Another nail in the coffin of amateur sumo

Sumo currently exists in two forms around the world. Most famous, of course, is the Tokyo-based professional sport led by yokozuna Hakuho, et al. However, the amateur version, often termed “amasumo” in abbreviated form, is of interest to many in nations that lack direct access to Japanese broadcasts.

Following almost a decade of scandals involving drugs, match-fixing and, worst of all, the hazing death of a young wrestler, the professional game has been working on cleaning up its image. The world’s amateur sumo organization, though, appears to be sinking deeper into a quagmire of its own making, as IFS (International Sumo Federation) president Hidetoshi Tanaka is currently in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

As head of the global body, he is charged with the responsibility of eventually making amateur sumo an Olympic sport, but this month Tanaka made tabloid headlines when allegations were made of collusion with the Japanese underworld.

Tokyo-based author and underworld expert Jake Adelstein brought this scandal to the fore in a Feb. 7 Daily Beast feature along with a photo of Tanaka attending a social function with a known member of Japan’s underworld.

“I faxed and emailed Nihon University for a comment on the photo clearly depicting Mr. Tanaka, their chairman, with the chairman of the Sumiyoshi-kai,” Adelstein told Sumo Scribblings. “(I) asked them to clarify the relationship in the past and present (and) if Mr. Tanaka had any current connections to organized crime. I also asked about his relationship to yakuza consigliere Kyo Eichu,” Adelstein said. “I asked about whether Nihon University had an anti-yakuza policy and what they did about contracts.”

The university later contacted later Adelstein and told him that Tanaka had no memory of that photo or the event, explaining that he goes to a lot of parties. “He has met Kyo Eichu once,” the university spokesperson told Adelstein. “They have or had no special relationship. In practice, all contracts Nihon University makes with third parties has an organized crime exclusionary clause which allows the contract to be unilaterally dissolved if the third party is connected to organized crime.”

As accommodating as Nihon University were, however, when Adelstein contacted the IFS office in Takadanobaba, Tokyo, he met the standard response: silence.

To date, no statement has been issued by Tanaka or any other individual on his behalf.

Surprisingly both the International Olympic Committee and Japan Olympic Committee of which Tanaka is a member also refused to respond to Adelstein’s questions.

Yet, as unsavory as such allegations against Tanaka and — in domino effect — the IFS are, they came as no real shock to Trent Sabo, a prominent amateur wrestler who has participated in North American and global sumo tournaments for many years.

“As I understand it, those types of connections and contacts are very common for someone like Mr. Tanaka. I would have been surprised if he didn’t have those types of acquaintances,” Sabo said in response to questions emailed earlier this month.

Adele Jones of England, that nation’s most successful amateur to date, with a silver medal at the 2006 Sumo World Championships, recognized the potential damage these allegations could bring to amatuer sumo.

“This is not the way forward,” she said. “It tars everyone involved with the same brush, so athletes that have trained hard for years are also under suspicion. Any person who has links or connections to organized crime should not be involved at any level of sport.

“It is very sad to see that yet again people and organizations are using sport as a way of scoring points and making a name for themselves. The Olympics are the ultimate for sportsmen and women (and) politics and money should not tarnish Olympic dreams.”

Kelly Gneiting, Guinness World Record Holder and five-time U.S. Sumo Champion who has represented the U.S. for a decade at the Sumo World Championships, is slightly more forgiving.

“Mr. Tanaka has done a lot for the sport of sumo, for which he should be commended. In positions such as the one he holds for the IFS, there will always be temptations to use resources, even if they are questionable. I don’t know the full extent of Mr. Tanaka’s dealings with the yakuza, but if these allegations are true (he ) should not be leading the quest for sumo to become an Olympic sport in my opinion. (But) I’m also a guy who believes in giving second chances.”

Whether or not Tanaka survives in his current post will depend on elections later in the year … if they are even held!

To date no records of election results or annual accounts for the IFS have been released, although both are required for IOC inclusion.


For a roundup of post-Haru Basho events and one day pro-sumo tournaments around Japan check out the next Sumo Scribblings just ahead of the upcoming tournament in Osaka.

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