Sumo in crisis: fat guys and the mob?

TOKYO, Japan — When Japan’s sumo wrestlers gather for a major tournament in Nagoya this Sunday, they will no doubt be bracing themselves for 15 days of bruising encounters in the ring.

Some may also take a moment to ponder allegations of illegal gambling, extortion and ties to the criminal underworld that are threatening to destroy the reputation of their 2,000-year-old sport.

The wrestlers who step into the ring will not include Kotomitsuki, holder of the second-highest rank in sumo, who this week received a life ban after admitting involvement in an illegal betting ring reportedly run by the yakuza, Japan’s mafia.

In a crisis meeting last weekend, the sport’s governing body, the Japan sumo association also banned a coach for life and suspended its own chairman, Musashigawa, in response to revelations that as many as 65 of its 700 members had gambled on baseball, card games, golf and mahjong.

In addition, about a dozen wrestlers and several stable masters will be barred from the Nagoya tournament. (It isn't the first time scandals have rocked the sport.)

But the unprecedented punishments are unlikely to mollify those who believe Japan’s de facto national sport has failed in its duty to produce a generation of wrestlers governed by traditional notions of honor and dignity.

Corporate supporters have withdrawn millions of yen from the Nagoya tournament, and NHK, Japan's broadcaster, on Monday decided not to show live coverage of the bouts for the first time since it began airing sumo in 1953.

Musashigawa, who was replaced as chairman by Hiroyoshi Murayama, a former senior prosecutor, apologized “from the bottom of my heart” for the scandal.

''We humbly accept the advice that has been offered to us and we will make efforts to ensure that we do not have another scandal like this,” he said.

The biggest scalp is Kotomitsuki who, along with Kaio, is the highest-ranked Japanese wrestler in a sport whose elite ranks are dominated by foreigners.

The 34-year-old admitted betting millions of yen on baseball matches — a violation of Japan’s strict sports gambling laws — and paying 3.5 million yen to Mitsutomo Furuichi, a former wrestler with underworld connections who had threatened to expose his gambling habit.

Furuichi is being held on suspicion of extortion in the first of what could be a string of arrests among the sumo fraternity.

Apart from exposing the human foibles — some might say rank stupidity — of individual wrestlers, the scandal has also lifted the lid on what many insiders have known about all along: sumo’s ties to organized crime.

In May, it was revealed that tickets for coveted ringside seats had been passed on to crime bosses whose presence on live broadcasts was meant as a silent message of solidarity to gang members watching the bouts from their prison cells.

While betting on horseracing, speedboats and cycling is legal, it is common knowledge that illicit gambling rings are a source of funds for Japan’s powerful crime syndicates.

The media, meanwhile, have reserved their sharpest criticism for the sport’s supposed moral guardians.

“Whenever scandals occurred in the past, [the sumo association] was often criticized for its lax crisis management,” the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s biggest-selling newspaper, said. “The closed-off nature of the association, which is run totally by former wrestlers, is likely responsible for its inability to cleanse itself.”

The biggest crisis in sumo’s modern history could not have come at a worse time.

Last December, a veteran coach was sentenced to six years in prison in connection with the hazing death of a 17-year-old trainee in 2007, a tragedy that brought to light widespread bullying behind stable doors.

Earlier this year, Asashoryu, then a reigning grand champion, retired after drunkenly assaulting a man outside a Tokyo nightclub. Several wrestlers have been expelled for possession of marijuana, and there are persistent, and so far unproven, allegations of match fixing.

What of sumo’s future? “By September this will have all blown over,” said columnist Mark Buckton, who believes that sumo wrestlers, given their elevated status in the pantheon of Japanese athletes, have become an easy target for media indignation.

“The media know that what is happening in sumo, such as its links to the yakuza, goes on in the rest of society, too, but nothing is said about that.”

Buckton says much of the blame for the current fiasco lies with the sumo association, a deeply conservative body packed with retired wrestlers who lack the commercial and marketing skills used to lucrative effect in baseball and other professional sports.

That may change as freethinking, digitally connected younger wrestlers begin to fill positions of power after retirement, he says. “The younger ones know that change is needed. They just daren’t say so publicly.”