COVID-19 has had a significant impact on sumo over the past twelve months.

The upcoming March tournament will be the fifth straight one held at the Ryogoku Kokugikan, as Osaka joins Nagoya and Fukuoka in losing its sole yearly meet to the pandemic.

Regional tours have also been canceled and entire stables forced to sit out tournaments, as Japan’s national sport grapples with a disease that claimed the life of one of its wrestlers.

Shobushi’s death last year means few in the Japan Sumo Association are taking the coronavirus lightly — something that has been reflected in the harsh punishments handed out to JSA members who have broken quarantine rules.

The strictness of those rules has also meant that, one missed tournament aside, the JSA has been able to continue as normal — more or less — inside the ring.

Compared to the cancellation of entire seasons and widespread disruption seen in other sports around the world, professional sumo’s schedule has remained relatively unaffected.

The same can’t be said for amateur sumo, unfortunately.

Miku Yamanaka, who has finished on the podium at several world sumo championship meets, has been chosen as a judge for the Sumo Technique Tournament. | JOHN GUNNING
Miku Yamanaka, who has finished on the podium at several world sumo championship meets, has been chosen as a judge for the Sumo Technique Tournament. | JOHN GUNNING

Thirty-eight of 45 tournaments run by the Japan Sumo Federation between April and December of 2020 were either postponed for a year or canceled entirely.

Across the globe the situation has been even worse. With lockdowns in place and far fewer resources covering a much larger geographical spread, amateur sumo in most countries has essentially shut down.

There are exceptions of course, and Russia recently held its national championships in a large arena with action taking place in three rings simultaneously.

The same country is slated to hold the European Championships in April, but in email discussions this week the national federations of Italy, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Norway and Germany among others asked for the tournament to be moved to July.

Head of Estonian Sumo Kaido Hoovelson (former ozeki Baruto) mirrored the concerns of most involved when he explained that the “situation in Estonia is not good. Spa hotels, sports clubs and schools (are) closed until the end of March. Estonian athletes can’t take part (in) training and for us is April too early.”

If July seems like an optimistic time frame for Europe, the same is equally true — if not greater — for Japan. Even with infection rates and overall numbers lower than those found abroad, the slow rollout of vaccines in this country makes it hard to see any major amateur tournaments taking place until the back end of the year.

To fill in the gap, a 37-year-old coach in Hokkaido has come up with a unique idea for a sumo tournament that doesn’t require physical contact.

Satoru Shirao, a graduate of sumo powerhouse Nihon University, created the first national “Sumo Technique Tournament” earlier this year.

Kids and sumo clubs around the country were invited to send in video entries in three categories: Japan’s most beautiful shiko (foot stomp), Japan’s best “Air Sumo” (one person against an imaginary opponent), and appeals promoting contestants’ sumo clubs.

Entry was free and the winners (in various categories from infants to junior high school) will be announced on March 7th.

Reaction thus far has been positive, and the tournament has received videos from all over the country. Despite it ostensibly being a national competition, an entry from a sumo club in Thailand was also accepted.

The inclusive composition of the tournament’s judging panel is also a welcome move – particularly given the controversy that has surrounded the Tokyo Olympics in recent weeks.

The involvement of women’s national team wrestlers Miku Yamanaka and Manaho Nozaki in particular is good to see. Both have won medals at international meets and Yamanaka has been one of the best wrestlers this country has produced over the past decade.

With the first-ever Wanpaku national championships for elementary school-age girls taking place less than two years ago, gender equality in amateur sumo is still in its infancy.

Having high-profile female athletes like Yamanaka and Nozaki continue their involvement in the sport, especially in an organizational capacity, should help Japanese amateur sumo continue moving in the right direction.

The use of the word “kata” (forms) in promotional materials for the new tournament was particularly noteworthy. With its origins in religious ceremony, sumo isn’t a martial art — but it does have rigorous adherence to basic principles and training routines in common with sports that are, such as judo and karate.

Up until now, Japan’s national sport never ran tests of technique or held tournaments based on anything other than the outcome of bouts. The introduction of a competitive version of sumo forms is something that could have an impact on recruiting and retaining younger athletes in the future. Kata competitions are an important part of the reason sports like karate remain popular globally. For those who enjoy the participation and practice element of a sport but aren’t able to find success in regular bouts, tournaments that showcase proficiency in technique provide an alternative outlet for competitive fire.

For the parents of younger children, kata also gives peace of mind and the assurance of safety while allowing their children to remain engaged and active in a sport.

Amateur sumo is not a sport that can afford to turn its back on anything that increases participation. The Web Sumo Tournament may have been created as a way to bridge the gap during a pandemic, but when COVID-19 eventually fades it would be well worth continuing.

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