Sumo | SUMO SCRIBBLINGS

International Sumo Federation needs major reform, new leadership

by Mark Buckton

With all the recent hullabaloo over Tokyo’s scrapped national stadium costing too much, and being an over-the-top architectural white elephant (a new stadium budget was unveiled on Friday), few in Japan noticed the decision of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games to give amateur sumo’s ambitions of becoming an Olympic sport in 2020 a resounding thumbs down.

And why would it? The amateur sumo governing body, the International Sumo Federation (IFS) has made no known official comment since.

The body’s official homepage makes no mention of the IOC decision despite for 20 years those taking part in amateur sumo openly citing future Olympic attendance as one of their reasons for joining the sport; the carrot of future Olympic participation frequently dangled before competitors’ eyes at IFS events and other tournaments.

When asked for comment by telephone, no official was said to be available to speak on the issue, with a secretary merely asking for questions to be sent in by email.

One minor official in the setup, albeit based in Australia, known for often being outspoken on the management style of the IFS in public forums suddenly clammed up, seemingly afraid to go on record when asked to suggest reasons behind the IOC decision.

Only one of the sport’s more prominent members on the international stage when approached, however, was prepared to go on the record regarding sumo’s IOC thumbs-down despite over 20 years of prepping for this moment.

Asked why he thought this was the case, Thomas Zabel, a U.S. Sumo Federation trustee and president of the Lone Star (Texas) Sumo Association, suggested a lack of youth participation to be a major factor.

“We had hoped that sumo would be included in the 2020 Olympics in Japan, but due to one of the main criteria the (International) Olympic Committee was looking at — youth participation in the sport — it was not chosen,” Zabel said. “This is a big challenge not only for the United States, but also for other countries around the world that have thriving adult sumo participation (but have yet to) get the youth involved in the sport for it to really grow.”

Yet, “lack of youth participation” aside, in the wake of sumo’s Olympic ambitions being dealt what is essentially a fatal blow for at least a generation, the problems facing the IFS run deeper still; a factor alluded to by Zabel when asked his take on the organization of amateur sumo in the U.S. and (also) at the world level.

“Although the U.S. Sumo Federation has grown in recent years, we are still a relatively small organization,” Zabel said. “(We) are working on implementing various strategies to accomplish our goals to generate interest and participation in sumo. It won’t happen overnight, but we are optimistic that we are headed in the right direction.”

He added: “At the world organizational level, the IFS could be more open to suggestions or changes. As an example, adding additional weight classes for both the men and women’s divisions would help in getting more athletes involved. If you are at the lower end of your weight division, you may be giving up to 27 kg (60 pounds) to your opponent. By adding additional weight divisions we could cut the weight differential in half. That is just one idea that could be incorporated and it would benefit the sport.”

Zabel echoed a point raised by many in the amateur sport regarding the IFS’s resistance to change.

As someone who has followed and frequently reported on amateur sumo in media in Japan and around the world for over a decade, I believe this change must start at the top.

Current IFS president Hidetoshi Tanaka has overseen the rise of amateur sumo on the international stage to respectable standards, albeit with around half of the 88 member nations claimed by the IFS never having competed in major tournaments or being contactable, and seeming to exist solely on paper.

Even if all 88 nations are out there practicing sumo in secret and despite many never attending events, positive publicity generated by the largely monolingual office of the IFS in Tokyo has always been an issue.

Regional tournaments in the United States, Europe and South America garner far more online attention and all-around publicity than anything the IFS has ever organized.

The All Sumo World Championships, set to take place in Sakai City, south of Osaka, this weekend, could answer some questions on the current state of the sport. An advertising poster is almost entirely in Japanese and thus incomprehensible to most non-Japanese tourists in Kansai who might attend on the off-chance, as well as a few of the athletes competing.

Once amateur sumo’s flagship tournament, it is the first time the IFS event will take place in Japan since the mid-2000s.

But, extremely limited publicity, no known press conferences ahead of time and no media invitations having been received, it would appear that under Tanaka’s continued leadership, amateur sumo on the global scale is at death’s door.

At the very least in as far as wider public awareness goes.

Indeed, although routinely claiming to have almost 90 member nations only around 30 are expected in Sakai, according to one source. A disappointing statistic by anyone’s standards.

One nation that will be there, and an organization the IFS would do well to emulate, as far as planning for the future goes, will be the U.S. Sumo Federation.

Although the U.S. has not has a senior medalist since 2008, according to Zabel, “Our athletes are excited that the championships are returning to Japan. What better place to do sumo than in Japan? We should have a full women’s team this year for the first time, so that is very encouraging for the growth of sumo in the U.S. There are a few newcomers to this level and they have been preparing with some experienced sumo athletes. We are anticipating that this will translate to a couple of podium spots for the U.S. men and women.”

Gambatte then, Team USA, and the rest of the competitors flying into Japan for all the right reasons.

As for the powers-that-be that still run the IFS, as they sit on the sidelines over the weekend, hopefully they will realize they have now become the biggest obstacle the sport faces in ever getting to the Olympics, and will gracefully step aside and let the next generation of men and women in the sport, Japanese and non-Japanese take up the cause.

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