Though the ongoing coronavirus pandemic shows few signs of abating, many regions around the globe have begun gradually phasing into a new kind of normal.
Accompanying that change, sports have also made a tentative recovery.
It’s a return that is for sure uneven, and one that reflects not only relevant local COVID-19 situations, but also each country’s varying political and economic realities.
Some leagues ended their 2020 seasons completely in March or April, while others still hold out hope of some kind of comeback later in the year.
Limited engagement changed rules both on and off the field of play — there are almost as many different methodologies being used as games themselves.
Which way will sumo go isn’t yet clear, but the nature of Japan’s national sport and how it traditionally has interacted with its fan base, allows for some educated speculation.
Thus far, out of the six yearly official tournaments, only the May meet has been lost.
The March meet was held with no fans present and a repeat is planned for July in Tokyo, with the Nagoya tournament being moved to the capital.
After that, however?
With few experts predicting things to get back to normal before at least 2021, a return to regular tournaments in front of full houses seems unlikely.
The death of 28-year-old wrestler Shobushi last month means no one in the Japan Sumo Association needs reminding of the risk that COVID-19 poses. Expect any future action to err greatly on the side of caution.
Although rikishi in each stable have been sequestered together for a couple of months, making the odds of any infection remaining undetected and nontransmitted extremely low, a JSA request for restraint regarding certain kinds of training remains in place.
That situation likely won’t change until all wrestlers have received the all clear in the association-wide test for the virus, and the situation in Japan in general has stabilized.
Pulling in the opposite direction, financial realities will inevitably play a part, but sumo isn’t under the same kind of pressure as other sports when it comes to money, with no conceivable scenario where the governing body of Japan’s national sport is allowed to collapse. The JSA, while keeping an eye on developments elsewhere, will be able to follow its own path.
As with any contact sport, the challenges are enormous. Inside the ring, men, sans any protective shield or mask, will collide with their faces in close contact. The nature of sumo bodies and the explosiveness of the exertions mean rikishi are gasping and expelling huge breaths almost immediately. It seems virtually impossible to come up with anything that could prevent transmission during bouts.
Limiting contact outside the ring is easier, and measures such as requiring rikishi to skip the shower and go straight home reduce time spent at the arena, but you still have several hundred people overlapping in the same poorly ventilated basement space all day long.
If one wrestler tests positive during a tournament the chances are that dozens of people were in close contact with him before symptoms ever began to show.
Whether a single positive case should bring a swift halt to the tournament is currently something that is being debated within the JSA.
The idea of spectators at the September tournament appears incongruous with all measures taken to date.
Although we are still three months away from the Autumn meet, ticket sales are due to begin in just over seven weeks’ time. While that could be pushed back, the idea having to deal with the potential headache of a canceled tournament and refunds could lead to the JSA continuing to play it safe and wait till November or January before allowing fans back in.
At any major sporting event people are packed in, but in sumo that’s even more the case. Four people are squeezed into most boxes on the first floor of the Kokugikan with physical contact unavoidable.
Perhaps the JSA may consider severely reduced attendance in September as a first step.
Whenever fans do come back, the in-tournament experience itself is likely to see change.
Sumo meets are boisterous affairs, with the freely flowing alcohol and gradually intensifying tension creating a unique and loud atmosphere. Fans may be encouraged to tone down some of the roaring and shouting, and it’s almost certain some kind of measures will be taken to prevent the rain of thrown cushions commonly seen after yokozuna upsets.
One of sumo’s unique selling points has always been the fan interaction with wrestlers.
Starting in the early morning and progressing all the way up to the top division, rikishi walk in and out of the arena using the same gates as the spectators. Many make their way to and from the dressing rooms through the fan areas of the arena. Before their bout they normally keep their eyes ahead and stay focused, but on the way back it’s common for them to linger and chat with fans and friends. Sumo is one of the few sports where major stars are accessible for photos and autographs to anyone with a ticket for that day’s action.
The fear of a member of the public catching the coronavirus from a rikishi could prompt the JSA into putting an end to that practice. If that happens it will be a real shame and take away one of the highlights of a tournament visit for many people.