
Being allowed to compete “is a real victory for us,” says Valeria.
“We’ve got more fighting spirit than men, who usually aren’t used to battling on as many fronts as we are.”
Diana, 18, says she never had much interest in wrestling — until she was attracted to sumo by its speed.
The bouts, in which wrestlers compete to fell or push one another from a circular, dirt-floor ring, rarely last more than 30 seconds.
Strength, strategy and technique are everything.
Diana put on a “mawashi,” or sumo loincloth, for the first time in 2019.
She now competes as a lightweight (under 65 kilograms).
“You can feel the prejudice,” she says of people’s reactions to her choice of sport.
“A lot of people say, ‘Women are fragile, they get injured and quit,'” she says.
“That’s one of the things we’re learning to fight against. My generation is rising up.”
– Battle for respect –
Sumo is growing fast in Brazil, mainly thanks to women, says Oscar Morio Tsuchiya, president of the Brazilian Sumo Confederation.
Women make up around half the country’s 600 sumo wrestlers, he says.
“Because of the Shinto rituals, in which women couldn’t even go to the ring, a lot of traditionalists were horrified when they started to compete. But those barriers are being broken,” he says.
At their Sao Paulo gym, the Dall’Olios brush off the dojo’s dirt after a tough day, in which Diana won one of her three bouts and Valeria lost her only one, against 18-time Brazilian middleweight champion Luciana Watanabe.
Watanabe, 37, is the public face of sumo in Brazil.
She shares her passion for the sport by teaching it to children in Suzano, a small city with a large Japanese-Brazilian population 50 kilometers (31 miles) outside Sao Paulo.
“Men are usually the ones who teach sumo,” she says.
“But I think I inspire the kids when I show them my titles.”
She, too, says her goal is to “break prejudice.”
“I want people to respect this sport more,” she says.
“So many people still think it’s just a sport for fat men. Sumo is for everyone.”