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Sumo needs to tackle cause of rising injuries

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Yokozuna Harumafuji, who won his ninth championship in September, edged compatriot Hakuho for top spot in the newly released rankings for the Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament.

Both men, along with fellow yokozuna Kisenosato and Kakuryu, are expected to participate in the tournament. That’s significant as three of the four failed to even make the starting line for the Autumn Basho, which also saw ozeki pair Takayasu and Terunofuji drop out — something that resulted in the latter’s demotion to sekiwake.

The recent spate of withdrawals by the top rankers has highlighted what appears to be a growing problem in sumo.

Injuries have always been a part of the sport, and any activity where giant men crash into each other dozens of times a day without protection on a hard surface is bound to have casualties. But it seems as if those injuries are increasingly of the serious and long-term variety rather than the normal bumps and bruises associated with a contact sport.

One of the problems with determining the level and extent of injury in sumo is getting accurate information. Athletes are under no obligation to provide it and the old ‘tape it up and keep going’ attitude is still prevalent.

One can only go on what the eye sees, as well as the number of absent rikishi. When you have a yokozuna (Kisenosato) who fought in 1,239 consecutive bouts from his debut failing to complete three straight tournaments, you know that things are getting worse. There have also been calls for the reintroduction of the ‘kosho’ system — whereby an absent wrestler could keep his rank if out for an injury requiring two months or more to heal.

So just what is causing the increase in injuries? It’s no secret that sumo’s popularity is near an all-time high right now and one effect of that has been a rising demand from various towns and municipalities around the country to host jungyo (regional tour) events. The normal downtime between tournaments, when rikishi could rest, heal up and then build up training intensity gradually, has been cut to almost nothing. The last two inter-basho periods saw 23 and 22 jungyo days respectively.

Tours play havoc with a rikishi’s physical condition, as they travel long distances in cramped buses, arrive at venues late at night and eat bento and convenience store food almost every day. There is no real break during each event either, as activities are spread out and downtime isn’t long enough to get decent rest.

Another potential culprit is the increasing size and physicality of rikishi.

Take a look at the top division heights and weights for November 1967 and compare them to the current numbers and you’ll see a significant difference. Forty years ago, most makuuchi rikishi were around 178 cm in height and almost all were under 130 kg with a large number being significantly less. Nowadays 185 cm and 155 kg is much closer to the average.

Rikishi aren’t just taller and heavier either. They are faster and more powerful as training methods have improved and gym work increased in the intervening decades. When they hit each other, they are doing so with a force much greater than that of previous generations.

Of course athletes being bigger and stronger isn’t unique to sumo. In 1985, William ‘Refrigerator’ Perry made headlines across the world for his size. At 188 cm and 149 kg he was about 35 kg heavier than the average player at his position back then. Nowadays those stats would barely be noticeable on a defensive lineman and there are many players heavier and bigger.

Rugby has seen even more dramatic change. Between 1994 and 2014, the average weight of a player on the England team increased by 13 kg and the Welsh backs at the 2015 World Cup were heavier on average than the New Zealand forwards at the 1987 tournament.

Football, rugby and other sports, however, have seen their rules and training regimes gradually evolve and change to reflect such size and power increases. Shorter practices with more days off, as well as limitations on what kind of tackling is allowed, are just some of the improvements that have been made to ensure player safety.

Sumo, by contrast, has seen several oyakata complain in recent weeks that injuries are caused by rikishi not training hard enough. That traditionalist macho mindset is deeply embedded in sumo and it’s going to take time to change.

In fact no rikishi I spoke to about this topic was willing to go on record with their opinions. Though several agreed that jungyo and keiko (practice) needed reform, fear of being seen as ‘soft’ or not hardworking enough meant they didn’t want their names attached to those opinions.

So what can be done to lower the rate of injuries?

The jungyo ‘problem’ will work itself out as the current Kisenosato-generated boom starts to wane. In the long term, perhaps a cap on the number of days might be instituted but there are so many other considerations (financial / recruiting etc.) with the regional tours that there is no simple solution.

Sumo as a sport doesn’t really lend itself to any rules changes, but with as many injuries happening in training as in tournaments, football-style limitations on the amount and length of keiko might be beneficial.

While medical care, once it is sought, is usually sufficient, a more proactive mindset towards injury would eliminate a lot of the issues. Rikishi use knee braces once an injury has occurred, but using them to prevent those injuries happening in the first place would be better.

With ideas like those of course the main issue is getting wrestlers and coaches to buy in and embrace change. That’s no small task, but if the sport is going to survive and thrive in the 21st Century, it’s absolutely essential that it happens.