“There’s no starting over, no new beginnings, time races on, and you’ve just gotta keep on keeping on.” The words of Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit capture the folly of thinking the past can be left behind.
The calendar may have turned over for sumo, but 2022 is already starting to look a lot like 2021 redux.
Just four days into January, news emerged of the first COVID-19 infections in sumo this year — something that was immediately followed by the now common step of standing down the entire stable where those positive tests took place.
Taganoura Beya took the hit this time, with its stablemaster and two lower-ranked wrestlers falling victim to the virus.
As per normal protocol, all rikishi in the stable, including former ozeki Takayasu, have been withdrawn from the upcoming January tournament.
With the highly transmissible omicron strain taking hold, and fueling a rapid rise in the number of coronavirus cases nationwide, it would be a surprise if Taganoura remains the only stable affected ahead of the year’s first meet.
Particularly worrying is the fact that wrestlers are returning from the socializing and mingling that commonly take place over the New Year’s holiday period.
But fears surrounding COVID-19 aren’t the only thing unchanged from 2021, and if interviews with rikishi following the release of the January rankings are any indication, it looks to be another Terunofuji-dominated year inside the ring.
The yokozuna was all business and in no mood for levity during his online video conference with the media on Dec. 24, shooting down efforts to engage in lighthearted discussion about his first Christmas after getting married and chastising a reporter for asking a follow-up question deemed too similar to an earlier one.
To be fair, having to dress in full formal kimono for an early morning Zoom meeting wouldn’t be most rikishi’s idea of fun. The condition of Terunofuji’s knees being so bad that he needs help just getting down into, and up from, what’s clearly a very uncomfortable seated position on the floor didn’t help matters either.
In smaller settings, the yokozuna is engaging company — as evidenced by recent videos posted on his personal social media accounts showing him relaxing with friends. But it’s not a side of the veteran many fans have gotten to see over the past couple of years, as COVID-19 guidelines have hindered the media’s ability to get up close and personal.
Athletes can’t be blamed for an inability or unwillingness to open up when they are forced to talk to a bank of 70 names on a screen (cameras are normally kept off during Zoom press conferences) rather than having the one-on-one, face-to-face chats with reporters that were common in times before the pandemic.
Extremely low COVID-19 case numbers in late November and early December gave hope that better media access to the sporting world might soon be possible, but the latest figures would seem to indicate that 2022 will be much like 2021 — at least for the first part of the year.
While it’s “as you were” when it comes to many aspects of sumo in 2022, not everything will be the same as it was last year.
Soon after Terunofuji’s terse 15-minute video call had concluded, two newcomers to the top division spoke at length with the press.
Makuuchi debutants Wakamotoharu and Oho hail from families steeped in sumo history, with both men having a grandfather, father and several brothers that are or were wrestlers in the sport.
Wakatakakage, Wakamotoharu’s younger brother, made it to komusubi in 2021 — the highest rank reached by their grandfather Wakabayama — and he also won a pair of special prizes.
Already 28 years old, komusubi might be a step too far for the older sibling, but Wakamotoharu said his 11-4 mark in November at the top of the second tier had given him some confidence, and that he was looking forward to facing Abi and Terunofuji in makuuchi at some stage.
When asked what kind of year he was hoping for in 2022, the Fukushima native talked about 2021 starting with a COVID-19 infection that meant having to sit out a tournament and ending with his best record to date as a sekitori and promotion to the top division, going on to express hope that he could continue that upward trajectory over the next twelve months.
In contrast to Wakamotoharu’s reticence, no signs of trepidation about his impeding debut in the spotlight were in evidence during Oho’s press conference. That’s partly youth and partly ability and background. At just 21 years old, the grandson of legendary yokozuna Taiho has yet to encounter any significant setbacks and has been surrounded by sumo success his entire life.
Although his father was kicked out of the sport following a gambling scandal, and is now more known for hosting a conspiracy-theory heavy YouTube channel, the former Takatoriki was also an Emperor’s Cup winner and previously head of the Otake stable where Oho now trains.
Far from being nervous or feeling pressure to live up to family history, Oho said he was looking forward to competing in sumo’s top division.
At 190 centimeters and 170 kilograms, the youngster has the size to go along with his confidence and undoubted talent, but hasn’t put everything together fully to date. Rather it’s been more a case of slow but steady progress.
Given his age, it’s reasonable to think that the Tokyo native is still five to seven years away from his peak. Nothing is guaranteed in a sport as violent as sumo, but hopefully by the time Oho is expected to be making a serious challenge for the top honors, reporters will be able to work in the real world and the coronavirus will be a distant memory.
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