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A match-fixing scandal may relegate sumo from national sporting obsession to sideshow.
The education minister, Yoshiaki Takaki, who has responsibility for the sport, said the sumo association could lose its preferential tax status as a government-affiliated body. "If the media reports are true, we have to consider taking severe measures," he said.
And if high-ranking wrestlers are named, it could destroy sumo’s status as a major sport, said Mark Buckton, who writes about sumo for the Japan Times.
“This is hugely damaging,” he said. “Sumo looks like it is going to lose its preferential tax status, which will hurt it financially. Attendances are already down, so this could be the final nail in the coffin that turns sumo into a side sport.”
Buckton believes sumo’s future as a popular sport hinges on the outcome of the association’s investigation, which could take weeks. If proof emerges that famous wrestlers from the top division fixed matches, he said, “That’s when I expect the collapse to come.”
This is not the first time the sport has been accused of impropriety. Last October, the supreme court ordered a publisher to pay 44 million yen to the sumo association and three wrestlers for linking them to match-fixing in a magazine article. Similar claims have been surfacing for years, but none has ever prompted an investigation, let alone an admission of culpability among active wrestlers.
In addition to last summer’s gambling scandal, sumo’s reputation has been hit by marijuana use among wrestlers, its links with the underworld and the bullying of young trainees, which in 2007 resulted in the hazing death of a 17-year-old wrestler.
Japanese newspapers were united in their condemnation. The Asahi Shimbun said the claims had tested fans’ patience to a breaking point. “Despite its various problems, many people continue to love sumo,” the newspaper said. “But this time, it may not be easy to win back the hearts of fans who have completely lost faith in the sport.”