Wrestling Japanese diplomat loses again in final Sudan bout

Khartoum (AFP) - A wrestling diplomat from Japan lost Friday for a sixth and final time against a Sudanese Nuba opponent, but says he has achieved a different kind of victory.

Yasuhiro Murotatsu says he has helped to unify a divided and war-torn land.

The Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan state are home to a linguistically and religiously diverse group of people collectively known as Nuba.

Their form of wrestling, practised for thousands of years, is completely different from the iconic national sport of sumo in Murotatsu's homeland.

Wrestling is central to the Nuba's farm-based society despite a more modern form of combat that has devastated the region for more than two years.

Non-Arab rebels from South Kordofan have joined with other insurgents from Darfur, in Sudan's west, against the Arab-dominated Khartoum government, which they complain has marginalised their regions.

Japan's embassy says Murotatsu was the first foreigner ever to set foot onto the sandy Sudanese wrestling pitch to take on the country's toughest.

In a pre-match interview, the 33-year-old told AFP he sees his participation as part of an effort to help bring the multi-ethnic and multi-religious Muslim-majority country together through sport.

"This is my strongest message I want to send to make Sudanese people more unified, because now Sudan is at a very sensitive stage," he said.

Murotatsu, known as "Muro" to local wrestling fans, says the Sudanese sport is similar to more widely known freestyle wrestling in which he competed in junior high school.

Since February he has wrestled in special "friendship" matches during the regular weekly card in Haj Yousef, a poor Khartoum neighbourhood of mud-brick houses.

Murotatsu, an Arabic-speaking political officer, is a slightly built bespectacled man who on Friday faced teenaged opponent Saleh Omar Bol Tia Kafi for the third consecutive time.

The stadium, pulsing with the sound of traditional drum beats, seemed even fuller than usual for Murotatsu's final challenge.

Dancers wearing feathered headdresses paraded among the more than 1,000 fans who squeezed inside, many standing atop the stadium walls.

A man blew a bugle made of a twisted animal horn when Murotatsu approached the ring while the thin, muscular Kafi circled the pitch holding a Sudanese flag.

To Murotatsu, scenes like this -- Nuba tradition mixed with displays of Sudanese pride -- prove that the wrestling has contributed to national unity.

Fans have united behind Kafi, "so I think... I achieved something" to bring them together, the Japanese wrestler said.

Kafi, 18, competes under the nickname "Al-Mudiriya".

He told AFP earlier that he was still in high school and had been wrestling since the age of 12 after coming to Khartoum from the Nuba region with his family.

The sport is now formally known as "Sudanese" wrestling because it has grown beyond the Nuba community.

Adam Mudair Abdel Samad, chairman of the Khartoum Wrestling Federation, said the sport, and Murotatsu's participation, has helped to promote harmony among the Nuba people in Khartoum.

"I thank Muro for playing six matches," he told a ceremony hosted by Japanese Ambassador Ryoichi Horie on Wednesday night.

"I hope he will win this match."

Wide coverage of Murotatsu's exploits in the Sudanese and international media has expanded interest in this "precious culture" both abroad and in Sudan, including among non-Nuba Arab tribes, the Japanese wrestler said.

"This is a historical achievement and can be considered as successful public diplomacy," said Murotatsu, who leaves his Sudanese post next week to pursue further education in Scotland.

He has tried various strategies during his matches, all to no avail.

In his last competition, a bare-chested Murotatsu danced and grappled for about two minutes with Kafi, dressed in a tight-fitting red singlet, before the local hero finally drove his opponent's head into the red sand.

"He's very strong," Murotatsu told AFP later, with dirt encrusted on his forehead.

He was pleased with his performance but said, "I need more stamina."

Dripping with perspiration, Kafi said his opponent had improved.

"He's a good wrestler and will be successful if he continues his training," he said.

"This wrestling has made a big contribution to peace."

The two wrestlers walked up the stadium stairs together, hand-in-hand.