Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Sumo injuries pose ever-present issues for wrestlers, rankings

by John Gunning

Online sumo games have a small but loyal following.

For some players, choosing and managing a squad of rikishi in Bench Sumo or Sekitori Quadrumvirate brings an extra layer of excitement to their fandom. For others, it is a good complement to the action in the ring and a handy way of learning about the various rikishi and their head-to-head records.

The games come in many forms, with some requiring just five minutes to select your wrestlers once prior to the tournament, and others needing input on a daily basis.

The time commitment needed for the latter, especially if you are a serious participant playing several games, can be significant.

Even for the most hardcore gamers, though, life occasionally interrupts and takes precedent.

When it does, online sumo gaming, offers something that its real world equivalent no longer does.

Directly translated as public injury system, kōshō seido, is a freezing of a player’s position, allowing them to be absent from a tournament without incurring the resultant drop in rank. In essence, it’s no different than pressing pause on a video game while you take care of other matters.

Ozumo had the same system in place from 1972 to 2003.

With the increase in the number of the tournaments to six yearly from 1957, injuries that regularly occur in sumo weren’t getting enough time to heal properly and when several high-profile rikishi were forced to compete while clearly in no condition to do so leading to long absences, it was decided to introduce a system to mitigate the effects of all the extra tournament days.

Initially strict and limited in application, kōshō seido rules gradually softened over the years until it got to a point in the early 2000s where it seemed like every injury, no matter how minor, resulted in a rikishi taking a tournament off.

The 2002 July meet, for example, saw one quarter of the top division miss all or part of the tournament.

In fact, there were so few suitable opponents left for title chasing ozeki Chiyotaikai that he was matched up on day 13 with maegashira No. 8 Shimotori, who only had a 9-4 record.

Those buying tickets could have no confidence that’d they see the stars of the sport in action and dissatisfaction grew to the point that the entire system was abolished in one fell swoop.

With the large growth in sumo fandom abroad over the last number of years, it’s common to see calls for the reintroduction of kōshō seido, especially among those who weren’t around in the bad old days.

The careers of promising rikishi like Takakeisho are being put in jeopardy by a system that forces him to compete while injured and risk aggravating the injury or else lose his hard-earned rank — or so the argument goes.

Some traditionalists opposed to the idea of kōshō seido argue that it goes against the spirit of sumo. To be a rikishi means training every day and competing in tournaments. If you cannot do that, then it’s better to quit sumo entirely.

To be honest, there is no easy solution to this problem and I’ve sympathized with both camps to varying degrees over the years.

Obviously, the situation is also different depending on the rank of the person involved.

Missing several tournaments and being demoted from the third-highest division (makushita) to the any of the three divisions below it will have little practical effect on a rikishi’s day-to-day life, but if you are a married man with a family and mortgage in the second-highest division (juryo), a drop down to the unsalaried ranks could be disastrous.

Perhaps something similar to English soccer’s parachute payment system could be introduced to sumo to cushion the drop of a sudden and significant injury.

There have been many possible systems floated in the press and online over the years, but none have come close to being adopted.

At the end of the day, however, ideally a rikishi’s decision about whether or not to enter a tournament should be medically based rather than a result of financial pressure.

Of course, in any sport that has a rating system, absence, for whatever reason, will result in a drop in rank, but sumo isn’t tennis; injury is an ever-present issue in Japan’s national sport. You cannot do sumo for any length of time without sustaining damage. Its very nature practically guarantees it.

Sports is star-driven entertainment. If the big names are absent, fans will lose interest. That the current boom in sumo’s popularity coincided with the arrival of Endo and the promotion of Kisenosato to yokozuna is no coincidence. If the Japan Sumo Association wants to keep ticket sales high, it needs to ensure stars like Enho and Takakeisho compete.

The catch-22 of course is that kōshō seido is premised on the idea of having your stars in the ring more by allowing them to be absent.

It’s an extremely tricky problem that hasn’t seen a proper solution yet.

If you can think of one, by all means let me know.

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