Sumo at the Olympics or a dohyo too far?


Sumo in Japan is on the up and up. We now have two yokozuna with a good half decade of rivalry in the tanks, one young enough to still be around in 10 years time. Irrespective of reports in the Japanese-language media, the sport is not sinking into the abyss with the continued success of its foreign legion. The 60 or so non-Japanese that make up less than 10 percent of more than 700 active professionals merely add to the color and flavor of a sport that is ever expanding and gaining new fans worldwide, from Norway to New Zealand, from the Americas to Australia.

The Nihon Sumo Kyokai has just wrapped up another overseas tour, showing fans in Hawaii some of the best sumo has to offer. Taiwan, China, South Korea and the U.S. (Las Vegas) have hosted the pros in recent years. A few days in London have been penciled in for 2009 and yet another U.S. trip — to Los Angeles — has recently been announced for this time next year.

None of this in any way harms the image of professional sumo around the world, but the amateur version of the sport is a completely different kettle of fish.

On March 5, 2000, The Japan Times carried a piece on the questions then being raised in various branches of Japanese sports coverage. In referring to the debate on women ascending the dohyo to present winner’s trophies, Marty Kuehart pointed out that in 1995 the Japan Sumo Federation, the sport’s amateur arm, with the tacit approval of the professional Sumo Association, announced “the formation of ‘new sumo’ for women.”

“Sumo leaders want to see their sport included as an Olympic event in the 2008 Summer Games, and they realized the ‘male-only’ tag would probably cook their chances of being accepted outside of Japan,” Kuehart wrote. “In determining the merits of including new sports in Olympics, the International Olympic Committee considers how many countries the sport is played in and whether the game is enthusiastically embraced by both genders.”

Kuehart was spot on in his observation. Regrettably, the International Sumo Federation, the body tasked with the job of taking sumo global, is now floundering in shallow water and runs the risk of being beached altogether if the IOC votes in mid-2007 to merely extend its status as a “recognized sport.”

The ISF is currently led by Hidetoshi Tanaka, head of the prestigious Nichidai sumo club since 1983. Nichidai can lay claim to being the breeding ground of around 20 active rikishi — almost half sekitori — and in sumo circles, Tanaka’s credentials are impeccable. No one in their right mind would doubt that he knows his sumo inside out.

One problem, however, is the modus operandi of the ISF. Nichidai wrestlers often make up the bulk of the Japanese participants in world events (and, as expected, they won the 86th East Japan College Sumo Tournament on June 10). One wonders if the links between Tanaka, ISF and Nichidai might raise a few eyebrows at the IOC. Is the ISF just the international testing ground for Nichidai? With so many former Nichidai men and former European participants at ISF-sponsored World Championships going into professional sumo, is the ISF just an international scouting operation for the pros?

Furthermore, that the ISF office head is also believed to be based at Nichidai rather than in the ISF office only compounds the potential for confusion over the true intent of an originally well-intentioned ISF.

And what to make of the fact that in a supposedly bilingual (English/Japanese) organization, there is a only one office member with some English skills? And of the disproportionate number of director seats reserved only for Japanese (at least seven guaranteed in ISF Rules whereas each continental body is offered just one slot)? Surely these things are going to raise a few more eyebrows.

The 85 nations that currently lay claim to their own sumo associations really do deserve better. (Having said that, one source at the heart of things amateur claims that around half of the member nations have never actually competed in an event.)

The 2007 World Championships were set to take place in autumn in Switzerland, the home country of the IOC, but were recently relocated to Thailand. Although no press release has been seen and no official announcements made, one Swiss-based sumo official put this move down to a lack of sponsorship — presumably despite months of searching.

Any sporting organization is only as good as its member nations so for anyone following amateur sumo the future is far from bright.

Splits looked likely in 2006 following the participation of some of sumo’s best amateurs in a now-defunct U.S. commercial venture. Bans were handed out — to officials and athletes — and comical scenes were the result at last year’s ISF AGM, ahead of the World Championships in Sakai, Osaka. Out of 85 possible member nations, the event drew just 34 (it hit its peak in 1995 with 42 participating countries).

It would appear that the ISF needs to take a good hard look at itself in the mirror and focus its efforts, over the next few years, on not chasing the dream of international recognition that Japan so craves but more on cleaning up its own house. Come voting time, we can expect a “must try harder — more content needed” on the IOC report card.