Sumo

Health risks in spotlight as Spring Basho nears start

by John Gunning

Contributing Writer

The Japan Sumo Association is proceeding with the upcoming Spring Grand Sumo Tournament, but has decided, in light of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, that it will be held behind closed doors.

Calling off the event completely would undoubtedly have been a safer course of action, but as hundreds of wrestlers, stablemasters, referees, hairdressers and other sumo personnel were already in the Kansai region; and with television income being such a vital part of the JSA’s finances, it’s not difficult to see why it chose the current course of action.

Closed doors or not, there are still risks involved of course.

Measures are being taken to limit interpersonal contact, but controlling the movement of 700 people day and night for two weeks is a near-impossible task, and if a rikishi becomes infected with COVID-19, serious questions will be asked.

The nightmare scenario, of course, would be a member of the general public in the region contracting the virus from someone in the association. The repercussions for the sport’s governing body in that case would likely be severe and long lasting.

The JSA, no doubt, weighed the risks and the decision to go ahead means that, even if the March tournament passes without incident, it is going to be one of the most unique in sumo history.

First and foremost, everything will proceed with the threat of instant cancellation hanging like the Sword of Damocles overhead.

According to JSA Chairman Hakkaku, if just one rikishi is found to be infected, the basho will come to an end immediately.

If that were to happen in the first few days, perhaps the impact would be minimal, but a cancellation around Day 10 or 11 would have wider implications.

Would the title be awarded in such a case?

What if there are three or four rikishi with the same tournament-leading record?

In terms of finances, how would a curbed tournament affect broadcast and licensing deals or sponsors?

Would the banzuke (rankings) for May take into account a tournament where rikishi have fought an unequal number of days? Wrestlers starting hot and fading over the second week (or vice versa) is a common occurrence, so are those who are habitually quick out of the blocks at an advantage this time out?

What if a rikishi does test positive? Does that mean everyone he came in contact with at the arena will be quarantined in Osaka for the next several weeks? Given the close proximity in stables, it’s highly unlikely that any infection will be limited to a single individual. Living quarters and space are normally at a premium in temporary lodgings, so it will also be difficult or impossible to isolate more than one person in many of them.

Assuming the JSA’s gamble pays off and the tournament passes smoothly and without incident, it’s still going to look very different.

In an evolving situation, measures in place mean right now mean there will be no ringside photos or personal interaction between the media and wrestlers. Everyone will be watching from afar, and that, combined with the silent arena, will likely give the entire experience a voyeuristic feel.

Some of the rituals will be retained but it appears others, like the handing over of the chikara-mizu (power water) will just be simulated.

There will also be no parade for the tournament winner, or commemorative photos holding the Emperor’s Cup while surrounded by supporters and family members.

There really is a sense of heading into the unknown with this basho. Even during the closed doors tournament of 1945, a limited number of wounded war veterans and dignitaries were granted access. The upcoming meet will be the first time no one at all is allowed apart from JSA members and media.

Predicting what will happen inside the ring is just as difficult.

It’s just a few short years since writing tournament previews involved laying out in what ways another Hakuho championship would seal his place in history, trying to ascertain from pre-basho training whether he would go 13-2 or 15-0, and then wondering how to fill the rest of the allotted column space with lesser storylines.

Tournament outlook

Now after a tournament when Tokushoryu, the lowest-ranked man in the top division, walked away with the Emperor’s Cup and became the ninth first-time winner in the past four years, the worry for sumo writers is how to fit in detailed assessments for all 42 serious title contenders in the top division.

It’s a task made doubly difficult by sumo stables shutting their doors and restricting access as part of ongoing virus prevention measures. The amount of available information is much lower than normal.

It also remains to be seen how the individual rikishi deal with a silent arena and having their usual routines broken. On the one hand, being cut off from the public allows wrestlers to focus on sumo, but on the other the taking away of normal downtime activities, especially for men from Osaka and its surroundings, is bound to increase stress.

The upcoming tournament is likely to be as much a test of a rikishi’s ability to deal with distractions and unfamiliarity as it is of their physical condition.

The man with the most to gain is sekiwake Asanoyama.

With Goeido’s retirement, Takakeisho is the only remaining ozeki in ōzumō (professional sumo). Since there must be two on the banzuke at all times, that necessitated Kakuryu covering both ranks in March as a designated yokozuna-ozeki.

That’s not the ideal situation and with both Kakuryu and Hakuho already 34, the JSA will be keen to see some new blood at the sport’s second-highest rank.

Thirty-three wins over three tournaments while ranked at komusubi or sekiwake is the generally accepted requirement for promotion but as nothing in sumo happens in a vacuum, the current state of the rankings, a man’s history and how well he performed during his promotion run (especially at the end) all factor into the decision.

Asanoyama has already lifted the Emperor’s Cup, reached double digits in four of the last five tournaments and downed at least one yokozuna or ozeki in every meet since last May.

With 11 wins in March, the chances are high that he will be promoted to ozeki. Even 10 wins gives him an outside shot depending on how things go.

Whether his ozeki run will be halted if he is 3-2 and the tournament gets canceled is another question and one nobody can answer right now.

I think the Takasago stable man will take advantage of his opportunity and, despite below par results in pre-tournament training, he is my pick to win the tournament outright.

Another rikishi not to sleep on is Abi. A disastrous finish last time left him at 5-10 but that was his first losing record since November 2018, and the long-limbed troublemaker is set for a quick bounce back.

Saying that there are 42 credible yusho (title) candidates was only partly facetious. At the conclusion of the January tournament there were 10 men still active in professional sumo who knew what it feels like to lift the Emperor’s Cup. Terunofuji in juryo was the only one outside of the top division.

In 2015, Hakuho and Kakuryu won back-to-back tournaments for the last time, and the latter’s victories in March and May of 2018 are the most recent occasions when consecutive championships were won by anyone at the yokozuna rank.

That’s a stunning statistic that becomes jaw-dropping when you add in the fact that an ozeki hasn’t won any tournament in three years.

The currently repeating pattern is for Hakuho or Kakuryu to pick up every second or third championship and both men seem to be in reasonable condition right now, so the smart money would probably go on one of them adding to their trophy haul.

For the yokozuna pair, injury is the main concern. Missed tournaments are becoming more frequent as they push up against what is normally the upper age limit for men at their rank. If either veteran can stay healthy for all 15 days, they’ll obviously be in contention.

There is only one debutant in the top division this time out but he is an interesting one.

The 22-year-old Kotonowaka is fighting under the same ring name as his father (and stablemaster) and will be hoping to do better than his old man, who had a losing record in his top-flight debut.

The first Kotonowaka did go on to reach sekiwake though and fought over 1,200 bouts in makuuchi so his son has a long way to go to match those achievements. It’s doubtful Kotonowaka II will get a nickname as good as his father, though.

The current Sadogatake was known as “Mr. One Minute” when active because of his tendency to lock up opponents and wear them down gradually with his large frame.

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