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Wrestling’s fall from Olympic grace sends wake-up call to International Sumo Federation

by Mark Buckton

Special to The Japan Times

The quest of the International Sumo Federation (IFS) to have amateur sumo accepted as a bona fide Olympic sport has long been viewed as as a pie-in-the-sky proposition by many.

In the wake of the recent IOC decision to drop the far more recognized sport of wrestling from automatic inclusion in the 2020 Games, anyone can see that the IFS goal remains as far away as ever.

Some supporters will, of course, see this differently. Most notable on this list will feature the officials and staff at the IFS.

Led by Hidetoshi Tanaka, amateur sumo today is stagnant.

Annual tournaments do take place but far more than being celebrations of sumo reaching people around the world, these events are more often than not remembered for their politics than numbers attending, and subsequent increased global recognition.

Reports of AGM walkouts by ISF officials when questions on accountability and internal voting procedures are to be posed are common, the lack of English spoken and thus limited communication with almost all IFS officials seen as comical.

Similarly bizarre is the lack of a press officer in what purports to be an international body, any established procedures for press releases to reach the domestic Japanese or international media, and procedures for securing media access at events murky at best.

Compounding this issue, and indeed that of the whole issue of the IFS ever being recognized as a serious entity by the International Olympic Committee is the number of member nations, 87, claimed by the IFS, when only a fraction truly exist.

Only around a third — a generous number — have ever regularly participated in the sport on the international scene. Most are in Europe.

Questions posed as to why this is the case are always met with a request for questions to be sent in in email form, but such mails are routinely ignored and go unanswered.

In point of fact, most of the non-attending member nations have non-functioning e-mail addresses and many have never attended even a regional championship, let alone appearing at the world championships.

As a result, only the most ignorant of IOC officials will ever view amateur sumo as little more than a novelty.

Indeed, what was arguably the strongest continental body for the past 20 years, the European Sumo Union last year fragmented, perhaps forever, when the IFS recognized a breakaway continental championship hosted in eastern Europe.

The IFS has offered no explanations for this decision, and requests for interviews with IFS head Tanaka have for the seventh successive year drawn a blank.

One final sign of the malaise at IFS HQ can be seen on the outdated and far from captivating homepage that has not been updated with tournament results since 2010, despite a number of events in the years since.

However, in a recent twist on the amateur sumo front aimed at boosting IFS chances to be included in a future Olympics, at least one U.S.-based female amateur has expressed her desire to promote sumo globally and boost chances of IOC acceptance — by way of her working toward being accepted into the U.S. Sumo Hall of Fame.

The only snag there is that no such facility exists.

The individual in question, while new in U.S. sumo circles, should be admired for her enthusiasm in things shin-zumo (the name used for women’s sumo), but in reality is but an indication of the ongoing official-malaise-meets-enthusiastic-naivete in those new to the sport falling for the “future Olympic sport” myth.

When asked of his opinion of this sumo writer Chris Gould said, “The halls of fame I know are packed with people whose standout achievements automatically make them household names. Looking to be included in a hall of fame when still a beginner would be like Japanese train station staff hoping to be made a yokozuna because they convincingly shoved someone into the morning train.”

“I don’t think that if the USA created a sumo hall of fame it would lead to sumo getting into the Olympics,” said long-term American amateur wrestler Trent Sabo. “I don’t think if any sport was where sumo is now (and) opened a hall of fame in any country that it would result in that sport getting into the Olympics” before going on to hit the lack of effective member nations issue squarely on the head. “I do think a hall of fame can be a good teaching and motivational tool though. There are many factors involved in getting into the Olympics. One of the most basic factors is widespread participation in the sport.

“Currently China is not involved in sumo and India is hardly involved either. Those are the two most populous countries in the world. (And) except for Brazil there is no major involvement in sumo from the Americas. Widespread participation translates into money and marketability, and those are also key factors into getting into the Olympics. So, for now, I see that as the biggest hold-up for sumo in its quest to get into the Olympics.”

Thus, while the enthusiasm of such new additions to the ranks of amateur rikishi is encouraging, the fact remains that in amateur sumo, the changes need to be made from the top down with an IFS clear-out.

A similar argument could also be made in regard to reinvigorating the similarly stale management system in place in Europe at the European Sumo Union who are just as set in their ways as the IFS.

As the sport stands today, with the current set-up in the IFS and ineffective management practices ingrained, fewer and further between are those willing to make an effort toward effectively promoting amatuer sumo for Olympic inclusion somewhere down the road.

And, after all, if the IOC is going through the process of potentially removing the hugely popular sport of wrestling from the sport, what chance will hitherto badly led, highly disorganized sport of amateur sumo ever have?