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A brighter side: amateur sumo

by Mark Buckton

Given the dark days for the world of professional sumo and the suspension of the Haru Basho, Sumo Scribblings is turning its focus the amateur sumo season, which is just getting underway. To learn more about the landscape, we spoke with Katrina Watts, who serves as a board member of the International Sumo Federation as well as continental director for Oceania, and who is currently president of the Australian Sumo Federation.

Where did your own connection with sumo begin?

When I was living in Japan working at a university in Kobe, I became interested in sumo, first watching it on TV and then much more seriously after seeing it live in Osaka during the university vacation. At that time photography was one of my hobbies and I began taking sumo-related photographs and often giving them to the rikishi, gyoji, yobidashi and oyakata who formed the subject matter. Everyone in the sumo world was very friendly and happy to chat with me about their sport, glad to explain things to me or tell me their stories from the past. After a while I became a familiar figure at ozumo tournaments and jungyo events, and NHK invited me to join their BS sumo broadcast as a regular guest commentator. As I was familiar with the lower division rikishi, in particular those I had followed since their entry and those who came from amateur sumo, I was also invited on several occasions to commentate in Japanese on the lower divisions for the BS sumo broadcast, from the mukoo-jomen microphone in the stadium.

I began watching amateur sumo while cheering for the Australian team at World Championship and enjoying the enthusiasm of the college and high school sumo athletes in their competitions. When the world championships were held outside Japan for the first time I was asked to help them as I speak German, and have been doing the stadium announcing for the IFS since that first competition in Riesa Germany. I am now on the board of the International Sumo Federation, the Continental Director for Oceania and, since my return to live in Australia, the president of the Australian Sumo Federation. Because I speak French and German in addition to Japanese I was also asked by the Nihon Sumo Kyokai to help them on their foreign tours to London, Paris, Vienna, Vancouver, Hong Kong and, of course, in my home, Australia, when they toured there. Since beginning to help the IFS I have also learned to speak Russian due to the large number of Russian speakers in the sumo world.

Have you ever entered the ring yourself as an amateur?

No, only as judge or referee.

What is the state of amateur sumo today on a global scale?

The number of countries doing amateur sumo changes and new countries join while in some places interest has waned. For those involved in sumo, enthusiasm is high, as is the determination to improve the position of sumo in their own countries and on the world stage.

And how about down there in Oceania?

Recently some of the island countries have not been able to participate in Oceania sumo competitions, due to financial problems or political trouble, as in Fiji. A change of king in Tonga, where the old king was a big sumo fan, has had an effect on the sport. Our Oceania Sumo Championships will be held in April, and we expect a good number of participants, but in the main from Australia, the host country, and New Zealand.

In relation to the allegations and, in one recent case, admitted participation in bout fixing, has this ever been an issue in the amateur game?

In amateur sumo there is not the same system of ranking or payment which has influenced professional sumo rikishi to engage in bout fixing. Amateur athletes have few chances to compete internationally and are focused on winning medals for themselves, so what would be the advantage of helping someone else win?

For some years amateur sumo has been trying to be noticed by the IOC with a view to becoming an Olympic sport. Recognition to some degree exists, but with the lack of openness regarding the IFS, internal bickering in amateur sumo, and supposed links to the yaocho issue, do you see the IOC full recognition bid as in danger of perhaps being derailed?

To have sumo included in the Olympics is a big challenge considering the number of sports which are also vying for inclusion. Sumo needs to become much more widely practiced to have a chance for further progress in this field. Recently, however, when sumo took part in big multisport events such as the World Games and Combat Games, sumo’s popularity among spectators was outstanding, with sold-out houses, so there is interest in sumo. As far as the administration of the sport by the IFS, we will need to work harder to have a more effective association. An effective web site and greater access to information are essential for a start. Disunity within the IFS members is a problem, and strong leadership by the IFS and well as more positive cooperation between members is needed.

Which nations are leading the world in amateur sumo?

Russia, Japan, Mongolia, Ukraine, Hungary, Bulgaria.

And how about in Oceania? Any standouts?

We are working on it. One problem for us is isolation. We have few opportunities to compete internationally to improve our skills. We also have a lack of experienced coaches to answer the calls for new clubs to be set up outside the main centers of Sydney and Gold Coast in Australia; Wellington and Auckland in New Zealand.

In your lifetime, do you see amateur rikishi making up part of the Olympic team?

I certainly hope so!