Amateur sumo in crisis: Europe and Japan go head to head

by Mark Buckton

Special To The Japan Times Online

For the past 20 years amateur sumo has been bidding for full and formal IOC recognition. Making its way through the IOC’s various levels of acceptance, it was, according to many, doing rather well.

Its governing body, the International Sumo Federation (IFS), initially served as a unifier, bringing together people from many corners of the globe with an interest in the amateur form of the sport back in the 1990s. In recent years, though, it has done little more than polarize those competing, particularly in Europe, where the majority of amateur tournaments take place.

This all came to a head over the weekend of June 16-17 when two organizations, in separate locations, in continental Europe, held simultaneous European Sumo Championships.

Bizarrely, the event held by the official European Sumo Union (ESU) was not the event officially recognized by the aforementioned IFS. Instead, the world body opted to recognize an event held the same weekend in Ukraine, and put on by a breakaway group of eastern Europeans who are themselves disgruntled with the predominance of western Europeans in the upper echelons of the ESU.

I couldn’t attain an email comment from the IFS, but one member, speaking by telephone, did confirm that the Ukraine tournament was the only event being recognized, and chose to ignore any mention the Hungary/ESU event. No reason was given to explain the snub.

The officially recognized event in Ukraine was presumably organized by Segey Korobko, a former ESU head himself before Petar Stoyanov, currently said to be detained in Bulgaria on charges related to murder for hire, briefly oversaw the ESU. Compared to the Hungary tournament, the Ukraine event appeared to draw a far stronger contingent of sumo wrestlers from the amateur circuit and a nice balance of fresh young talent.

In Hungary the ESU event did appear on the surface a hodge-podge of several western European fighters going against people with next-to-no experience on a dohyo drafted in to make up the numbers.

No results of the tournament in Budapest, Hungary, have been released by the group that claims to legally represent Europe, and very few photos have surfaced.

Meanwhile, images of the event in Ukraine, available on Facebook and YouTube, show a healthy crowd and some decent quality fights, although like the ESU, those behind the breakaway “official” tourney have not released results.

In response to the apparent IFS snub of the ESU over the June championships, reports are coming out of Europe, by way of Francois Wahl, a high ranking Swiss official in the European Sumo Union, that a new world body is currently being set up to run against the IFS for IOC recognition.

Apparently operating under the title of (the) International Sumo Association (ISA), it has been claimed by Wahl, who will be retiring this year after two decades of loyal service to the amateur game in Europe, that contact has already been made with the IOC.

While it is not known yet exactly who is behind the new ISA, seasoned observers of the amateur sport would expect Stephen Gadd, former Secretary General of the ESU and head of the Dutch Sumo Federation, to be playing some role up front or behind the scenes. Gadd has had frequent and oftentimes public spats with the IFS over recent years. The most public of these involved an attempt in the mid-2000s to take sumo on the road in the U.S. as something of a circus act with theatrical names, costumes and the like.

Because of these gimmicks and other issues surrounding back-room squabbles with the IFS, Gadd’s continued presence has long been something of a thorn in the side for the IFS, and is perhaps the single most unpalatable aspect of their dealings with the ESU.

In turn, there are few in Europe or elsewhere with much time for Hidetoshi Tanaka, the current, and seemingly untouchable, IFS president, who also works with the Japanese Olympic movement.

Who will make the next move in this global chess game being conducted above a dohyo? With the head of the IFS, which has a reputation for operating at glacial speed, heading to London for the upcoming Summer Olympics, it appears the next move is for the formerly recognized ESU authorities to make.

Will they or won’t they form the new ISA and with it challenge the existing, Tokyo-based IFS under the spotlight of the Olympic committee?

Meanwhile, on the sidelines, and perhaps set to suffer later this year as a direct result of the European infighting, is Hong Kong.

Long-time attendees at Sumo World Championships, Hong Kong is scheduled to host the latest tournament, the 18th annual event, to which all member nations are invited on Oct. 27 and 28.

But if claims originating in the ESU hold water, that the new ISA is planning to hold its own Sumo World Championships over the same weekend in direct competition with the IFS event, the confusion that follows will serve as little more than an embarrassment to the sport at large.

Member nations will be faced with heading to Hong Kong, or opting for the tournament put on by the upstarts, presumably to be based in Europe.

And with others all the time competing far more professionally for the eye of IOC officials responsible for selection of future Olympic member sports, perhaps it is time for the IFS president, along with the existing leadership of the ESU, to step down and let the next generation run sumo sans personal vendettas and the like.
It is supposed to be a sport after all!

* Mr. Stoyanov remains on the ESU homepage as president of the Bulgarian Sumo Federation while Mr. Korobko’s photo has been removed.