Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

Sumo in Trouble

Posted in Current Events by bourdaghs on the June 27th, 2010

The powers-that-be in the world of sumo have backed themselves into a corner. The artificially inflated ethical standards that were invoked to dethrone the foreign yokozuna Asashoryu now prove unattainable for the Japanese-born wrestlers and managers. In particular, the holier-than-thou attitude that developed over the past few years has now inadvertently provoked a major piling on in the mass media at the latest scandal, which involves the newly exposed gambling habits of dozens of current and former wrestlers.

Gambling by athletes is undoubtedly a problem. Given that it is illegal, it necessarily involves them with unsavory characters (in Japan, that means the yakuza), and it opens up the potential of players falling deeply in debt and throwing matches in return for clearing the slate. The lifetime ban of Pete Rose in American baseball for betting on the sport in which he played a central role was entirely appropriate, even if no evidence emerged that he attempted to rig the outcomes of games.

On this basis, some of the wrestlers named in current media reports deserve punishment, perhaps even banning. But a witch-hunt atmosphere of hysteria has now set in, and even wrestlers who occasionally bet in private hanafuda card games between wrestlers are being singled out for media pillorying. The Nagoya tournament is supposed to get underway in a couple of weeks, but now that is up in the air. Will it be canceled? If it goes forward, will NHK broadcast it? Will ozeki Kotomitsuki be banned for life from the sport?

There’s an old adage: be careful what you wish for. For years, cranky sumo observers in Japan upset with foreign dominance yearned for the sport to be “cleaned up.” Congratulations, folks: your wish has come true. I only hope the sport survives it.

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