Sumo struggles as Aki Basho approaches


In the days leading up to the Aki Basho, sumo is on the ropes.

For two weeks, following the drug-related dismissal of Magaki Beya wrestler Wakanoho of Russia, the sport has been struggling to keep its head above water and dark clouds have been hanging permanently above the Kokugikan in Tokyo’s Ryogoku district.

Those clouds let loose in a torrent of allegation, denial, claims and talk of lawsuits over the past week. It all peaked on the afternoon of Sept. 8 when then Sumo Association Chairman (rijicho) Kitanoumi announced his resignation from the post he has held since 2002. Two more Russians, Roho, 28 and Hakurozan, 26, were also informed that their careers in sumo are over.

Following the revelation last Tuesday (Sept. 2) that urine samples taken from the Ossetian-born duo tested positive for marijuana, both rikishi vehemently denied the allegations thrown their way. Even when a second round of tests proved positive — the tests carried out at Japan’s only testing facility accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency — the individuals in question stuck to their guns and maintained their innocence and were backed by their respective stable masters, Kitanoumi (Hakurozan) and Otake (Roho).

In doing so, they are likely to remain uncharged by police, since Japan is a nation that does not punish the actual usage of marijuana, merely its possession or other associated actions.

In the end, though, it all became too much for the Nihon Sumo Kyokai’s elders, and at lunchtime on Monday, an announcement was made in which an astounded public learned of Kitanoumi’s resignation, the subsequent dismissal of the brothers in question, and the administrative demotion of Otake Oyakata.

Musashigawa Oyakata, once a former yokozuna under the shikona fighting name of Mienoumi, and the man who brought into the sport former yokozuna Musashimaru, three ozeki (Musoyama, Miyabiyama and Dejima) and a handful of maegashira rikishi was appointed rijicho soon afterward.

Ironically, around the same time Kitanoumi was resigning, Wakanoho was being released from his own period of detention — the fact that his use of marijuana as a minor was his first offense, and his subsequent televised apology presumably enough for the authorities.

One of Musashigawa’s first official duties will be to step out onto the dohyo on Sept. 14 to deliver the usual “welcome to the basho” speech. No doubt his words will be scrutinized nationwide as the de-facto national sport attempts to claw its way back to respectability following arguably the roughest year in its history, with allegations of a hazing death and bout-fixing still to be addressed in the courts this autumn.

But the sumo show must go on — as it always has.

Away from the glare of the media spotlight, preparations for the tournament continue in muted form although little in the way of conditioning and training successes or even off-the-dohyo gossip is making it into the newspapers any more.

Yokozuna Hakuho has apparently again become a father, ozeki Kotomitsuki was hospitalized briefly in South Korea during a trip to Mongolia, and Asashoryu is known to have had his appearances on a couple of TV shows cancelled in order for him to focus more on training.

But what of action on top the dohyo? Just 24 hours after appearing with a banged-up knee at his heya, potential ozeki Ama appeared in fine fettle at the Sept. 5 yokozuna souken practice session. Meanwhile, Kisenosato has been keeping his head down as he puts it together pre-basho, presumably with the intent of taking advantage of the focus being off, all eyes elsewhere.

Neither yokozuna has excelled in the weeks ahead of shonichi and as has been the norm of late, Asashoryu once more succeeded in drawing the ire of several of the sport’s insiders by releasing a book of photos including some “off-duty” shots of himself that were deemed unworthy of a yokozuna by some, harmless by others.

On the actual fighting surface next week, one to keep an eye on — for he will be hard to miss — is the 237 kg, Yamamotoyama of Onoe Beya. New in the second ranking juryo division, the man mountain is larger than famed Hawaiian ozeki Konishiki (then 175 kg) at the same juncture in his own career, but may in the end prove just too large to move effectively. As he comes up against more and more experienced rikishi with a range of go to techniques — including speed and maneuverability — the bulk he has to shift to counter may just prove too much for the Saitama native.

Making their joint debuts at the foot of the uppermost makunouchi division meanwhile are Kitataiki at maegashira 13 and Tamawashi two ranks lower. Both will be looking to sneak in unnoticed amid all the hullabaloo, but just how the media circus camped outside Kitanoumi Beya has affected Kitataiki this past fortnight — now the heya’s senior man — is anybody’s guess.

Estonian Baruto is at a career-high rank of komusubi as is gutsy Tokitsukaze man Toyonoshima at sekiwake. Both should so well given the lack of conditioning in the ozeki ranks above them and should now be looking to prove themselves future and worthwhile successors to the likes of Chiyotaikai, Kaio and eventually Kotomitsuki in the next couple of years — if not sooner! Hopefully sooner, as sumo definitely needs a breath of fresh air.