Sumo combat seeks to wrestle back its honour

It's Japan's national sport with religious roots. But match-fixing scandals have left Sumo stunned. Can the sport pick itself up off the mat?

The sumo scandal in Japan is the new battleground in the police fight against organised crime. 'It's a war,' says Jake Adelstein, a Tokyo reporter, 'so there are going to be casualties and sumo is going to be one of them.'

This famous sport is a trial of strength between two huge men who use any of 48 techniques to throw their opponent off balance. But does it now have the strength to break with organised crime?

Sumo wrestling, an ancient form of combat, now finds itself mired in allegations of match-fixing so serious that the Japanese public broadcaster says it will no longer show sumo live, while the Japan Sumo Association has cancelled next month's grand tournament.

What does a fight look like? It starts with a shuddering head-on collision between the two contestants or rikishi. This is followed by an intense bout of shoving, lifting, throwing, tripping, slapping and yanking.

And how do you win? The sumo's basic rule is that the one who first makes his opponent step outside the dohyou (the ring) or touch the ground with any part of his body except the soles of his feet is the victor. But now some leading fighters have been expelled from the sport, after phone texting revealed at least 13 of them were involved in illegal betting allegedly organised by the massively powerful Yakuza gangsters, Japan's mafia.

Such scandal is a long way from the ancient and noble origins of the sport, which was originally performed as a Shinto ritual in the temple to entertain the gods so they would bestow a good harvest.

Sumo dates back over a thousand years to the Nara period of the 8th century. Its sacred roots can still be seen in professional fights where the contestants throw handfuls of purifying salt before a fight, which starts and concludes with a courtly bow.

But for many, this honourable contest is now dishonoured, with organised crime paying wrestlers to fall.

The police have responded by using the national sport to alert the public about what they see as the unacceptable and destructive power of crime organisations.

Tumbling demi-gods
Closely linked to the Shinto religion, sumo has represented everything that's good in traditional Japanese culture, expressing the virtues of strength, willpower, skill and endurance, with the best fighters treated as demi-gods.

But now the 30 stone deities have been knocked from their pedestals. And the challenge of reclaiming the sport's soul is the biggest fight of its long history.

You Decide

  1. Is match fixing the end of a sport?
  2. In order to become an international sport, amateur sumo has removed all the cultural and religious aspects from the fight, still retained in the professional sphere. Do you think a sport's history is important?

Activities

  1. You are a public broadcaster in Japan and sumo is the most popular sport you cover. But you have heard the matches are being fixed. Get in a group and imagine the sort of discussion that might take place. To show or not to show? What is there to consider? It would be like deciding to stop showing football in England…
  2. In a 140 character tweet, say what you think about match fixing in sport.

Some People Say...

“Fat men fighting. Am I bothered?”

What do you think?

Q & A

The wrestlers are pretty large. What do they eat?
They bulk up with pork meatballs apparently, and vegetables stewed in miso soup.
So they look after themselves?
No, sumo is a hierarchical business. The wrestlers live in training stables near the stadium, each one run by a master who regulates everything from what they can eat to what they can wear. Junior members act as servants to more highly rated wrestlers.
And is it an Olympic sport?
Not yet, but they want it to be by 2020, which is why women are being introduced to the sport, an Olympic requirement.A In increasing numbers. They only operate in the amateur sport, but Shinsaku Takeuchi, an events organiser in Japan, says they're getting better and tougher: 'Women's sumo is becoming even more vicious than men's.'

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