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What makes Japan’s national sport special? How has Hakuho been so dominant for so long? Why have many tournaments over the past few years seen first time winners? The answers to these, and many other, questions can be found in a single word: tachiai — the initial clash when two rikishi come together is a moment that has few (if any) parallels in the wider world of sport, writes John Gunning.

COVID-19 has had a significant impact on sumo over the past 12 months. Compared to the cancellation of entire seasons and widespread disruption seen in other sports around the world, professional sumo’s schedule has remained relatively unaffected. The same can’t be said for amateur sumo, unfortunately. To fill in the gap, a 37-year-old coach in Hokkaido has come up with a unique idea for a sumo tournament that doesn’t require physical contact. Enter “Air Sumo.”

Daieisho stood up to Takakeisho during the tachiai before slapping him down on the second day New Year Grand Sumo Tournament. | KYODO
Daieisho stood up to Takakeisho during the tachiai before slapping him down on the second day New Year Grand Sumo Tournament. | KYODO

The upcoming March tournament will be the fifth straight one held at the Ryogoku Kokugikan, as Osaka joins Nagoya and Fukuoka in losing its sole yearly meet to the pandemic, much to the chagrin of fans in the Kansai region.

Ahead of the upcoming tournament, wrestlers — including Mongolian-born yokozuna Hakuho — are stepping up preparations, with those from the three stables that missed the New Year’s tournament due to COVID-19 infections having their medical checkups.

Meanwhile, in a sign of how serious the Japan Sumo Association has been taking COVID-19 rules, it slapped stablemaster Tokitsukaze with the second most severe punishment yet, recommending on Feb. 22 that he retire for violating coronavirus protocols when he made non-urgent, nonessential outings during a basho.

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