• AFP-JIJI

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A sumo wrestler has died after landing on his head during a bout last month in a horrifying injury that sent shockwaves through the sport and calls for reform.

Hibikiryu, a lower-tier wrestler whose real name was Mitsuki Amano, died of acute respiratory failure on Wednesday at a Tokyo hospital, the Japan Sumo Association said in a statement.

“May his soul rest in peace, and we express our heartfelt gratitude towards his contribution” to the sport, the statement read.

The 28-year-old was thrown by his opponent during a March 26 bout, and video that was widely shared at the time showed him lying virtually motionless but apparently conscious.

Sumo association officials reportedly said he did not receive medical attention from trained professionals for several minutes. The images of him lying prone without assistance caused widespread shock.

He was also turned over by officials, something experts pointed out should only have been done by trained medical workers, given the possibility of a spinal injury.

Hibikiryu was conscious when he was put into an ambulance and could talk during his hospitalization, according to the Sankei Shinbun.

“A causal link between the wrestler’s death and his injury is not clear at this point,” a sumo association spokeswoman told AFP.

“As to how to improve emergency medical systems, we will announce something when we formally decide it,” she added.

While there are doctors are on-site during bouts, they are not ringside and it is customary to wait for wrestlers to get up by themselves.

Local media said the sumo association was discussing changes, including stationing doctors ringside as is the case in professional boxing.

Hibikiryu’s death prompted criticism of the JSA online and in local media.

“Why is the sumo association allowed to treat life and health so lightly?” one Twitter user wrote.

“This is what I feared,” Mikito Chinen, a doctor and novelist, added in another tweet.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes as the wrestler, who obviously had a high chance of a spinal injury … was left untreated for several minutes while they prioritized announcing who had won.”

A reporter for Nikkan Sports said in a commentary it seemed “abnormal” that the wrestler had been left unattended for so long.

“I couldn’t help but think they could have dealt with the accident more quickly,” the reporter wrote.

The risk of serious head injuries has become an issue in a range of sports in recent years.

World Rugby is facing legal action from nine former professional players who say they suffer neurological conditions caused by injuries during their careers, and has introduced new rules intended to try to reduce dangerous injuries.

The Premier League is doing a trial run for permanent concussion substitutes and has faced calls to do more to prevent players from continuing after injuries.

Hibikiryu is the first active wrestler to die since last May, when another lower-tier wrestler, Shobushi, died of multiple organ failure after he became infected with the coronavirus and developed pneumonia, Kyodo News reported.

Sumo has faced a spate of bad publicity in recent years and has been pressed for reform, including over rules on admitting women into the ring.

In 2018, the Japan Sumo Association was forced to apologize after women who rushed to the aid of an official who collapsed in a ring were repeatedly told to leave.

Sumo’s dirt rings, known as dohyo, are viewed as sacred in the Japanese Shinto faith and women — considered to be ritually unclean — are not allowed to enter for fear of desecrating the hallowed soil.

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