Amateur tourneys offer window to sport's future stars

by John Gunning

Asanoyama is sumo’s latest champion.

The Takasago stable wrestler’s victory in the May tournament makes him the fourth rikishi to win a debut championship in the past six meets — something that hasn’t happened in 19 years.

Asanoyama is also one of four former amateur sumo wrestlers to lift the Emperor’s Cup since the start of 2018.

Tochinoshin, Mitakeumi and Takakeisho all had success at university or international level before turning pro.

Mitakeumi, like Asanoyama, was a regular on podiums during his collegiate days, but while the former became both university and amateur yokozuna in 2014, Asanoyama never managed to win any of the big tournaments.

That discrepancy allowed Mitakeumi to start his professional career at the rank of makushita 10, as opposed to one division lower at sandanme 100, where Asanoyama began.

Tochinoshin and Takakeisho made the move to ozumo (professional sumo) at a younger age but both won medals at the Junior Sumo World Championships.

While not every former amateur champion decides to join the professional ranks, reaching the podium at one of that level’s main events is still a good indicator of the ability to succeed at a higher level.

The fact that ozumo also allows major title winners to skip the lower divisions and start their professional life at a higher rank than normal, shows the respect that the Japan Sumo Association has for the level of competition in the amateur ranks.

Although they may lack the pageantry of professional sumo tournaments, big amateur meets are hard-fought affairs packed with future stars.

In a time when tickets for pro events are extremely hard to come by, such competitions also offer an opportunity for fans to watch high-level sumo up close.

Events are held year-round, and unlike in ozumo women also compete.

This weekend sees the East Japan Student Tournament take place in the Kokugikan while west Japan has the All Japan Women’s Selection Himeji Tournament.

Amateur tournaments are held in a greater variety of venues, making them more accessible to fans in more remote locations.

Kansai will also host this year’s World Championships in October, after the International Sumo Federation (IFS) this week suddenly decided to cancel the scheduled event in Hawaii and move it to Japan.

While that’s a boon for sumo fans in Osaka, where the meet will take place, it’s a black eye for the United States Sumo Federation and the IFS, and highlights the struggles amateur sumo continues to face outside of Japan.

No reason was given for the abrupt change with an IFS statement issued to national governing bodies only saying “due to the current condition, IFS anticipates difficulties in hosting it in Hawaii and decided to cancel to hold it in Hawaii.”

According to organizers and IFS board members, the decision was taken after a 32-0 vote conducted by email from May 27 to 31.

No one however, even off the record, was willing to divulge the reason for the cancellation.

That lack of transparency, combined with all power residing in the hands of a few individuals, is one of the reasons that amateur sumo has struggled to grow outside of its traditional base.

This isn’t the first time that a world championship has been canceled or moved against the wishes of the host nation. Egypt, thanks to a flu pandemic and the Arab Spring lost both the 2009 and 2011 meets and the scheduled 2003 tournament in Hong Kong fell victim to the SARS outbreak.

In the above cases, however, there were obvious and clear reasons for the cancellation but Switzerland also had a tournament taken away for reasons that were never fully explained. The IFS also became involved in the internal affairs of European sumo, choosing sides after that continent’s governing body split into two.

Lifetime bans were also threatened on anyone taking part in a professional international sumo tour mooted to take place in the wake of the massively successful World Sumo Challenge held in New York’s Madison Square Garden in 2005.

While sumo as a participation sport is far smaller outside of Japan than in it, having all decisions ultimately being taken by the powers that be in this country is detrimental to hopes of that ever changing.

It remains to be seen how the hurried switch from Hawaii to Japan will impact numbers in Osaka. Most member countries receive no government funding with athletes paying travel and training expenses out of their own pocket.

The Norwegian federation has already issued a statement saying that their plans to bring a “historically large group of athletes” have been thrown into disarray by the decision.

With tickets to Hawaii already bought, it’s unclear whether refunds will be possible, and even if so, whether flights to Japan will be available or affordable in the middle of the Rugby World Cup.

The rescheduled championship will take place in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, on Oct. 12 and 13. Tonga will take on the United States that weekend in the city, which will also put pressure on available accommodation.

Even if the number of athletes participating is lower than normal, the serious medal contenders are likely to attend. For those going to watch the action the junior championship is one to keep an eye on. At the same venue in 2004, one podium contained future stars Tochinoshin, Goeido and Kaisei.