Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Long layoffs could prove detrimental to amateur and pro rikishi

by John Gunning

Contributing writer

In an email sent on April 21, Dariusz Rozum, president of the European Sumo Federation, announced that the 2020 Sumo World Championships, due to be held in Krotoszyn, Poland, in September, have been postponed to 2021.

The news is expected to be confirmed by the International Sumo Federation (IFS) this week, but as yet no official statement has been issued.

A cancellation puts some national governing bodies in a bind.

The U.S. Sumo Federation for example uses its annual national tournament as a qualifier for the World Championships.

If the Poland event next year takes place at the same time it was scheduled to be held in 2020, it will come after next year’s U.S. National Championships, which serves as the selection meet for the American team each year.

Of course, winning a national title has merit in and of itself, but with all wrestlers paying their own way, and travel distances significant, if the event doesn’t come with slots for the World Championships attached, attendance could take a major hit.

If it does, then that opens up another can of worms, with athletes who have already qualified potentially missing out on representing their country. Recriminations and a backlash would be likely, and in a sport that has been plagued by schisms and feuds that’s the last thing amateur sumo needs right now.

Domestically, the amateur sumo calendar is also taking a hit, with at least 13 major tournaments already canceled or postponed. Many of those are age or grade restricted, meaning that the chance to compete will not come around again for some of the wrestlers involved.

As things stand, it’s difficult to be optimistic about any amateur sumo tournaments taking place in 2020. With cancellations already pushing into June, that means wrestlers won’t be able to start training until late summer or early fall at the very earliest.

Even under ideal conditions, sumo requires almost constant training to stay in peak condition. Ozumo (professional sumo) rikishi take a week off after each tournament, and despite that break being so short, they then use the first four or five days back just to ease into things with stretching and other warm-up exercises but no bouts. Missing a month of training would set a wrestler back much further. If that stretched into several months, then to get back into peak condition could take half a year or more.

When the recently retired Sokokurai was out of sumo for two years while battling the JSA in court, he trained every day by himself, which included him using a gym and working out at a rugby club, but still his condition collapsed. I attended one of the first sumo practice sessions he participated in after winning reinstatement and was shocked at how poorly he performed.

Despite being given a couple of months to work himself back into shape, he had three straight tournaments with heavy losing records, and it took almost a year from his return before he managed to get back to the level he had been at when kicked out.

Of course most amateur sumo wrestlers aren’t in anywhere near the same kind of fighting shape as a top professional, but even if tournaments do take place in the latter part of the year, the results are almost certain to be affected by the long layoff, and how well each wrestler dealt with it.

With restrictions put in place regarding what can and can’t be done in training following the confirmation of a positive COVID-19 test by a rikishi, it’s also going to be very difficult for those in ozumo to perform well either, whenever the next tournament happens.

Some people (in both the amateur and professional versions of sumo) are taking a proactive stance, however, and trying to stay healthy as well as keep spirits up. Shiko (leg stomp) challenges have been popping up on various social media channels, mirroring similar efforts seen in other sports.

Onoe Stable, located in Tokyo’s Ota Ward, has been posting content to its Facebook page daily. It’s been a mix of stuff as well, from goodwill messages and expressions of support, to posts about cooking and videos of rikishi playing Pac-Man on an old arcade-style machine.

Some other stables have been posting reminders for fans to stay home and follow social distancing protocols, as well as uploading photos and videos of members wearing protective equipment and disinfecting their surroundings.

The JSA’s official Facebook page hasn’t been updated in almost a month, but its Twitter feed remains active. Unfortunately, the JSA hasn’t yet followed the lead of some other sporting bodies by replaying past contests in full and for free online while people are in lockdown. Let’s hope that begins to happen, as uploading quality content for people to enjoy encourages them to stay at home.

For now, we’ll have to make do with that provided by amateur wrestlers, fans and individual stables.

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