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Dear Mat:

What is the life expectancy of a sumo wrestler? What's the attraction of sumo wrestling, anyway, and why would anyone want to be a sumo wrestler? What kind of long-term health problems are common in sumo wrestlers as well as in other athletes from other sports?

-- Robert and David, a father-son team on the net

Of course, the Japanese might ask, what's the attraction of football, anyway, and why would anyone want to go out and get his leg broken by a bunch of guys in helmets and shoulder pads? Sumo's a 1500-year-old, highly ritualized tradition with links to emperors and samurai. It's a Japanese thing, basically, not easy to explain to people outside the culture. The sport/art's pretty simple. Force the other guy out of the ring or make any part of his body touch the floor. That's why they knot up their hair; hair counts as a body part. Matches last less than 30 seconds, usually, and most of that time is spent slapping their huge thighs and stamping the floor and staring an opponent into psychological submission before grabbing his belt and shoving him out of the ring.

Sumos' life expectancy is about 55, 20 years short of the average for Japanese men in general. Prospective sumos are raised from the time they're 14 or so on a special high-protein soup that contains meat or fish, tofu, vegetables, noodles, rice, and sugar. A midday snack might be 100 sushi rolls. Some have prided themselves on being prodigious beer drinkers. What they eat isn't too different from a traditional Japanese diet. They just eat huge quantities. But the true secret behind every 400-pound sumo? Napping. Napping is a critical part of the training regimen. To gain weight, they eat late in the day and sleep as much as possible after each meal.

Sumos have a lot of subcutaneous fat but not arterial or deep-body fat, which is the most dangerous kind. But if they don't lose weight when they retire (about age 30, usually), fat distribution changes and they can develop heart problems, diabetes, and all the ailments that plague obese people. Physicians believe this is why many football players and weight-lifters have about the same life expectancy.

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