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Not even sumo can outmaneuver swine flu

by Mark Buckton

No one is immune to the current swine flu pandemic, not even professional sumo.

Global health concerns have already hit amateur sumo in the past. A World Championship in the 1990s was cancelled due to the then SARS-related travel issues that swept Asia, and this year, the 2009 (amateur) Sumo World Championships in Egypt were called off due to the swine flu concerns.

In the pro ranks, during the annual summer tour around Hokkaido and northern Honshu, a number of sekitori-ranked rikishi caught the disease and larger numbers of non-salaried rikishi in the makushita ranks and below have also fallen sick.

Currently, precautions against the flu have been instigated at a number of the stables. Face masks are becoming required attire for visitors to morning practice sessions and disinfectant hand sprays have started appearing at some stable entrances. It’s even been reported that visitors to the Kokugikan during the basho’s 15 days of action will also be asked to use hand spray at the stadium entrance. It could well be one of the rare Aki Basho lacking Imperial presence.

Despite the long shadow of swine flu, ticket sales have been brisk. Several days are already sell-outs, which is probably due to the collision of the so-called Silver Week block of consecutive national holidays with the tourney’s second week. During this time and on weekends, only the 400 or so nonreserved seats will be up for grabs early each morning*, although on weekdays it may still be possible to reserve tickets via convenience-store outlets and stadium’s main office.

As far as pre-basho training goes, senior yokozuna Asashoryu has been sending out the usual mixed messages, one day appearing quite healthy and energetic, the next seemingly blasé and bored. He recently passed the 13-year mark of being in Japan and dryly observed that quite a lot had happened in that time.

Hakuho, his main rival and fellow Mongolian, has taken to his now regular routine of preparing away from the spotlight. He’ll be odds-on favorite to follow on from his 14-1 basho-winning record in Nagoya two months ago.  

Hakuho will also be taking steps toward bettering a record set by Asashoryu: a 84-6 win-loss ratio in 90 regulation bouts fought over the course of half a dozen basho in any given year. He has already equalled this feat over the course of six tournaments in “the past year” — just not in “the same” year. To date, in 2009, Hak has been defeated only three times — in 60 fights.

Another important record that could fall at the Kokugikan is the longevity record set almost 30 years ago by former Azumazeki Oyakata, then known as Takamiyama. Surviving a phenomenal 97 tournaments in the makunouchi division, Takamiyama drew a line in the sand many thought would never be crossed. Ozeki Kaio, however, now stands at that line, and should he go on to compete in the last basho of the year, in Fukuoka in November, he will surpass the record for top-flight basho fought in: 98.

Lower than makunouchi, the second-ranked juryo division will be a tad more interesting than usual this time out, with three men — Sotairyu, Tokushinho and Hoshikaze — making their debut in the division.

Sotairyu, of the Tokitsukaze Beya, has been in professional sumo for only four years and will probably be calling the sekitori ranks home for a while at least, as will Tokushinho, a former Asahi University fighter now operating out of Kise Beya with just over two years of experience. Hoshikaze joined the sport in November 2002, at the same time as current Ozeki Kotooshu of Bulgaria and simply remaining in the second division will be the goal the relative lightweight from Oguruma Beya sets himself; anything beyond an 8-7 kachikoshi winning record a fantastic achievement in and of itself.

*400 is the regular number of nonreserved seat tickets offered daily, but on the final day, senshuraku, a reduced number of 300 or 350 is allocated to allow invited guests to enter.