THIES, Senegal (Reuters) - In a dusty alleyway in the Senegalese city of Thies, Japanese wrestler Shogo Uozumi lay face-down in the sand after being tossed in the air by an oversized opponent.
Uozumi then rose to his feet, dusted himself off and rejoined the surrounding group of wrestlers wearing loincloths.
Back in a fighting stance, Uozumi smiled. After competing at national level in Greco-Roman wrestling back home, he swapped Tokyo for Thies last year to master a Senegalese wrestling style known as Laamb and to share his knowledge of the Olympic form of the sport with local talent.
"Every time I train, I feel myself getting stronger," he said, catching his breath. "I feel a lot of joy and growth within me."
Anchored in ancestral war rituals, Laamb has evolved from a post-harvest pastime into Senegal's national sport. It blends physical combat and acrobatics, with victory marked by an opponent's back touching the ground.
Uozumi discovered the style of wrestling during a trip to Senegal with Japan's aid agency in 2017 and he was intrigued by cultural similarities including hospitality, known as Teranga in Senegal and Omotenashi in Japan.
Since relocating to Senegal full-time in 2022, Uozumi has lived with a community of wrestlers in Thies, Senegal's third largest city. He has also set up an academy of three dozen students who he is helping prepare for the 2026 Youth Olympics.
"He showed me what it means to commit oneself, to leave one's country without being well-paid, knowing that he would only have enough to live on, to develop our sport," said Cheikh Badiane, a Laamb wrestler and one of Uozumi's closest friends.
"I would help him whatever it cost me."
At an Olympic-style national competition last month in Saint-Louis, Senegal's colonial capital, hundreds jostled for views as Uozumi and Badiane coached their wrestlers from the sidelines.
One of their students went home with the silver medal in her weight class.
"Senegalese people live together, with their families, their friends, and they all support each other in this way," Uozumi said on returning to Thies. "That's my kind of culture."
(Editing by Cooper Inveen, editing by Ed Osmond)