Yet another dramatic sumo tournament is in the books.
With highs and lows worthy of any summer blockbuster, the September Basho followed a twisting narrative all the way down to the wire once again, before eventually crowning the latest in a series of surprise champions.
Shodai’s victory now brings the number of men in the top tier with title-winning experience to eleven, meaning, incredibly, that fully one quarter of all wrestlers in the makuuchi division have lifted the Emperor’s Cup at some stage in their career.
That’s a mind-blowing stat for sure, but one which perfectly illustrates the kind of parity we’ve seen in sumo over the past few years.
With 60 percent of top-tier rikishi also having reached the sanyaku ranks below yokozuna at some point — and many of those who haven’t being young wrestlers who almost certainly will — the roller coaster ride doesn’t seem close to ending any time soon.
Good news wasn’t limited to the in-ring action either, as the Japan Sumo Association successfully pulled off a second straight tournament with fans present — no small feat for an indoor sport in an ongoing pandemic.
Even an outbreak of COVID-19 in Tamanoi stable just before the tournament got underway didn’t derail the sumo train.
All members of the stable who were hospitalized have been discharged — a huge relief for everyone involved as this particular virus seems to hit those with high BMIs the hardest.
There are even hopes these days that wrestlers may be able to restart visits to other stables for practice ahead of the November meet, and that the current cap on the number of tickets sold for that tournament will be raised.
But to say that everything is rosy in the sumo garden would be to ignore serious challenges that, while not as visible as before, are still lurking in the shadows.
Japan’s national sport lost the Summer Basho in May but otherwise hasn’t had to cancel any official bouts since the pandemic reached these shores in early spring.
Given how several other sports have seen their schedules decimated by COVID-19, the impact on sumo has been relatively light.
That’s something that could change in the blink of an eye, however.
While soccer and baseball in Japan have gradually increased attendances, the fact that their games take place outdoors provides an added layer of protection against major coronavirus outbreaks among fans.
Even with the one-person-per-box rule currently in sumo, fans are still indoors and in relatively close contact to those around them. Five hours at such distances could have a major impact on how many people were infected in the event of an outbreak.
Such fears are a major reason that, even despite a limited capacity and the rare availability of good seats, few tournament days sold out.
Of course, a certain nervousness is understandable given that sumo has also lost an athlete to the virus.
Thankfully, although (like everywhere else) there is still a certain amount of carelessness inside the Kokugikan when it comes to mask wearing, most people understand the true seriousness of the situation and are taking the appropriate precautions, reducing the risks.
While it’s a positive that fans are present and no outbreaks have been reported, reduced attendances are obviously hurting the JSA’s bottom line — something that will likely lead to increased calls to allow more fans into the November tournament.
Whether or not an easing of the cap occurs, the bigger issue is where that event is taking place.
Without massive star athlete salaries to pay, sumo isn’t going to find itself in a bind like the one currently causing sleepless nights for rugby officials around the world. Japan’s national sport is run on a model that gives it far more financial leeway than most sports.
But while sumo may be relatively stable on a financial front, the fact that no fans outside Tokyo are going to see live sumo for an extended period of time is bound to have an impact.
With the decision to hold the November Basho in the Kokugikan, sumo fans in Osaka, Nagoya and Kyushu will experience a gap of two years (at least) between tournaments. Add in the canceled regional tours and other events and that’s a big chunk of time supporters — and even potential rikishi — won’t have access to wrestlers or exposure to live sumo.
The importance of such face-to-face meetings and tournaments to a sport which has a limited pool of young athletes to draw on can’t be overstated. Unless the JSA finds a way to reconnect with children and their families outside of the capital there is a real danger that many kids will drift away to other more accessible sports and sumo's fan base will shrink.
Safety must take priority, of course, but if several thousand people per day are allowed congregate in the Kokugikan in Tokyo (by far the location with the greatest number of COVID-19 cases in Japan), then surely a tournament in another city with a limited number of fans is something that can be safely arranged.
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