Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Japan’s SUMO Scandals - Removing the rot from the sport of emperors

“WE WILL not be able to show sumo in the ring until all the pus is removed,” says Hanaregoma, chairman of the Japan Sumo Association (JSA). The rot this time is match-fixing. Fans are angered, and sponsors fleeing. Japan’s sports ministry is considering yanking the JSA’s public-interest status, which gives it tax breaks. In an unprecedented move, sumo’s governing body cancelled the spring basho, a 15-day tournament that was to begin on March 13th. Instead, the JSA says it will investigate and punish those involved.

Bout-rigging has been alleged for decades. Retired wrestlers occasionally admit it. In 1996 two former wrestlers about to go public with evidence died of a rare respiratory illness within hours of each other (no wrongdoing was found). A statistical examination of bouts over 11 years by University of Chicago economists clearly identified rigged matches (to let borderline wrestlers retain their rank). Still, the JSA always denied foul play. The body even sued those who dared to disparage the sport of emperors, which traces its lineage back more than a millennium.

Today’s charges will be harder to evade. Evidence is provided by erased but reconstructed text messages on the mobile phones of a dozen wrestlers and stablemasters. These were confiscated by police during an investigation last year over sumo’s links to baseball betting (illegal in Japan) and ties to the yakuza, Japan’s mob. “Who do I owe a win to now?” one wrestler texted another last March. “Will you let me win at the next tournament? If not, I want the 200,000 back,” texted another in May, according to police leaks to the media.

The scandal is just one of many in recent years. In addition to gambling and yakuza links, the image of sumo has suffered from wrestlers’ drug use and from violent hazing that led to the death of one recruit in 2007. Asashoryu, a Mongolian and one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, was forced to resign last year after his antics culminated in a drunken nightclub brawl. Sumo derives its traditions from shintoism, formerly the state religion. The highest standards are expected.

Yet ordinary Japanese appear as upset by the JSA’s lack of accountability as by wrestlers’ shabby behaviour. The governing body is made up of about 100 former wrestlers who run the training stables. Though technically overseen by the sports ministry, the JSA acts as a law to itself. As each scandal flared, the association fended off outside scrutiny. It even tried to deal by itself with the matter of the dead recruit, until his family kicked up a fuss by refusing to cremate the body quickly.

Over the past year, the sports ministry has pushed for an outside panel to supervise the JSA. It has forced the association to accept sumo outsiders as members of its governing board, and even named one—pointedly, a former prosecutor—as acting chairman for a month during the betting scandal. Now the JSA suggests that match-fixing involves only a handful of bad apples. Few people believe that. When it says it wants to remove the pus, the JSA may need to rid the sport of itself. The Economist

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