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Japan's sumo scandals

It's as if the Yankees had smoked pot and beat up their farm team.

Sumo grand champion Asashoryu of Mongolia throws Kotoshogiku in a sumo ring during a joint practice for the Yokozuna Deliberation Council in Tokyo, April 29, 2008. (Toru Hanai/Reuters)

TOKYO — It is the bout the crowd in the Osaka gymnasium has been waiting for all day. And it is over in seconds.

A few adjustments to his positioning, a seamless change of grip and Asashoryu, the world’s greatest sumo wrestler, dispatches yet another opponent with consummate ease.

As his fans celebrate, all seems well in the sweaty, testosterone-charged world of Japan’s national sport, a highly ritualized test of strength and spirit stretching back 2,000 years and steeped in the superstitions of the indigenous Shinto religion.

Tied at nine wins apiece in the 15-bout tournament in Osaka, Asashoryu and his fellow grand champion and Mongolian compatriot Hakuho have pundits and Joe Public alike savoring the prospect of a bruising, winner-takes-all encounter on the last day of the tournament March 29.

But outside the ring, sumo is grappling with an even trickier nemesis — a string of scandals that has severely dented its reputation.

It would be easy, for those who have caught no more than a glimpse of a sumo bout, to dismiss the sport as a shoving match between two men in oversized thongs with an overdeveloped interest in lunch.

But that would be to ignore sumo’s singular place in Japan’s sporting history and the reverence in which its 700 professional wrestlers are normally held — from the diminutive, gutsy wrestlers capable of lifting men twice their size off the floor, to the old-school bruisers who use their body weight to send opponents into the third row.

When revelations surfaced late last year of marijuana use among three young wrestlers, the public sense of betrayal was palpable.

At about the same time, senior wrestlers were fending off allegations of match fixing made in a weekly magazine. Among those named was none other than Asashoryu, a fearsome, technically unrivaled wrestler with a reputation for flouting etiquette, much to the fury of the sport’s conservative elders.

But by far the most damaging accusations have centered on the tragic death of a teenage recruit, sent to a famous sumo stable by his parents to learn respect, discipline and, perhaps, to build a career for himself.