Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Spring Basho provided unique experience but raised concerns

by John Gunning

Contributing writer

The just-finished Spring Grand Sumo Tournament has left us writers with a wealth of storylines.

Inside the ring there was plenty of action to focus on.

Yokozuna Hakuho stormed out of the gates, hit a rough patch, then came from behind to take the title.

Asanoyama, likewise, did what was required on the final day and sealed his promotion to sumo’s second-highest rank with a win over ozeki Takakeisho.

Bulgarian Aoiyama kept alive the hopes of fans eager to see yet another debutant champion, while Takanosho, and Kotonowaka also performed well.

There were worries before the tournament got underway that wrestlers wouldn’t be able to focus properly or perform to their usual standard in an arena devoid of fans.

During the first couple of days there was definitely a sense of adjustment, but more so for fans than rikishi.

Instant hot takes online saw the words “pointless” and “boring” thrown around a lot on Day 1, but such opinions were mostly absent by the time the halfway point was reached, with everyone settled in and focused on the sumo.

Well, almost everyone.

I found it harder to stay in the moment during this tournament than in any other that I can remember, but not because of the lack of crowd noise.

Indeed, like most people, I was fascinated by the sounds of rikishi breathing, mawashi creaking and feet sliding across the sand. All of those I’ve heard a thousand times before in training, but experiencing them in a large, dimly lit arena was certainly unique.

Two things were gnawing at me all the way through the 15 days that made it difficult to keep my attention on what was happening in the ring.

The first one was obviously a concern for the health of the people involved during the ongoing pandemic. I was already on record as saying I thought the meet should have been canceled entirely, and whatever worries I had when I wrote that February 26 column only deepened and intensified as the COVID-19 infections and deaths continued to rise at an alarming rate worldwide.

At the end of the 15 days, there was a lot of talk about how sumo originated from a ceremony whose purpose was to ensure the health of the people. Wrestlers, judges, attendants and even us media members received many messages thanking us for our hard work and for providing a distraction in difficult times.

While I genuinely appreciated the sentiment, it was hard to escape the feeling that the lives of too many people were put at risk unnecessarily.

There is also a worry that survivorship bias will result in the May tournament going ahead in a similar fashion, despite the number of coronavirus cases continuing to increase and even the 2020 Olympics being moved to next year.

Dodging one bullet doesn’t make you bulletproof. There were certain pressures that led to the Osaka tournament going ahead, but a repeat in May, especially if things continue as they are, or get worse, would be recklessness of the highest order.

In a pandemic where the situation can change rapidly overnight, it’s impossible to predict how things will be one week from now never mind six, but let’s hope that next time out the health of the rikishi, gyōji, yobidashi and all other associated sumo personnel is placed on the same footing as that of the general public.

The second barrier preventing me from being fully engrossed in the action taking place in Osaka was one of my own making.

Former ozeki Tochinoshin is obviously a shadow of the wrestler that he was just two short years ago. Injuries have robbed the big Georgian of the stability and tools needed to succeed with his style of sumo.

Watching his decline is a painful experience for fans and friends alike, but on the Day 1 live broadcast, after his loss to Sadanoumi, I talked about not knowing why he continues to fight on and gave the impression that I thought retirement would be the best option at this stage.

I saw the same opinion repeated many times online over the following two weeks and while I’m sure most people came to that conclusion without having heard me speak, I regretted phrasing something in a way that misrepresents one of my strongest-held views.

For the record, what I was trying to say was that I didn’t know the particular and specific reasons Tochinoshin had for continuing to fight on. I still don’t.

I hold no opinion on what he (or any other athlete) should do in that kind of situation.

As someone who has gone through retirement from a sport that dominated a large chunk of my life, and a journalist who has been close to several top athletes as their careers have drawn to a close, I’m of the opinion that only the person whose career is at stake should be involved in the decision to end it.

That’s especially true of top-level athletes. Not only is it a decision that will rip away everything they have focused on since they were small children, but it is one that normally has massive financial implications. Unless you are willing to help someone (normally in their early 30s) provide for their family for the next three decades or so, you probably shouldn’t demand that they should quit their job just because they aren’t as good at age 30 as they were at 25.

Everything that has a beginning has an end. Time will claim everyone, including all athletes.

Rikishi who have provided entertainment for a decade or more deserve the right to fight on as long as they wish.

Your news needs your support

Since the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, The Japan Times has been providing free access to crucial news on the impact of the novel coronavirus as well as practical information about how to cope with the pandemic. Please consider subscribing today so we can continue offering you up-to-date, in-depth news about Japan.

Coronavirus banner