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Sumo World Championships a shadow of former self

by Mark Buckton

Special To The Japan Times Online

Thousands of kids in Japan attend amateur sumo clubs every weekend. Many adults join them as part of fitness regimes.

Hundreds more, young and old, in nations around the world have also given what many term the Japanese national sport a try over the past 20-years or so thanks to efforts by well-meaning individuals intent on promoting sumo far and wide.

Yet those efforts are continually being undermined by the sport’s very own governing body — the Tokyo-based International Sumo Federation.

As a result, sumo on the world stage today is floundering, and no clearer evidence of that can be found than the Sumo World Championships to be held in Hong Kong on Oct. 27th and 28th.

The numbers of those registering to compete are down on recent years. Of 87 claimed member nations with amateur sumo federations registered by the IFS it is believed less than a quarter will appear in the men’s events, and only 17 in the women’s events.

And, the sad fact is that the governing body in Shinjuku has no one to blame but itself.

The once thriving world of amateur sumo in western Europe, arguably the most active area a decade ago, is now falling apart.

Team Great Britain is bringing just one female wrestler to Hong Kong, compared to three in both the male and female categories brought to Japan in the mid-2000s. Just two representing Ireland will make the trip, although whether or not these will both be on the dohyo or in admin roles along for the ride has not been confirmed.

The teams from the Netherlands, Germany and elsewhere have seen interest in sumo take a number of hits over the years as well.

Much of this loss of interest, attributed to rifts in international sumo, has been previously covered here in Sumo Scribblings. These rifts have seen the European governing body, the European Sumo Union (ESU) and the IFS at loggerheads for much of the past decade.

Earlier this year the IFS bizarrely recognized a breakaway group of eastern Europeans and their own championships held in Ukraine on the same day the “real” ESU held what many call the official championships in Hungary.

No clear response as to why this decision was taken has ever been provided by the IFS.

Indeed, and rather bizarrely, an NHK team added credibility to the breakaway group by providing extensive coverage broadcast in Japan in September. Whether or not this was linked to the IFS — also unknown.

And although long-term observers of amateur sumo in Europe will no doubt agree that eastern European nations are head and shoulders above their western counterparts in terms of ability and perhaps enthusiasm for the promotion of the sport, the way in which the IFS cold-shouldered its own continental member is disturbing.

For an organization that is already recognized to a degree by the International Olympic Committee, while striving for eventual participation in a future Olympic Games, the IFS remains an enigma wrapped in a mystery.

In covering both the world of professional and amateur sumo for the past seven years, Sumo Scribblings has repeatedly requested interviews with the president of the association Hidetoshi Tanaka. Not one request has ever been granted.

Add to this requests for information sent by mail never being answered, and neither the organizing committee members in Hong Kong, nor the IFS in Tokyo, knowing who should answer questions related to the 2012 World Championships, and clear evidence of a lack of leadership and effective front-office management emerges.

The sorry state of affairs is perhaps best demonstrated on the International Sumo Federation website: www.ifs-sumo.org, where latest update is one about an event held in Poland over two years ago.

When and to what degree the site will be updated following this weekend’s event in Hong Kong is therefore anyone’s guess.

Indeed, just four days ahead of the event in Hong Kong, an Egyptian team source indicated there would be no team attending from the homeland of popular newbie in professional sumo — Oosunaarashi of Otake Beya — and this was announced via Facebook!

With the lack of financial support from Tokyo given as the reason, nothing was or has been announced by the IFS regarding this withdrawal.

And, such is the glaring lack of news and information disseminated by the IFS, even in the days leading up to their premier tournament of the year, with not one media release ever sent out to the English-language media, few really have any idea of true numbers of participants or even countries attending until the day of the event!

Hardly the well-managed and transparent approach the IOC will be looking for, if and when Tokyo is again considered for the Olympics and sumo a possible exhibition sport.