Asanoyama has received a six-tournament suspension from the Japan Sumo Association for repeated violations of the organization’s COVID-19 protocols.
The ozeki was also hit with a 50% reduction in pay for the next six months and will likely find himself in the sport’s fourth division by the time he is allowed compete again.
Although twice as long as the ban handed down to maegashira Abi last August for similar offenses, on balance Asanoyama’s punishment seems appropriate.
Ozeki are generally considered to be a class apart from those below, with their position carrying significantly more responsibility and expectation, both inside and outside the ring.
Asanoyama also compounded his initial offense by subsequently conspiring with a journalist who had accompanied him to hostess bars to lie to investigators about the pair’s activities.
Given that those lies led to senior members of the JSA publicly denying wrongdoing that later was shown to have taken place, the 27-year-old can consider himself lucky to still have a job at all — especially 18 months into a pandemic that has wreaked havoc on many of the industries in which former rikishi find employment.
What likely saved Asanoyama from having his resignation accepted was the fact that the aforementioned journalist appears to have been the instigator of the illicit activity, and the complete lack of guidance shown to the ozeki by his former Takasago stablemaster. That latter man is now out of sumo entirely as a result of a continual disregard for the JSA’s COVID-19 guidelines.
Former yokozuna Asashoryu, who clashed with the same stablemaster (who wrestled as Asashio) throughout his own career, gleefully reacted to the news by tweeting pictures of himself celebrating and sarcastically captioned “otsukare” — a phrase, often used to express a sentiment similar to “well done” or “good job.”
— Asashoryu第68代横綱朝青龍🇲🇳🇯🇵 (@Asashoryu) June 11, 2021
Asanoyama’s six-tournament suspension has generally met with approval online, although some felt it didn’t go far enough — especially given that the lives of fellow wrestlers were put at risk.
However, the fact that — following his return to action — it will be 2024 at the earliest before the Kindai University graduate can hope to return to ozeki status makes the punishment sufficiently weighty for most.
With everything done and dusted barring more sordid revelations, thoughts now turn to Asanoyama’s absence — and the significant impact his exclusion figures to have on the upper reaches of the rankings.
First and foremost, Japan’s national sport has suddenly had one of its biggest names removed from contention at the peak of his career. While Asanoyama has not set the world on fire with his performances since becoming an ozeki, the Toyama native has more wins over the past 18 months than any of the other main players apart from Terunofuji.
Ironically, the Isegahama stable veteran is the one rikishi who stands to suffer the most from Asanoyama’s absence. With a 5-0 head-to-head record, Terunofuji has had little trouble dealing with the younger ozeki personally, but Asanoyama has taken wins away from all of the Mongolian native’s main championship rivals on a regular basis.
Even better from Terunofuji’s point of view, Asanoyama had almost evenly split records against Shodai and Takakeisho but regularly overwhelmed outside title threats such as Hokutofuji and Takanosho. That not only lowered the possibility of a dark horse run, but meant that Asanoyama was not so dominant himself as to become a major threat every tournament.
For Takakeisho, meanwhile, the path to yokozuna promotion just became a little easier to travel. Not only has a major rival been eliminated from contention, but the two obviously better remaining rikishi (Terunofuji and Hakuho) are older and have significant injury concerns.
Being a young successful Japanese-born rikishi with a clean record and lifelong dedication to sumo — at a time when there are few other viable long-term prospects for yokozuna — also means that Takakeisho’s candidacy is likely to be looked on very favorably when the time comes.
As mentioned in last week’s column, Asanoyama’s punishment may also be a sign of a shift away from career-ending sanctions within the JSA. Certainly, had the ozeki similarly lied and tried to cover his tracks (until finally undone by his phone’s location history) at almost any other point in recent sumo history, he’d already be unemployed. Whether this leniency continues or is just a consequence of the special circumstances brought about by COVID-19 remains to be seen, but forcing 20-somethings out of the sport entirely over infractions that in other disciplines would elicit a light penalty at worst just isn’t feasible in the modern sporting world.
Protecting the health and welfare of rikishi has become a hot-button topic in sumo. Any sport that cannot guarantee the safety of its participants will quickly find its numbers dwindling.
In a rapidly changing global environment, however, that also means sports have to show that they are fair with and understanding of athletes who grew up in a very different world from the one in which their coaches did. Disciplinary methods that were standard practice 15 or 20 years ago can appear overly harsh to younger athletes.
With sumo heading to Nagoya later this month for the first tournament outside Tokyo since March 2020, Asanoyama’s suspension may also have the effect of curtailing any plans to meet friends or sponsors that rikishi may have had. With lengthier sanctions in play wrestlers may feel that breaking the rules is too risky in the current environment.
Of course, with the summer heat making the July tournament oppressive at the best of times, that added lack of respite from training and fighting day after day will test the mettle and reserve of the most disciplined rikishi.
Don’t be surprised if Asanoyama isn’t the last wrestler caught breaking the guidelines.
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