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Lower-division wrestler Kotokantetsu caused a stir on Jan. 9 by announcing his retirement from sumo over fears of catching COVID-19.

The Sadogatake stable wrestler broke the news himself on Twitter — avoiding a Japan Sumo Association imposed social media ban by handing in his retirement papers before heading online.

Within 48 hours of that tweet Kotokantetsu was appearing on former stablemaster Takatoriki’s controversial YouTube channel where the pair had a candid discussion about the circumstances surrounding the retirement that — while disheartening — was hardly surprising.

Unfortunately, the inevitable wave of anger that followed missed the deeper story and focused on the wrong target for the most part.

Rather than spark a debate about what Takatoriki in his usual manner called a bunch of “stupid stablemasters” running (or ruining, depending on how you look at it) the lives of young wrestlers, most of the fury was directed at the JSA for not letting Kotokantetsu sit out of the current tournament over worries about contracting the coronavirus.

With a heart condition that had previously required surgery, the Shiga native had perfectly valid reasons for feeling fearful, but a closer examination of the situation shows several possible solutions to the problem that wouldn’t have led to the end of a young rikishi’s career or the subsequent burning of everything to the ground online.

Sumo’s governing body is not without blame in the whole affair, but when it comes to failure to properly prepare for or adequately deal with a worldwide pandemic, the JSA hardly stands alone. Virtually every single sporting body and national government across the globe, with the notable exception of New Zealand, has been playing catch-up since COVID-19 first struck.

Sumo’s authorities, like many others, fell prey to overly optimistic thinking right from the start of the current crisis. The measures put in place could only ever work in the short term and, as the virus has continued to spread and disrupt life, the JSA has had to constantly play a deadly version of Whac-a-Mole.

Giving wrestlers a choice to opt out for the year, as was done in the NFL, was suggested, but the structure of sumo life means wrestlers leaving a stable entirely and isolating isn’t a realistic option. Football players have multimillion-dollar contracts waiting for them, while the odds of a rikishi keeping his topknot and sitting at home alone unpaid for an indefinite amount of time are low. The JSA isn’t overrun with new recruits and creating a precedent that could further drain their numbers would be a risk.

Of course the real question here is why, in a world as vague as sumo, did the Kotokantetsu situation come to this? Rikishi regularly do a runner and go missing for months at a time and stablemasters have little difficulty in holding off on handing in retirement papers in hopes that they will return. Those that do come back aren’t required to justify their absence, and Kotokantetsu’s stablemaster could easily have found a way for him to sit out for an extended period had the will been there.

In his interview with Takatoriki, the 22-year-old laid into the former Kotonowaka, claiming Sadogatake offered little support during his time in sumo and that his mother was forced to raise funds to pay for his heart operation. The revelations clearly annoyed Takatoriki and caused him to rage about money grubbing stablemasters who put their own interests ahead of those of their charges.

Sadogatake stablemaster, the former sekiwake Kotonowaka, was accused by Kotokantetsu of failing to support him during his time at the stable. | KYODO
Sadogatake stablemaster, the former sekiwake Kotonowaka, was accused by Kotokantetsu of failing to support him during his time at the stable. | KYODO

Swinging from tears to bouts of anger, Takatoriki clearly knows how to play to the camera, but unfortunately his claims in this case have merit. Promises made by some stablemasters to parents about looking after their son “as if he were my own” are little more than a sales pitch. The harsh reality of sumo life isn’t fully understood by many of those that join the sport. There are of course good stables with conscientious stablemasters who look after their charges, but also far too many where kids are given hell rather than help, and thrown on the scrap heap as soon as injury strikes or it’s clear they won’t be a moneymaker for the stable.

In itself that’s hardly surprising. Stables are essentially families and those run the gamut from great to completely unacceptable. You will get good and bad people in any endeavor.

The correctness of disallowing rikishi to sit out of tournaments because of fears they may have — however valid – is a point that deserves debate, but it isn’t the central issue in this case. Essentially, it’s no different than any other employee saying don’t want to come to work because of worries about the coronavirus. Few businesses can afford to allow their staff to do that. Simiarly, Kotokantetsu, if he feels that the JSA wasn’t providing a safe work environment, is free to take legal action for unfair dismissal.

The real tragedy here is not the young rikishi’s revelation that the JSA didn’t consider all eventualities and put in place robust enough guidelines to protect the health of its wrestlers, but that despite progress having been made, oversight of stables in sumo remains lax and many of them continue to chew up and spit out young kids without consequence.

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