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Shut sumo down for the rest of 2011, put its future in private hands

by Jack Gallagher

Where will it all end?

Last week’s revelations of match-fixing in sumo was just the latest blow for what was once Japan’s pride and joy.

The ancient and traditional sport continues its downward spiral and appears headed to oblivion.

The apologists, cheerleaders and those whose livelihoods depend on sumo will tell you differently, but something drastic must be done — and now. This isn’t the time for another Band-Aid.

The Japan Sumo Association did the honorable thing on Saturday by canceling the upcoming Spring Grand Sumo Tournament in Osaka. The next thing the JSA board should do is resign — en masse.

How can anybody possibly buy a ticket to one of their events now and believe it is legitimate?

At least when you go to a pro wrestling show you know what the deal is.

There have been rumors for years about the dark side of the dohyo, but now that it has been brought out into the open, the reality is pretty grim.

Credit must be given to the police investigators for releasing the dirty details to the general public. As painful as it must have been, it was the standup thing to do.

But the question of where the sport goes from here remains the elephant in the room.

The decline of sumo can be traced to yokozuna Takanohana’s premature retirement due to injury back in January 2003. There hasn’t been a Japanese yokozuna since, and with the domination by the foreign rikishi and lack of top Japanese contenders in recent years, the general public has lost interest.

Combine that with the fact that the sport is run by a bunch of insiders and you can see how it has reached this point. It really is disgusting.

You can’t say it is surprising, though. The handwriting has been on the wall for a long time.

The lack of transparency in sumo is a snapshot of the problems confronting Japan in general. You see it across all sectors of society — politics, business, education and sports.

Who is in charge?

When and where are the decisions made?

How are they arrived upon?

There are so many layers to delve through that it recalls former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s famous line about “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

I think the only way out of this mess is for sumo to cancel the remainder of the tournaments for 2011 and commit to clear and complete reform.

Does anyone really believe that all of the problems can be resolved before the next basho in May?

It is quite obvious that the sport will never be free from the sickness plaguing it until it breaks from the past.

Matters have gone so far now that there is no way this latest transgression can be blamed upon a few rogue wrestlers. There is a systemic problem that is far greater and much deeper.

I could only laugh when the match-fixing story broke and the first thing done was to form a panel to study the matter.

Give me a break.

How many times have we seen this same tactic taken?

It’s just a ruse to deflect attention from true reform.

The reality is that because of its culture, Japan has a problem with confrontation and breaking from tradition.

There is almost always an argument about “a fair resolution” that is used to water down any attempt at change. What you end up with is no change at all.

Over the years we have seen people here given “lifetime bans” from sports — and then reinstated in a matter of months.

The damage that this kind of insincerity does cannot be understated.

There was a simpler time when the public might have bought into this type of justice, but I’m afraid those days are over. Folks are fed up with this nonsense.

In the past this scandal might have been primarily contained to the domestic media, but in the viral age we now live in it has already spread around the world.

The tragedy of this is that it reflects poorly on Japan and the damage is almost impossible to undo.

So what is the way forward?

I believe the management and organization of sumo should be turned over to a private entity. A company like the International Management Group — an outfit with a proven record of succeeding at marketing and staging events on a global scale.

IMG has a Japanese branch staffed by competent people. Give this sports promotion titan the chance to see what it can do. It would surely come up with some innovative ideas.

Sumo desperately needs to be reorganized from top to bottom and set on a clear path forward. It has to be put in the hands of somebody with leadership and true power and no longer allowed to operate under the cloak of darkness.

Incompetence, ineptness and refusing to confront reality must not be tolerated. Any attempt by the old guard to hang on is unacceptable.

Focus must be put on restoring credibility, creating a cogent strategy to revive interest and finding a way to develop Japanese prospects for the future.

Anything less and they might as well drop the curtain for good.