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The banzuke rankings for the upcoming July Grand Sumo Tournament were released Monday and, as usual, the bewildered reaction online was one of the most interesting aspects of the day.

To be fair, the Japan Sumo Association judging department did make some head-scratching decisions this time around. In particular, Tobizaru dropping just one rank after a ten-loss outing in May raised eyebrows, especially when the reverse result (10-5) had seen him climb from maegashira No. 8 to No. 2 just one tournament earlier.

Puzzling selections and placements are intrinsic elements of banzuke creation and without doubt a major part of sumo’s appeal.

“Abandon logic, all ye who enter here” should be posted as a warning on the sign-up page for online games like Guess the Banzuke, where every two months fans tie themselves in knots trying to predict what determinations will be made by the sport’s elders — only to inevitably end up hurling their phones across the room in disgust when those decisions are revealed.

Whatever can be said about the rankings themselves, one part of July’s physical banzuke sheet that catches the eye is the name “Dolphin’s Arena” written between the east and west sides of the top division.

When the upcoming tournament gets under way on July 4, it will be the first time in 469 days that a professional sumo meet has taken place outside of Tokyo.

Hakuho’s defeat of fellow yokozuna Kakuryu — which sealed a record 44th title for the Mongolian-born legend — on March 22nd, 2020, in Osaka was the last о̄zumo action to take place before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the JSA to relocate all subsequent regional tournaments to the capital.

Following the cancellation of the May tournament last year, Ryogoku Kokugikan has hosted six consecutive basho — the first time in modern sumo history that a single venue has done so.

It’s a streak that would likely have continued were it not for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.

From July 24 to Aug. 8, the JSA’s headquarters will host the boxing competition at those games. While the rescheduled July Grand Sumo Tournament comes to a close six days before Olympic boxing is due to get under way, timing and logistics ruled out Kokugikan as a potential venue.

So, despite the active number of coronavirus cases in Japan still at high-enough levels to require ongoing limits on spectators at sporting events — and restrictions in place for drinking and dining establishments — sumo finds itself having to abandon its self-imposed bubble and depart the capital.

Moving lock, stock and barrel halfway across the country during a pandemic isn’t ideal, but there are reasons to believe the JSA will successfully handle a situation that has essentially been forced upon it.

The well-publicized shenanigans of wrestlers Asanoyama, Abi and Ryuden throwing spanners in the works aside, sumo authorities have done a decent job of preventing and containing coronavirus outbreaks since the death of lower-division wrestler Shobushi in May 2020.

Additional measures in place for the upcoming meet should also ease concerns.

First and foremost, the smaller size of Dolphin’s Arena (formerly Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium) means a reduction in the number of spectators allowed in each day to 3,800 — down from 5,000 at Ryogoku.

Relatively speaking that’s not a huge difference, but even taking the floor area into account, 18,000 fewer people in the arena over the 15 days is a positive move.

All rikishi have taken polymerase chain reaction tests and been given the all-clear ahead of the move to Nagoya. Prior to departing Tokyo, it is also expected that they will receive a first vaccination shot.

Whether a second dose (which many have reported causes soreness and fatigue lasting a day or two) will be administered as the tournament heads into its final weekend isn’t clear, but even the partial vaccination of rikishi will mean a reduced the risk of transmission and is therefore a welcome development.

Even without side effects, the upcoming meet will figure to be one of the toughest in recent memory for wrestlers.

The Nagoya tournament is a cauldron at the best of times, with searing heat, stifling humidity and insufficient air-conditioning at the arena and practice grounds — many of which are outdoors — continuously sapping rikishi’s energy.

Ongoing proscriptions against socializing following the banzuke release mean that spending time with supporters in cooler restaurants isn’t an option for the first time in Nagoya.

Rikishi will essentially be confined to quarters and sweating it out in central Japan from late June — without even the virtual escape of social media to break the monotony thanks to a ban that remains in place.

Adding to the pressure this time out is the early start of the July meet. Not wishing to clash with the attention behemoth that is the Olympic Games, the JSA pushed the upcoming tournament forward by a week. That may not seem like much in the grand scheme of things but it can make a huge difference for rikishi coming back from injury and cuts down on much-needed recovery time for all wrestlers.

For veterans that have established intra-basho training schedules, seven days fewer to prepare could have a significant impact on their ability to get in rhythm by opening day.

The release of the banzuke always focuses the mind on the upcoming tournament. For those involved in sumo, the current July banzuke signals the start of what is likely to be the most grueling six weeks since the pandemic began.

It’s always darkest before the dawn, however, and with the pace of vaccinations having increased nationwide, the Nagoya Basho could also be the last of the COVID-19 era.

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