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2021 was a rollercoaster year for Japan’s national sport.

The past 12 months have been extremely challenging both inside and outside the ring, but sumo’s highest highs and lowest lows of 2021 all occurred on the clay.

With every professional and amateur tournament on the calendar now concluded, it is a good time to take stock and examine the state of the sport as we head into 2022.

Much of the turmoil of the past year is a continuation of events set in motion in 2020.

The pandemic continued to impinge on proceedings for much of the year, but, even with occasional high-profile COVID-19 enforced absences, all rikishi being vaccinated helped prevent another COVID-related death in sumo.

The stunning and rapid decline in infection numbers that followed the conclusion of the Olympics and Paralympics also came as blessed relief and has allowed the sport’s various governing bodies to start preparing for a return to a more normal schedule and larger attendances in 2022.

One big difference from the previous year was consistency.

While all five tournaments held in 2020 had different winners, 2021 was a one-man show for the most part.

Terunofuji won the Kyushu Basho with a perfect record in November. | KYODO
Terunofuji won the Kyushu Basho with a perfect record in November. | KYODO

In January, Daieisho took advantage of the absence of both yokozuna to lift the Emperor’s Cup for the first time.

After that, it was all Terunofuji as the massive Mongolian-born wrestler took control of the sport. Retiring legend Hakuho’s swansong victory in July was the only blip on an otherwise dominant year for the Isegahama stable man.

Terunofuji’s miracle comeback in 2020 seemed like the perfect fairytale ending to a Hollywood-esque career arch, but in 2021, the former ozeki went several steps further, taking silverware on four occasions and making a brief stop at his old rank before becoming just the 73rd yokozuna in history.

With a record of 28 wins and two losses in his first two tournaments at the sport’s highest rank, it’s hard to see Terunofuji’s preeminence being seriously challenged in 2022, especially with the top division widely considered to be weaker than at any point in recent years.

Four more Emperor’s Cups in the next twelve months to reach double digits (and the unofficial title of “dai-yokozuna”) seems well within his reach.

A clean sweep in 2022 (not unimaginable) would put Terunofuji into a tie for eighth place all time alongside Futabayama and Musashimaru in terms of championships won — though the former man, of course, competed in an era when there were just two basho a year.

If Terunofuji’s ascendancy was the high point of 2021, the low point was obviously the death of Hibikiryu.

While the incident that eventually claimed the life of the lower-division wrestler was a freak occurrence, the slow and inadequate reaction immediately afterward absolutely should not have happened.

The Japan Sumo Association’s handing of injuries had been under increasing criticism in the months leading up to Hibikiryu’s death, and the ongoing failure to ensure that proper ringside emergency care was available brought a firestorm of criticism down on the JSA in the immediate aftermath.

Following that tragic incident, changes and improvements were made, but sumo still has a long way to go to meet the kind of health and safety standards that are now commonplace in similarly physical sports like rugby and American football.

Japan’s national sport also lost another significant figure in 2021 with the passing of Kototsurugi.

The former lower-division wrestler became a professional artist after hanging up his mawashi, and, in the decades following his retirement, posters, merchandise and illustrations in his distinctive style had become ubiquitous in the sumo world.

Magaki-oyakata (formerly Hakuho) participates in a sumo broadcast during the Kyushu Basho in November. | KYODO
Magaki-oyakata (formerly Hakuho) participates in a sumo broadcast during the Kyushu Basho in November. | KYODO

Sumo also saw arguably the greatest wrestler in its history call it a day in 2021. Yokozuna Hakuho, who had dominated the sport to a level previously unseen — and claimed virtually every record of note during a two decadeslong career — finally succumbed to the inevitable march of time.

Hakuho signed off on a high, with the veteran’s last action in the ring being a defeat of Terunofuji in July that sealed a mind-blowing 45th Emperor’s Cup and 16th perfect championship.

Terunofuji would need to repeat his exploits in 2021 every year for another decade to challenge that former mark.

Chances are that when he reaches the JSA’s retirement age in 2050, Hakuho (now Magaki oyakata) will leave the sport with most, if not all, of his records still intact.

The former yokozuna is just one of several prominent wrestlers who will be having retirement ceremonies over the next year or two.

Rivals since childhood, Goeido and Tochiozan have their hair-cutting events on consecutive days the weekend following the upcoming January meet, while feisty brawler Yoshikaze follows suit a week later.

Restrictions on attendance numbers are mostly gone for those ceremonies, and slowish sales mean plenty of tickets are available.

Fans from abroad won’t be able to attend unfortunately, as Japan still seems a long way away from opening up to inbound tourism.

No access in person means online interaction is still vitally important for sumo’s international fanbase.

The lack of real-time live streaming remains the biggest issue for those living outside Japan, but a dearth of reliable and trustworthy sumo information in English on social media and particularly YouTube also continues to be a problem.

Change may be afoot, however, and if rumors inside the sport are to be believed, 2022 could see a significant increase in English sumo content online from official and connected sources.

After what has been a challenging year for sumo’s global support, that would be a most welcome move.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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